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Philosophy should be empowering

March 1, 2013

Aristotle and Plato

In my opinion too much of philosophy during the 20th Century moved away from this core value, which I think is central to all good philosophy. It is well and good to search for the truth, but the reason this is so valuable is because understanding things better can be empowering. When the search for truth is reduced to an argument about definitions of words, or refuses to question its own premises and assumptions, then you no longer have an empowering philosophy. All you are left with is an academic debate further and further removed from the daily life of the majority of people, and so unable to be empowering to them.

It takes a real effort to develop a philosophy that appeals to people. But I think all the best philosophy over the centuries has done such a thing. What does it mean to empower people? For me it means to help people learn to see things as they are. To give them an approach to understanding the world, and a set of tools to do it with. To make them aware of the many ways in which other people may pressure them in various means to move away from, and abandon, the search for truth.

Many such means are used: People who make decisions and interpretations for you, and get you to go along with it without thinking it through for yourself. A common tactic used by the media. You are not just getting the facts when you read or watch the news, you are also often being drawn along with the interpretation of those facts they want you to have. Initiation rituals into many social groups involve acceptance of certain dogmas that defy rational explanation. This also is a tactic for getting people to abandon their own intuitions regarding what is the truth about the world around them.

So philosophy has some powerful forces that it sets itself up against. It is by no means a given that it will, or even can, be successful. Maybe for many people they are happy to be led along in their interpretation of the world. It can be more comfortable and easier in certain ways. But for those of us not happy being led, philosophy is something that can be a great guide for us on a path to personal growth and understanding of the world.

Are the results all positive? Maybe not. Sometimes knowing more can be crippling of practical action in the world it would seem. Still, it remains my conviction that personal understanding is key to our development as human beings. From understanding comes not just knowledge, but also compassion and good feeling towards the things we know. It may sometimes be a difficult process for ourselves as individuals, but for us and others within our community overall, it is surely an empowering force to us. To have a voice of our own, to have rights to go with this. Easy to take it for granted, but in its origins, philosophy has a key role in securing and maintaining this value in our society.

  1. Donald Miller permalink

    It does seem like it’s difficult to keep from getting caught between doubting everything and accepting too many (or all) of what the current trends are. The Twentieth Century did show us the horrors that come with accepting any ideology without noticing what it’s cost is.

    • The 20th century was a tough time for philosophy. It was tough to stand out as an individual with an overall philosophy, and much easier to retreat to some specialist domain as an expert.

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