11.27.2004Philosophy is, among other things, a way of developing tools for discussing issues and topics we dont really know how to discuss otherwise. These tools are bits of language or arguments that help us characterize certain things, to make it easier to get a mental grasp on them, as it were. Getting a good grasp of concepts is roughly equated to being able to talk about the concepts, and being able to talk about concepts entail using technical terms and arguments concerning those concepts. Once these arguments and terms are in place, the concept is deemed 'clarified'.
The philosopher's job is to clarify concepts.
As a result, the philosopher ends up shaping much of people's understanding. Nearly everything that you or anyone else thinks is partly the result of some philosophical meddling with concepts.
Thus, to understand philosophy, you need to answer the following questions:
1) What concept are they trying to clarify?
2) What is the goal of clarifying this concept? (How does this fit into a larger project?)
3) What are the arguments or terms the philosopher uses to address the concept?
4) Do these arguments or terms fit with 1 and 2?
One of the mistakes you might be making is trying to read a philosophical text like any other book. You simply can't do that. You need to break it up into small sections, read small tiny pieces of this section, pause, drink some coffee, think, smoke a cigarette, rub your chin, bitch about the government or the masses or the gov't ruling the masses or the masses ruling the gov't, and then take a bit more in. As you read, you need to fit each sentence into some larger scheme or project the philosopher is working on. You need to understand the structures and tools the philosopher is building, and how they apply those tools to the concepts.
J.theYellow came out of the closet to say:
The problem with modern philosophy, at least academically, is that it's all about reading and taking to heart what everyone else ever thought instead of learning to formulate and accept your own philosophies. One approach has practical applications to everyday life, the other is only useful for making yourself sound snooty and well-read.
If philosophy was more accessible, it would be useful for educating people who, for example, think they have to hold to a rigid ideology for the sake of maintaining a moral compass. Then again, I'm sure there are many professors with tenure who would disagree, because they need to maintain their grant status for the latest treatise on how to tie together what Old Dead Guy 3000 B.C. thought and what Old Dead Guy 1650 A.D. thought.
I sympathize with your point to some extent, but I never quite understand this reaction to philosophy. People dont expect neurosurgery or law to be 'accessible', and have no trouble accepting the idea that most people couldn't handle the training and education required for those fields; and they dont hear neurosurgeons or lawyers at work and think 'those snotty, pretentious snobs!' But for some reason, everyone expects to be able to just pick up and philosophize right from the start. 'I've thought about things, and stuff! Thats philosophy!' No, it isn't, thats just thinking about things. Like I said before, a lot of philosophy is about setting up structures and theories and jargon that can be used in various ways to grapple with ideas or concepts that we dont really know how to grasp otherwise.
Think about it like this: if we find a new plant or planet, we dont stumble around for some way to describe it. We already have theories, and these new items, while interesting, fit nicely and boringly into the theories. Sometimes the theories are wrong or need to be adjusted, but we already know what we need to explain or describe, and what we have to talk about. We already have words available to help understand these things.
But what about more abstract notions like 'justice' or 'truth' or 'consciousness'? Those sort of come out of left field, and they seem to require their own theories, with their own jargon and structure, since there is nothing else around that will do the job. Philosophy is all about getting a handle on structures that seem to deal well with these concepts, and finding their strong and weak points and seeing how better to deal with them.
And it just so happens that we have been doing this sort of thing for a long time, and some really fucking smart men have done a lot to build such structures that have proven to be useful for a variety of concepts. Since we have been talking about him, Kant thought rationality was a key concept in understanding human action, and so tried to describe everything that is in terms of reason. And the only reason we talk about 'reason' today is because of Kant's influence, and the fact that reason-talk has proved useful in so much of our lives. So it is of great use to study what Kant thought, and what people today think of what kant thought, and whether there are better ways of thinking about it, etc. It is much better to stand on the shoulders of giants than to reinvent the wheel; and it is even better to kill two cliches with one stone.
If this is the right way to think about philosophy, though, then there isn't much use teaching it to the people. Philosophy is not just critical thinking- you can learn critical thinking from any discipline. Philosophy is about thinking critically about subjects that wouldn't normally require critical thinking. Here's a good question: should I have a child, or should I wait to buy a house first and then have kids? Philosophy wont help you there, though good critical thinking will. Here's a bad question: is justice good for its own sake, or for the sake of what it brings? That is a conceptual question that might be interested in its own right but most people couldn't give two shits about it, and rightfully so.
But thats not a problem with philosophy; thats just what philosophy is. That is more a problem with people not understanding what philosophy is trying to do, and hearing the word 'philosophy' equated with things like 'meaning of life', and the fact that the subject matter of philosophical analysis happens to be many of the things we find so common (but underexamined) in everyday life; and people take from this that philosophy should not only be easy, but that their own malformed opinions on life the universe and everything are at least on par with any old dead guy, and probably much better because they wern't round for like tv and junk, so they couldn't possibly be as clued into reality as them.
J.theYellow came out of the closet to say:
Actually, we do expect law to be accessible enough for people to participate in government. Voting, for example. Unfortunately the equivalent in philosophy is prayer and worship, which in most religions isn't especially mind-expanding. Your point about people not understanding what philosophy is trying to do is well-taken, but I don't think it's an adequate excuse. Yes, philosophy "is" what thousands of years of learned minds have recorded, but it also "is" just what people come up with on their own without reading what has been recorded.
But your explanation is adequate, and I admit to being somewhat smart-alecky in my original post.
You're law example here is actually perfect for me, because we dont expect people to know the capital-L Law- thats why we have accountants and lawyers and such. We just expect people to know enough about how the law applies to them to be able to operate within its jurisdiction. They know, for instance, that jay-walking is illegal, and can explain in rough terms why it is illegal, etc.
Similarly, we expect that people should have some rough understanding of their own existence, insofar as it pertains to their day-to-day activities. This includes but is not limited to: "What career, hobbies, interests, activities, personality and possessions will define you as a person?", or "What do you want to make of your life?" or "How do you want your kids to remember you when you die?", etc. This is 'philosophical' in the loosest sense of the word, in the same way that explaining to my little sister that jaywalking is illegal is 'law' in the loosest sense.
But this is not the sort of 'philosophy' you can teach, or that even requires teaching. There are no lesson plans to help you with this, and if you seriously need help, you dont want to go to a philosopher. You want a counselor or a priest or a friend, not an academic. These are also things that people will form opinions on, and in this their opinions are nearly as valid as anyone elses. Teaching is not required here whatsoever.
I find it distressing that you think the equivalent of personal accessibility of philosophy is prayer and worship; I think this is indicative of thinking of philosophy like a form of religion, which is what makes people think it should be accessible and easy to understand (like religion), and that their own already religiously enlightened opinion matters. Again, that is a complete misunderstanding of philosophy's project. I think the philosophical equivalent to applying (little l) law in the personal case would be something like conscious reflection/introspection or the stoner's 'woah', not prayer.
We understand law in general, and we understand existence in general, but to understand Law and Existence requires work and education. And the truth is, that when dealing with Existence, what you have come up with on your own probably isn't very interesting, mostly incoherent, and is probably several thousands of years old; and there are probably better, more thorough, interesting, and coherent theories out there to learn, that have been picked over and polished for those thousands of years by generations of smart minds.