Today philosophy is often regarded as a curiosity that has survived antiquity to confuse students to no purpose. More generously, students are sometimes told that the study of philosophy will help them with problem-solving, with thinking and communicating clearly, with getting into law or graduate school, etc. The first view of philosophy is provincial and myopic; the second focuses only on its instrumental trinkets. Both views sell philosophy short, and come nowhere near to its spirit.
To start, philosophy begins in audacity. In the spirit of curiosity and adventure, it leaves behind the easy well-worn answers of tradition, authority, and “common sense” to see for itself. It understands that the path to true wisdom is quite personal, and that the best guide in human life is the truth. It also understands that this commitment to the truth can be unsettling. Courage is required, because philosophy demands that we risk our most deeply-held beliefs. But at the same time, it helps us to see more deeply into these beliefs. In fact, philosophy helps us to see more deeply into all things. It returns us to childhood to stand again before the vastness of the world in wonder and why-asking.
The voice of philosophy is singular, subterranean, and persistent. It burrows deep underground to check the foundations of all our thinking. It seeks to uncover all assumptions and preconceptions and inspect them with a critical eye. It teaches the virtue of trying to think things all the way through, instead of just halfway. If philosophy sometimes seems to state the obvious, it’s only because the obvious is often overlooked. These habits of mind are good for sorting out the myriad misunderstandings that plague humanity at every turn. Philosophy understands that each of us alone are responsible for what we know, which means that each of us alone are largely responsible for who we become.
Philosophy’s audacity is balanced out with humility, because it teaches us of the finitude of the human condition. It understands that we are all born into ignorance, and that our knowledge is always only partial. It is from this condition that the great Socratic truth emerges: the most profound wisdom is a realization of one’s own ignorance. From this insight alone one can protect oneself from one’s own ignorance, and the ignorance of others. Philosophy is nothing less than care for the self, through the exercise of reason.
At the same time, philosophy firmly sets itself against the “self-imposed immaturity” that Kant mentions—that is, ignorance that doesn’t recognize itself. This kind of ignorance is blameworthy because it retards the search for truth and often mistakes itself for wisdom. Thinking that one knows what one does not know can inflict enormous harm; this is a very real danger to one’s self, and others. When conjoined with power and institutionalized, such unrecognized ignorance can morph and harden into self-certain ideologies and orthodoxies that fly in the face of our human finitude and masquerade as infallible knowledge. Beneath all of the horrors that humans have inflicted on one another throughout history, one will always find in one form or another such ossified unconsciousness, this terrible and inhuman unthinking. Hidden ignorance taking the forms of dogma, falsehoods, and hypocrisy is always the culprit in such atrocities, and its mortal enemy is philosophy. In its struggle against such dogmatic certainties, philosophy seeks to save not only itself but also humanity—and the humanity within us. In the dark times when willful ignorance becomes a cult, the practice of philosophy is one of our best last hopes.