I don’t need no damn Philosophy!

Posted in: A Little Philosophy | 2

Peanuts on Philosophy

The title of this post, “I don’t need no damn Philosophy”, is quite prevalent in our society today and constitutes a rally call for the ill-informed . Caught up in a rising tide of anti-intellectualism in general, philosophy seems particularly vulnerable to disparaging remarks and easy dismissal as the pursuit of airheads and academics alike for answers to questions that defy any quick or definitive  response. The very perceived irrelevance of those questions to the daily lives of their fellow citizens seems certain proof of the uselessness of this pursuit. The irony of this characterization of philosophy is not lost on those persons actively engaged in the search for answers.

The word philosophy derives from the Greek meaning ‘love of wisdom’ and holds simultaneously two distinct features; 1. a belief structure or so called ‘philosophical view of things’ and 2. the activity of ‘doing‘ philosophy by the practice of critical reasoning applied to the fundamental questions about reality, morality, and knowledge. While the vast majority in our society receive no formal academic exposure to philosophy, and indeed only a small number are driven to achieve recognition of training through degree completion, the fact of the matter is that ALL persons hold to a personal philosophical outlook. Despite the appearance of  jerking oneself forward from one moment to the next all the while transfixed on the current situation and its immediate environs, we are grounded by our pre-existing philosophical outlook and guided in our actions by those principles we have used in the past. How can this be if I am one of those persons who would profess the claim, “I don’t need no damn philosophy“.

It is nigh on impossible, especially with todays seemingly never-ending waves of information crashing on and over us, to stay aloof and unaffected. Indeed, our very upbringing has provided us with constant nurturing of values/beliefs through the typical agents of socialization -family, friends, schools, religious and secular organizations, mass media – such that by late adolescence we already possess those fundamental beliefs that constitute our ‘philosophical viewpoint’. The veracity of specific beliefs might be in question but their very possession empowers us to practical applications to improve our lives [and maybe the lives of others].

An unexamined life is not worth living. [Socrates]

So here we are heading off into adulthood with a collection of values/beliefs, often unarticulated and unchallenged with sources blurred, easily persuaded of the apparent truism that “I don’t need a damn philosophy“. After all, in a culture that praises the primacy of the individual, do I not have opinions on just about everything, and furthermore, are they not inherently true because they are mine! [See my earlier blog on this issue at http://paulswhyte.com/life-interests/everyone-today-has-something-to-say]. Would this not be the appropriate time to undertake a critically reasoned review of our most cherished and foundational of beliefs? Undoubtedly, but this seldom happens. Often we are so deep in our everyday experiences that the time, and more importantly, the energy required to focus on this evaluative task is never-present. Consequently, persons go about living their lives in the false certainty that they have all the answers [or opinions] that they need to cope in the moment. It is usually conflicts and crises that once they befall them, demonstrate the weakness or flaws with their beliefs; first hollowing out those to which they have little attachment or articulation, and then, threatening the certainty of those fundamental foundational beliefs which hold the entire ‘philosophical outlook’ together.

This is why we should reject the statement “I don’t need no damn philosophy” and instead take every opportunity, especially in times of tranquility, to question ourselves concerning those ideas and values that we claim to know and hold to be true. Doing philosophy is an exercise in personal reflection. It starts with a deliberate attempt to articulate, firstly for ourselves, the elaboration of our ideas and beliefs into meaningful words and sentences. Our goal at this stage is to clarify our ideas and it matters not whether we do this orally or by writing it down. The greater rigour we employ the more likely we are to make our ideas clearer to ourselves. This is essential as the next step requires of us to openly test our views amongst others by argument.

It is in this second stage of argument, particularly if we have chosen to orally communicate our ideas, that we usually feel most vunerable and defensive. If we could be less invested in our ego and more concerned with the veracity of our claims we would all conceivably gain from such exchanges. Arguments are not meant to be won by the loudest most insistent person, but rather, by the one who advances the clearest answers with the strongest supporting reasons and evidence for those views.

