Philosophy in the Modern Age
Jan 30, 2024
Marco Stango, Ph.D.
When asked why it's important to study philosophy today, I immediately think of those slogans I've heard so many times: "Philosophy teaches you how to think critically!" "It allows you to clarify your ideas!" "It makes you ask the big questions about life and reality!" If you take a look at the website of almost any philosophy program, you'll probably find some variation of these claims. Now, these claims are of course correct as far as they go. But I have to confess that every time I stumble upon them I get perplexed. Simply put, I am not impressed. In fact, I think they can be terribly misleading. But why?
Let’s take the first claim: thinking critically. Who wouldn’t want to be able to think critically, i.e., non-naively, about this or that? Hasn’t Socrates invented the dialectics? Hasn’t Aristotle invented logic, the universal tool to think about the way we think? Philosophy can certainly help in this direction, but so can any other form of knowledge: mechanical know-how allows us to think critically about engines; baking knowledge allows us to think critically about cookie-making; fishing expertise allows us to think critically about where to find trout. The idea that philosophy can provide a sort of universal, magical key to think critically about everything – without having to go through the effort of acquiring mechanical know-how, baking knowledge, fishing expertise – is simply untrue. There is no general universal mastery of the real called "philosophy." Have you ever seen the average philosopher staring powerlessly at a broken engine while contemplating "being"? (With the exception of Matthew B. Crawford, of course, who does both at once).
Something similar could be said about the claim that philosophy allows us to clarify our ideas. Again, this is in a sense undoubtedly true. Just think about the way in which philosophy sheds light on virtually all domains of human culture – from politics to the arts and sciences. And yet, this is clearly not the whole story. Philosophy begins in wonder and more often than not ends in an even greater wonder. Clarifying our ideas often means realizing that the preconceived notions we have are limited and misleading, as Socrates taught us. Imagine being at an art auction: the painting you are interested in is covered by a beautiful drape. The auctioneer removes the drape to uncover the painting and underneath there is… nothing. I feel like this sometimes after scrutinizing my ideas philosophically. It is not skepticism, it is philosophy (remember that even Socrates has been thought to be a skeptic!).
And finally, what is the trap behind the idea that philosophy makes us ask the big questions about life? I already hear the complaints: "Not this one! This one is sacred!" Of course, my beloved objector, I agree with you. But the hidden danger that this idea presents is that it seems to suggest that one needs philosophy – and its long list of doctrines, thinkers, and mistakes – in order to ask the big questions. In truth, one needs a human heart, not philosophy, in order to ask the big questions about life and reality.
If you are not asking the big questions already, chances are you will not ask the big questions doing philosophy. Or maybe you will. But here’s the thing. It is not uncommon that those who do philosophy find themselves sometimes split between a non-philosophical life in which no big question is ever seriously asked, and a pseudo-philosophical engagement in which pseudo-philosophical questions are asked only abstractly, without having their origin in life itself. Asking the big questions can’t be something that's done from 2pm to 5pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays – before dinner anyway, because otherwise digesting becomes too difficult.
Did I go too far? Am I just trying to be provocative or facetious? Maybe so. But isn’t there some truth in what I've said? What do you think? While I wait to hear your answer (take one of my philosophy classes at St. Bernard’s!), I have to make a confession to you. The problem is that when I am faced with the question, "What is philosophy for?" I sort of lose my bearings. When I hear that philosophy "allows you to think critically," I can’t help but think that what is said means that philosophy has a value insofar as it serves a certain purpose, a useful purpose. Again, in a certain sense, this is true. Studying philosophy, mirabile dictu, can even serve the purpose of finding a job! (I have students who ended up going to law school and who will become lawyers; some students who become teachers; in general, people with a degree in philosophy tend to do well in any professional path they undertake).
However, this is not the point. The real point is that philosophy does not serve any purpose. Rather, it gives you a glimpse of that one thing that you can serve without becoming a slave, namely, the truth. Josiah Royce said it well: we can’t help but serve some ideal, so the question becomes: what ideal will we serve so as not to lose ourselves? St. Ambrose of Milan put it even more poignantly when he said that those who don’t serve the one worthy Master – the Truth – end up serving endless unworthy masters.
Ultimately, this is why I think we should study philosophy: because it teaches us to serve the Truth. But here also we should be careful! What does it mean to serve? A great Polish philosopher who has recently died, Stanisław Grygiel, translated the word “philosopher” not as it's commonly translated – "lover of wisdom" – but in a more interesting way – "the friend of wisdom." The true philosopher is the friend of wisdom. In serving the truth, we become friends of wisdom – that same divine wisdom that became man in the person of Jesus of Nazareth and Who called us, in fact, not servants, but friends.