Philosophy is Simpler Than You Think

Philosophy — both as a discipline and as an idea — is often thought of as too cerebral, overwhelming, or mysterious to most people. That’s a problem, because the act of philosophizing is not historically or in itself meant to be overly cerebral or mysterious. The intellectualization of the discipline and its corresponding solidification as an inherently academic practice is what brought on the notion that “normal” people don’t “do” philosophy.

Throughout my academic career, as I studied philosophy deeper and deeper, I kept looking for some radical, life-changing answer about what philosophy really was. It was as if I thought that by studying philosophers’ writings I would be able to find some long-hidden secret about life, about what it means to be human, about what reality really is. That’s not what I found. Instead, I found a long history of people asking simple questions and attempting to answer them. Some of them answer poetically, some prosaically. Some look to mathematics as a sure foundation for knowing reality. Others look to religious experience, or physical evidence, or the phenomena of everyday life.

At its roots, however, philosophy is simply the love, pursuit, and appropriation of wisdom. That’s it. And this love, pursuit, and appropriation has been grounded in asking three basic questions:

  1. What is it?
  2. What is it for?
  3. How do we know?

(1) is the basic question of metaphysics. (2) is the basic question of axiology, or value theory (this is usually broken up further into ethics and aesthetics, and is ultimately bound up with the idea of teleology, or the design/purpose of a thing). (3) is the basic question of epistemology. Now, if I had just opened up this post by saying, “If you want to study philosophy, you need to understand its basic categories: metaphysics, axiology, and epistemology,” your eyes would have glazed over, and you would have become immediately disinterested. That’s what’s so frustrating about intellectualized philosophy. It is no more and no less than the three questions above, but academics (like myself) often get too puffed up and concerned with sounding like we know more than we know.

That’s not to say that the love and pursuit of wisdom ought not be difficult. In fact, I think the ultimate task of what it means to be human is to become wise. And that, in itself, ought to be difficult. Not because it requires a lot of academic study and pedantry, but because becoming wise requires suffering and the experience of uncertainty and the acceptance that life is finite.

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