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Are You a Philosopher or a Filing Cabinet?

Image by Scott Beale via Flickr. Image by Scott Beale via Flickr.

Although most of us do not spend our days sitting in forums and academies contemplating and debating metaphysical theory, we all think and act according to certain principles that sculpt our approach toward the people, things, and issues that we experience. We are all philosophers.

Philosophy is often dismissed as an academic pursuit, unworthy of the attention of the modern scientist. We are encouraged to learn and memorize isolated formulas, facts and theories, usually for utilitarian purposes: acing a final exam, writing a paper, or passing that core class. Sometimes our education is so completely compartmentalized that we become reduced to human filing cabinets. We're expected to produce the correct data at the appropriate times.

However, knowledge, like the universe which it represents, cannot be divided. Philosophy is the great connector, uniting all the specialized and particular sciences. Noted thinker Daniel Sullivan summarized the philosopher’s role as “seek[ing] to view the whole of reality in a single and comprehensive glance, to organize all aspects of [it] into a unified world view.”

This shouldn't only be the goal of the philosopher—it should also be our goal.

I know there are plenty of doubts about the value of studying philosophy. We think the practical sciences will support the average person better than a degree in philosophy will. (If you know of any companies or factories who are paying philosophers six figure salaries, let me know.) Yet, Socrates, (known for his witty comebacks), famously pointed out that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Everyone should pursue the examined life, not only by studying various fields, but by seeing the importance of that knowledge in relation to the whole of the reality and themselves.

Philosophy, that “great connector,” gives us perspective. It makes us aware of the driving forces within ourselves and in the universe. Although they cannot be physically observed or empirically studied, they are hidden in our words, actions, and feelings. They're felt in the coherence and magnitude of existence. They give us an insight into our human nature. They help us to understand and appreciate our fellow humans. They help us to understand other areas of study like politics and ethics: to analyze and distinguish which philosophies appeal to both man and nature and which subjugate them in the unnatural bonds of pabulum and malevolence. They have the power to edify the best doctors, lawyers, politicians, bakers, businesspersons, artisans—all professions and otherwise—by showing us the “big picture” of this incredible reality in which we live.

Or, to put it in the words of G.K Chesterton:

“The most practical and important thing about a man is still his view of the universe. We think that for a landlady considering a lodger, it is important to know his income, but still more important to know his philosophy. We think that for a general about to fight an enemy, it is important to know the enemy’s numbers, but still more important to know the enemy’s philosophy. We think the question is not whether the theory of the cosmos affects matter, but whether in the long run anything else affects them.”

Through philosophy, we understand politics, ethics, science, literature, and religion more richly. We're not blindly lead by phenomena like political parties or favorite celebrities. The famous Platonic maxim “know thyself” still applies today. This is among the keys for the formation of solid individuals, and more broadly, for the maintaining of a genuine, informed, involved, vibrant, and moral civil society.


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