My first semester here I took Intro to Philosophy. It was a great class, and at the end we were supposed to write a defense of the value of philosophy in the form of a letter to the university president, Dr. Rex Horne. “Dear Dr. Horne,” we were to write, “Intro to Philosophy should be a required course at Ouachita, and here’s why…” Well, this year Intro to Philosophy is an option that will fulfill one of the numerous core requirements at Ouachita.
I make no claims about the effectiveness of the paper, but I was interested to read what I learned last year, and how my thoughts have grown (or strayed) from the ideas I held then. Mainly, I’m kind of impressed with my first-semester freshman self.
I think I’ve grown dumber since then.
Dear Dr. Horne,
It is my opinion that the study of philosophy would be a valuable addition to the general education requirements here at Ouachita. While not every student would rejoice at the prospect, for sundry reasons I will address below, I believe that just about everyone would benefit from either taking the course or simply being around those who have taken it. Among the benefits of studying philosophy are a greater understanding of reason and logic and a certain “greatness of the mind.” I hope, through engaging the arguments of three well-known philosophers: John Locke, Bertrand Russell, and Socrates, I may clearly communicate my reasons for thinking that every student should have some exposure to what my father refers to as “the art of wondering.”
John Locke, in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, seems to assume the basic definition of philosophy: that is, literally, the “love of wisdom.” From there, however, Locke argues that while everyone claims to be a “lover of truth,” there are very few people who love truth for its own sake. Most people, even if they do not realize it, search for truth out of some ulterior motive: as an example, a sociologist or research might collect data in the interest of proving his or her theory rather than purely to discover the truth about reality. Loving truth for truth’s sake would look like this: “not entertaining any proposition with greater assurance than the proofs it is built upon will warrant.” In other words, the man who really desires truth will not allow what he would like to be the case to inflate the evidence for a certain idea, but will judge the evidence for and against it regardless of his own inclinations. Anyone who acts otherwise, allowing his preconceived notions to cloud his judgment of the evidence, Locke terms an “enthusiast.” Especially galling to Locke are the religious enthusiasts: those who claim to have special revelation from God without apparent reasons for thinking their “revelation,” (that is, what they believe to be true) is, in fact, divine. Of the two available grounds of assent Locke acknowledges as valid (that is, reason and revelation), enthusiasts claim revelation but completely ignore reason. Because, as they say, they have direct communication with God, they are above reason. They need no evidence that God is the author of their conviction because they feel so strongly that this is the case. This attitude, Locke claims, is both dangerous and an example of faulty logic. Enthusiasm is dangerous because once a man or woman gets into a habit of not consulting reason or reality in deciding the truth of an idea, any idea, if felt strongly, could be elevated to objectivity, even if it were actually false. Logically, the position held by an enthusiast is weak, because any defense of his beliefs (in Locke’s words, “it is a revelation because they firmly believe it, and they believe it, because it is a revelation”) will be doomed to circular reasoning.
Here’s the deal: my generation is a generation of enthusiasts. We are in the thick of a postmodern culture that says that everyone’s ideas of morality or ethics are equally acceptable, and this view (which curiously is the only overarching view allowed) has bled into our churches and social circles. We don’t like thinking we might be wrong and we don’t want to have to tell others that they are wrong, and so we ignore the Law of Non Contradiction (if we’ve heard of it) and tell Sally that yes, she’s right that A=A, even as we reassure Bill that of course it’s fine for him to think that A=B. Logic and reason have been thrown out the window in favor of what feels right. I think John Locke was right in saying that enthusiasm (in this instance illustrated by the common bible study phrase “this is what this verse means to me”) is a risky business, because without any requirement for evidence or reasonability, anything goes. Enthusiasm, too, seems to be an ingredient in the disconnect between faith and reason: It is often seen as more “spiritual” in the church to defend one’s faith with a flowery speech about how we know God exists because we feel His presence than to present a reasoned, thought-out account of the evidences that convince us of His reality. The second example is rarely observed—I think in part because Christians have become leery of reason and logic as tools for the faith. We are too scared that our faith will be shaken by what we discover, and so, in a way, we become enthusiasts; we try to “prop up” Christianity by avoiding what we suspect might undermine it. John Locke, as well as most Christian philosophers, would say that the Church, as believers in a supreme God, should above all people be searching for the truth for its own sake, trusting that God’s Word will be proven true.
