In Defense of Philosophy

Socrates

Philosophy is often the butt of jokes and derision in many circles. Comedians poke fun at their experiences in college philosophy class and many of those in the Christian “worldview” movement hold philosophy scornfully at arm’s length. Indeed, I remember meeting with my church’s scholarship committee who were greatly concerned that I was pursuing a degree in philosophy (at a state university none the less!).

The Apostle Paul did not do the field any favors in his Epistle to the Colossians.

See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.

Colossians 2:8 (ESV)

Philosophy has become an esoteric subject, so many have come to think that philosophy itself is bad, but to see the absurdity of this, just insert any other college major in that verse in place of philosophy. See to it that no one takes you captive by engineering? Biology? English? Unless you are completely anti-intellectual, it is almost laughable. All of these disciplines are but tools to be used for good or ill, just like philosophy.

To put it another way, substitute “rope” for philosophy in the above verse; see to it that no one takes you captive by rope. Well, that makes sense—rope can be used to secure a captive—but it does not imply any moral judgement on rope itself. Rope is useful for many other activities besides tying up captives and we don’t regulate the sale of rope just because you can use it to tie people up.

Part of the problem is that many people, if exposed to philosophy at all, are exposed merely because Philosophy 101 was a required course in college and they never go further. These courses vary widely in material covered and approach used, driven mostly by the personality and preferences of the professor. Philosophy does not readily reveal itself to the casual passer-by.

Philosophy is the foundational discipline concerned with thinking about the world around us. Out of it have sprung most of our other disciplines: psychology, sociology, biology, physics, chemistry, mathematics, and theology to name a few. These became separate disciplines as they grew and as ways were developed to investigate them apart from speculation. Some disciplines, like physics, have almost come full circle as they now try to explain the unobservable actions of subatomic particles and the formation of galaxies.

Philosophy is important as a discipline because, rightly practiced, it teaches us to think deeply and critically about an idea or proposition. The classic and oft-maligned example of a professor setting a chair in front of the class and challenging his students to “prove this chair exists” points to deep issues in epistemology, the theory of knowledge. How do we know? Discussing a chair seems absurd, but this becomes critical when the subject shifts to less trivial matters, like God.

Mr. Keating, the fictional teacher in Dead Poets Society, admonishes his students, “No matter what anyone tells you, words and ideas can change the world.” We must not dare to abandon philosophy and deep thought because we have faith. Faith does not excuse us from reason.

C.S. Lewis said it well, so I will end with an extended quote from his speech, “Learning in Wartime”.

That is the essential nature of the learned life as I see it. But it has indirect values which are especially important today. If all the world were Christian, it might not matter if all the world were uneducated. But, as it is, a cultural life will exist outside the Church whether it exists inside or not. To be ignorant and simple now—not to be able to meet the enemies on their own ground—would be to throw down our weapons, and the betray our uneducated brethren who have, under God, no defense but us against the intellectual attacks of the heathen. Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered. The cool intellect must work not only against cool intellect on the other side, but against the muddy heathen mysticisms which deny intellect altogether. Most of all, perhaps we need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion. A man who has lived in many place is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village: the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.¹


¹ Lewis, C.S., “Learning in Wartime” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, New York: Harper One, 2000. p. 58-59

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