Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Philosophy...What's the point?

A friend of mine asked me this question recently. This is my (brief) attempt at an answer. Thought you might be interested:

I'll give you what I take to be the 'point' of studying philosophy in three ways: 1. what it has been historically, 2. what it has largely become, and 3. what it is for me:

1. "Philosophy" translates literally "love of wisdom." Socrates (through Plato) famously said that all philosophy begins with wonder. So in a way, the 'point' is to wonder about stuff. To ask the hard questions about every aspect of life, and thereby to try and gain some understanding of who and what we are and what, if anything, that might mean. This is a very important task, in my mind, from just about any perspective one takes, since a better understanding of our situation can't help but improve us in some way--more wisdom is always better than less. More strongly, there seems to be something about us that craves or is drawn to this sort of search, so that if we neglect it, we have missed a great and valuable (perhaps the most valuable) part of life. As Socrates also said, "The unexamined life is not worth living." We all have hard questions. In this way, everyone does 'philosophy.' The reason, I think, that most people would not consider themselves 'philosophers' has much to do with point 2. below. Another important aspect of what I am calling the 'historical' view is that philosophy is not merely something one does in a classroom, or at least it was not intended to be. It is a way of life, and if the results of our inquiries do not change us in some way, then we have at best missed the point and at worst damaged ourselves.

2. Unfortunately, most people today consider 'philosophy,' if they think about it at all, to be a pointless and even arrogant endeavor. The image of the bearded old man with his head in the clouds and his life more or less separated from the everyday, practical world in which the rest of us live, is all too easy to conjure. "What is the point," people often ask, "of talking about all this stuff when no one ever decides anything?" Even more unfortunately, I believe that this view has been helped along (or at least not disproved) by what one might call the 'institutionalization' of philosophy in the last couple of centuries. Today, it is as rigorous and systematized an academic discipline as any other--indeed, more than most. There is virtually no field it does not touch, and its standards of excellence in all of them have become so stringent that only the best work ever sees publication. This is all good in a way. However, in another way, it can and often does lead to a wider and wider divide between the concerns of the 'professional philosopher' and those of the layperson. Sadly, the view of philosophy as a passionate pursuit of wisdom--wisdom that changes one's everyday life in drastic ways--is increasingly difficult to find, even within philosophy departments. As Quentin Smith once said, having a Ph.D. in philosophy does not make you a philosopher. Though, of course, there is much to be said for getting one, hence my own pursuits.

3. I study philosophy because I have to. For whatever reason, there is that in me which is never quite satisfied with an explanation. I need to know more. As far as I am concerned, you may as well ask me what the point of eating is, for I pursue both activities for the same reason: I must. Accordingly, my study of philosophy has a great deal to do with 1., though I think participating in the process outlined in 2. is probably a necessary means to those more personal ends. In addition to this, philosophy is for me inseparable from my identity as a follower of Christ. To use Anselm's famous phrase, my faith seeks understanding, and it does so because of the kind of thing it is. Similar to the way a husband longs to understand his wife, the more I know Christ, the more I am driven to wrestle with His nature, the objects of His affection (humanity), and the creation that He will one day redeem. Indeed, I think this idea of 'wrestling' is an apt characterization of the relationship God has always intended to have with His people. The word "Israel," as you may know, means literally to struggle, or wrestle, with God. I believe it was this about Jacob that led God to bless him despite his treachery, this about David that compelled God to call him a man after His own heart, despite his lusts and weaknesses. It is a relationship characterized by brutal honesty, difficult questions, more difficult answers, a give-and-take, a struggle to comprehend and live in the infinite revelation of His consuming love for us. This, then, is philosophy for me. Loving Him better. That's the point.