This post was co-authored by T.k. Coleman and Grant Parker.
A philosophy professor of mine once said “There’s a difference between talking trash about the air you breathe and actually trying to breathe without air.”
Mocking the value of philosophy is like talking trash about the air you breathe. Living without philosophy is like trying to breathe without air.
For any given action X you might take, there are several philosophical questions we could ask about X:
Is it morally permissible for you to do X? Do you have good reasons for doing X? If so, what standards are you using to determine that your reasons are actually good? How do you know if your standards are good? If you don’t have a good reason for doing X, is that because you think it’s unnecessary for people to have good reasons for their actions? If not, what makes your choices an exception? If so, does that mean you’re accepting of anything that anybody does no matter what their reasons are? What if they do something that’s harmful or offensive?
Some people might read those questions and think to themselves “Oh, you silly philosophers! You always trouble yourselves over meaningless things. Those questions are unimportant to me. I can get through an average day just fine without stopping to ask any of those questions. And look at the scientists: they achieve so much progress without getting into endless debates over unanswerable inquiries like this. Sigh!”
I want you to notice something about that above response. It doesn’t change the fact that the person who says these things is still guilty of having a philosophical position. Rejecting philosophy is essentially adopting a philosophy that says we don’t need to analyze our beliefs.
But who cares?
“[S]ome of you might say, as many people do: “Aw, I never think in such abstract terms — I want to deal with concrete, particular, real-life problems — what do I need philosophy for?” My answer is: In order to be able to deal with concrete, particular, real-life problems — i.e., in order to be able to live on earth.
You might claim — as most people do — that you have never been influenced by philosophy. I will ask you to check that claim. Have you ever thought or said the following? “Don’t be so sure — nobody can be certain of anything.” You got that notion from David Hume (and many, many others), even though you might never have heard of him. Or: “This may be good in theory, but it doesn’t work in practice.” You got that from Plato.
Or: “That was a rotten thing to do, but it’s only human, nobody is perfect in this world.” You got that from Augustine. Or: “It may be true for you, but it’s not true for me.” You got it from William James. Or: “I couldn’t help it! Nobody can help anything he does.” You got it from Hegel. Or: “I can’t prove it, but I feel that it’s true.” You got it from Kant. Or: “It’s logical, but logic has nothing to do with reality.” You got it from Kant. Or: “It’s evil, because it’s selfish.” You got it from Kant.
Some people might answer: “Sure, I’ve said those things at different times, but I don’t have to believe that stuff all of the time. It may have been true yesterday, but it’s not true today.” They got it from Hegel. They might say: “Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” They got it from a very little mind, Emerson. They might say: “But can’t one compromise and borrow different ideas from different philosophies according to the expediency of the moment?” They got it from Richard Nixon — who got it from William James.
Now ask yourself: if you are not interested in abstract ideas, why do you (and all men) feel compelled to use them? The fact is that abstract ideas are conceptual integrations which subsume an incalculable number of concretes — and that without abstract ideas you would not be able to deal with concrete, particular, real-life problems. You would be in the position of a newborn infant, to whom every object is a unique, unprecedented phenomenon. The difference between his mental state and yours lies in the number of conceptual integrations your mind has performed.” – Ayn Rand, Philosophy: Who Needs It
You have to come up with generalizations about existence if you want to act quickly and intelligently: from simple things like “cat”, “coffee” and “car” to “F=ma”, “honesty is the best policy”, “do unto others…”. If you’re using abstractions like “cat”, “car”, or “honesty is the best policy” without recreating all of the logic behind those ideas every time, you’re using generalizations. Even if you try to judge every situation and object anew, that’s still a general rule.
In every moment, you’re acting on these generalizations. The question is: do you come up with them consciously, making sure they’re accurate and logical? Or do you create them by chance, combining random observations at whim? Do you judge the ideas you accept by a scrupulous train of thought, or do you mindlessly accept the bromides you hear from friends, in books, on T.V.?
Are you acting on ideas you’ve thought about, or ones you thoughtlessly grabbed one day?
There is no such thing as life without philosophy. You’re creating these guiding principles whether you like it or not. You’re definitely acting on them – whether they’re the same principles you consciously hold is a different question. We may not practice philosophy consciously, but we practice it implicitly in all we do. Do you want to blindly choose the ideas that will shape your life? Or would you rather choose them by conscious conviction?
You’re always doing philosophy. So if you’re going to do it, you might as well do it creatively and critically.
If you’d like to learn more about what philosophy is, how it works, and how to harness it in your own life, check out Philosophy In 30 Days – Powered By Praxis.