With the start of school, my blogging has moved to the back burner (again). To try to keep something going, I'm pasting a piece that I've written and started my philosophy courses with for several years.
It never fails. I just start to feel like I’ll be able to connect with some new acquaintances on a level deeper than the weather and they have to go and ask what I do for a living. “I’m a professor”, I answer—knowing that if there were any favorable impression created by this newly discovered fact, it will more than likely be shattered by the next one: “Oh really. What do you teach?” Trying not to betray any of the trepidation I feel, I answer as though it is perfectly normal and everyone has a close relative that teaches… philosophy.
Now occasionally (by far the minority) people will respond favorably—those who have a good idea of what the study of philosophy is and why some might choose to spend their lives pursuing it. These people show a genuine enthusiasm for what I do. Their reactions put me at ease and we’re able to keep talking without my feeling like some kind of freak of nature that doesn’t fit into the “normal” world.
More typically, though, the next sentences of the conversation go something like, “Oh… wow… that must be really…uh… interesting. Meaning of life and all that, huh? [nervous chuckle] Um…well…it was nice meeting you.” All the while their eyes are scanning for the quickest escape route, and I’m mentally writing off another potential like-minded friend.
Philosophers having a bad rap is nothing new. Several centuries before Christ, Plato wrote about his mentor Socrates. Plato’s most famous book, The Republic, has Socrates notoriously arguing that philosophers should be kings of the ideal city. His audience thought this suggestion to be absurd, for the philosophers they knew were all either vicious, horrible people who took advantage of others, or they were strange, head-in-the-clouds people who were useless to society. These prejudices remain today in basically the same forms in many sectors of society: philosophy is widely thought to be either a dangerous thing to study that will mess up your mind, or it is a pointless exercise with no relevance to real life. I’d like to try to counteract these impressions and argue that it is worthwhile for everyone to spend some time studying philosophy.
The first accusation that needs addressing is that philosophy is dangerous and that it will mess up your mind. Good-intending (but misled) Christians sometimes quote the Apostle Paul in Colossians 2:8, claiming that philosophy is based on human principles and will lead you away from God. And while this is a poor interpretation of the verse (Paul had no qualms using philosophy in his speech on Mars Hill recorded in Acts 17), there are certainly some examples of this sort of thing happening. Nietzsche, Rand, Foucault, and their ilk continue to seduce the eager minds of many with distorted reasoning and half-truths that have dire implications. But the analogy might be made that automobiles are powerful, dangerous things too, and when they are misused the results can be catastrophic. The potential for misuse does not persuade us to give up cars though; rather it should make us want everyone to be trained properly in their use. The same is true of philosophy. Ideas are powerful things, and when they are misused or accepted uncritically, there is the potential for danger. This is all the more reason to be trained in philosophy or to “practice” using it sometimes so that we do use it properly when in counts. Francis Bacon said several centuries ago, “A little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism; but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion.”
Some might still object along the same lines by pushing the automobile analogy further: Accidents happen even among those who have been trained to drive and who are not consciously flouting any of the safe-driving skills they’ve learned. So also there are “accidents” in philosophy, those who are sincerely pursuing truth, but become atheists. So these objectors might ask, “Shouldn’t the possibility of such a thing happening keep us from studying philosophy?” This kind of question should not be taken lightly, but I might first answer, “Does it keep us from driving cars?” No. But even beyond this, there is a distinct disanalogy between driving accidents and philosophical “accidents”. The latter do not just suddenly and irrevocably occur. You can see them coming. There are clearly marked warning signs on the way to abandoning faith. It is only when these are ignored that one drives unaware into danger. It should be part of a philosophical training course to learn to recognize such signs.
Yes, there is power in philosophy. But it is a power that we should learn to use for the benefit of the Kingdom. It has always been the strategy of the enemy to pervert what God has intended for good. If we give up philosophy merely because some use it for bad, then all there will be is bad philosophy.
