I teach philosophy. This is a subject rarely encountered prior to college, and the mention of philosophy often engenders bemused looks and invariably leads to the question: What can you do with philosophy? Well, you live. While many majors prepare our students for fulfilling and productive careers out there in the “real world,” our graduates, along with everyone else, seek lives that are rich and meaningful as well as financially lucrative. They have to negotiate the confusion of love, the sadness of loss, the exaltation of children and, sometimes, the admittedly heart-rending aspects of the same. They have to determine who they will listen to, who to trust, how they will make wise decisions — in short, they need to craft a life worth living. That is where philosophy comes in. For Socrates, the iconic philosopher, philosophy meant a “love of wisdom” and a commitment to live an informed and intentional life.
My own research has centered on the role of philosophical thinking in children’s lives. Surprisingly, we discover that young children have a kinship with that ancient Greek philosopher Socrates. Children ask questions. They are curious about everything. They wonder about the world, about themselves and about puzzling things, such as whether dogs are persons too. Children know that truth, beauty and goodness matter. Somewhere along the way to adulthood, too many of us become so caught up with finding answers that we lose our appreciation of the questions.
Herein lies the value of philosophy: It gives us permission to question and it urges us to seek out better answers. Philosophy encourages us to play with ideas, to play in earnest but also to be playful, like children. It asks us to marvel at the mystery of being human in the world. And it pushes us to choose our selves and our world, with eyes wide open.
Ideally, the experience of a college philosophy class will free our “inner child philosopher” to rediscover that original impulse toward wonderment and questioning. To this end, the philosophers throughout history serve as guides. René Descartes challenges us to examine whether we can know that we are not dreaming right now. Anselm asks us to consider whether we might already know that a God exists simply by reflecting on the meaning of the concept. Kant reveals that moral obligations arise from within each of us, not from some outside force. Each philosopher holds out a hand to guide us through tangles of questions that have intrigued us humans since we first discovered ourselves as self-aware. Of course, the ultimate irony of philosophical wonder is that one never reaches the final answer; the puzzle persists and lures us forward. And sometimes the real discovery is yet more questions. Children get this, but we adults too often become impatient and eager to find the answer. Learning to accept the ambiguity of life is our philosophical heritage.
So, philosophy prompts us to thoughtfully and caringly choose to be who we wish to be. This not only points us to craft a personal life but also a life as a citizen. Philosophy invites us to become responsible members of the community, standing up for justice, becoming involved as we strive to live up to our ideals. Whether the question is responsibility to the planet, to fellow animal creatures, or to people who do not share our beliefs or allegiances, philosophy demands that we act in a manner consistent with our values. If I believe that factory farming is cruel and unethical, philosophy pushes me to stop being complicit with that industrial complex. And if I am a joyful carnivore, I realize my responsibility to justify that choice. Philosophy can nudge me to listen more carefully to those who believe differently than I do about religion, politics and social policies. Healthy skepticism reminds me that I do not have all the answers and that anything I believe must be up for review. This opens up communication across difference and instantiates the American ideal of an open society.
Despite its reputation as an armchair activity, philosophy really offers a call to action. We are called upon to question ourselves and others, to reflect upon our options, and to act in ways that authentically represent who we are. And that is the ultimate career goal: to be persons who care about our integrity, those we love and the larger community — to be a caring and involved global citizens.
Dr. Turgeon is an associate professor and chair of the Department of Philosophy on SJC’s Long Island Campus.