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Philosophy matters, that’s why it’s important

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My first moral philosophy tutorial was one of the most humbling experiences of my young life. I knew, or at least thought, that I had some well thought out liberal opinions and was ready to fight for moderation and understanding against bigotry and hatred. But it only took about ten minutes (if that) for my tutor to demonstrate that my views on everything from abortion to euthanasia were simply the echoes of my mother’s. As I said, humbling.

We all do it I imagine, echo the opinions of our elders and betters. Whether you’re a vociferous Guardian reader, or a Daily Mail sensationalist, whether it is mum or dad’s opinion or your older sibling’s. Philosophy taught me my first lesson: question the basis of your own opinions before you parade them out as doctrine.

That was why I was so pleased to see Russ Thorne’s piece defending philosophy degrees in the Independent. Finally some appreciation for the discipline that I love and respect so highly, after years of getting a hard time.

When admitting they study philosophy, the first question asked is usually: so what are you going to do with that then? An innocent enough question that hides undertones of condescension. It implies that studying philosophy can lead to nothing useful in or of itself.

I had idea what I wanted to do with philosophy, I just enjoyed it. The reading was (usually) very engaging, the debates in class went from heated to mind boggling, and the essays were a challenge. But the question continued bugged me.

Those lucky enough to study vocational disciplines, or with a career mind already, seem to think they have the right to give the humble philosophy student a hard time. They accuse you of just spending your time thinking, or of doing nothing useful. They are just as happy to parade their opinions out over a pint or a coffee.

However, the majority of opinions that are spouted about everything from the environment to politics haven’t been explored in any detail and are therefore mostly platitudes, rehashing what has been told to them by parents, lecturers or the newspapers.

This is why one of the most important lessons of philosophy is not to take those platitudes as fact. That is why philosophy is important.

In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig describes philosophising as walking in the hills. Anyone can leave the village in the valley and take a little sojourn through the hills of thought. There are a lot of well walked paths up there, that philosophers of bygone days have tread, and their students and acolytes have traversed after them, winding into the mountains of thought.

The valley is an analogy for our family, our culture and our society. It represents the preconceived opinions of the day, the platitudes. One who lives in the valley will take red as blue and blue as red if everyone tells them so. It is easy to live within the valley and not stray outside because everyone agrees with you.

Discussions over coffee or a glass of wine represent the walks in the foothills. You can follow Plato’s path, or Marx’s, arguing over the merits of their journeys and what the discovered. This is as far as many of us go.

But day-trippers should stop and look up. For above the well worn paths in the foothills, there are the mountains, which have only a few paths through them, for not many have ventured beyond the foothills.

This was why philosophy was so humbling as both a subject and a discipline. To further Pirsig’s analogy, the foothills that have been so well trampled can be understood as other subjects, chemistry, physics, psychology. Before these subjects existed there was only the questions: what is the world made of? How does the universe work? What makes human-beings tic? The ancient philosophers would have seen the foothills as mountains, there were no paths there, and it would have been both scary and novel to escape the valley of society and tread new paths. But after years of people following the routes, the questions have been replaced by answers, which are claimed by other disciplines. What matter is made of is answered by chemistry, what forces control the universe is the domain of physics, and explaining what makes humans do what they do is psychology.

It is testament to the wanderings of the greatest minds in history that we have these answers, but the cost has been the question. I think every question is philosophical, and from this it would imply that philosophy is the art of questioning. While the answers are now left to the various disciplines spawned from philosophical enquiry, the soul of the questioner is the soul of the philosopher, and this is why philosophy remains important.

To not ask questions because you assume you know the answer is at best ignorant and at worst arrogant. A lot of people in the valley take their opinions for granted, because they like them. If I had an unwanted pregnancy I’d want to abort it, so I am pro-abortion. But the philosopher explores their own opinions, and those of others, like Socrates, to find the justification that doesn’t rest on the comfort those opinions provide.

We are lucky to live in a culture where we have so many answers, but we should not let this make us complacent. If we do, like in the US, we get creationists, who take comfort in their opinions, yet make no effort to delve into the absurdity that the world was created only 9,000 years ago. We need questioners, to keep ideas fresh and stop them stagnating, and that means we continue to need philosophy.

And, as I learned long ago, philosophy teaches you to be humble before both your own and the opinions of others.