Studying philosophy upset my fruit basket. By the third week of study, I admitted to my group (in much less ladylike terms) that this module annoyed and even infuriated me “so many times”. It began to agitate me not because it was boring or impractical, but because I realized I was a lazy thinker. And looking at things philosophically was forcing me to think harder, longer, and deeper than I had previously realized was possible or necessary. This past month I have literally gotten headaches from thinking this hard and forcing my brain to stretch to places beyond where I had previously allowed it to go.
Next week, our participants for the fall class will begin taking their oral exams for the philosophy module. People are often surprised to discover that a program oriented around real-world, experience-based education would have its participants study a subject as abstract and academic as philosophy.
Philosophy is often characterized as a discipline that has very little to do with the practical concerns of everyday life. Unlike science, for instance, philosophy does not have a vast body of knowledge to offer its students. Whereas science provides a confident understanding of how the world works, philosophy threatens to undermine our most cherished convictions by asking us to scrutinize everything including common sense.
In Chapter XV of The Problems of Philosophy, Bertrand Russell addresses this concern:
The value of philosophy is, in fact, to be sought largely in its very uncertainty. The man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the co-operation or consent of his deliberate reason. To such a man the world tends to become definite, finite, obvious; common objects rouse no questions, and unfamiliar possibilities are contemptuously rejected. As soon as we begin to philosophize, on the contrary, we find, as we saw in our opening chapters, that even the most everyday things lead to problems to which only very incomplete answers can be given. Philosophy, though unable to tell us with certainty what is the true answer to the doubts which it raises, is able to suggest many possibilities which enlarge our thoughts and free them from the tyranny of custom. Thus, while diminishing our feeling of certainty as to what things are, it greatly increases our knowledge as to what they may be; it removes the somewhat arrogant dogmatism of those who have never travelled into the region of liberating doubt, and it keeps alive our sense of wonder by showing familiar things in an unfamiliar aspect.
As an entrepreneurial program that emphasizes the value of creativity, innovation, and unconventional thinking, we see the contemplative life as an indispensable component of personal and professional development.
The Praxis philosophy module emphasizes a conceptual/analytic approach to the study of philosophy. Our goal is to prepare our participants for the experience of using the tools of reason, logic, rhetoric, and imagination to 1) improve their ability to communicate their opinions and beliefs 2) improve their ability to identify unconsciously held beliefs and assumptions 3) improve their ability to entertain alternative possibilities to the perceptions of reality that seem obvious to them 4) improve their ability to empathize with viewpoints that differ from their own 5) improve their ability to construct and criticize arguments 6) improve their ability to find utility in non-obvious sources 7) improve their ability to make interesting/insightful connections between seemingly unrelated ideas 8) improve their ability to function and maintain composure in the absence of easy, quick, obvious, or uncontroversial answers 9) improve their ability to ask thoughtful questions.
We believe that all of the aforementioned skills will be quite useful to them along their entrepreneurial path.
Throughout the module, most of the material is geared towards the study of various ideas and arguments espoused by philosophers throughout history. We ask our participants to appreciate historical context without getting stuck on the specifics of names, dates, and jargon. We’re much more interested in their ability to understand how one might go about arguing for the existence of the soul (immaterial self), for instance, rather than their ability to recognize the term “Cartesian dualism.” We’re less interested in their ability to recognize the term “ad hominem” and we’re much more interested in their ability to recognize that something is fallacious when Philosopher A dismisses arguments made by Philosopher B merely because of Philosopher B’s poor choices in fashion.
Traditionally, when students of Philosophy study these ideas, they are encouraged to look for truth. This is a noble goal and we do not discourage our participants from it. We want them to work hard at developing their ability to follow the evidence where it leads and we often challenge them to do that very thing. There is another value to Philosophy, however, beyond seeking after truth: seeking after tools. Sometimes, a particular way of looking at things may have practical value even if it isn’t true. So we also challenge them to not limit themselves to thinking solely in terms of “is this idea true?” or “are these arguments good?” We invite them to also think in terms of “how can I use this concept to help me create the results that matter most to me?”
At Praxis, we consider philosophy (as well as most of the material in the curriculum) to be a discussion oriented discipline. We think of Philosophy as an activity, not merely a field of study. We think of philosophy as the mental version of going to the gym. The way to burn fat and build muscle is by engaging in certain kinds of activities, not merely learning lots of facts about health and nutrition. So we encourage our participants to take advantage of every opportunity to “pump intellectual iron/do mental gymnastics” by placing them in conversational contexts where their thinking can be challenged.
Philosophy can be seen as a discipline that helps people arrive at truth. It can also be seen as a unique set of brain games designed to increase mental agility and intellectual acumen. It can also be seen as a conceptual toolbox with various ideas that may be useful in some contexts and useless in other contexts. It can also be seen as an adventure in which thinkers playfully explore the different sorts of possibilities that arise when they use new conceptual models to represent their understanding of the world. We encourage our participants to avoid being boxed in by one particular viewpoint regarding what Philosophy is for. By seeing Philosophy as a multifaceted enterprise, they have more ways to gain value from it.
Our slogan is “Break the Mold.” We believe, however, that you can’t break the mold unless you question the mold. The ushering in of new paradigms requires us to develop our ability to think about familiar things in unfamiliar ways. In order for entrepreneurs to provide society with valuable answers, they need to first ask themselves challenging questions.
To quote Russell again:
Thus, to sum up our discussion of the value of philosophy; Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation; but above all because, through the greatness of the universe which philosophy contemplates, the mind also is rendered great, and becomes capable of that union with the universe which constitutes its highest good.
And Mary Kate Crockett:
Whatever type of person you are, consider using philosophy as a means to expand your way of thinking, to question your beliefs, and to come up with creative and different answers and solutions. It’s okay to keep believing the things you believe — just realize that there are two (or three, or four…) sides to every coin. Explore all of them before you accept things at face value or simply because “that’s the way it’s always been”.
Philosophy isn’t just for the elite thinkers — philosophy is for everybody, including you. It’s time to tear down your walls and start thinking critically. It will be painful at first, but keep trying. Eventually your brain will become strong enough to handle the intense mental exercise that is philosophical thinking.
Finally, as Christopher Hitchens advised his listeners, “take the risk of thinking for yourself. Much more happiness, truth, beauty and wisdom will come to you that way.”