Recently I’ve seen a spate of articles along the lines of ‘What Philosophy Can Do For You’, focusing on the high results that philosophy students score on graduate school admissions exams: Philosophy Gets You Into Medical School! and cheerful employability statistics: Highly Marketable Skills! as well as the impressive earning potential of graduates: The Degree That Pays You Back! I’ve even seen pitches like If you want to succeed in business, don’t get an MBA. Study philosophy instead.
It’s strange, because career advancement and commercial success are the most peripheral of all the benefits of doing philosophy. Oddly, the articles I’ve been seeing lately haven’t even touched on the central reasons why philosophy is such a meaningful pursuit for many people like me.
More than a decade ago, as I was completing my Honours degree and wondering about my future directions, I came across an interview with Alex Pozdnyakov, a philosophy student on the other side of the world. He said something unforgettable: “I have this strange phrase I use when people ask me why I chose philosophy. I tell them I wanted to become a professional human being.”
Perfect, I thought. That’s what I want to be.
I’ve worked in various jobs since then, and on-the-job training has made me into various kinds of professional – intelligence analyst, project manager, editor, teacher – but no training has shaped my humanity as deeply as philosophy has. And that’s because it has two superpowers.
#1 Philosophy can set you free
Thinking philosophically makes it possible for us to question authority and reflect critically on our received wisdom in all domains. In fact, philosophy demands that we interrogate our own beliefs and values (as well as the beliefs and values of others). This is liberating indeed – especially for young people in the thick of figuring out who they are, what’s right and wrong, where their allegiances lie, and where they belong in the social world. Developing a philosophical way of enquiring, thinking and talking about these fundamental issues is priceless. It cultivates doubt without helplessness, and confidence without hubris.
If there’s one thing that will help us become more disciplined in the way that we think, it will be developing the skill to go slow and pay closer attention to the steps that we take along the way. This will let us look back at what we’ve come to think and know, and see the steps that were made along the way to get us there. Then we can identify where a different idea or question could have been posed that could have led us to a different position.
We’re not looking for timeless truths, but rather opening up the possibility for new questions. And this leads to changes in the world, in our experiences and our relationships, in how we think of ourselves, how we live our lives, and what kind of people we are.
“That’s the cool thing about philosophy”, Cori says. “It can’t help but shape you and inform your every action.”
#2 Philosophy can enchant your life
Philosophy, if it cannot answer so many questions as we could wish, has at least the power of asking questions which increase the interest of the world, and show the strangeness and wonder lying just below the surface even in the commonest things of daily life. – Bertrand Russell.
Our everyday experiences are replete with philosophical meaning. It takes someone with a keen philosophical sensibility to recognise that tucking into a tin of tomato soup raises questions about how we can make informed personal and political decisions based on imperfect knowledge; or that hanging out your housemate’s washing raises questions about whether the world is a collection of discrete things or rather a function of one’s mind. Still, with a combination of guidance, curiosity and attentiveness, anyone can begin to tune in to the puzzles that lie beneath the surface of ordinary life.
It might be called developing a philosophical ear. As we attend more closely to the peculiarity of the world – and the remarkable fact that we can experience it at all – more and more philosophical questions present themselves. They may baffle us, but they also rejuvenate us by loosening the tarnish that habit puts on the wonder of things. “Philosophy has to be living,” says public philosopher Damon Young. “It has to answer the questions you have in your life. It has to move you, it has to touch you, it has to inspire you.”
So while academic achievement, career advancement and financial success are no trifling things, they’re simply visible husks that may grow around a philosophical life. The hidden kernel is made of freedom, enchantment, and a professional mastery of what it means to be human.
The Philosophy Club runs co-curricular and extra-curricular workshops for children in Australia.