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A Philosophy for All | By Christopher Berger

Deciding what to do after high school is difficult. Often, further schooling is a safe bet, and for me, that entailed attending university. I suspect, given the worsening economic downturn and its acute effects in the oil industry here in Alberta, that option will become increasingly attractive for many high school graduates. However, the bigger question remains: what should we study and, more importantly, how and why?

There have always been—and always will be—a small, dauntless, stubborn demographic of students that yearns for education for its own sake and maintains the conviction in some form that learning is intrinsically important for their well-being. An even smaller group asserts that it is a certain type of learning, learning how to live the best life for a human being, that makes up the vital core of education: philosophy. And by “philosophy” these types don’t mean the Departments of Philosophy at their schools, but philosophy as a peculiar way of life – the life of lacking, loving, and pursuing wisdom. And outside this eccentric circle, conditions are ripening for new students to rediscover what this peculiar kind of learning can provide. They will find philosophy to be tangible, universally relevant, and accessible in any time and place they happen to find themselves.

Many of the pedagogically-preoccupied, myself included, have been worried about universities’ prioritization of vocational, professional, or “career-path” degrees over the classic arts-and-sciences education. Ironically enough, current woes in the job market have left the graduates of many specialized, “practical” degrees geared toward specific careers floundering. The liberal arts students will no longer be the sole punchlines of “do you want fries with that” jokes. And this is not necessarily unique to the recent downturn as for some time now, engineering and law degrees and even trades diplomas, for instance, have no longer been the tickets to stable, well-paying careers they were once almost guaranteed to be. Business grads are increasingly finding themselves facing an ever more competitive market in which certain skills associated with the liberal arts – critical thinking, learning new skills on the fly, discerning how disparate parts fit within a larger whole – would actually give them an edge and make them more employable.

The modern career path is no longer as linear and stable as it was in our parents’ generation; it is now far more dynamic, often with multiple job and even career changes. So, how do we prepare and constitute ourselves for lives in such a flux-prone world? What can provide graduates with lasting and inexhaustible benefit regardless of the vicissitudes of careers and daily living? What should students do? I say, they ought to take up philosophy.

The first thing that new students will notice about a course catalogue will probably be the categorization. By this I mean that students will quickly realize that they will probably have to think about the direction in which they’ll be specializing. Arts, sciences, business, engineering? What about their major? Their minor? Endless possible combinations. Course catalogues are geared toward picking a category of knowledge and specializing along those lines. What do all of these disparate categories of study have in common? Directedness toward production or progress, or attainment of a job or certain career path. Similarly, there is something that each and every one of them lacks – a clear view of how and why we ought to live our lives in the best manner possible and how each area of study contributes to answering that question.

Philosophy nowadays tends to occupy a dusty corner in the halls of the Faculty of Arts at many universities. It is rarely a large department, and the students and faculty occupying its classrooms often have a reputation for eccentricity. And it is in that dusty corner that most other departments are most comfortable seeing it, with only the political science department at my alma mater offering a dedicated philosophy-themed subfield of itself, in the form of political philosophy. But even in this case, that was only back in my day as a poli sci undergrad at the University of Alberta. Creeping the department’s website as I write this, I notice most of the courses I loved so much and their equivalent replacements use the titles “political theory” or “political thought.” Granted, it may seem counterintuitive to assume that a department would necessarily offer “crossover” courses in other departments’ subjects (ever heard of “biology of art history?”). But upon further reflection, it seems to be even more improper that each area of study would not reference its own relation to its parent study, the “love of wisdom.” Is not knowledge of its place within and relatedness to the whole of things a necessary – and perhaps even the most important – part of any field of inquiry’s mission?

