February 17, 2009

Be a philosopher

It’s been a while since I’ve immersed myself in the writings of long dead philosophers, but a lot of what I read in those days tends to come back to me regularly.  For example, constantly remind myself of Socrates’ statement that the best life is that of the philosopher. I remind myself of this because I believe it and so I strive to live that life. I think it’s something everyone should strive for, but it seems that when the subject of philosophy comes up, people tend to dismiss it as unimportant. Philosophy is seen as the province of academics and thinkers who don’t worry about practical things like pragmatic living and action. This impression of philosophy, though widespread, is wrong.  I am starting to believe that many people dismiss philosophy so quickly because they don’t quite understand what it is. 

Most people have heard Descartes’ now cliche statement “I think, therefore I am.” Taken alone, this can seem like a silly and pointless statement of the obvious. I frequently get the impression that this statement, minus it’s context, represents what many people expect of philosophy. “I think, therefore I am” was not in any way meant to be the powerful conclusion it is usually made out to be, it is merely one line that occurs close to the beginning of Descartes argument for the existence of god.

Whether one is a devout follower of one of the world’s religions or a complete atheist, an argument such as this one should hold some importance. Why would an argument for the existence of god be important to someone who has already made up his mind on the question? Going back to Socrates, the best life is that of the philosopher. To expand on this – in order to live a good life, one must know what good is. In order to know what good is, one must constantly seek its meaning and question one’s findings. Believing you know the answer to a question such as this one is not a reason to stop investigating it. Many of the greatest discoveries and breakthroughs have come about after disproving established but wrong beliefs.

Philosophy is hard to define because it encompasses a lot of questions relating to seemingly different subjects. Basically, philosophy is the study of how the world works throught the application of reason. Descartes’ Discourse is an attempt use reason to prove the existence of god. Plato’s Republic is an attempt to use logic to determine what it means to live the good life. Other philosophical works deal with these “problems” and others including the nature of the mind, the duty and best form of government, the value of art, etc.

What I find ironic is that many of the same people who dismiss Philosophy actually do spend considerable time attempting to answer philosophical questions. The benefit of calling it by name is that by recognizing that there are hundreds of pages of writing devoted to the very same questions you are asking will give you access to a wealth of ideas on those topics.

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