Philosophy: Not Just for Elites

Philosophy: Not Just for Elites


Why should all of us have some access to philosophy?

Philosophy has traditionally been studied by the elites in a society, I suppose for a few reasons. One is that elites will want to be able to think for themselves. They want to be able to make decisions; they want to have leadership positions in society. Also, the elites in society want to enjoy the best of human life. In a democracy, we don’t want to think the best things in human life should belong to the elites alone. They should be spread widely. In my experience, the nurses of the world have as much to offer to philosophy, and as much to gain from it, as the doctors of the world. The plumbers of the world are asking the same kinds of questions and can get the same kinds of benefits from studying philosophy that the presidents of the world are getting.

That’s from an interview with Scott Samuelson (Kirkwood Community College), who will be receiving the $50,000 Hiett Prize in the Humanities this week. He continues:

I think of philosophy as something that’s just built into our humanity. It’s natural for all of us to wonder about questions of life and death and value. Not everyone, of course, is going to devote their lives to philosophical work, but you can’t get out of this life without having some intense moments of wondering who we are and what we should be doing and what we should make of death and what are the purposes of the parts of the universe and is there a God and so on. It’s wonderful that the great philosophers have studied and thought about these questions. When we access them, we’re just tapping into that part of our humanity.

I also feel like philosophy is valuable because it helps to return us to our lives and really understand what is meaningful and valuable. It helps us to cut through the crap and see what’s real. In this sense I see philosophy as a kind of journey. We begin with that kind of wonder about things and we go on an interesting train of speculation, and sometimes doubt, but we return to our lives at the end and ask what is really good about them. Sometimes the beliefs we have in society, the beliefs we get from our politicians and our religions and our advertisers are decent ones and good ones. If so, philosophical scrutiny will help us to see why those beliefs are valuable. But sometimes those beliefs are not so good or aren’t as good as they could be. In that case, philosophical reflection helps us to find what really is meaningful about what we are doing.

The whole interview is in The Dallas Morning News.

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M.G. Piety
5 years ago

I couldn’t agree more. One of the things I love about philosophy is how egalitarian it is. There’s no “beginning philosophy” and no “advanced philosophy.” From the perspective of philosophy, we’re all on the same level. See: http://mgpiety.org/2013/11/26/education-and-philosophy/Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
5 years ago

I also couldn’t agree more. It is astonishing how little value professional philosophy places on work written for people who are not professional philosophers to read. Philosophy is important for everyone.Report

Professor Plum
Professor Plum
5 years ago

I’m glad Samuelson wrote the book, and I congratulate him on his award. I certainly agree that philosophy is not just for the socially privileged, and I lament many features of contemporary professional philosophy that are classed (from the topics covered, to the philosophical positions deemed acceptable, to classist policing of language, to the examples used, and on and on).

However after many years of teaching, I don’t believe that philosophy is somehow “built into humanity,” however one wishes to unpack that phrase.

While some of the skills of doing philosophy can be taught, I believe some people are “philosophy people” and others aren’t. That is, some people are drawn to and love philosophical questions, and others don’t. Philosophy people are found in all social classes, genders, and races, but not everyone is a philosophy person. And that’s just fine. Those who aren’t philosophy people aren’t necessarily less intelligent, they are simply intrigued by different questions and projects.

I think it is important to acknowledge this for a bunch of reasons, but here are two: first, recognizing this helps make one a better teacher. I’ve seen many professors get discouraged or even hostile when students taking a required class don’t see the value of philosophy or do well in philosophy courses. I think it is important for our students to know that they aren’t necessarily thick or flawed as a human if they don’t love philosophy. It also helps professors think more broadly about what they hope the non philosophy people will get out of their classes.

Second, I think the “philosophy is built into humanity” claim is elitist in its own way and has had pernicious consequences. There is value in studying more practical subjects instead of philosophy. We have made a big mistake in our society by de-emphasizing the importance and value of vocational education. We have insisted that everyone get a four year degree and take on that debt, yet some students simply won’t get much out of the experience. I think this “philosophy is built into humanity” hypothesis, framed more generally as something like, “a four year liberal arts education should be experienced by all,” has caused us to divert too many resources away from vocational education and entrenched the class divisions in society.

This general turn was good for philosophers in the short term (more colleges, more students, more philosophy professors), but the chickens are now coming home to roost; there simply aren’t enough students to populate, and prop up, the four year colleges that have been created.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Professor Plum
5 years ago

Everyone should be interested in philosophy and not being interested is a flaw. We must all be “philosophy people” because we must all make moral and political judgments. Even non-moral and political philosophy must be for everyone because our understanding of our place in the universe is liable to have moral and political implications. Learning a vocation is not enough. Everyone must be a philosopher.Report

anon'
anon'
5 years ago

“I think of philosophy as something that’s just built into our humanity. It’s natural for all of us to wonder about questions of life and death and value…. It helps us to cut through the crap and see what’s real.”

Any news on whether the Philosophy Department at the University of Missouri has taken a stand, or even commented, about the drama there over racial climate and President Tim Wolfe — or, more broadly, about what’s racially been going on in the state of Missouri? The English Department has weighed in; the football team (including its coaches) are “united” behind the black players who are boycotting all “football related activities until President Tim Wolfe resigns or is removed”; a grad student (not in Philosophy) is on hunger strike.

Although there doesn’t appear to be a single black philosopher in either of the two major Philosophy Departments in the state of Missouri, one might imagine that anyone in the business of addressing “questions of life and death and value” might have had occasion there during the past year to contribute to public debate about the racialized state of affairs.

