Everyone has a Philosophy
Philosophy isn’t an esoteric subject, that only an elite few understand. No, virtually everyone understands what philosophy is. Why should you believe this? Because how philosophy is used by ordinary people—as a term—doesn’t depart fundamentally from how philosophers understand their own subject. I learned this from Elliott Sober, who a friend of mine once described as having a good name for a philosopher. Actually, Sober has more than just a good name for philosophy, he’s got a good mind for it, too.
In his brilliantly clear textbook Core Questions in Philosophy (now in its eighth edition), Sober had this to say about what philosophy is:
“When asked ‘do you have a philosophy?’ most people say ‘yes,’ but what do they mean? They usually have in mind a set of beliefs that they admit are difficult to prove are true, but that nonetheless are important to the way they think of themselves and the world they inhabit…if everyday people think of their philosophies as the important beliefs they have that are difficult to prove, how does this idea of philosophy relate to how philosophers understand their own subject? Sometimes a term is used in ordinary talk in a way that differs dramatically from the way it is used by specialists. People sometimes say that tomatoes are vegetables, but a botanist will tell you that tomatoes are fruits…perhaps philosophers use the term ‘philosophy’ in a way that departs fundamentally from what ordinary people mean when they say that they have a philosophy.”
To see if that is in fact the case, Sober gives examples of philosophy concerning God, knowledge, mind, and ethics. He then supports these examples with three theories about what philosophy is (i.e. what makes them all philosophical):
(i) philosophy involves fundamental questions of justification; and examines the fundamental assumptions we make in order to determine whether they are rationally defensible.
(ii) philosophical problems are characteristically very general; for example, scientists simply assume that there are things outside of the mind, whereas philosophers have tried to address the question of why you should believe that anything exists outside of your mind at all.
(iii) philosophy involves clarifying concepts; for example, what is knowledge? What is freedom? What is justice? Each of these applies to some things and not others.
The difficulty in justifying and clarifying a belief in, say, God, hasn’t stopped some philosophers from believing in God; and likewise some ordinary people. Interestingly, Sober admits that those theories aren’t entirely satisfying and goes on to explain that the changing nature of philosophy, historically, is one reason why it is so difficult to pin down more precisely. Nevertheless, I think Sober succeeded in his attempt to show how the ordinary usage of the term ‘philosophy’ doesn’t depart fundamentally from the way that philosophers understand it, and I think that’s a point worth sharing far and wide.
Why? Because I recently posted a meme about pseudo-philosophy. Someone commented that an example of pseudo-philosophy is when people say “my philosophy is”. I regret that anyone should’ve gained an impression of philosophy as being somehow disconnected from the everyday lives of ordinary people. It isn’t. Philosophies really are just those important beliefs that are difficult to prove are true; and everyone has a philosophy! The only thing, as Sober put it, that separates ordinary people from philosophers is how far they’re willing to go to test their assumptions and evaluate their beliefs.
For example, I used to believe that capital punishment is morally permissible. Then, one day, I started to wonder how on earth I ever came to believe that. After some reflection, I found that my assumptions led me to contradictory beliefs. I believed, at the same time, that people have a right to life and that murderers (who are people, too) don’t have that right. Ultimately, this inconsistency led me to change my mind about capital punishment. And that’s not the first nor last time I will need to give myself an intellectual whooping. As Sober put it, philosophy is a subject devoted to evaluating arguments and constructing theories and I hope more people will try putting their philosophies to the test, for there’s value in it being applied to their every day lives, even if it hurts them mentally, the pain goes away, I promise!
I’ll sign off with an appropriate song that was playing in the background whilst I was writing this blogpost: Shape of My Heart by Sting
Sober, E. (2021). Core Questions in Philosophy, 8E. Routledge
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