So that was why some people, specifically Christians, might feel uneasy about studying philosophy (i.e. that it might undermine their previously-held beliefs). Another reason people are hesitant about philosophy is that they think (or they’ve heard) that it’s really pretty useless. What is the point, they wonder, of asking questions whose answers seems obvious? Why inquire of ourselves whether we can know what is real, when our senses so clearly affirm the obvious? Why not stick to observable facts and actually ask questions, conduct research, etc, which effect good for society? Bertrand Russell, addressing the view of philosophy as being a waste of time, acknowledges that there are no clear, definite answers to the kind of questions raised by the philosopher. However, it is in the very asking of these questions wherein the value of philosophy lies. A man who sticks to only those questions which have hard facts at the end of them will be, according to Russell, “imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age…and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the cooperation or consent of his deliberate reason.” In other words, such a man will be small-minded, biased, and easily led. On the other hand, philosophic contemplation frees a man from the helpless feeling of being alone against the world, and enables him to view his life as a part of something larger. Other improvements seen in the individual who considers philosophical questions are as follows: in Russell’s words, such questions “enlarge [our] conception of what is possible, and enrich our intellectual imagination.” Bertrand Russell would seem to agree with John Locke that in the search for knowledge or wisdom, it is of highest importance that the individual searches out of a motivation to find the truth, rather than any other motive. Russell describes a phenomenon that often takes place within the individual who stretches his understanding with philosophic contemplation: calling it the “enlargement of the Self,” he describes a kind of man who does not think of himself as being the center around which his understanding lies—but rather, who sees himself as a part of something grander. For Russell, this ultimate is the universe. For the Christian, I would argue that we are a part of a grander thing: that is, God’s perfect design.
Although I do not agree with all of Russell’s conclusions, I greatly enjoyed reading his description of the “enlargement of Self,” because this is something I noticed before I ever thought of taking philosophy. There are sometimes, Dr. Horne, special people in my life who are unlike most everyone else. They are always a little different, often eccentric, but always there is a largeness to them that is hard to describe. It’s as if they are grown past the age of being concerned with what society thinks of them; they are beyond getting their ideas from what is popular with their peers. They have thought through what they believe, and why they believe it, and now they live according to what they believe. These people that I’ve described are rare, and the funny thing is that my brother and I have always referred to this type of person as being “large-souled.” I am sure that not all of my “large-souled” friends have taken a philosophy course, but the fact that I have observed this phenomenon gives me a sort of gut connection to Russell’s writing. Perhaps I am basing my opinion off of feeling, in which case I am a gosh-durned enthusiast.
The final philosopher whose thoughts I considered in writing this letter is the best-known of the three. Socrates’ Apology, written by Plato, is the monologue given by Socrates in his own defense while on trial for his life. Socrates from the beginning shows clearly that he is innocent of any of the crimes he has been officially accused of. He is not an atheist, as accused, nor does he charge fees for teaching others what he believes. The reason that Socrates is on trial because people do not like him and the reason people do not like Socrates is because he makes them feel dumb. Apparently, things in Socrates’ day were not all that different than they are now: people, if they do not know what they are talking about, will always pretend to know what they are talking about. If they have no reason to be certain of a belief, they will still act as though they are certain. This behavior is a sign of foolishness to Socrates, who holds that wisdom lies in “not thinking one knows what one does not know.” Socrates is convicted that his purpose in life is to practice philosophy; that is, his moral obligation to the city is to be a sort of benevolent pest—constantly reminding people to give thought to “wisdom, truth, and the best possible state of your soul.” Thus, Socrates goes around to individuals, inquiring what they actually know, and often finding out that what they know is not very much. This, of course, makes people angry, and they arrange to put Socrates on trial for his life. It’s an unfair trial, yet it is a situation that Socrates could well escape. He could cease practicing philosophy, he could renounce his actions, or he could ask for exile rather than death. Why wouldn’t he try to escape consequences he did not really deserve? Socrates’ ‘ideal philosophy’ paints a good picture of his motivations: once a man has discovered what he believes to be truth, he ought to stick with it, despite any dangers. Yes, Socrates could have escaped death, but he was more willing to die than to abandon his beliefs. If Socrates, without the hope of Christ, could be so death-defying, what would it mean for Christians to have a similar line of thought?
As I mentioned before, Dr. Horne, anyone who tried to implement philosophy as a required course would no doubt have a heck of a time doing it. People my age have a hard time being either patient or logical enough to really examine the basis for their beliefs, and an even harder time not being self-absorbed. I think, though, that the exposure to the ideas presented by scholars such as Locke and Russell, the discovery that people have been wondering the same things for ages now, and the reminder that the soul is really of more importance than any danger to the body, would be invaluable to a great many students. I’ve certainly enjoyed it.