Why Philosophy is for Everyone
April 28, 2020
It's not about studying hair-flipping narcissists who like the sound of their own voice - it's actually about you.
In high school, my political science teacher once joked that anyone who majored in philosophy was setting themselves up to become a “professional useless person." At the time, as I laughed along, I thought my understanding of the observational joke was some emblem of achievement, that I had acquired some prophetic knowledge of how the world and its job markets all operated, thereby sanctifying my privilege to laugh. Fortunately, my contemporary morals and ethics class taught me otherwise. Although by virtue of lesson plans and class readings the brunt of the coursework was indeed a slog, the class retained its grip on me by spurring student interaction with each other in the form of cooperative discourse, and with the teacher in the context of debates. This allowed me to investigate my viewpoints and convictions, for which the bases were more often than not just an obfuscated vestige of custom.
Philosophy trained me to be a better thinker
Common wisdom is something that actually isn’t that common, and not in the sense of the word that would normally accuse the everyday person of being ignorant. Rather, what we often consider common knowledge or opinion isn’t actually so because most of these standards are things that we are taught to think for the better interests of ourselves and others. In other words, there’s nothing common about inculcated values that aren’t native to the nature of humans. A recurring theme in philosophy is the distinction philosophers famously like to make between nature and nurture. I bring this to attention because what governs modern day societies around the world is precisely this point of contention that renown philosophers have been debating since the dawn of critical thinking. Nearly everything about our understanding of society, particularly our codified system of ethics, has been information drilled into our psyche that makes sense so long as we don’t give them too much thought.
Take the theory of moral relativism for example. Its proponents like to point to the Inuits and indigenous tribes and say that these people do things that are conventionally deplorable to us as people living more civilized (privileged) lives - things like infanticide and cannibalism, which they see the former as a logical concession during excruciating times and the latter as a mere customary practice. Opponents, on the other hand, maintain that there are unconditional and universal standards of behaviors that humans naturally understand are good and bad - elementary things like understanding that bearing gifts is generally well-meaning whereas causing harm is bad. When we study these two types of analyses, we begin to realize that things that come naturally to us - what resolutions we seek during conflict, or how we reflexively respond to certain stimuli - aren’t necessarily rational or well-reasoned behaviors. They’re just the products of different circumstances that have socialized us to think differently. When we adopt this towards things like policy making for instance, one might realize that a policy that debilitates a certain demographic of people has the intention of preserving the future of posterity. While the policy in question might not be absolute in principle, it certainly isn’t absolute in its vices. Simply put, to deem wisdom as something that can be “common" is to diminish the experience of others whose scope of existence may have virtues that are less intuitive to understand, which would otherwise be overlooked by people who haven’t been exposed to the same things. As critical thinkers, we must adopt this type of structural analysis to facilitate mutual understanding, and foremostly, to understand ourselves - why we might think and act in the ways that we do. This was certainly one of my main takeaways from the class.
I learned how to deconstruct arguments and reinforce those of my own
Red herrings, faulty equivocations, strawmen, ad hominems, and the rest of the litany of fallacies that you’ve probably learned at some point in your English class are all vital in understanding how your argumentative opponent might be trying to trick you into thinking. Mastering your command of these lines of thinking - through using and identifying them - is the one of the largest steps to becoming a more critical thinker. (It’s important to realize, however, that the ability to identify these fallacies in and of itself doesn’t make for a cogent argument.) I’ve been able to practice consistency in my ideas and arguments in enriching my grasp of these concepts, which has helped immensely with the attitudes that I took into the other parts of my life, such as being able to digest what commentators mean in what they say across all types of media, or in having playful banter with friends over what made our taste in movies better. This skill set is undoubtedly one that I found had the most extracurricular application in my life.
On the topic of extracurriculars, I found that my philosophy class helped me better absorb a much broader scope of information that I came across, which conveniently aided me in moments of my downtime. It enriched my understanding of morality to make me aware of how circumstantial it was, which came in handy for Breaking Bad, and my knowledge of existential suffering helped guide me through Clark’s schema in Man of Steel. Having experience in talks of utilitarianism helps me navigate my way through reactionary social justice issues more carefully, learning about ethical egoism lends me comfort in making exorbitant purchases for things that I really don’t need, and having acquired knowledge on things like moral relativism has enabled me to share my newfound knowledge and experience with others in places like this very publication.
Ultimately, philosophy classes provide spaces for contained dialogue that helps us realize that the essence of conversation lies in how much connection we have achieved in it. It’s not about winning or losing a “debate" - which if it were about, no one would be walking away as the winner (especially not if the professor’s participating). It’s about internalizing ideas that you can take with you on your journey beyond the classroom.
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