Tue 26 June 2012
Yesterday I finished my final exam in a course I was taking in philosophy and I figured now was a good time to explain the question everyone asks when I tell him what I'm studying. Why study philosophy? To be honest, my answers were always pretty poor, mostly I'd say it was just an interest, but that never really explained the value I got from it.
When I started studying it began as a need to understand the structures of our society, what drove capitalism or democracy, are there even valid alternatives to them? Were they actually implemented and if so did they last long? The Paris Commune, a period in the 1871 when Paris was run entirely by anarchists, stuck in my mind. How did anarchists run anything? Clearly whatever I thought an anarchist was, was incorrect. On top of that I also wanted to challenge the religious dogmatism around me and needed rational arguments to give a sort of structure to what was angering me in society, this was the basic initial drive towards philosophy.
Philosophy is simply a formal combination of challenging what's around you within a historical context. A lot of philosophy books read like history books, you have a huge list of eras, within which is a huge list of thinkers and you follow and progress through the theories supplied through the ages. You pick up the terminology, the great thinkers and most importantly the evolving theories, you begin to see how human thought evolved through the ages. It's incredibly interesting, but what's most important is how it shapes your view of the world.
I'm going to try show this using the abstract topic of the self. Bear with me here. What interested philosophers around the 16th Century was the dilemmas of morality, and one issue with that was the notion of the self, which was something tackled by John Locke. If you did something bad many years ago, should you be punished now for it? The problem was to do with the self over time, did it exist, how so, how do we handle it in our day-to-day thought? I thought it sounded meaningless and crazy too. But upon reading into this, great thinkers have actually altered how I view the world, in surprising ways. For me, it was a philosopher named Derek Parfit, who showed using a few thought experiments, that the idea of you being the same self over time is crazy. He argued that even if you met yourself twenty years from now, other than this preconceived notion of the self you wouldn't be much like this person and in reality you wouldn't really care about them. Frankly, I'm explaining it badly(I highly recommend reading Parfit if you can), but once I read through most of Parfit's work, some set of internal views I had on the world shifted. It's hard to describe the sensation of having a fundamental view change within, but I can describe the effect. Things like worrying about the future or acquiring things "in case I need it", become completely irrelevant. I cared less and less about making long term investments that only pay off years later, don't get me wrong I plan for the future, but I don't lock myself down into anything I might regret later on. Everything had a more temporary feel about it. More extremely, it actually provided a more comforting view of death in general. Why worry, whoever that person is on his death bed, won't be much like me, so why care? I've heard the Buddist mindset of "now-ness", being mindful and in the moment, but hearing these empty phrases from these supposed Zen-masters without any rationality just washed over me. The rational argument supplied a belief and it took root, I can't shake it, maybe I'll discover someone who trounces Parfit, I'll look forward to reading it.
This was just one of those epiphanies I've had while studying philosophy. I wanted to keep this fairly short, but there have been several. For morality, I moved from being a libertarian, to Mill's rule utilitarian, to Kant's universalizability, to Rawl's Egalitarianism and finally to Luck Egalitarianism. You don't need to know any of these terms but this is just to highlight how much a single view of the world can evolve. This effects how I vote, what causes I support, the charities I give to and countless other important choices I make in my life. I've had similar changes across other branches of philosophy too. The notion of philosophy may appear dry, dull and pointless but it's effects aren't. It's hard to explain without simply trying it out for a while. If you can, take a course or pick up a book and see if it takes root. If it doesn't, what have you lost?
In the end, philosophy is a way to challenge the beliefs you're culturally imbued with. Admittedly, it may not make radical changes in your life but the next decision you make may be done with a little bit more reflection, and as Plato says(and what is probably at the start/end of every article supporting study of philosophy), "the unexamined life is not worth living".
Some books I'd recommend are Bertrand Russell's History of Western Philosophy or if you can manage it, John Cottingham's Western Philosophy: An Anthology. If you prefer a novel format I'd recommend Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder or the excellent Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Pirsig.