The philosophy major’s critique

Gavin Victor, Columnist

Just about the only thing that philosophers can agree upon is something like this: “studying philosophy is valuable and important.” A painter would likely say the same thing, as would a police officer. They, though, have no grounds to extend this preference to anyone but themselves, because people are generally fit to excel at and enjoy different things. However, as a result of their studies in human existence, the philosopher feels a sense of expertise in answering the questions about how life should best be lived. The question becomes whether this statement is one made on sound academic inquiry, or if it is simply a sort of egotistical bias. 

An etymological view of the word “philosophy” gives some much-needed context as to what the study practices, or at least claims to practice, at its core. Often translated to “love of wisdom,” the word has some more interesting meaning if we look at the Greek a little bit closer. There are six main Greek terms for love, of which “philia” is one. The “philo” in “philosophy” comes from this term, and it means something closer to friendship, implying some sort of reciprocation or equality. The second part of “philosophy” comes from “sophia,” a term for wisdom. This is to say that philosophy, as a word, means a sort of affectionate kinship with wisdom. 

I don’t think it’s a stretch at all to claim that everyone should have some relationship with wisdom. Wisdom is a sense of understanding which is attained through a process of reflection. Notably, engaging in philosophy doesn’t necessitate studying previous philosophers (although that surely wouldn’t hurt), but simply to engage with oneself and the world through analysis. 

This may be the most productive thing we can do. We cannot sufficiently make choices if we are uninformed as to what the available choices really mean; in fact, we may not realize the extent of choices we have until we engage with life philosophically. 

It is easy to see, all around us, people failing to engage with the world as path-forgers. It is as if choices have already been made; every fork in the path has a determined route. But, in the words of Franz Kafka, “paths are made by walking.” Too often do we realize we failed to see the existence of a choice that should have been made. Practicing philosophy can activate a new level of understanding, enabling a more consciously active life. Once we befriend wisdom, we simply lead a better life. 

The contemplative life is often caricatured to be one of no action and only thought. The mythic philosopher is haunted by the act of calculation, and this produces an aporia in which consideration of action prohibits the action itself. Judging philosophy on these grounds is to think it does precisely the opposite of its goal, and completely discredits the goal itself. 

The practice of philosophy is that of critical reflection, and it pushes us to lead the most informed lives we can. It enables new conceptions of that which is possible, and helps us determine how best we can go through life. In the world of today, nothing could help us more.