The reactions you get when you tell someone you’re a software developer and when you tell someone you’re a philosophy student are totally different. The first starts a conversation about software or something, and the second starts a conversation that is associated with that mysterious concept: ‘philosophy’. So, what’s the meaning of life then? Do you believe in God? How many licks does it take to get to the center of a tootsie pop? I laugh, and then I cry, because my studies have not prepared me any better to answer these questions. But it’s always fun to see what comes out of my mouth. Either way, these questions, and the conversations that follow, provide a glimpse into popular conceptions of philosophy. Popular conceptions which, I would argue, put philosophy in an unfortunate, dusty box.
The young’uns are told that philosophy starts with Socrates, that gadfly of a man that confused the s*** out of everyone. The unexamined life is not worth living. This leads to the popular conception of philosophy in which everything is questioned—everything. Perhaps this is where some philosophers start, but one quickly realizes that not everything can be questioned, and the very act of questioning any proposition relies on some mode of examination that itself holds assumptions. Who questions the questioner? So, the question everything conception of philosophy doesn’t capture the essence of philosophy. The question everything conception only finds merit in its emphasis on ‘knowledge’ and ‘questioning’, elements that are important to philosophy but fail to set it apart from any other discipline that involves thinking.
A problem with introductory courses in philosophy is that they present philosophy in its classical context. Philosophical problems are formulated as the earliest philosophers formulated them. If you somehow, for some reason, find these questions interesting, its kinda quirky. Kinda idiosyncratic. You’re a philosophy nut! Like a history nut, but not history, philosophy! The problems that the earliest philosophers posed are indeed still central to many of today’s problems in philosophy, but the problems have been transformed, amended, dissolved, and new problems have sprouted from them. It’s cute when Plato asks what it is to know, but when the CEO of Twitter still doesn’t have a clue, it’s a little unsettling. It’s cute when Thales claims that everything is water, but when neuroscience reduces personal conversations and life-style choices to the basis of particles, it’s a little unsettling. It’s cute when… rule of three, rule of three… I got nothing. But framing such important questions as What is knowledge? in boring, ancient terms is tragic.
The branding of philosophy isn’t the greatest then, but I myself have no fitting description for it. My best attempt would be to claim that the term ‘philosophy’ is meaningful only in its social context. Philosophy is the institution of philosophy; the social organization of an academic discipline that emerged long ago around a certain set of problems. An academic is a philosopher, a book is a philosophy book, and a question is a philosophical question insofar as they take part in the set of discourses conducted under these institutions. However, I have a problem even with this formulation. It aligns philosophy horizontally with the other academic investigations, such as the disciplines of science. Philosophy becomes confined to its own sphere of investigation, separate from all other spheres, and separate in the same sense that all other spheres are separate from all other spheres—but in fact, philosophy is separate from all other spheres differently than all other spheres are separate from all other spheres, if you know what I mean. This conception loses what I would like to claim is philosophy’s uniqueness: it underlies all knowledge claims, even the scientific interpretation of the world. Philosophy is the means by which scientific interpretation can itself be interpreted.
In this sense, I truly believe the word ‘philosophy’ categorizes knowledge in an unfortunate way. It does a disservice to the things it categorizes. There are pragmatic uses for the term—as you can see I employ it myself—but philosophers do not care that they are philosophers in the sense that psychologists care that they are psychologists. The philosopher is not so confined to a singular, established method. Thus, ‘philosophical’ operates as does the word ‘insane’. It diagnosis the ‘other’ without recognizing the infinite variations it covers over, and sometimes it blocks the speaker from being taken as seriously as they should be.
I would like to end my post with a ramble, for if you will excuse me, I feel a rage coming on. There’s nothing more heartbreaking than a thought being dismissed as ‘philosophical’. There’s nothing more annoying than those that wear ‘philosopher’ like a badge. The showing-off of knowledge, as if knowledge has any other place than its own relevant context, is the second most annoying thing. No scratch that, it’s the most annoying thing. Drop the badge one to second. And the showing-off of knowledge, from my absolutely situated-in-philosophy perspective, takes on the most disgusting appearance when that shown-off knowledge is ‘philosophical’.
I hear you, yes I hear you, you have a broken heart my dear—come cry on my shoulder and think along with me now. Maybe it will comfort you to know that Nietzsche once said—yes I am certain he said it just this way—that we should live our lives as if we will have to live them infinitely over and over and over and over…