Wise men speak because they have something to say; fools because they have to say something.
― Plato


In following this process of first articulation and secondly argumentation, we can start to bring focus and clarity to the many disparate ideas we hold, strengthening those fundamental ideas/beliefs through critical analysis into a more unified, coherent and defensible vision of our worldview [Weltanschauung]. As we do this, our ideas/beliefs that are inaccurate, biased, or destructive will rightly wither under the scrutiny and we will be able to make more enlightened choices in our futures.

We live in an age where the merits of critical reflection are ridiculed and disparaged. Recently the relative value of philosophy was questioned by Marco Rubio out on the campaign trail for the Republican Party nomination for President.

For a brief time, many spoke up in defence of the discipline of philosophy demonstrating in the process the very activity of argument. [see http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2015/11/a_philosophy_professor_responds_to_marco_rubio_the_florida_senator_thinks.html 

ALSO see https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/grade-point/wp/2015/12/24/a-harvard-medical-school-professor-makes-the-case-for-the-liberal-arts-and-philosophy/?wpmm=1&wpisrc=nl_headlines]

It has long been forgotten in the past 125 years that the cast-offs from the ‘mother’ discipline of philosophy into their own specific divisions of empirically derived and verified data pools has not made philosophical inquiry meaningless but simply assisted in the delineation of the subject matter of inquiry. The separate academic pursuits of the social sciences into departments of political science, sociology, anthropology, and psychology are mirrored in studies of political and social philosophy, philosophy of mind, philosophy of science. But just as important as some of these sub-fields are today, it is worth pointing out that throughout the 2600 years of philosophy in the Western tradition they were deeply embedded within the so-called main fields of metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, political and social, aesthetics, and logic that previous generations of philosophers struggled to understand and explicate.

Becoming more self-aware, a laudable objective for all of us, demands effort and commitment. We need to motivate ourselves, taking advantage of those quieter moments in our lives, and recognize that this really is a life-long pursuit. The benefits are experienced by us first as individuals, and secondly, by everyone else as we live and interact in the world. As we move from articulation through argument toward synthesis we can avail ourselves of the best that previous thinkers have left for us to ponder. It is not a requirement but an advantage for us to take on the challenges of comprehension left to us by the minds of great thinkers of the past. Not because they have provided for us definitive answers to these indestructible questions but rather by asking those questions in the first place. Philosophy starts with wonderment!

Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definitive answers to its questions since no definitive answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation; but above all because through the greatness of the universe which philosophy contemplates, the mind also is rendered great, and becomes capable of that union with the universe which constitutes its highest good.  [Bertrand Russell]



2 Responses

  1. Roger Albert

    Nice one, Paul, but I say that because we share much in terms of philosophical points of view. I doubt people listening to Marco Rubio would think much of this blog post. I’m sure that for many of them a personal philosophy develops just as you describe, virtually by osmosis via exposure to the agents of socialization you mention. They would have a tough time articulating their personal philosophy or even admitting that they have one.
    Interesting times we live in, but I’m guessing that philosophers have not had an easy go of it at any time in history. People, it seems, don’t appreciate having a ‘truth mirror’ thrust in their faces. Denial seems to be a comfortable place for most people.

    • Paul

      Thanks Roger. It is probably true that many people, especially those who support someone like Marco Rubio, would not read this post. More is the pity for them. The irony is that, if asked, these people would profess a whole bunch of ideas/beliefs that actually constituted their ‘philosophical outlook’. We could perhaps lament the lack of critical engagement with those ideas or the questioning of their very sources, but that does not negate their existence. Equally true is the fact that just because they themselves might not want to admit their possession of a ‘philosophical outlook’ does not diminish their actual possession of such a thing. I like your “truth mirror” image and would reiterate my claim in the post that the first impulse to discourse must be self-motivation – and denial [and blame!] is so much less taxing than mustering the energy to critically think! Maybe Nietzsche [among others] was right about ‘herd mentality’.

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