Up@dawn 2.0

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Sarah Anderson, H01 Final Project Post 1

What is Philosophy?

At the beginning of the semester, we introduced ourselves by posting short biographies and our thoughts on taking a philosophy class.  In these three final posts, I am going to revisit some of the things I said in that introductory post, both to expound upon them and to alter or qualify them, and to examine the purpose of philosophy.  Merriam Webster gives three definitions for philosophy: 1) the study of ideas about knowledge, truth, the nature and meaning of life, etc; 2) a particular set of ideas about knowledge, truth, the nature and meaning of life, etc; 3) a set of ideas about how to do something or how to live.

The first definition refers to an extremely personal interpretation of philosophy.  I—and I would assume many others—daily reevaluate my identity, my situation, and the situation of the world I live in.  In such contemplations I fall into familiar paths of circular questions, ones without definite answers, like “What is true?”, “What is real?”, and “What does it all mean?”.  My subjective answers to these questions change often, and every time I revisit them, they bring back the nagging paradox that I've found is central to philosophy—the sense that I cannot live without knowing the answers to these questions, but the fear that meaning is found in the journey to discovery, not in the answers themselves.

The questions are important in their own way.  Even though they are questions of value, and I rarely answer them the same way from year to year, the fact that I come back to them and change my mind means that my current opinion has value.  I came to the conclusion somehow, and I can present my reasoning or feelings to others, enriching their philosophies or welcoming their thoughts to enrich mine.  With few exceptions, it is when we settle on a definite, permanent answer to a philosophical question that we invalidate our philosophies.  I’m writing in abstracts, so to better explain my point I’ll give the example that inspired me to ponder it:

My grandfather, now in his eighties, has been in town the past several days.  He’s always been stubborn, but in recent months I've noticed he even wants to argue and shoot down my thoughts when I’m trying to say I agree with him.  I can’t count on both hands the number of times in the last week that I've heard, “Now, Sarah, listen—I’m older and wiser than you, so let me tell you something: [presents sound or unsubstantiated point; it doesn't matter which because he’s already decided he’s right]”.  I don’t mean to pick on my grandfather.  I love him to death and I appreciate the time I got to spend with him, but he reminds me why I've become so wary of “philosophy”.  In practice, it often means none of the three definitions given by Merriam Webster and is instead an umbrella term encompassing debate intended to keep minds open as well and argument meant to defend closed minds.

In short, philosophy is the continual pursuit of understanding, necessitating study of others’ ideas and introspection.  It is meant to help people grow into better versions of themselves and to allow ideas to flow in a changing world.  As soon as discussions turn to arguments or self-reflection ceases, philosophy is abandoned.  As soon as age, position, or experience of the opinion-holder are given as reasons to accept an opinion, that opinion is no longer part of a philosophy.

Everything above is my current understanding of what it means to philosophize, and in keeping with it, I won’t present a conclusion to this post to avoid giving the impression that these thoughts are final…


  1. The interactions you had with your grandfather is a problem I have a lot with my family, too. They kind of just use my age as a way to say I'm wrong, and invalidate my opinion.
    Also I think philosophy is more about the journey of trying to find the answer to whatever your big life questions. And of course, about friends you make along the way.

  2. The best philosophy, IMHO, is a balance of skepticism and "essayed" belief (as Montaigne understood "essay": an attempt), without dogmatic insistence. Academia reinforces the worst human tendencies towards dogmatism, unfortunately. And sometimes so does aging. I'm planning to be the kinda geezer who don't know nuthin.

  3. This world is so confusing. I think its a natural point of regression for us to believe we're right 100% of the time (or right even 1% of the time :/ ). Its way more comfortable to live in a world that makes perfect sense. I think that's why a lot of us semi-bright folks tend to agonize over seeking out the true nature of reality, when (as Dr. Oliver pointed out above) it just increases our dogmatism and shades the big ugly possibility that we're all wrong.