What is Philosophy?
When you hear the word philosophy your eyes may glaze over while you immediately start thinking about pizza or video games. One of the chief criticisms of liberal arts degrees (especially philosophy) today is that they are pointless and cannot help you to make money (source). But this causes many people to think that they are exempt from philosophical questions such as:
- What is real?
- What/who is a good person?
- How can I become such a person?
- What can I know?
- How can I know it?
Keynes once made this valuable observation about those who don’t care about ideas:
The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually slaves of some defunct economist.”(General Theory of Employment and Interest, 383)
What perhaps causes people to shy away from philosophy is that many philosophers after Plato were boring. Also, many philosophy professors are unpleasant and impractical people. But I suggest thinking about philosophy by breaking the word down. Philosophy is fundamentally about loving wisdom. The early Christians often called Christianity “the true philosophy,” and saw Christianity as a complete approach to life because it was a philosophy. Taken this way, philosophy is a wisdom-loving approach to all of life.
How is it useful then?
If we conceive of philosophy this way, then we can say that it trains us to:
- reason from principles and such reasoning applies to almost everything.
- abstract principles from phenomena.
- apply reason to our feelings and circumstances so that we can have self-control. In other words, philosophy is mindset training.
- recognize the difference between intuition, vague impressions, and reasonable beliefs.
- compare our ideas and narratives with reality.
- approach life practically. I just read a Tweet (a post on a social media site known as “The Twitter”) which asked “What are you going to do today to A) improve yourself B) make someone else’s life better? And if you don’t have plans for both, why not?” Philosophy is the art and science of asking, answering, and perfecting the answers to these questions.
- examine ourselves to see if we are on the trajectory of becoming the best version of ourselves. For Christians this is a rather lofty goal, so any tool to help us is important and the Bible is clear that we should “get wisdom.” Wisdom in the Old Testament is probably very similar in meaning (though different in direction and content) to Philosophy in Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics.
The Danger of Philosophy
- Reading too much philosophy is a serious time waster so read good stuff. I suggest starting with Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the wisdom of Solomon, the book of Sirach, Fourth Maccabees, the dialogues of Plato, the letters of Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and Aristotle.
- Putting philosophy into practice, if the philosophy is bad, can prove your ideas wrong very quickly or worse, ruin your life!
- Learning to reason well without learning to manage your emotional reactions to the world is frequently frustrating, see Ecclesiastes 1:17-18.