There are obvious benefits to pursuing specialized, focused areas of study. This boils down to economics 101, the division of labour. It is far more efficient. But this holds only if we understand “efficiency” in a particular way, as emphasizing depth over against breadth. At first blush, this makes perfect sense: by jettisoning tangents and zeroing in even further on the finer details of, say, genetics, the biologist’s knowledge of genetics — or more accurately of certain elements of genetics — progresses to greater and greater detail. The question lurking beneath the surface, however, is whether this reflects an adequate grasp of what depth in learning consists in. What does the geneticist gain from this new knowledge of genetics, and if we want to broaden it, what does this knowledge offer the community of geneticists or, indeed, society at large? Are people’s lives better fulfilled? Or in other words: is this really progress, and for that matter, how are we to understand progress?

Efficiency is indeed one of the benefits of specialization – but who or what does it benefit? Depth in learning points to learning that concerns itself with how to live, the concern that ties together all other learning. If we accept this definition, then “depth” in ever-narrowing specializations actually takes us further away from the depth we are discussing here. The more specialized we become, the further we are led from the vantage point from which we may discern the place of that subset of knowledge within the larger whole of which it is a small, no matter how important, part.

Students who believe sincerely that their education ought to prepare them for a full life need to understand progress as the deepening of their character, their self-awareness. This self-awareness entails knowing that a job or a career does not define the occupant as a human being. It also entails knowing that no specialized field of study, whether it be chemistry or mathematics or political science or psychology, can constitute “progress” in its own right. Your knowledge of the field, and even the field itself, may become more sophisticated, but it is nevertheless decisively limited. A university education pays off not in accumulated facts and rote trivia but in humility, integrity, compassion, and in the desire to know for its own sake. Each field needs to know it is a part, not the whole. And this is precisely why I am at pains to stress that majoring in philosophy is not the same as pursuing the philosophic life.

Inasmuch as it is a discipline in the Faculty of Arts, philosophy is typically understood as a distinct field of knowledge. In this it is understood no differently than any of its other peers in the university. In philosophy, university students study epistemology, metaphysics, ontology, feminism, ecology, ethics, philosophy of science and technology – but where in there does a comprehensive, all-encompassing way of life rear its head?

The question of how to live is taken up in fewer and fewer philosophy classes, let alone made the central concern as the question that needs to be answered. Even if it is addressed, it is only with a facile relativism, i.e. a timid refusal to judge better and worse, under the pretense of a paradoxical rejection of the idea of truth (is it true that there is no truth?).  It is presented as a buffet of alternative worldviews or lifestyles about which no rational deliberation is possible. Philosophy departments, much like the rest of the university, have given up on the meaning of life.

I point this out not to denigrate philosophy departments but rather to liberate readers from the mental trap of assuming the kind of learning I advocate for here is available in only one specific nook in the university. The satisfaction yearned for by students’ hungry souls is not found in so facile a solution as the prescription, “A few philosophy classes for every student!” What I have in mind here is not to overhaul the curriculum nor to browbeat student readers into specific academic programs. Rather, my task is a simple one: to urge students to ask the questions that come naturally. What is love? What is beauty? What is justice? Am I living a good life? In sum: what is there, is it good, how do I know, and how should I act on it?

When we ask what a thing is for, sooner or later we are led back to a point at which we can go no further, because it is for its own sake. This would be, in the simplest terms, “the good.” Why do we want it? Because it is good. Plain and simple. The same thing applies in less abstract and more tangible form if we substitute “happiness” for “the good,” and practically speaking, they are the same. Those who possess what is essentially good for human beings are happy. The tricky part is figuring out what is truly, irreducibly good for human beings. What is this elusive thing, happiness?

I’m going to defer to an older source on this point. Aristotle, referred to throughout the history of serious thought as “the Philosopher” with a capital “P,” supposed that happiness is the activity of a human being fulfilling what it does best. For Aristotle, this was rational thought, logos. Granted, translated into modern idiom, this sounds a little sterile, but Aristotle was on to something. To be a little less abstract about it, we can say that we human beings are happiest when we are conscious or fully aware of what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and how and why it makes us who we are.

