The Strangeness of Philosophy

ImageOne of the best parts of my job is having the time to sit down with students, sometimes ones that are not in any of my classes, and philosophize together. A few days ago, one of the graduate students here at HBU lamented that he no longer was sure that the positions that seemed intuitive and reasonable to him were at all intuitive and reasonable to a non-philosopher. He worried that the “that’s nonsense!” trigger in his mind had been ruined by philosophy.We laughed and moved on. But this feature of philosophy – its strangeness – has been with it from the beginning. In Theaetetus, Socrates recounts the story of the slave girl laughing at Thales, the first Greek philosopher, for falling in a well while staring at the stars. Socrates then argues that philosophers will seem to be useless and full of strange ideas whenever they appear in public. He laments in the Phaedo dialogue that most people consider philosophers worthless. Often philosophy seems like a never-ending parade of strange ideas. But is it?

One of the strangest, most implausible papers I’ve ever read included this claim in its introduction: “My thesis will seem crazy, but only because you don’t already believe it.” A bold claim, to be sure. Absurd as his thesis was, I am reminded often of his introduction. Some ideas only seem absurd because I don’t already believe them to be true. I have no good reasons for rejecting them other than mental inertia. So many of the things I believe sound crazy to my 18 year old students. Here are a few examples:

  • The life of contemplation is more satisfying than the life of consumption.
  • Some ideas are more real than the things we use to understand them.
  • It is impossible to be an evil person and also be happy.
  • There are good reasons to believe in God, even if there were no religious texts affirming His existence.
  • The ability to name the things in the world is a dangerous, dangerous power.
  • Beauty is not merely in the eye of the beholder

I’m sure that many students find it baffling that anyone would hold these beliefs, and perhaps the strangeness of philosophy has dulled my ability to tell when I am talking nonsense. But I consider the world to be a strange, surprising place. It is not so surprising that the discipline devoted to wisdom adopts some of the strangeness of the world and lets us see that strangeness more clearly.

I, for one, am happy devoting my time to such an endeavor.

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