It’s really a shame that philosophy has received such a bad rap. Eyes start to glaze over at the mere mention of the word. Some go a step further and mock it as out-dated and useless.
I’m not sure the sentiment is entirely unjustified. There’s much to be disappointed in with some of the trajectories in academic philosophy (don’t get me started) but pop culture plays an interesting role here too.
The latest iteration is in the popular comedy The Good Place where the characters experience various versions of the afterlife. I love the show! Not trying to knock it. [small spoiler ahead] However, a main character, Chidi Anagonye, is a Nigerian philosophy professor who discovers that his cardinal sin in life was indecision caused by waffling on various philosophical principles and failing to act in a way that was loving toward those closest to him. The audience gets a fair bit of whimsical philosophy that is largely helpful, but you get the sense that too much study of this stuff will drive you batty like it did Chidi.
And then there are awesome portrayals of philosophical problems in cinematic history (skepticism in The Matrix, personhood in Bicentennial Man, virtue and moral decision making in Hacksaw Ridge, and so many others), but it’s not clear the audience walks away knowing that what they liked about the movie was the philosophy playing out in it.
I’m not saying there needs to be a line about this in the credits of movies or something, but what makes many of those films, and other beloved pieces of art the treasure that they are, is that they explore timeless, foundational, and existentially relevant questions that are the playground of philosophy.
If you’re interested in trying out some of the equipment on that playground but don’t know where to start, I’d encourage you simply to start with your own interests. What are your hobbies? What are you passionate about? If you could have a beer with your best friend right now, what topic would you most want to dive into? I guarantee any way you’d answer those questions would have interesting and worthwhile philosophical ideas to explore.
Let’s say you enjoy sports. Okay, great!
What’s a sport?
What makes someone great at that sport - to win against the other “greats”, play the longest, to have a certain set of skills? Is it worth investing your life in becoming great at a sport and why? Within the rules of the game, are there any ethical constraints on your path to victory?
Or what if you enjoy music? Awesome!
What counts as music - any old noise? Are there objective standards to what separates good music from bad music? How does music factor into the “good life” and should everyone spend some time listening to music and how much?
When you think upon these questions and try to come up with answers (or, often, even more questions) you are doing philosophy! Philosophy doesn’t have to be boring. It doesn’t have to involve reading crusty, old tomes from dudes who lived thousands of years ago - although, I can attest that some of those are amazing reads.
Philosophy is, of course, the love of wisdom. So, if you like wisdom, you’ll like philosophy (or at least the bits that are done well). Give it a chance!
In the slightly adapted words of Jospeh Campbell, when asked about why we should care about mythology (I just subbed out mythology for philosophy) he says,
"My first response would be, 'Go on, live your life, it's a good life - you don't need philosophy.' I don't believe in being interested in a subject just because it's said to be important. I believe in being caught by it somehow or other. But you may find that, with a proper introduction, philosophy will catch you. And so, what can it do for you if it does catch you?"
To listen to the full conversation on why philosophy isn't boring, check out the episode below! Or click here for the YouTube video.