Philosophy, philosophy?Report

anon'
anon'
Reply to  Michael Smith
5 years ago

That is something, but is that it? The Department of Philosophy vaguely, colorblindly “recognizes and supports” — through one Facebook post in a void — “Mizzou student activists who are advocating for institutional change”?

Seems kind of a far cry from philosophers who “can’t get out of this life without having some intense moments of wondering who we are and what we should be doing….”Report

Alan White
Alan White
5 years ago

Congratulations to Samuelson, that’s quite an honor.

I have sympathy with both Samuelson’s point of view and PP above. What I wonder, at least semi-seriously, is if we would be well served by an X-Phi survey on (something like) the disjuncts of Euthyphro’s dilemma. Then we might have some data on those more satisfied with just following an external authority–and less reflectively about that–and those more satisfied with taking it on themselves to seek reasons for taking some position or following some line of action. My experience over my career is like PP’s in that many people aren’t given to philosophical reflection as particularly important while others are. Numbers could help us here.Report

Luciano Maldonado
5 years ago

Philosophy is not just for elites. It is the art of building the brain muscle. “Thinking” is not elite. NOT thinking is lame. Thinking is for everyone. Yet, perverted, corrupted ones don’t want people to think, so to control and enslave them. That’s been the history for the last who-knows-how-many thousand years humanity exists. So, think. philosophy is for everyone, and the ones who don’t understand it, it is because they have been historically conditioned to be so. So. thinkers: think, and do what must be done.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
5 years ago

I feel this discussion is conflating two senses of “for elites”.

By analogy: in one sense, quantum field theory isn’t for elites. No matter what your background, you ought to be able to study quantum field theory and in due course, if you complete your studies successfully, you ought to be able to contribute.

On the other hand, “in due course” realistically means “after several years of grad school on top of a math or physics major”. And “if you complete your studies successfully” is a fairly high bar; a large fraction of people probably don’t have the skill set for theoretical physics. So in another sense, quantum field theory absolutely *is* for elites, in the sense that the group of people professionally competent to work on quantum field theory is small and takes great time and effort to join. (Anyone in theoretical physics, or philosophy of physics, frequently gets correspondence from autodidacts who’ve developed their own personal version of physics based on popular readings and want to tell you why it’s right and why the mainstream has been wrong for 100 years. Invariably, they make fools of themselves.)

Elites, in this sense, aren’t only found in physics. It takes great time and some skill to become genuinely proficient in functional programming, or in ancient Greek, or in the practise of criminal law, or indefinitely many human activities. In each case we should strive not to restrict access to the training and opportunities required to develop that proficiency, but in each case we recognise that such proficiency doesn’t come quickly or easily.

I don’t want to say that everything that might be called “philosophy” falls under this category. But pretty much everything in philosophy that interests *me* falls under it. Whether we’re talking about intentionality and inter-level relations in philosophy of mind, or the interconnections between mathematics, logic and computer science, or the right way to interpret quantum physics, or the underlying foundational assumptions of thermodynamics, it involves substantial knowledge of an extant literature, intricate argument, very extensive intertwining with scientific and/or mathematical material that also has to be mastered, and frequent use of technical tools of various kinds. I’m all in favour of popularisations of this material – it’s deeply interesting in its own right, widens general cultural awareness, and serves an outreach function – but (to paraphrase Tim Williamson) popularisations shouldn’t be confused with the primary activity.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
5 years ago

Sorry, a qualifier: for “interests me” read “interests me professionally”.Report

Veteran
Veteran
5 years ago

The conflation of both versions of “elite” I think is the point. Those coming from comfortable economic circumstances, the financial “elite,” have the wherewithal to spend the years necessary to become whatever given field “elite” without making the trade-offs others from lesser means have to make. And it’s very hard for universities to ignore that relationship, because, well, the money to support the whole has to come from somewhere.

I’m not a professional philosopher. (I’m one of those autodidacts, but without any particular need to “prove” the accumulated institutional knowledge of whatever field is just wrong, just wrong, and only I know it. ;>)

That said, while I know a lot of you took on significant financial debt, made genuine sacrifices and took serious risks to get to your positions, I’ve also met young people, and not the so young, in places like the pueblo jovenes and jungles of Peru, the streets of Baghdad and Dhaka, the non-tourist areas of Thailand, and even in the American Army from the deepest poverty areas of the United States, who might very well have gone on to be world class at their talents and passions if their life circumstances had been even a little bit different.

In that context, anyone born in America, from above the poverty line, of pretty much whatever race, is arguably financially elite from the global perspective. I’m included in that category, and while my choices took me to places and experiences statistically very few fellow upper-middle-class Americans will ever experience, I have no regrets.

And THAT said: it’s the fact that I’m been in some of the genuinely poorest, most genuinely violent and dysfunctional places in the world over the last twenty years that motivates my interest in philosophy. I DON’T understand everything I’ve seen. I haven’t integrated it all into a coherent world view. But I WANT to understand to the extent I can, and to try and articulate my fundamental sense of what it means to be human.

I don’t dismiss or denigrate what it going on at Yale, or in Missouri at the moment, but as a question of perspective it’s hard to assign the triggering events in either place the same priority of importance as watching five-year-old kids start to fight over cookies you dropped and accidentally stepped on while on patrol in their combat-devastated valley.

So, no, I don’t philosophy should solely be for the “elite” in either of the discussed meanings of the word. But if we expand the frame of reference of what is under consideration when we talk about “elitism” away from the “Developed World” and what can charitably be called “1st-world problems,” words and phrases such as “safe zones” and “triggers” take on very different meanings.

And I do think it IS the responsibility of you professional philosophers to foster at least *some* awareness that from the perspective of and by actual comparison with much of the rest of the world, all but the absolutely most disenfranchised amongst us in the United States are to be considered pretty damned elite.Report