I’ve experienced a wide variety of reactions in the last four years when I’ve told people I study philosophy. Many of these reactions illustrate popular misconceptions about the discipline. Having said that, some also illustrate truths about philosophy. For instance, a common response, to nod sagely, then say that you don’t know what that is, but you know it’s difficult, is in some ways a pretty good answer. Socrates might well have approved. As the introductory article to this section, I’ll consider a few of these, with a view to setting the scene to the future course of the section.
The most memorable response I’ve met with was “Oh! Have you ever fallen asleep and dreamed you’re really a butterfly?” I didn’t know what to say at the time, though looking back, the insinuation that philosophy students spend all their time dreaming is quite a good one. More seriously, though it was unclear quite what my questioner thought philosophy was, she seemed to hint at the common confusion, that philosophy is synonymous with radical scepticism, with doubting everything that everyone else holds dear. Similarly, people will say to you “I see – and is all this really here!?” as though you’ve never heard the joke. For sure, scepticism is a long running issue in philosophy – philosophers have expressed scepticism of an awful lot of things, and the practice philosophy often involves doubting commonly held assumptions. However, scepticism is not all philosophy involves; many philosophers have also spent a lot of time building up systems of belief as well as knocking them down. Nor, I feel, would it even be true to say the philosophy could be adequately characterised as a struggle between the doubting and justification of beliefs; to do so would be too simplistic.
The butterfly question also seems to hint at a confusion of philosophy with mysticism, the study and pursuit of ineffable states of mind. Such states are said to uncover and enforce upon the experiencer otherwise hidden knowledge, typically knowledge connected with unity: the fundamental unity of the universe say, or the pervasive presence of God in the world. Though the direct mystical experience of God is often at the core of justifications of religious belief, mysticism can be secular in nature too.
Being “a mystic” or “mystical” is often used as a pejorative term in academic philosophy, meaning someone who has absolute faith in their convictions, but cannot supply adequate arguments to persuade others of their claims, but this is probably an unfairly irrational characterisation of mystics. What’s more, such superciliousness distracts from the fact that elements of mysticism are very relevant to philosophy, even if the two are not the same thing. Both concern themselves with the fundamental nature of the world, and and some have said that the two differ only in method, philosophy favouring reflection and argument where mysticism favours prayer, meditation, ritual, or intoxication. For further discussion along these lines, see The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James, particularly Lecture 16.
Returning to the issue of reactions, people often take the word “philosophy” to be akin to something like ethos. Someone might ask, “So, what’s your philosophy?” Often companies will proclaim in promotional statements “Our philosophy is…”, presumably because saying something like “Our guiding motivation…” doesn’t sound as profound, as caring, as succinct. Relatedly, sometimes the word “philosophy” is used simply as a word to communicate depth or sophistication. Case in point: on Elvet Bridge, practically within sight of the Philosophy Department, there is a beauty salon named “Skin Philosophy”.
The use of the word to indicate something foundational, and something that might guide the course of a life has something to it. However, to suggest that the discipline of philosophy simply concerns a personal choice that we all make is incorrect; there wouldn’t be much to talk about if it were simply a matter of that. It has perhaps not been noted enough that philosophy is a communal exercise, an attempt to make a case for a state of affairs to anyone who will listen, and perhaps the stereotype of the philosopher as a lonely, self-tortured individual misleads us here.
Lastly, you do meet a few people, typically male, often philosophy students themselves, whose reaction is to see you as a challenge and come out with all intellectual guns blazing. Sometimes, this is of course because they have been waiting to vent their frustration on some topic. But sometimes such people seem to labour under the unconscious error that philosophy is akin to competitive debating, and one’s aim in it should be to win every argument. No-one likes losing an argument, but it is well to remember, that from a philosophical point of view, if someone shows you are wrong, they are doing you a favour. It might seem a little pretentious, and a little mysterious, to say that the true aim of a philosopher must instead be “truth”. Perhaps a better way this has been put is that a philosopher instead aims at insight, or a clear view of an issue at its most basic level. [Andy Hamilton, Wittgenstein’s Therapeutic Conception of Philosophy, forthcoming article]
I’d better not ruminate any further. What philosophy more strictly is, is a more complicated matter, and that will have to wait for another article. The kind of questions I’ve been speculating about here, questions of what the nature and methods of philosophy ought to be, are known, somewhat ridiculously, as meta-philosophy, and this one area I’m keen to explore further in my editorship.