We can find the inspiration behind this realization in Aristotle’s teacher, Plato. He wrote dialogues that often featured his own role model, Socrates, whom Plato famously has pronounce that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Plato’s Socrates is also famous for proclaiming his own ignorance: the only thing he knows is that he knows nothing. Perhaps less well known is his second proclamation, that he does know one thing very well: erotics. These two traits combine to lay the groundwork for something very special. Because he thought he knew nothing, he resorted to his reason, or logos, to question others reputed to be wise in order to find out the truth of things. Prior to and underlying this was the erotic passion to fulfill a desperate need. We are no longer accustomed to using a word like “erotic” in this way, but for Socrates, eros is the passion that makes us aware of lack, of impoverishment, of the need for beauty and nobility, and of the powerful drive to satisfy it. In the case of Socrates, he realized that this longing, followed through to its most fundamental manifestation, is for completion, which humans lack. Humans are partial, but desire the whole, and striving to grasp the whole is the highest human activity, the happiest life we can live. This sums up Socrates; this sums up philosophy.

For his student Plato, Socrates was not just the model philosopher but the model human being, the penultimate guide for living well. The example of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and indeed all of the great philosophic souls, can help us to see that we as human beings lack knowledge of the best life. This knowledge and the means of acquiring it are not evident, but they are precisely what is most needful – who doesn’t want to live the best life humanly possible? But the fact that they are not evident makes the life spent pursuing the answer evidently the most choiceworthy one. And Socrates, the man who lived it, was famously ugly, poor, politically ignored, from no notable family, not well travelled, and his interlocutors run the whole gamut from aristocrats to slaves (in his Meno, Plato has Socrates instruct an illiterate slave in the principle of the hypotenuse of a triangle while it confounds the slave’s upper class master).

What is more, Socrates’ other great student, Xenophon, tells a story in his Education of Cyrus of a strikingly Socrates-like figure in Armenia, a “barbarian” nation. Socrates himself and his students’ depiction of him affirm that philosophy is open to everyone everywhere and always. It is in fact the one principle of equality of which we can be certain. We human beings, because we are human beings, i.e. living the insoluble, vexing, yet life-giving tension between logos and eros together, are equal in our potential capacity to know the most important things.

It becomes very clear very quickly that a specialized major-minor education does not necessarily, if it ever does at all, keep this in mind as a unifying thread tying its efforts together. This education and the careers it prepares us for are not overly concerned with the best life, or more to the point, with discovering and pursuing the best life. Rather, they are concerned with “progress” superficially understood, as adding one brick at a time to a cumulative warehouse of knowledge, or with producing productive, technically competent professionals. Where does the thoughtful, self-aware life end up in all this? What do highly competent but narrowly educated human beings have left if they lose their jobs by some whim of fortune, or grow old and must try to enjoy other pursuits? On our deathbeds or in the late, quiet hours of the night, where do our practical activities and pursuits fall into place within the larger whole of our lives, and of the world in which that life runs its finite course?

A little bit of philosophy in education can help remedy these shortcomings of vocational schooling. With Plato’s Socrates as our guide, it gives us the means by which we can discern something intrinsically and everlastingly satisfying, using nothing but our own power of reason and an awareness of our deepest passions. And it’s not as though we need to declare a philosophy major in order to get this. Philosophy is more an attitude in approaching education than a series of courses or category of knowledge. I learned it from a professor of political science at the University of Alberta, for example; she introduced me and some of my closest friends to this life and this yearning. She did this in no small part by introducing us to Plato and his Socrates. Granted, books are no substitute for life, but I have found that they can be invaluable guides for interpreting and grasping life more deeply. For this reason, good books are indispensable insofar as they enable dialogue with great human beings long gone or far away.

As far as books go, I’d venture that none of us can call ourselves educated without some grasp of Plato. Plato gives us Socrates, and through him shows us the pleasures of the examined life, its perils, its conflicts with practical demands, and its needfulness for satisfying our deepest longings. Plato’s is, I am convinced, the deepest, most comprehensive, and most accurate statement on human life ever penned. His Socrates was no specialist, no academic, no professional, but a man who lived his life by pursuing the truth about justice, love, beauty – you know, the meaning of human life. He looked for it in ordinary, everyday life and its concerns, not in arcane halls guarded by sages. This is where we can look for it too: in thoughtfulness in our daily lives, in grappling with great minds who tried to makes sense of these matters, in earnest conversation with close friends.

