You Can Read This: Why Philosophy?

Jack Bowen is the author of three philosophy books including The Dream Weaver: One Boy’s Journey Through The Landscape of Reality. He also teaches Philosophy at Menlo School in Atherton, CA.

His most recent book, If You Can Read This: The Philosophy of Bumper Stickers, was published earlier this year by Random House. Like his previous books, If You Can Read This offers an accessible and enlightening exploration of a range of philosophical questions; though here employing the declarations of bumper stickers as a springboard for reflection.

The Chinese edition of Jack’s book was published this summer by China Remnin University Press and he has kindly allowed us to reproduce the preface, exclusive to this edition, here. We hope you enjoy it and if you are interested in learning more about Jack’s work just visit http://www.jackbowen.org/.


You Can Read This: Why Philosophy?

During a recent election cycle in the United States, one of the more prominent politicians commented in his reflections on education, “Welders make more money than philosophers.  We need more welders, less [sic] philosophers.”  This caused a stir amongst those steeped in philosophy and, in a larger sense, those interested in education.  What it should do, as well, is serve as an opportunity for each of us to step back and examine not just the role of education on a grand scale but, the purpose of education for me.  As most value-laded philosophical questions often do, this will inevitably lead to a big-picture question, “What sort of life do I want to live?”

Regarding the quote, it finds a way to err amazingly in such a short amount of space.  First off, the factual claim is wrong: statistics show professional philosophers actually make a great deal more money than welders. Though this is a good starting-off point into our existential experiment: what role does money play in my pursuit of an education?  Is it the driving force?  Is earning the most amount of money the endgame?  

Secondly, this politician proposes a dichotomy which doesn’t exist in suggesting one must be either a welder or a philosopher.  Clearly, this need not be the case.  This is where his error can become exceptionally enlightening.  Welding in and of itself could be an immensely rewarding, fruitful job for a person inclined toward such interests: I can imagine many children growing up looking fondly on someone who works with fire, crafting things with their own hands, fixing what is broken, and utilizing various metals and nuanced materials in order to do so.  Seems a viable answer to the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” so often asked of children.

But what would be unfortunate, in my eyes, is for this welder to go into welding without ever really thinking about why he’s chosen that profession, as if not actively choosing it at all: to spend fifty years at something without really owning it.  More so, to see himself as just a welder and not something grander: an individual, thrust into the cosmos, with the opportunity for self-reflection and outward exploration at his fingertips, only to lack the awareness of what was there all along.  

This was the politician’s greatest error.  Philosophy offers—even stronger, it demands—an opportunity to follow Plato’s dictum, “Know thyself.” Inherent in an exploration of topics like knowledge, the mind and soul, free will, language, ethics and the lot, is a chance to really delve into one’s core. One can’t honestly assess these myriad issues without looking into one’s own past, the way one’s paradigm frames their reality, and how to develop a consistent foundation moving forward.

When I began studying philosophy, I was finishing my requirements for medical school.  My answer to the “What will you do?” question growing up was, “Doctor,” which always met with great approval (then, when I specified, “Pediatrician,” I found even more support). But when I stumbled into philosophy, I realized I’d spent very little time thinking about what I really wanted and why I wanted that.  After exploring these issues, I couldn’t help but reflect, “How can I know what I want to do for work, and what sort of home and family life I want, money to be made, etc. without working through the big picture first?”  In a sense, I’d done things out of order.  First, explore life and what you want from it, then decide what to do and how to go about pursuing that life.  Philosophy offers the inroads to this very venture.

There’s no doubt, then, studying philosophy provides this type of intrinsic value.  That, to me, is value enough.  But, it turns out, there is also an extrinsic sort of cash value to studying philosophy, as if being a grounded, well-informed, thoughtful and self-aware citizen isn’t enough.

In today’s information-laden climate, one is rarely at a loss for facts.  Our hand-held devices can produce the facts behind any topic.  With only a very basic understanding of biology, for example, one can quickly come to understand the methods of human cloning.  But it gets tricky when one must then assess the issues themselves: ought we to clone humans?  While one can also find answers to this question online, this approach allows others do the thinking for you.  Philosophy, unlike any other pursuit, teaches not what to think, but, instead, how to think.  Should we pursue human cloning?  This is much more difficult to discover on one’s phone.

In doing so, the philosopher becomes embroiled in logic.  Our brains do not execute logic naturally on many accounts.  Like statistics, things often seem one way but, are, in fact, another.  An understanding of logic and also how logic goes awry helps us to sift through poor arguments and instances when emotions obstruct clarity, both in others and, as importantly, in ourselves.  Studying philosophy demands, at its foundation, a strong sense of critical thinking.

But it is not just the “critical” component of thinking championed in philosophy. Philosophers must also think creatively.  Couched in all of this is the ability to communicate well, in both spoken and written form.  A student of philosophy must be able to hold varying viewpoints simultaneously: mentally manipulating arguments and counter-arguments whilst sifting through non-sequiturs and logical fallacies, all while developing a cogent argument in a clear and accessible manner.  Not to mention, developing a firm grasp of clear sentence structure and proper grammar; for example, when using a term to describe an amount, using “less” when it is unquantifiable such as “Less water,” and “fewer” when countable, such as, “Fewerphilosophers.”

All of this, then, leads to some of the greatest goods of philosophy (all the while, allowing the intrinsic value of philosophy to bubble over). Philosophers help to frame questions that need framing.  As you’ll see in the pages to follow, we answer the “meaning of life” question in part because we discover it was a poor question to begin with.  Philosophers too help to define just what we’re discussing, making important distinctions along the way.  Very often, we realize a disagreement occurs because those discussing the issue are using the key terms differently.  

This is where the “Philosophy of…” component of education becomes so rich.  For myself, I had been studying science throughout high school and then for four years at Stanford University without ever actually studying science, per se.  I had failed to look at the logic behind science: induction, deduction, the history of the institution, the language guiding the questions, the status of the results.  I found that many people had real concerns with the pursuit of science which had never been brought to my attention.  And, after working through all of this, the pursuit of science became even more meaningful and enriching, because I knew exactly what went into it, where its potential faults lied and how they’d been overcome. It was as though I’d seen behind the curtain and, from there, everything became even more enriching.

This is the case for nearly every discipline.  When I visit our school’s Computer Science class each year, they take a break from coding and programming to discuss the philosophical issues underpinning their endeavor.  What would it mean for a computer to think?  Could a computer ever think?  How is thinking different from acting like you’re thinking? Could robots ever have rights?  Can a computer cheat at a game?  (And, incidentally, what constitutes cheating to begin with?)  There is just so much philosophical relevance underlying the pursuit.  Every year, following my visit, the teacher of the course consistently comments how the students return to their coding and programming with a new sense of vigor.  

These sorts of questions force us to step back and re-evaluate what we’re doing.  Why we’re doing it.  In addition, if done well, it forces us to examine our own lives.  It’s hard to ask if a robot can be happy without taking a moment to understand what it means for me to know if you are happy and, more so, for me to be happy.  Is it just the serotonin in my brain, swirling in all the right places, or does happiness manifest in some way grander than this reductionist manner?

And so, with our philosophical welder, that he or she may be both: welder and philosopher.  What a shame it would be, to spend 50 years welding without evaluating and pondering.  Likewise, what a shame to be just sitting and reading philosophy without getting out into the world and doing something.  Here’s to looking behind the curtain of life, and celebrating what we find.

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