Friday, November 8, 2013

What Are Philosophy's Flaws?

Last week I suggested to one of my students that she would make a good philosophy major.  A few days later she came to my office and asked me, "What are philosophy's flaws?"

She wanted to know, she said, because she was thinking seriously about studying more philosophy, and for her, thinking seriously about something means considering something from all angles.  She knows that ideas give birth to other ideas, and to practical consequences.

I don't think I gave her a very good answer at the time, but I've continued to think about it because it strikes me as a good question asked for a good reason.

Not long ago I was re-reading the Stoic philosopher Gaius Musonius Rufus.  Of the four major Roman Stoics, he's probably the least well-known.  Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius all left substantial writings, but Musonius did not.

Rather, Musonius is known chiefly through the notes his students left behind.  In fact, this is one of the reasons I like him so well: whatever became of his writings, his life made a difference for his students.  His teaching mattered so much that they refused to let his life vanish from history.

There's another reason I like Musonius: he insisted that philosophy is for women, not just for men. Since the student whom I invited to study philosophy is also a woman, I want to try to give a better answer to her question by turning to Musonius now.

Once, when Musonius made the bold invitation for women to join the Stoic philosophers, someone asked him: won't studying philosophy make the women obstinate, independent, and opinionated?

He replied that in fact, it might do just that.  Musonius recognized that the question was a question about the same thing my student was asking about: philosophy's flaws.  Philosophy often makes us better thinkers, but it can also make us obnoxious to our neighbors when we care more about the ideas than about the people whose lives are connected to the ideas.

Musonius then quickly pointed out that the question is irrelevant, however, because what is true of women is also true of men in this regard.  Like Augustine several centuries later, Musonius argued that women and men have equal intellectual powers. If philosophy entails the development and strengthening of our native intellect, then surely women will benefit from it just as much as men.

It would appear that the questioner wasn't concerned about people becoming opinionated, independent thinkers, but about women becoming opinionated, independent thinkers.  What began as a question about the vices of philosophy quickly exposes itself as a question that reveals the bias of the questioner -- a bias that philosophy would be more than happy to correct.

This brings me to my student's question: Yes, philosophy has flaws, and one of its chief flaws is that when it is combined with a lack of kindness, it can amplify that unkindness.

But it also has the power to expose that unkindness in a pretty keen way.  And when it is combined with kindness and positive regard for our neighbors --  with what we sometimes call agapé, or love -- it can be something that causes kindness to grow.

I don't mean that philosophy is a panacaea, or that it will do all good things for us, all on its unattended own.

But I do mean that you, my student, have very real native intelligence, and it pleases me to see it in you.  And I would love to see it grow.  To point to Augustine once more: Augustine found philosophy to be helpful for his own self-understanding, for his seeking after God, and for keeping his church from descending into irrationality.  He regarded it as a way to "love God with his mind."

I wouldn't ask you, my student, to give up your nursing major.  Quite the opposite!  Just as surely as women need philosophy, I think nurses and business majors and scientists and poets need philosophy, too.  I think that studying philosophy will make you a better nurse, one more able to improve the nursing profession and to improve your workplace.

And let me add one more thing.  When you came into my office the other day to ask me that brilliant question, one thing was quite clear to me: whether or not you choose to make philosophy your formal major, you are already becoming a philosopher.  And that makes me very happy indeed.