Recently, I have heard several people whom I consider to be thoughtful and well reasoned asset what can only be a dismissal of philosophy. I’ll admit that this bothers me. I understand there are few among us who want to think about the importance of philosophy and the role it plays in our daily lives. Thinking is hard work, so most seek to avoid it as much as possible. But the truth is, without philosophy, we would all be little more than animals: acting and reacting emotionally according to whatever whim or stimulus is acting upon us at any given time. So, when I hear people say they do not let themselves be bound by a philosophy – that they see it only as a ‘guide’ – I have to hope it is because they do not understand what philosophy really is or what it means to them, or to society.
As is my usual want, let’s start with the definition – so we can get on the same page:
(For the full definition, you can click on the link. But for the purpose at hand, the short definition is actually better; easier to understand):
: the study of ideas about knowledge, truth, the nature and meaning of life, etc.
: a particular set of ideas about knowledge, truth, the nature and meaning of life, etc.
: a set of ideas about how to do something or how to live
There it is: the reason we should all have a personal philosophy: not about how we feel about kittens, flowers, music, art and movies, but about how we see the world and understand the laws by which it is governed. What our education should help us do, and it should do it while we are as young as possible, is to teach us sound methods for evaluating and reasoning through complicated issues. This way, hopefully, by the time we are ready to become responsible and productive members of society, we will have a basic idea of what we should think about any given issue before we are exposed to it. If you have this fundamental outlook on how the world works and why (i.e. a philosophy), then, when a new issue comes up, you do not have to think about it as though it is an isolated thing. You simply look at where and how it fits into your philosophy and that should tell you what to think about the issue. This is how we remain consistent in our reasoning, and thus, our lives. It also provides stability, which then lends itself to some degree of security. However, without this fundamental philosophy, we can’t rightly say “I think” about anything that comes up; instead, we are confined to saying “I feel,” because that is all one can do without a fundamental philosophy to support your reasoning.
Once we understand that we need a philosophy, we will be better equipped to understand that no philosophy is perfect. There will be times when we will need to modify our philosophy to account for conflicts between the fundamental assumptions in our philosophy and those things we encounter in the real world. It may also happen that we will discover we need to completely abandon what we thought we knew and believed and start all over. This is just how philosophy – and life – works.
Finally, to help us discuss our philosophies with each other, we tend to assign labels to those philosophies that hold a great number of similar assumptions. Politically speaking, these labels are known as “Liberalism, “Conservatism,” “Progressivism,” “Libertarianism,” “Communism,” and so on and so forth. Again, there can be and are differences within each school or label, but – in general – those differences will be more alike than different as compared to the other schools of political thought. And this is because each school of thought is based on its own general assumptions about how the world really is and how it really works. Knowing what you believe and why will help you determine to which school your philosophy belongs, but it will also help you determine what you should think about any given issue.
I am often accused of think I know everything. I wish that this were true, but it is far, far from reality. In fact, I know how little I actually know, and I know it because I have worked on my philosophy. Because I know what I believe and why, I can respond to things very quickly. I already have a guide to tell me where to put things in my general philosophy so that they all fit smoothly and consistently. The better you know your philosophy, the faster you will be at this. So, what most see as me being a know it a l is really nothing more than the result of all the work I have done figuring out what I believe and why. It’s a lot like doing simple arithmetic: the more you practice at it, the faster you get and fewer mistakes you make. However, when you discard your fundamental assumptions; when you decide to act contrary to the dictates of your philosophy (i.e. when you use it only as a ‘guide’), you subject yourself to criticism for being inconsistent. In common language, it is usually known as being hypocritical.
You should see your philosophy as an anchor. It keeps you grounded, so you don’t get pushed all over the place by every new issue or idea that comes up in your daily life. It will also help you see when people are trying to deceive you and how they are doing it. And that will help you avoid being used and manipulated. However, if you do not see philosophy as an anchor; if you think it is just a ‘guide,’ in your life that can be discarded whenever it suits your whim, you will be more prone to letting go of that chain. Once you do that, those who stick to their philosophy will have an easy time of ‘picking’ on you. You’ll find it much more difficult to explain yourself or get others to take what you have to say seriously. What’s more, won’t be their fault, it will be yours. When you let go of the anchor chain that holds you in place, you have no right to get angry with the wind and waves for pushing you about. This is why philosophy is important: it keeps your thoughts and emotions anchored.
Now, let’s look at how this applies to a real world scenario. People who hold a Progressive philosophy have expressed the idea that our Constitution should be seen as a ‘living’ document. This means they think that what it says and what it means should be open to interpretation by every generation. Thus, the same words can change meaning any number of times, according to how the people feel about them in any day and age. Those who call themselves Conservatives assert a belief in what is called Original Intent. This means Conservatives think the Constitution should be understood according to what the original founders meant when they wrote it, and that this understanding should remain through every generation until it is changed by amendment. Now, let’s look at what each philosophy means for us and for society.
According to the ‘living document’ doctrine, there is no anchor chain in the Constitution. It can mean whatever the people say it means as time ‘progresses.’ But look what happens when you say this is true. First, you can’t object to slavery: it was ‘right’ at the time. And if the people ever decide slavery is ‘right’ again, you have no argument against it. What’s more, if the people decided you are property, and that the Constitution says government gives rights, then the government can take the right to property away. That means the government can claim the right to take you away. So, if you have let go of the anchor chain – the original meaning of the Constitution – then what will you cling to if things turn against you? Not only will you have nothing to save you, you will have no reason to object because the world is only doing what you advocated, yourself. In other words, they will have been listening to you. So, if you hold the Progressive philosophy of a ‘living’ Constitution, there is no way to repair the fundamentals of your philosophy should things turn bad for you.
On the other hand, if you are Conservative and you believe in original intent, things are quite different for you. You can read the Constitution and, instead of saying they embraced slavery, you can say they did not apply their own philosophy to the way they lived. In other words, you can say the founders were hypocritical. This gives you moral authority in correcting their conflict between their assertions and their actions. It also means, if you find a mistake in the Constitution that cannot be corrected by proper application of the fundamental assumptions contained in it (and the Declaration, which is the Constitution’s compass), then you can amend the Constitution to correct the inherent flaw in its form. In truth, the only real problem the Conservative philosophy of Original Intent presents is not knowing or properly understanding what the founders’ original intent was. But here again, the Conservative holds a philosophy that allows him or her to go back, read what the founders wrote and then modify their beliefs to conform with the founders’ intent or Amend the Constitution to conform with the times. Either way, the Conservative philosophy is repairable whereas the Progressive view is not.
And this is why we need to have a philosophy: because it is more than just a ‘guide,’ it is the very foundation of a rational life.