What is Philosophy? Why Does it Matter?

“Philosophy is at once the most sublime and the most trivial of human pursuits. It works in the minutest crannies and it opens out the widest vistas. It ’bakes no bread,’ as has been said, but it can inspire our souls with courage[…] no one of us can get along without the far-flashing beams of light it sends over the world’s perspectives.”

-William James, “Lecture I – The Present Dilemma in Philosophy”

In my quest to be inspired, I’ve been re-reading David E. Cooper’s Existentialism. His discussion about the central concern of philosophy has sparked thoughts for me about the nature of this discipline and why it matters.

If you want a definition of philosophy all you need to do is a Google search. Wikipedia has a nice one: “Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental problems, such as those connected with reality, existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language.” While this is an accurate description of philosophy, it conveys nothing about the actual meaning of this discipline. Nor does it hint at what drives us to philosophize.

Cooper points out that many people have been led to believe that the discipline of philosophy is primarily concerned with the problem of knowledge. In particular, “How do we know that the material world exists?” Like Cooper, and many philosophers, I find that question “idle, at best.” He makes the case that the alienation which Marx, Hegel and the existentialists were all overtly concerned with is the sources of all areas of philosophy. He even re-frames Descartes philosophy in these terms. In his words, all of philosophy is motivated by the “perpetual threat posed by the sense that men are hopelessly alienated from the world.” 

While he makes a well reasoned case, it is equally limited. What is driving philosophy is a very simple but profound question, What does it mean to be human? This question can be said to be the well spring of all the humanities. While art explores it creatively and religion deals with it relationally/spiritually, philosophy answers it systematically. Philosophy’s concern with alienation, how we know, etc, are ways into that question.

Meaning is a loaded term. Dictionary definitions don’t capturing the breadth, depth and richness of it. It implies what things are, where they are going and their importance. It is wrapped up in embodied and interconnected realities and immaterial significance. To put it in another way, when I say that a storyteller, like Joss Whedon, has a gift for meaning you know that I’m referring to something more profound than a talent for adequately describing things–especially since Joss’s films and tv shows are populated by superheroes and monsters. You know, without needing it to be explained, that I’m implying a gift for conveying the rich significance of being human and living in this world.

Being that meaning itself is expansive, the question of what it means to be human can hardly be as simple as it may seem. This is what allows for such a great variety of answers and explorations.

The reason this question drives the humanities is because it drives us. Even if we refuse to ask it, we quest for meaning in our lives. To have relationships that feel significant. To acquire what we deem to be of value. To work that we think has importance. Whether we do it unconsciously or consciously, we live out our response to the question of what it means to be human.

Philosophers are people who have a driving need to intentionally and rationally answer that question. They study “general and fundamental problems, such as those connected with reality, existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language” in response to it. Usually, they are driven by a sense that the answers they have been given are not adequate. Their answers, as they become popularized and spread throughout culture (even if in radically bastardized forms) end up being picked up by others and ultimately shaping how others understand themselves and live out their lives. Their answers get picked up by businesses who incorporate them into their practices. They inspire politicians who create policies based off of them. Etc.

The interesting thing about being human is how our answers to that question shape our reality. We can see in art and history how there are ways in which humans have not changed, but there is much that has and does change. We have a profound influence on our world. Philosophy plays a big role in that. Philosophers both notice trends and create them. In a similar way to fashion designers. This is why philosophy matters. It has currency in our culture. In it all around us in overt and subtle guises.

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