In introductory philosophy classes at modern universities, students are greeted with several questions which they are to ponder throughout the course: does God exist? What does it mean to be good? How do you know something? What can you know? The list of questions continues to range from upper-level abstractions to inane, ultimately trivial questions. However, there is one question which does not deal with the products of philosophy, as such, but instead deals with philosophy itself: is philosophy valuable?
Naturally, the answers vary. Some students reject the value of philosophy beyond the course credit they are required to attain for their major, while others recognize with different degrees of clarity the importance of philosophy as the root of other kinds of academic knowledge. Even the latter, however, are flabbergasted at any assertion that philosophy is important to all knowledge, let alone everyday life. Despite the widespread dissent that the final proposition receives, it is the correct one, but demonstrating its truth is an often difficult task to those who do not recognize the existence of their own personal ideology.
As such, drawing an illustration before delving into the issue further should be helpful. Very recently, I visited an optometrist on the grounds that it was more difficult to read and see things at a distance than I thought would otherwise be possible if I had perfect vision. Upon examination, the optometrist diagnosed the deficiency in my sight and prescribed a solution. In literal terms, I could see and understand the world much more clearly, allowing me to better tailor my actions to any number of situations – taking notes during lectures, driving, identifying a friend or foe at a distance, etc.
Similarly, all individuals (excepting the blind who are excluded for the purposes of this example) have analogous experiences with regards to their own sight. Through chance of genetic alignment, individuals may be blessed with relatively clear sight which requires no correction. Others’ perspectives are blurred, causing them to go about their daily business in a relative haze of vague assumption and approximation. Oftentimes, those afflicted with such problems are unaware of them, just as I was for quite some time. Some individuals go their whole lives without realizing anything is wrong with their sight, or they simply do nothing to remedy it. As experts in all matters relating to medical issues with vision, optometrists are charged with the task of correctly identifying and prescribing solutions to deficiencies in man’s sight – with the job of relaying the nature of the world around them to their patients in a manner that allows those patients to also comprehend the world. If optometrists are effective at their job, their patients benefit greatly, but if not, the effects could be disastrous.
Just as sight is the means by which man sees the world, philosophy is the means by which man understands the world. Invariably, every man has a philosophy, even if only an implicit one. Every aspect of man’s cognition is the direct result of his philosophy. If man acts to attain a certain value, his philosophy determines both the value and his course of action. If man studies science, it his philosophy that tells him that the laws of nature and logic on which his studies depend will remain constant rather than apply one minute and then spontaneously not apply the next. Furthermore, his philosophy allows him to discern what the laws of nature and logic are. Even the proverbial “average Joe” uses implicit metaphysical premises as he commutes to work, choosing to drive on the correct side of the road knowing well the potentially deadly conflicts of venturing into oncoming traffic.
The latter is not merely a colorful exaggeration. There are those – the Pyrrhic skeptics – who argue that man can literally know nothing, except that he knows nothing. As such, they would argue that man could not know what the results of driving into oncoming traffic would likely be, nor would he even be able to know that he was driving into oncoming traffic. Fortunately, Pyrrhic skepticism requires countless levels of evasion and distortion to arrive at such conclusions, while belief in the obvious is the more easily and commonly reached philosophy, though the tools to defend the obvious still require deeper levels of philosophic development.
Returning to the analogy, what kind of “sight” would the “average Joe” and the Pyrrhic skeptic possess? The “average Joe” would be, like most, a man of innately decent vision which developed naturally over the course of his life. It has its deficiencies, but they are not immediately dangerous unless he begins to attempt activities which require consistently clearer levels of sight, or rather, philosophic thought – just as flying a jet requires clearer vision than does operating a motor vehicle, so too does pursuing political values require a more developed philosophy than does choosing to eat healthily for one’s own good. In all likelihood, this is how many Pyrrhic skeptics begin, at least until they turn to an “optometrist” for an evaluation. Those they turn to for help destroy any efficacy their original philosophy might have had.
The optometrists in the analogical example are modern philosophers and the academics who parrot them, and the unlucky patients are their students who, in the quest for knowledge and answers, are crippled philosophically and poisoned with any number of deadly doctrines, Pyrrhic skepticism not even being one of the most common. While there exist a growing number of good philosophers in America who instill in their students the means to approach and solve the problems that may and will appear throughout their lives, many are the equivalent of tribal witchdoctors, chanting meaningless creeds while attempting to justify the unjustifiable. Even if they do not accept the irrational philosophies that they are taught at a university, only the intellectually strongest come out unscathed.
Effective and consistently rational philosophers, however, shed new light on the nature of reality, thus allowing man to see, understand, and achieve more than previously considered possible. The more man knows about the world in which he lives, the more he is able to tailor his actions to succeed in that world. Rather than reducing himself to the status of an animal at the mercy of whatever forces are at work in its environment, the rational man seeks to understand those forces and use them to his advantage, not just to prevent immediate physical harm to himself, but to produce a better existence for himself and to further his life and happiness. Before man can do that, however, he must accept the maxim that existence exists, he must realize that reason is his only means of understanding world, that his life is the only rational ultimate value that he should pursue, and that a state of absolute liberty is required for him to do so effectively – each conclusion building on the other, and each requiring its own set of premises.
At present, most individuals do not critically analyze their philosophic system, instead allowing it to develop haphazardly over the course of their lives. Should they take part in philosophic thought at all, it is an unfortunate fact that most begin examining the end result of a complex philosophic chain (such as politics) while disregarding the necessary substructure required to draw those conclusions. And, as explained previously, even those who actively engage their consciousness across the various fields of philosophy often draw incorrect, rather dangerous conclusions, influencing their less captious counterparts with their irrational doctrines. All other fields of knowledge and areas of life – from something as abstract as quantum physics to something as trivial as commuting to and from one’s employment – are left unprotected and open to dangerous failures as a result. If mankind is to improve, it is individuals who must do the improvement. If individuals are to achieve these improvements, they must do so selfishly and begin by improving themselves. Through constant vigilance against that which is irrational and continual reliance on reason, man can learn to understand himself and the universe in which he resides. All of this falls within the realm of philosophy, and all of it requires philosophy to be achieved.