Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Why Did Philosophy Get Such A Bad Reputation?

I managed to graduate from high school, then College, and finally Grad school without taking a single class in Philosophy. Where I went to school, philosophy was looked down upon as an inferior subject. It was considered “all talk” and improper for “serious people” who have a knack for science. Engineers, doctors, accountants and even lawyers actually get stuff done. But philosophers? What do they do all they long besides talking?

For a while I have been thinking about going back to school. Not to get “yet another degree” – I have plenty of those. I wanted to take classes in subjects that are of personal interest to me. The Israeli ‘Open University’ seemed like a good choice. They offer a large variety of classes in different areas, and you don’t have to commit to a specific program. I went over the course catalog and narrowed down the selection to a few. After some thought I decided to take a class in the “History of Islam” and another one in “Greek Philosophy”.

I have always been a history fan and ‘The history of Islam’ class was fascinating to me. I wrote about it in a separate blog. The ‘Greek Philosophy’ class was a different story. For someone who took mostly “science” related classes throughout his life, philosophy was an odd ball. Frankly I struggled.

During our first lesson the teacher described the legacy of the father of Greek Philosophy – Thales of Miletus. This fine gentleman left behind a legacy of one sentence: “Everything is Water”.  Profound, isn’t it? But wait, it doesn’t stop there… His student and follower Anaximander refined the statement by claiming that “Everything came from Aperion” ( a mystical original matter). And his follower, Anaximenes, further refined the thesis and claimed that “Everything is Air”.  

“You’ve got to be kidding me” I thought… What’s next? “Everything is Bullshit”? But I was already registered to the class and paid the tuition. Plus I can’t suddenly become a quitter, so I decided to “tough it out”. Worst come to worst I thought, it will validate my decision to avoid philosophy classes throughout my life…

We proceeded to study about the theories of other early philosophers and of course covered the mandatory Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. There was a lot of reading to be done, and most of it wasn’t easy for me. When your mind is trained on “results oriented” thinking and practical “problem solving”, philosophical questions are hard to grasp. What is the point in asking “What is goodness?”, or “What is Justice?” Isn’t it obvious? Turns out it isn't…

Philosophy has been “under marketed” over the last century or two. It went from being referred to as the “Queen of Sciences” to being an underdog, and a refuge for those not “good enough” for scientific studies.  
At one point during the class, I even confronted the teacher asking whatever became of all these thoughts and writings by the Greek Philosophers. Didn’t they all fall by the history wayside? His answer was that the Greek Philosophers, particularly Plato and Aristotle impacted the thinking of Islam, Judaism and Christianity. So they actually had, and still have a profound impact on Western and Middle-Eastern civilization[1]… Not bad for a couple of ancient Greeks…

The reality is that philosophical issues are all around us - on a daily basis. Take the recent movement and protests calling for ‘Social Justice”. What is social justice indeed?  And how should the state treat its citizens? And what is the right form of government? Is democracy  the best form of government? Or is the type of oligarchy practiced by China a better way to go? Similar questions were pondered by philosophers over time.

The challenge is that very few of us are trained in a philosophical form of thinking. This might explain some of the challenges facing the Western world today, and Israel specifically. Plato claimed that people should study Philosophy after they reach the age of 50 - it should be part of their training and prepare them to serve in government positions. Maybe it is time to apply this principle today…

[1] Some claim that the structure of the Islamic Republic of Iran was influenced by Plato’s writings in his book ‘The Republic’. Just to show that any knowledge can be abused in the wrong hands…


  1. Very interesting indeed.
    Based on some members of keneset we need to start with having a high school diploma as a pre-requisite ... but oh well, let's go with philosophy

  2. I found this post to be quite amusing. I, like you, am analytical and have a deep appreciation for the sciences and things that can be proven with empirical evidence. Perhaps that's what led us both into high-tech! :)

    Little known to my friends, I spent (some might think I "wasted") 2 years in college immersed in almost nothing but philosophy. I was "forced" into it as a prerequisite for getting into a desired school and found that it really resonated with me. For those who think philosophy is "fluffy"...I don't blame you. What you may find though, in very simple terms, is that philosophy's main purpose is to seek the truth. Every philosopher must start by questioning everything he/she knows to be true and build his/her beliefs from the ground up. For those of us who have a logical/mathematical/analytical bent, the best way to establish your own beliefs is to use math (the one indisputable truth) to prove something or to use math to pierce through things that don't make sense. Yes, that includes establishing your belief in God, in social contracts, in universal order, etc. Whether you believe in something for spiritual, religious, or mathematical reasons, at least KNOW why you believe something. Don't just believe it because it's common knowledge or because your parents raised you a certain way. Philosophy helps YOU know who YOU are and what your place in the world is.