College students may hate a statistics class, but they rarely question its usefulness or value. They know it has “real-world applications,” even if they loathe every minute of it.
It is not so with a philosophy class. Unlike other disciplines, philosophy is faced with the task of justifying itself, of demonstrating some sort of real-world utility. This is because philosophy–when approached correctly–does not tell people anything new. It works with truths we have already achieved. To many people this seems like an absurd waste of time, and so philosophy comes into question in a way English, History, Math, and Science never do.
Whether coming to grasp at a deeper level what one already knows, a profound under-standing I like to call “wisdom,” could truly be a waste of one’s time is a question I will leave to the side for now. Rather, I would like to offer a humbler defense of philosophy here by pointing out one real-world advantage of philosophy: over time, it teaches one to question the questions.
One should question the questions because not all questions are good questions, in the sense of being fruitful to contemplate and to answer. Trying to answer such questions leads one into greater errors, greater confusion. Consider, for example, the question “When did you stop beating your wife?” If you are not, in fact, an abusive husband, then you simply cannot answer that question in the terms it has posed, for the questions assumes that you are, in fact, a wife-beater. Any simple answer you give to that question will be misleading. If you aren’t an abuser, then it would actually be true to answer by saying “never” (i.e. if you never started beating your wife, then you never stopped), but it would nevertheless be horrendously misleading.
That is an exaggerated example, meant to get the point across. For a more realistic example, imagine that some professor (not me, certainly not me) were to ask his students “What six moral maxims does Descartes propose in Part III of his Discourse on Method?” But, in fact, there are only 4 maxims. Blindly trusting the question will cause the students to begin writing down ridiculous answers.
But I try not to ask such questions, for I know that the awareness of the dangerous nature of questions is a hard-won skill. As humans, our default setting is to trust language, to trust that it leads us towards truth. Or, to put that more bluntly, we are all of us mentally weak. And so, if we are not wary, such badly phrased questions automatically mislead us. The only antidote to this human tendency known to me is the sharpness of attention that the philosophical habit of mind can bring. Acquiring that habit takes practice, and time.
But you still may be asking why this matters. Fair enough. My answer is that sometimes these faulty questions concern matters of vital importance to us as human beings, and so we do not want to get our answers to such questions wrong. Consider, for example, the following daily post prompt from WordPress, the company that hosts my blog:
We each have many types of love relationships — parents, children, spouses, friends. And they’re not always with people; you may love an animal, or a place. Is there a single idea or definition that runs through all the varieties of “love”?
This is a question about love, and I don’t need to tell you that is a matter of vital importance to every human being. But, I submit to you, the question is a flawed one, and thus it will lead to flawed answers. The mistake in it is to presume that all forms of love will have some small identical, ideological kernel: “a single idea or definition.”
To see why this is problematic, consider how the typical 5-minute blog post will answer this question: “In the love of my dog, my wine, and my children I experience pleasure. Therefore pleasure is the one constant of love. Realizing this, I realized that I was no longer in love with my wife. Or my church. And so I will go forward in LOVE, alone.” And so on, probably culminating either with a quote from a Sarah McLachlan song or a poem of the author’s own composition about darkness and love, utilizing strange capitalization and spacing.
I mock this, but it won’t be that blogger’s fault. The question led him down that path by assuming the simplistic “identical element” model in regard to the nature of love. To be sure, pleasure is a part of what we mean by love. But there can be situations of love in which pleasure is absent, like a man in severe pain who still loves his wife, despite the total absence of pleasure. This same problem will apply to any other “common thread” one seizes upon in trying to answer that flawed question.
To do better justice to the reality of love, it seems to me that it would be far better to understand this reality of love in an analogical way, similar to the way the ancient philosopher Aristotle handles the topics of courage and friendship in the Nicomachean Ethics. There, Aristotle does not attempt to find one common element in all the perfections we call courage, or all of the relationships we call friendship. Rather, Aristotle brings unity to these subjects by identifying a paradigmatic case upon which we intuitively or even unconsciously rely when thinking about such matters. For friendship, the paradigmatic case is friendship of the good, a friendship in which each friend is loved for his own sake, because of his own intrinsic nobility, not for any benefit that he gives to the other. Nevertheless, such friendships are both pleasant and useful.
Although this sounds like a restriction of friendship, it does not work this way in Aristotle. On the contrary, identifying this significant, ideal case allows Aristotle to generously expand what one might call friendship on the basis of some similarity to that paradigmatic case. Rather than sternly having to say that teenagers who enjoy one another’s company (a friendship of pleasure) are not true friends, Aristotle could say that such arrangements are lower-level friendships, inasmuch as they are similar to the paradigmatic case by involving pleasure. In a like manner, Aristotle could say that one may even have a friendship with one’s business associates (a friendship of utility), inasmuch as such situations involve usefulness, just like perfect friendships of the good.
Notice, however, how confused Aristotle would have been if he had approached the topic as the question above suggested. There is no single common element that is present in a perfect friendship, a friendship of pleasure, and a friendship of utility. But if you approach these three cases with the ideal, paradigmatic friendship in mind, one can suddenly see why these are all friendships, as well as the degree to which they fully deserve that title.
Which brings me back to the question above about love. What would the paradigmatic case of love be? Though the Western intellectual tradition has noticed and honored many forms of love, I think we all know the rather common consensus: romantic love. There are just a lot more sonnets written to humans than to wine bottles (perhaps due to the fact that wine cannot return one’s love, as Aristotle quipped).
But could we be more specific than “romantic love?” If we can have the humility to stop thinking that the last 40 years have been the absolute pinnacle of human achievement, then we can see that the natural paradigm is romantic love that finds fulfillment in a healthy, fruitful marriage. The consensus of Western civilization has been that the love of husband and wife is the paradigmatic case of love, the love in relation to which all other loves must take their bearing. Even the Sacred Scriptures make use of this paradigm in the Song of Songs to explain the supernatural love of God for his people.
Two caveats, then, and a conclusion:
First, I write of Western civilization because that is what I know. But I daresay this is actually the consensus of humanity as a whole. What culture has not known marriage in some form?
Second, I know that most marriages fall well short of the ideal. But that does not change the fact that humanity has on the whole cast its vote for marriage, all personal shortcomings aside. The fact that we never encounter a perfect marriage and still continue to marry just shows how deeply ingrained the model is.
Finally, such a love, the love between husband and wife, involves stability, exclusivity, goodwill, pleasure, and benefit, to name but a few of its characteristics. It is some similarity to these characteristics of human marriage that allows us to speak of love even for nonhuman things such as wine, of laptops, of dogs, of places, etc. Do you demand examples? Your love of wine involves pleasure, like marriage. Your love of your laptop involves benefit, like marriage. Your love of dogs involves pleasure and perhaps benefit. You might love a place for these same reasons, but you might also love a place you don’t particularly like, if only because it has been a part of your life for so long–i.e. stability. It hurts to let it go, like a divorce.
And that is why love is imperiled in the West–because marriage has become imperiled. Losing the paradigm of the love between husband and wife continues to lead us to lose our understanding of love in all its forms.