Generally speaking, if you dive into philosophy as a subject, what you get is a history lesson about who thought what, when. Compare and contrast different ways of understanding the world. I’ve stuck my nose in a few such books over the years and mostly they depress me. In much the same way that literature courses teach you about the history of fiction, philosophy tends to throw you at the thinking of others.
Now, compare this with maths. Can you imagine sitting in a maths class and being told all about who came up with what equations, when, who disagreed with them, who got in there with some totally unworkable theories about calculating the circumference of a circle and so forth? Of course not. When you study maths, you learn little or nothing about the history of maths, and everything about how to do it right now. The sciences all tend this way, which is a shame because a little more attention to the history of science as a subject would make clearer how flawed, subjective and politically motivated it can be.
Going through school, I found that art and music as subjects struck a decent balance between doing the thing and learning about grand masters who had previously done it a lot better than you could ever hope to do. So why is it that we teach some subjects with a view to being able to do them, and others with the intention of making sure people know all about the other people who did them?
I can say from experience that a degree in English literature gives you very few of the tools you need to write a novel. About the most useful one I picked up, was how to do research.
Philosophy, as a subject, is all about asking questions. Why are we here? What is life for? How do we live well? As well as a whole host of others. These are questions philosophers keep coming back to because there is no way of establishing a definite right answer. Philosophy is all about the things we cannot define, pin down or be certain about, and as a consequence takes us into areas of doubt that have huge significance for how we understand ourselves and how we live our lives.
What would happen if we started teaching philosophy to school children? Not in terms of Descartes thought this and Plato said that… but in terms of flagging up those big questions and inviting people to think about the answers. Throw in the wise words from history, by all means, but make people think for themselves! I would love to see philosophy taught as a practical subject, a ‘how to think and question’ topic, as much hands on as any pottery class. What I’m most interested in is not historical philosophy, but how each of us crafts the individual philosophy that guides us in life. So many people seem to do that unconsciously, not knowing there even could be an alternative.
Your homework for today, with all due reference to Douglas Adams, what is the ultimate question about life, the universe, and everything?