Why Philosophy?

What passes as argument on most news media outlets hardly resembles the sort of dialogue that might help to increase awareness of our myriad contemporary challenges and their possible solutions. More often than not the growing fusion of politics and entertainment appears calculated to promote mindless affirmation of personal ideology at the expense of mutually beneficial conversation. So, Sean Hannity or Rachel Maddow, for example, are not in the business of cultivating the dispositions that will make them or their viewers more willing and more likely to engage others in constructive debate, debate that might result in someone believing that they have got "it" wrong. The result for the featured pundits and a growing segment of the American population, then, is a stubborn narrow-mindedness that obscures the fallibility of our beliefs and downplays the potential intellectual contributions of those with whom we interact.

Whatever the socio-economic forces responsible for the abandonment of substantive dialogue, philosophy can play an important role in clarifying implicit assumptions embedded in current practice while calling attention to the shallowness of ideas that are being peddled as substantive. To be more specific, philosophy may be able to help us see more fully the inadequacies of our current practices and may be able to help us construct a normative ideal which might help us go beyond them. Let us recall that in Plato's Apology, Socrates voices one of the most profound statements in the Western historical/philosophical canon: "...for the unexamined life is not worth living for man..." The Athenian assembly, one of the hallmarks of the democratic, is caught upholding the frivolous above the substantial, the sophomoric above the profound, the status quo above justice and, ultimately, sophistry and rhetoric above philosophy. Keep in mind, Socrates poses his challenge to a hypothetical citizen of Athens by asking, "Good Sir, you are an Athenian, a citizen of the greatest city with the greatest reputation for wisdom and power; are you not ashamed of your eagerness to possess as much wealth, reputation, and honors as possible, while you do not care for or give thought to wisdom or truth, or the best possible state of your soul?"

Challenging those near him to think carefully about the importance of being self-critical by asking oneself the question "Who am I going to be?" "What type of person do I aspire to become?" "Am I hoping to become a troubadour for justice?" "Or, am I hoping to be that person who dies with the most toys?" Socrates illustrates the profound importance of taking seriously the indispensability of self-examination when he suggests that there are things worse than death: "Neither I nor any other man should ... contrive to avoid death at any cost. . . .It is not difficult to avoid death, gentlemen; it is much more difficult to avoid wickedness for it runs faster than death." What is at stake, throughout our lives, is what sorts of persons we will be.

Today is a pivotal time for the future of the university. We need now more than ever historically aware and socially discerning critical thinkers. The stability of our society will not withstand the reduction of education to the production of economic value. One outcome of substantial engagement with ideas, arguments, and new skills and experiences is, potentially, to the disabuse of ignorance. Such substantial encounters, about any and all matters of human concern, should find a place in colleges and universities. In fact, it may well be that colleges and universities are one of the few places that can systematically facilitate such encounters. To reiterate, we need only open most any newspaper, watch television, or surf the net to see the absence of substantive dialogue in our midst, even on most university campuses. While there are certainly specific socio-economic forces that play a role in this, one of the tasks of philosophy is to develop the skills and dispositions in clarifying implicit assumptions embedded in current cultural practices while calling attention to the shallowness of ideas that are being peddled as substantive.

To be clear, there is an important distinction to be made between indoctrinating students and stimulating students to make or to consider moral, political or existential commitments. While the import of education seems rooted in our moral, political and existential commitments it need not result in pre-ordained commitments. For example, when I have taken students to Nicaragua to build houses in rural communities outside of Ticuantepe, I never expected them nor did I try to convince them to pronounce on the issue as I would; I did, however, create conditions that would enable them to think carefully and deliberately, namely, analyze a situation, and come to terms 'existentially' with the situation. I don't have to evaluate the experience based on their pronouncements even when I recognize that this is an important part of their development. The focus, then, is not simply in the students being able to analyze in some formal way their experience by providing a 'detached' analysis; it is to recognize that part and parcel of their education and of their university experience should be designed, in good liberal education fashion, to enable them to assess ideas and events critically and to pronounce responsibly about the world they inhabit. That they might endorse and promote ideas with which I disagree is simply the risk I must take if I remain committed to making possible the intellectual, social and moral developments of all members of my campus community. It is, then, to say that I should provide a stimulating and provocative environment where the existential question has a significant place.

While I am not suggesting that the Socratic dictum, namely, "the unexamined life is not worth living," is the be all and end all of education, I would argue that it is an essential and, perhaps, the fundamental element. In other words, it begins here.