Every profession gets a standard response. You know, the response you get when you mention your work. Lawyers get the eye-roll. Doctors get the question about sore elbows and the like. Teachers get the nod of approval, then expressions of regret at how they’re not valued.
I’m a philosophy professor. The response to me? "What do you DO with philosophy, anyway?" I’ve heard it so many times. "Well," I like to say, "perhaps you become a philosophy professor (cue uncomfortable laughter), which seems an admirable enough choice." Then we move on. But that’s not what they mean. In fact, they mean something much bigger: of what use is philosophy in the first place? For, if we could assign philosophy some kind of meaning, then perhaps we could justify teaching it or even just talking about it. It’s a lot to ask someone to justify their life’s passion in party chit-chat. I’ve even considered designing a ready-made explanation card, modeled on Adrian Piper’s (fellow philosopher!) series of calling cards. "Dear Friend, I am here as a philosopher…"
Things haven’t always been like this. Sure, they killed Socrates in ancient Greece. We philosophy professors tell that story all the time in class, and in doing so say something, intentionally or not, about our own status on the cultural scene. But philosophy long held the title "queen of the sciences," where chemistry and physics fell under "philosophy of nature" rather than having their own fancy buildings. We used to be important. We used to say something that mattered. We used to have the fancy building on campus.
The fact that I’ve considered a calling card means we’re in a whole different world. And, I’d like to claim, we’re all the poorer for it.
On the one hand, the question of philosophy’s use leads me to give a fairly standard response: "it is important to learn how to think critically and analyze the saliency of arguments." Philosophy does that, especially when you study logic or applied ethics. I get that. People get that. Yet, that isn’t why I studied philosophy. Nor is it why I write, discuss, or teach philosophy. I hear my more authentic self bleating "I call bullshit!" So that responseabout critical thinking as the catch-phrase that captures philosophy’s legitimacygets me nowhere, except that it might halt the questioning of why my life’s calling matters. I get resistant to justifying philosophy.
What is so interesting about my resistance is that it runs contrary to Western philosophy’s own origins. Philosophy has always been about giving an account of yourself. Indeed, Socrates’ famous "Apology" is just that: Socrates giving an account of himself in front of the men of Athens, persuading them, he’d hoped, that the philosophical life was not just a legitimate option, but was the best and only path for living an authentic life. I’ve always loved that. Don’t just claim what you do is ok, permissible, maybe even fundable by the MFH. Make it mean everything.
I think philosophy does mean everything. It means everything because it treats what is most meaningful in our world. Philosophy is the art of self-reflection, the art of bringing what is hidden about yourself and the world into expression, and so philosophy is rightly the great foundational art of the liberal arts. A liberal art! Philosophy sets the mind free from its existing understanding of itself. In that setting free, we become something more than we thought we were and something wholly other than what we’ve been told we are. This last thingbeing more than we’ve been told we areis the most crucial insight for our age. Philosophy really, really matters. Urgently.
"Our age," since you asked, is defined largely by the flood of images and commodities that dominate our walk-about life. We have an insane number of options for everything. Seriously. How many kinds of cereal or cookies do we need? It is crazy. We could talk about the effect of that crazy options thing on the psyche, but I fear the psyche itself has joined the list of commodities. Let the question "what do you DO with philosophy, anyway?" wander a bit and it turns into a whole series of other questions: how do you sell yourself as a philosopher? How do you market yourself with that degree? What kind of profile does philosophy give you for potential employers? And so on. In other words, the conversation rather easily leads to the self as a commodity.
Now, that language makes total sense to me, insofar as I’m accustomed to that language, that way of being human. It’s really familiar. And totally practical. Still, I don’t like the whole line of questioning. I’m actually not a commodity. Commodities are things, and one of the insights of philosophyand so of the liberal arts as a wholeis that we are very different than mere things. We are the kind of beings who ask about our own being: who am I? What kind of meaning does my life have? What does it mean that I will die? What does it mean that I’m at once utterly interior and intensely social? Here I am – how am I to live?
Those are philosophy’s questions. It turns out that they are also the questions we all ask. Were I a better logician, I could make that a syllogism, the conclusion of which is this: we are all already philosophers. We all wonder about the self, the meaning or meaninglessness of life, the mystery of death, and so on. Unfortunately, we tend to wonder about such things in the late hours of the night, in the dark, alone, in a fit of despair (or creative freedom). Teaching philosophy – which for me is nothing other than thinking out loud with a bunch of twenty year oldsis really just about bringing that solitude into the public, bringing some critical attention to our inner-lives, and so engaging in the most human of arts: discussion of what ultimately matters about living this life. Here we arehow are we to live? What do you think? The least we could do is talk about it.
I’ll always get that question, the one about what you do with philosophy. So I really should get an Adrian Piper style calling card of my own. I’m really thinking about it. Here’s my rough draft. Tell me what you think:
"Dear Friend. I’m here as a philosopher. You’ve heard it right. I think about what it means that we live and die, that we live with others and also utterly alone. I think about what sort of things we ought to value. And what sort of hope there is in this simultaneously bleak and beautiful thing called human existence. Yeah, I think about those things all the time. In other words, I’m just like you. We should talk about this. Let me know when you have time to get past idle chatter. Thank you for remembering that you’re more than an object in this world. It’s the only thing that can save us. Sorry to be so serious, but the stakes are kinda high. Best, John."
–John Drabinski, Professor of Philosphy, Hampshire College