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Introducing philosophy
Introducing philosophy

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1 Approaching philosophy

The 1960s show Beyond the Fringe included a sketch satirizing philosophy. In it, Jonathan Miller and Alan Bennett play two Oxbridge philosophers discussing the role of philosophy in everyday life. It concludes like this:

Jon: … the burden is fair and square on your shoulders to explain to me the exact relevance philosophy does have to everyday life.

Alan: Yes, I can do this quite easily. This morning I went into a shop, and a shop assistant was having an argument with a customer. The shop assistant said ‘yes’ – ‘yes’, you see – and the customer said ‘What do you mean, “yes”?’ – and the shop assistant said, ‘I mean “yes”.’

Jon: This is very exciting.

Alan: Here is a splendid example in everyday life where two very ordinary people are asking each other what are in essence philosophical questions – ‘What do you mean, “yes”?’ – ‘I mean “yes”’ – and where I, as a philosopher, could help them.

Jon: And did you?

Alan: Well no – they were in rather a hurry…

(Bennett et al., 1987, pp. 51–2)

Miller and Bennett were satirizing the philosophical trends of their time, but their sketch illustrates two views about philosophy that are still fairly widespread. One is that philosophers are out of touch with everyday life and the concerns of ordinary people. The other is that philosophical debates are very abstract and often come down to disputes about the meanings of words (‘What do you mean, “yes”?’). Is there any truth in these views? Like most good satire, the Beyond the Fringe sketch does contain an element of truth, but the philosophy in A211 Philosophy and the human situation is very different from the sort Miller and Bennett satirized. Here are some of the questions the course will address:

  • What are the limits of freedom in a civilized society?

  • Is it wrong to eat meat or to use animals for scientific research?

  • Should we respect nature?

  • Do we have free will or is our behaviour totally predetermined by our genes?

  • What is the mind and how is it related to the body?

  • Is religious belief reasonable and is there life after death?

I'm sure you'll agree that these are questions that concern us all and that the answers may profoundly affect how we conduct our everyday lives. You've probably thought about many of them yourself and may have discussed them with friends or relatives. But what can philosophers contribute here? The questions just mentioned aren't straightforward ones, after all. They are questions about politics, morality, religion, and about the fundamental nature of reality (these last are called metaphysical questions). And it is not clear that such questions have definite answers. Some people think one thing, others think another. So perhaps philosophy is just a matter of opinion. This is another common perception of the subject. But is it accurate?

There is certainly no universal agreement among philosophers about the six questions I listed, but it doesn't follow that philosophy is just a matter of opinion-swapping. Philosophy offers a certain way of thinking about these questions that is disciplined and rigorous. Philosophers try to construct rational arguments for their views – showing that they follow logically from more basic principles. (Everyone has a right to their opinion, but you have no right to ask others to take an interest in your opinions unless you can back them up with decent arguments.) Philosophers also try to construct arguments against their opponents' positions – for example, by showing that they conflict with other principles which all parties accept. These processes won't always lead to universal agreement, but they will move the debate forward, helping us to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the different positions and the relations between them.

Of course, philosophers also have to subject their own beliefs to the standards of rational argument, and they will be prepared to change their minds if there are good arguments against their views. This can make philosophy a challenging subject to study, since it may involve questioning beliefs you hold dear. In the end, however, most people find this process useful. By questioning your beliefs and testing them out in a rigorous way, you can identify your prejudices, wishful thoughts, and lazy assumptions, and replace them with coherent, well thought-out views, which you can defend against criticism. Philosophy is a also useful antidote to dogmatism; in doing philosophy, people often come to realize that their views were not as firmly based as they had thought and become more willing to listen to other people's views.

Another way in which philosophy can help is with clarity. Words can be ambiguous and vague, and arguments can become confused if the participants use the same words in different senses or with different things in mind. (When this happens people are said to be talking past each other; they think they are talking about the same thing – perhaps disagreeing about it – but in fact they have different ideas in mind. If they could only get clear about what they mean, they might find that they do not disagree after all.) One thing philosophers aim to do is to clarify the ideas (or concepts) associated with different words, so that confusions can be avoided. Sometimes they will even introduce new words (technical terms, as they are called) in order represent ideas and distinctions for which we have no everyday words.

This concern with the clarification of ideas is central to philosophy, and it has applications in many areas. For example, politicians talk about freedom, democracy, and human rights; but what exactly do they have in mind when they use those words? Do different people use these words in different ways? If so, which notions are the appropriate ones to use in each context? Once we start focusing on questions such as this, we find them popping up everywhere. Almost every question we can ask has philosophical questions lurking in the background – questions about how the terms involved are being used and about the appropriateness of using them in this way. Of course, it is this obsession with the meaning of words that Miller and Bennett were satirizing, and it has its limits. Conceptual clarification on its own won't give us answers to the questions listed above. But it has a very important role to play all the same; it can help us to resolve confusions and avoid misguided disputes, and can highlight distinctions we need to make in order to advance our thinking about a topic.

The skills just mentioned – constructing and criticizing rational arguments and clarifying meanings – are ones that course A211 aims to teach. So in studying the course, you will not only be thinking about some fascinating and important questions, but also developing skills that you can apply in other areas of philosophy and in your daily life. You needn't worry that the course will turn you into a Beyond the Fringe philosopher preoccupied with hair-splitting disputes and out of touch with the real world. On the contrary, it will help you to engage with everyday issues in a more thoughtful and clear-minded way and with a much better understanding of the issues involved.