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Philosophy is many things to many people, but to me it is the art of questioning. If we can learn to ask the right questions in the right spirit, then the answers for which our hearts yearn will be given to us…

“What are you majoring in?”

“Philosophy.”

“Oh…”

philosophy thaddeus kozinskiTranslation: “You’re one of those weird people who question everything (what if everything you think is really a computer program in your brain?) and thrive on obscure arguments (I think, therefore I am) and nitpick the meaning of words (what does meaning mean?)—in short, one of those people who waste 100,000 dollars on a useless major that won’t get you a job.”

I am not going to defend philosophy against this interlocutor, for the philosophy that is being attacked—namely, mainstream contemporary academic philosophy—more or less deserves it. Here, I’d like to defend another kind of philosophy—one much less popular but, I would argue, more authentic—something called the philosophia perennis, which is the philosophy that is taught at Wyoming Catholic College. But even within our community, questions are often raised about our program, and sometimes challenged outright by strong claims. I will try to answer some of the objections I have heard, not with arguments against them, but with questions posed to them, in the hope of beginning an inquiry that the reader may continue at his leisure (in the Pieperian sense of the term, of course).

Student: “Since Sacred Scripture, the Catechism, and sacred theology provide the most certain and definitive answers to the most important questions about the world, man, and God, questions that philosophy endlessly asks but fruitlessly tries to answer, philosophy is at best a waste of time, and at worst an implicit rejection of Divine Revelation, which contains all the truths we need to know.”

Yes, for a Catholic, divine revelation provides the answers to the most important questions: Why is there something rather than nothing? Who is God and does He love me? How do I save my soul? But does Revelation really contain all the truths we need to know? Does the Bible teach us, for example, that man is a synthesis of body and soul, that an effect must resemble its cause, or that something cannot be and not be at the same time in the same respect? These are not unimportant truths and principles! Does the Catechism explain the metaphysical structure of being, the proper study of which demonstrates the existence of God? The Church has the answers, yes, but are her answers our answers if they do not correspond to heartfelt and urgent questions only we can ask?

Parent: “Philosophy is dangerous and subversive, for it teaches young adults to question everything, and this destroys the proper docility and obedience Faith requires.”

Yes, philosophy does inculcate the habit of inquiry, investigation, and examination. As Socrates said, the unexamined life is not worth living. But, like C.S. Lewis’s Aslan, though wild, philosophy is good. Doesn’t our secular, anti-philosophical culture forbid any investigation of its claims, any questioning of its politically correct dogmas? Wouldn’t true philosophy be subversive only of a “magisterium” of lies and propaganda?

Man on the Street: “The world has problems—hunger, violence, oppression, disease. Philosophy doesn’t solve any problems, as it is thoroughly unproductive, impractical, and useless. It is good to be able to think critically and creatively, yes, but that’s best achieved through practicing the scientific method on real-world problems, not exhuming the sterile and abstruse metaphysical and theological speculations of dead, white Greeks and medieval monks!”

If philosophy is so impractical, then why were the American Founding Fathers, not impractical men, educated so thoroughly in philosophical dialectic, in the Platonic/Aristotelian/Scholastic school of rigorous logic and subtle distinction-making?  But even so, is solving practical problems the main purpose of life? Is philosophy only valuable if it’s useful? I ask in reply: Useful for what? Practical for what? Productive of what? Can the natural sciences wedded to a pragmatist philosophy answer these questions? Is the unexamined life worth living? Is the work-a-day world all there is? What makes life worth living? What does it profit man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?

Philosophy is many things to many people, but to me it is the art of questioning. Questions are not self-sufficient, of course, for without answers, we despair. But answers that are not the answers to our own questions are not really answers. If we can learn to ask the right questions in the right spirit, then the answers for which our hearts yearn will be given to us.

“Every true question is like the lance which pierces the side of Christ causing blood and water to flow forth” (Origen).

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7).

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from Wyoming Catholic College’s Weekly Bulletin (June 2016).

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3 replies to this post
  1. I have ever been amused by those who argue for abolishing the Humanities in favor of the vo-tec subjects of STEM, never realizing they are arguing a philosophical point of view.
    They complain how “irrelevant” is philosophy. And all the while, large parts of the world are yet in thrall to long dead philosophers, like Hegel and Marx.

  2. I believe that the thinkers of the past offer a wealth of ideas and issues most of which are of substance and applicable to our own day. I don’t think of them as philosophy so much as the learned expositions of the wise, our Founding Fathers for example, and the debates, politics, and issues of other generations as well. From this you have a body of thought, American, British, and translated works of enduring value. Hegel may be interesting, maybe, but not necessary and certainly not required.

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