Mark Twain once said:
“Philosophy is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime."
Actually, the first word he said was ‘Travel”. Read it again with “Travel” and you’ll see that the two are interchangeable. They’re similar in that respect. Philosophy, like travel, gives us opportunities to see life and lived experiences from new perspectives. It’s an effective way to see strange ways of living and finding meaning and “unearth hidden beauty”.1
It’s not hard to find people who say they love to travel. I know I have since I was little. Yet for others, as for myself, the word ‘philosophy’ carried connotations of dusty books piled high at a library, musing over esoteric and arcane logical puzzles. It sounds about as thrilling as an insurance seminar.
I’ve come to discover it’s quite the opposite. I’ve discovered philosophy, like traveling, to be incredibly stimulating and life-affirming.
So what is philosophy exactly?
It’s quite personal actually. We all have opinions. A likes vanilla and B likes chocolate. A believes there is a God but B doesn’t. A affirms that there is a right and a wrong, and B says “live and let live.” Both turn to different places to source their opinions on the big questions: one to religion, another to popular culture. Is various opinion all there is? Is there any way to find common ground or find which opinion is better?
Not all opinions are created equal. Some aren’t worth investigating. Sometimes the answer is “Just because!”. That’s fine for most opinions, like preferences for chocolate instead of vanilla ice cream. Hooray for these differences! Without variety and personality, life would be boring! The trouble enters when we mistake all opinions and reasons for personal preference. “Why go through the effort of exercising and trying to eat well? I’m just going to grow old and die anyway.” Now that’s an opinion worth investigating.
This is where philosophy can help. It’s a long tradition of working out whether an opinion has good reasons to support it or not. This working-out process involves asking questions, as Socrates is famous for. And after we work out which opinions stand on the best reasons, we’ll likely uncover wisdom. And this love of uncovering wisdom is both the what and the why of philosophy. We seek wisdom because we love wisdom over flimsy baseless opinions. It’s a fun process of examining, dialoguing, and uncovering new knowledge.
Think of it this way: is there something or someone you value a great deal? If your house was on fire and you had five minutes to rush in and save a few items (assuming all your family and pets are safe), what would you rescue? Why would you do it? I doubt those reasons are boring or academic to you. They’re right near your heart. There’s a belief, a value, an ordering of values, a way we see things that orders things, people, experiences, places, careers, goals, etc into good, better, best. Isn’t it fascinating! We don’t go a day without making decisions based on our beliefs, without philosophizing with our bodies.
Yet maybe “living the good life” still sounds too esoteric or too vague to tackle. Try these questions instead:
- Where am I going to live?
- Who am I going to marry?
- What career am I going to pursue?
- How will I raise my kids?
- How will I spend my time?
- What is my purpose in life?
As humans we’re implicated in these permanent questions of life.2 How are you going to answer these questions? How have you? What opinions have guided you? Have they worked? Do some of them need a challenge?
Behind each is some conception, some implicit belief in what is good. I don’t think we need to have a graduate degree to think like philosophers. We can start by asking the question: why do I value that? What is the good? Learning wisdom can help us live “the good life”.
So even though we may not be interested in philosophy, philosophy is interested in us. And luckily, we don’t have to start from scratch. We’ve had some pretty smart cookies in our history and they’ve given us their genius and insights in writing. They’ve come halfway. All we have to do is read, think, and join the conversation.
P.S. Extending the philosophy-as-travel analogy a bit further: are philosophers moral travel-agents?