Talking Heads: The Importance of Philosophy to the Smaller and Larger World
One of my past times is attending a local, philosophy group at one of the local pubs. I was first introduced to it by my cousin about five years ago because a college buddy of his was running it. Made up of a motley crew of local intellectuals and curious people, they liked to brainstorm on everything from religion, to local politics and examine them from a philosophical view point. I joined the group and found that members would sometimes switch out from time to time, citing that they found the whole thing, “just wasting time talking about nothing”.
This is a common view I’ve come across when people talk about philosophers: that they’re just big brains who do nothing but talk all day. Yet I often contradicted naysayers, saying that the critical thinking it developed and learning to hear views other than my own, came in very handy both professionally and personally. More so, I often hear these same people complaining later how someone could disregard certain social morals and ethics.
Perhaps this pessimism is just an American thing, but philosophy was not always laughed off this way. It served a purpose and I would argue still does.
The Role of the Soul
The role of philosophy has been to act as something of a conscious to society. An invisible, metaphorical advisor that developed the ‘why’ people should do what they do or shouldn’t do. It either supported the direction the community was taking or condemned it. The ‘how’ was the other side of the coin and handled by the more, practically minded. But those who filled this self-proclaimed occupation met with varying results.
The father of western philosophy, Socrates constantly attacked the values of his home city-state of Athens for its role in the Peloponnesian wars of ancient Greece. Though considered by many to be its instigators, Athens suffered tremendously through war and disease. Socrates through questions and rhetoric, subtly caused many Athenians to question their beliefs, as Athenians suffered from a superiority complex rather than an inferior one. Eventually Athens lost the war, and looking for someone to blame their loss on, tried Socrates and convicted him.
Another philosopher who tried to influence his society was Rene Descartes. Living in France during the 17th century, he was one of the first thinkers to push for the rule of reason and is a founder of rationalism. He challenged the religious and superstitious presumptions that were prevalent throughout Europe. If this sounds familiar to you then it should, as even the average person today reflexively refers to reason when religious activists attack their lifestyle and values.
Karl Marx was a 19th century Prussian who attacked the values of his own society which at that time ran on capitalism and old school monarchy. The push of industry and corporations for more wealth, with the upper-class and royals getting richer and working class poorer, was creating a gap in society: the have and the have-nots. So Marx developed his own philosophy, later known as Marxism, as a reaction to this injustice that focused on exploring the conflict between the classes. His philosophy eventually led to the later philosophical/political offshoot called Communism.
All share the same quality of challenging the consciousness of the societies they lived in. Contrary to popular belief, it was not always a beneficial job or lead to a comfortable life. Look at Socrates’ execution. Propagators of unpopular ideas became social pariahs. Many did not live to see what their ideas became. But the beliefs had virtues that they believed worth suffering for, should that be their individual fate. Perhaps they trusted to history for others to be inspired by their struggles and further the cause.
Philosophy played an important part in shaping our world. Many of our values started out with a group of people sitting at a table discussing ‘what if things were different and this was how?’ Many wars, such as the Napoleonic Wars of the 19th century, started over the spreading of an idea or preventing its spread, as much as they did from greed and power. The clash between the ideologies of capitalism and communism led to fifty years of proxy wars, political tension, and near apocalypse. And when lands were occupied, among the first to be killed were the intellectuals because of their nature to question the status quo. Ask the Cambodians about that.
Obstacles to the Soul
Even if Americans did come to recognize philosophy’s importance in social development, I doubt it would be accepted regardless. Some of the most important philosophies that changed the world were motivated by their tendency to challenge surrounding comfort zones and it was never welcomed. Most times in fact, like with art, its value was only later recognized.
The effect would be doubled here, where our choices are more ruled by advancing our happiness. If it doesn’t make us happy, then the ‘why’ doesn’t matter. Here though is why the ‘why’ matters.
In our quest to create perfect lives, we inevitably find our happiness competing with others’ happiness. We say the mantra that we can agree to disagree but rarely follow up on that when push comes to shove. Like the Athenians and the bourgeoisie Europeans, we don’t like our status quo questioned when nothing is going wrong. As the saying goes,
“If it aint broke, don’t fix it”.
However, when outside events happen that wreck our happiness or go against how we want the world to work, we ask why people can’t think and act better? If we had asked the question before hand, much of the misunderstanding and conflict may have been avoided. We would see preemptively that our vision of happiness does not always match others’ visions of it, or may cause others harm that they would seek to disrupt our happiness.
So even if we don’t recognize it, philosophy does run the world.
There has been only two times where Americans truly questioned their philosophies: the 1960’s and the 1990’s. During the bookends of this thirty year period, American youth questioned the status quo that their society taught them and sought to change it. In the 1960’s, it was challenging traditional faith in the American state, while during the 90’s it was about challenging cultural materialism and civil injustices allowed to continue. Beyond that, Americans were too preoccupied with maintaining their lifestyles. Questioning the foundations of it could mean hard times and hard choices. Even worse, the possibility of being wrong in such polarized times as now is unthinkable.
"If the brain ignores the body, then it achieves none of its plans. Yet if the body ignores the brain, then it also achieves nothing while pointlessly going in circles."
There is truth to the criticisms of philosophers being talking heads though too. Youtube franchise, Epic rap battles of history, did a rap battle called Western vs Eastern Philosophers. Great as the battle was, it ended with the both sides going from rapping against each other, to arguing amongst themselves. Such is the stereotype.
Intellectuals do have a tendency of not only getting tunnel vision while vindicating their ideas with their peers, but also becoming a too elitist. When I was studying for my Masters degree, I had a real problem with their use of methods that only mattered to an elite few but mattered little to the average person on the street. Philosophical ideas were meant to help society, by awakening the awareness of its citizens or by presenting a road forward to progress. By becoming a cabal-like cult though, it had become in effect pointless.
The divide between philosophy and practicality can also be a problem. Historically, the two always went hand in hand, as the brain does with the body. If the brain ignores the body, then it achieves none of its plans. Yet if the body ignores the brain, then it also achieves nothing while pointlessly going in circles.
A Thankless Occupation
Philosophy is not going to solve the problems of the world. However, society needs a soul to act as a rudder to understand the direction its taking. Why we struggle with the conflicts we have now. Why we relate or do not relate to others, and what is ultimately the best road to take. Though we hate being judged, that’s exactly what philosophy does: judges our actions as we judge others and allows to us to live with the rewards or consequences, but without excuse, like Socrates with Athens.
Philosophy always has and always will impact our daily lives and society. It is how we got to where we are now with all our benefits, and if we want things to get better, we have to allow it to continue that role. This is not done for the sake of the person spouting it or some religious/political institution. It is not an attempt to trying to control people. Philosophy is the line between becoming primal jungle, a mechanical system, or an organic society that functions for the benefit of all while continuing to evolve.