When your friend gets a really ugly new haircut and asks for your opinion, what do you say? When does a prank stop being funny and start being mean? How do you decide whether something is pretty or not? Should you wear leather shoes? How do you know if you know something? If you’ve given thought to any of these questions, you’ve practiced philosophy! Philosophy encompasses many different branches of questioning the fundamental elements of our world. It can ask questions about life, humanity, beauty, knowledge, and what it means to be a good person.
While many might dismiss philosophy as a study that’s irrelevant and no longer useful, the base skills learned in philosophy carry over to most other disciplines. Reading, writing, and speaking are skills we use every day, and these are essential to the practice of philosophy. Wilson High School’s philosophy teacher, Tim Loveless, says that, in addition to these academic skills, “With the growing sense of nihilism [(the sense that nothing in life has meaning)] [philosophy] can help us deal with the idea that nothing matters or nothing is real.” This is certainly one of the most common sentiments heard among today’s high schoolers, and easily understandable given the state of our environment and the modern political climate.
Philosophy can also teach valuable critical thinking skills. Gabrielle Buvinger-Wild, who teaches both levels of IB Philosophy at Lincoln High School, explained that, “philosophy requires students to justify their beliefs with reasons and evidence, while also considering alternative viewpoints. The study of philosophy requires us to resist dogmatic stances, and engage in constructive dialogue in order to seek greater truths about ourselves and the world around us.” Loveless also asserts that, “Evaluating ideas and arguments is becoming increasingly important. I don’t want to be that guy, but we need to make better-reasoned judgments about what we accept as true. Philo[sophy] (I hope) helps that.”
Others might argue that philosophy can still be important, regardless of its utility in modern society. We value plenty of things in our lives, not for their utility, but for the joy they bring us. There’s no real need to season food, listen to music, or go see movies. But it brings us joy, and so we do it anyway. “This may be a bad thing for me to say, but not everything has to be useful. [Philosophy] can be a pleasant distraction. It can be a point of connection with another person. It can be a daydream. While not useful, those are certainly good,” says Loveless. There are plenty of things in life that we could go without, but it’s certainly more fun to have them along for the ride, and philosophy is one of them.
For many, the claim that philosophy is dead might be instantly validated by the fact that being a philosopher is simply no longer a viable career. The only purely philosophy related career left is teaching it to others. But even if you can’t make a career out of something, it can still be a valuable part of your life. A philosophy class can benefit people even if it doesn’t end up turning into a career for them. “Students often say that their experience studying philosophy teaches them how to see the gray areas in life, and appreciate and really listen to views that differ from their own,” says Buvinger-Wild. It’s also not uncommon for working adults to keep their passions alive in their hobbies as opposed to their day job. “It’s okay for [philosophy] to be a hobby, like art or music or cooking. If a person gets something out of it, whether or not they act on it or share it, that’s enough relevance,” Loveless explains.
Another critique of philosophy’s importance in the modern world might be that it’s inaccessible. If all philosophical works are viewed as just convoluted old books written by dead Greek guys, philosophy remains boxed into its little corner of the world of academia.
One critically acclaimed sitcom, The Good Place, brought philosophy to audiences all around America over the course of its four seasons. The Good Place was groundbreaking in the way it made philosophical concepts accessible to the everyday American television viewer. One of the core characters on the show, Chidi Anagonye, is an indecisive professor of moral philosophy and ethics. Chidi brings both historical philosophical expertise and modern questions to the table as the main cast explores concepts including the afterlife, and what it means to be a good person. The Good Place perfectly illustrates how philosophical concepts can be applied today, and that there is a way to make it accessible to people outside of the world of academia.
“Philosophy is dead,” Stephen Hawking famously proclaimed in his 2010 book The Grand Design. Unfortunately for him, the proclamation of philosophy’s death is, in itself, philosophical. Philosophy lingers still, in our media, in our schools, in our minds, and in our hearts. Philosophy’s not dead, at least not yet. It’s still here, quieter maybe, but evolving, adapting, and ever-relevant.