This example helps us to see that any of us, no matter what we study, can be open to this kind of self-aware life. Indeed it helps us to appreciate that, properly understood, philosophy is not a subject or subset of knowledge but a way of life. In an age and culture in which we are obsessed with advancing expertise in this or that thing and in which productivity is king, a little dose of philosophy can help us to gain perspective on what our effort is for, to discover its meaning. By stepping back from our cloistered niches, we can get a breath of fresh air and a renewed understanding of why what we do is worthwhile in the first place.

Socrates said philosophy is learning how to die. Without getting quite so heavy, perhaps we can appreciate that philosophy prepares us for those times when the finite, worldly things with which we concern ourselves – careers, productivity, and so on – inevitably come up short and pass on. No matter what our “day jobs” are, philosophy is a career that can be taken away only by death, and a basis for an invigorating intimacy with others while life lasts. I can’t speak for you, but when my time comes, I’ll be happiest if I can say to myself honestly, “I see what it was all for.”

Banner illustration courtesy of Wanderer Online Design Editor Fren Mah.

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  • Thomas Barrett

    An important and thought provoking commentary Christopher and one I take to heart. I would only note two things. You do not address the vast differences in human nature that Plato’s Socrates describes in The Republic (and elsewhere) which surely suggests that only a very few people are intellectually and temperamentally equipped to follow anything significantly resembling the Socratic life. It suggests to me that Plato believed the best most can hope for is correct opinion. Secondly, you do not discuss the role of irony in the dialogues, which I believe is crucial to understanding Plato’s teachings, if that is the correct term. Perhaps grasping the questions he is asking and the particular way he frames them so that they seem to speak differently to different people is a better way of putting it. At any rate I applaud your description of the great value of an arts education with philosophy as a base, although I don’t think students will find much in the way of classical political philosophy on offer, unfortunately.

    • Chris

      Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Thomas! In short, both of your points are good ones, and both are correct – the ultimate reason those two topics didn’t get more attention here is that I felt they’d be better served in an exegetical essay on Plato than in broader defense of liberal education for university students.

      But for the sake of discussion:

      The disparities in the various human types are certainly an important theme in Plato, but it is also a prominent theme that Socrates approaches everyone with the “benefit of the doubt,” at least on the surface (relating to the irony you make note of). The different types are self-selecting, ultimately. Socrates engages everyone, but very few rise fully to the occasion – Socrates himself is one rare exception of course. But even in that case, it’s left ambiguous whether anything more than correct opinion in the strict sense is attainable. After all, once knowledge is arrive at, philosophy as the pursuit of wisdom would seem to be rendered obsolete (and then we’re in End of History territory… but on this note, we can avoid this Modern distortion by reading knowledge of the “Forms” or “Ideas” as awareness of the permanent questions or problems). In any event, it seems to me that the key thing to emphasize in attracting students to philosophy is to expose them to the possibilities. As far as actualizing the full philosophic life, human beings are self-selecting, but you don’t cultivate the potential for the heights by attempting to pre-determine who can or cannot attain them. Awareness of the peaks is the first and most fundamental point of education. This, I think, is the point of the cryptic Myth of Er in the ‘Republic,’ and a crux of Socratic living.

      As for your second point, again, you’re right to note the importance of irony in the dialogues, but I’m not as sure it can (or should) be fruitfully discussed in cursory remark in passing on the undergraduate study of philosophy. When it comes time to study Plato specifically, though, that importance comes out quickly enough with a good teacher. In case you’re interested, this is a piece I wrote on my personal blog about beginning to read Plato that touches on this question:

      Cheers Thomas! Thanks again.