When I attended a relative’s wedding over winter break, I expected the usual questions from family members about what I was planning on doing with my life after graduation, but what I didn’t expect was the particular judgment with which my study of philosophy would be met. “Philosophy? Wow, that’s…interesting.” “What a luxury, spending time reading all of those books.” “What are you going to do when you graduate? Teach?”
These were all valid points, of course; a philosophy major (or, in my case, a College of Letters major) doesn’t exactly provide a clear career path, and one could rightly argue that studying the types of literary and philosophical texts that I do here at Wesleyan is a luxury that I am able to enjoy given the opportunities that have been handed to me.
But my issue is less with these practical concerns and more with the judgment that I know is underlying them: that philosophy is a frivolous, irrelevant discipline. Even at Wesleyan, friends of mine often think of philosophy as a field by academics and for academics, where all you do is read abstract theories and jargon that have no implications for everyday life. Many college students seem to view philosophical discussion, even the casual kind, as an exercise in overthinking and a general waste of time. I remember my friends cringing during my first year here when I would steer us into what they’d pejoratively call a “philosophical conversation.” People feel that they don’t have the time or the energy or the patience to debate questions like “What is good?” or “What is the meaning of life?” And this is understandable, of course; we have the practicalities of everyday life to attend to, and there are only so many hours in the day.
But what most people don’t often realize is that philosophical questions are not only relevant to our daily lives, but they often form the basis of our lives in ways that we’re not aware of. Take politics: The very question of how we feel our society should be structured is a philosophical one. Political parties and political candidates can be seen as advocates or manifestations of differing philosophical views on what a good or right or just society should look like. By voting or keeping up to date with the current presidential campaigns, we are actually engaging in a philosophical debate that has spanned centuries and that matters just as much now as it did in ancient Greece.
The same argument can be made for the relevance of philosophy to social justice issues on the local or communal level. I was so glad to hear that the philosophy major had created a new social justice track and that this fundamental aspect of philosophy would be made an official component of its academic study here at Wesleyan. Watching the work of my peers to fight for social justice here on campus has provided me with an invaluable education in causes and problems about which I was once ignorant. But for this education, I am also indebted to my study of philosophy.
I feel able to look critically at institutions and structures and to question whether they meet basic qualifications of justice and equality, and I believe that just as much as this critical distance is informed by the work of students around me who are questioning existing institutions and systems, it is also informed by the type of inquiry that philosophy inspires. Studying philosophy has allowed me to realize my basic human right and responsibility to question and think about the world through a somewhat idealistic lens that lets me ask, “Is this the way that things really should be, or is this just the way that things are right now?” This is a question that philosophers have been asking for years, and it’s a question that is fundamental to our continued ability to fight for justice and freedom in all of the institutions in which we find ourselves.
Philosophical inquiry can also have a broader function in improving human dialogue. This campus is full of thoughtful people who care deeply about all sorts of political and social issues, and this often leads to intense discussion, and even confrontation, with peers whose opinions we don’t agree with. Philosophy provides us with a basis for having those types of discussions. Thinking about what’s at stake in what we’re talking about, what’s in it for each member of the discussion, what tools each person is using to advance their arguments…these are all philosophical questions. By taking this bit of distance from our conversations and stepping back to look at what we all want to gain from these dialogues, we stand a much better chance at engaging in dialogue in a mutually respectful and mutually productive way.
This is not to say that all discussions need to be based in critical distance or logical analysis; one of the most valuable lessons that my peers at Wesleyan have taught me is that emotions such as anger and fear are valid and powerful elements of human interaction that must be respected and valued just as they are. This is just to say that by looking at our conversations through a philosophical lens, we can acknowledge the moments in which anger, for example, is the motivating factor of a particular interaction, and we can better engage with our peers in these situations because we’re taking the time to pay attention to—or even to ask them outright—where they are coming from.
This semester, I’m co-teaching a student forum with the goal of bringing philosophical discussion to elementary schools. The initiative has often been met with the same skepticism as my own academic study of philosophy. “Teaching philosophy to kids? How are you going to do that?” But the fact that philosophy can be taught to children is evidence of all that I’m arguing for here: that philosophy at its core is not an academic discipline filled with jargon and the views of thinkers who have been dead for hundreds of years. We’re teaching philosophy to children in the way that philosophy should ideally be understood by us all: as inquiry into the “big questions” of human life. In “The Giving Tree,” for example, what do we learn about the morality of taking from our environment, or about selfishness and kindness? What does it mean to be kind or selfish or just? When we strip philosophy down to its most basic elements, these are the sorts of questions that we are left with, and engaging in dialogue about these questions is the only way that we, as kids or as adults, can question our assumptions and come to truly understand our own ideas about how the world should look and why.
Fattal is a member of the class of 2017.