The second accusation to be countered is that philosophy is a pointless, academic exercise with little or no relevance for the real world. I think this is probably the more common misperception—and certainly the more dangerous, because unlike the first it doesn’t acknowledge the power that ideas have. On this view, philosophers are seen as people who can’t get their noses out of books, who are unskilled at managing practical affairs, and who have no effect on real life. The usual defense by the pro-philosophy folks is to further highlight the premise of the first accusation, that ideas are powerful, that they have consequences not only on the large scale that grabs attention, but on a personal level too. If we don’t chose to reflect on the values we unconsciously imbibe from our culture, we’ll be swept along in its value system.
I think this is an important and correct response to the objection against the irrelevance of philosophy, but it is still very much at the theoretical level. To give the kind of response that would satisfy the objector, something even more practical must be presented. I believe this practical defense is to be found in the meaning of the word philosophy itself. ‘Philosophy’ comes from the two Greek words “phileo” which means love (of the brotherly sort, like Philadelphia) and “sophia” which means wisdom. Philosophy is the love of wisdom; philosophers are lovers of wisdom. OK, so what is wisdom and why do philosophers love it?
Wisdom is not the same thing as intelligence or knowledge. One need not be wise in order to win on Jeopardy or Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Wisdom is better described as a kind of general capacity for making good decisions in a variety of circumstances. If I have knowledge, I am in possession of a lot of facts; if I have wisdom, I know what to do with those facts in order to have a good life.
If there were formulas or rules that worked unfailingly for all of life’s situations, then perhaps wisdom wouldn’t be required; all we would need is knowledge of the set of rules that is to be followed and the ability to follow them. But more often the changing circumstances we find ourselves in show that the general rules that have been laid down fail to account for the nuances of particular situations. My wife and I have found this to be true in the raising of our three boys. The same parenting techniques and rules we used for the first child did not work the same for the second and third kids. While it is easier to follow blindly the laws of the latest how-to manual, using wisdom mandates that we look at situations individually and make good decisions. Of course for practicality’s sake there must be some general principles that guide us in making decisions, but it is a human tendency to turn principles into laws, the following of which becomes more important than the principles behind those laws.
We in the church are just as guilty (and perhaps more) of desiring rules and formulas that are supposed to infallibly guide us into a holy life: don’t go to rated-R movies, don’t listen to secular music, don’t drink or smoke, etc. Or even on the positive side: have your quiet time every day for at least 30 minutes, pay a tithe of 10% to your church, witness to your neighbor about your faith. The problem with such formulas is not that they are bad principles, but rather that they engender a kind of holiness that is attained by checking off a list each night to see what I have and have not done. The Pharisees discovered that it is a lot easier to run through a checklist than to really be holy. Jesus said he came not to abolish all those rules but to fulfill them. Following rules is not bad in itself, it is just bad when it becomes our desire to follow rules rather than to become what the rules intended for us to become. Even the new “rules” that Jesus brought in the Sermon on the Mount are not meant to be formulas that are blindly followed. Rather, they are principles that are carefully designed to teach the essence of what it means to be a follower of Christ: loving God and loving neighbor (including enemies). If these are not to be taken as new legalistic codes, then we must exercise wisdom in knowing when and how to apply these general principles. This is the business of everyday life, living out the gospel in my own community.
So if the study of philosophy is the love of wisdom, then it seems immensely practical to my everyday life. It can help to provide tools for thinking through a situation that is slightly different from the one for which I have a general principle; it teaches me to be thoughtful and to reflect on my beliefs and my actions; philosophy charges me to seek out the good life. Now of course philosophy is not the only source of wisdom. In fact it is not the first source of wisdom that should be pursued. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Ps. 111:10). Any lover of wisdom should start there. It is those who don’t whom Paul is criticizing in Col. 2:8. But beyond that, there must be room in the practice of Christianity to exercise our minds, to bring our worldview to bear on philosophical issues, to examine the formulas by which we have been living.
Now, I am not suggesting that all Christians need to go to graduate school and get Ph.D.’s in philosophy. I hope some do, for the church needs all the help it can get in thinking carefully and wisely about the big questions in life. But beyond the professionals in the discipline, all Christians should study at least a little philosophy in order to understand and evaluate the ideas we are bombarded with all the time, and to aid in their pursuit of the very practical virtue of wisdom. If you do, there will probably be people who think you are wasting your time doing this. And there will be others who think you are playing with fire. And you too might have to get used to people looking at you like you have two heads when they learn you are a lover of wisdom.