Philosophy is the effort to think critically about life’s ultimate questions and the basic concepts of reason. Philosophers investigate what exists, what we can know, and what is of value—not in particular, of course, but in a general or theoretical sense. They also examine ideas like time, existence, evidence, cause, effect, truth, and rationality. Everyone’s thoughts and behavior depend on answers to these philosophical questions. In that sense, everyone is an accidental philosopher, at least, if not an intentional one. To live at all is to live by a philosophical belief system.
For this reason, G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936) defended a revival of philosophy in his own day as doubly urgent, even for regular folks who work in ordinary jobs—people who would never think of themselves as distant colleagues of Socrates or Plato. The problem, as Chesterton sees it, is this: if we do not think for ourselves, someone else will, often in ways that we would never accept, especially if we understood the power of ideas and, in that case, other people’s ideas.
So then, Chesterton writes, “The best reason for a revival of philosophy is that unless a man has a philosophy certain horrible things will happen to him. He will be practical; he will be progressive; he will cultivate efficiency; he will trust in evolution; he will do the work that lies nearest; he will devote himself to deeds, not words. Thus struck down by blow after blow of blind stupidity and random fate, he will stagger on to a miserable death with no comfort but a series of catchwords.” Chesterton means to exaggerate these risks for rhetorical effect, we know, but his warning is well taken. Ideas have consequences, whether we like it or not, and those consequences can be bad.
In our own day, as in his, catchwords still do the thinking for too many people. Celebrities and Twitterverse Titans define acceptable thought and behavior, and others thoughtlessly follow. Therefore, we need good intellectual defenses, ones that keep us from eating intellectual junk food. To a similar end, Chesterton writes, “Philosophy is merely thought that has been thought out,” and he allows: “It is often a great bore.” But then again, “man has no alternative, except between being influenced by thought that has been thought out and being influenced by thought that has not been thought out. The latter is what we commonly call culture and enlightenment today.” Imagine what Chesterton might have said about modern debates involving popular media figures.
As I write this essay, an older man has entered the coffee shop where I am sitting, and he is wearing a hoodie that says, People are more important than beliefs. Under that line are symbols of religions and political parties, as if to commend less thinking, rather than better thinking, as a solution to our world’s anger and violence. And I think to myself, “By this time, he should know better.” He should know that men over 60 may not wear hoodies, just as they may not wear cycling shorts, tank tops, and brightly colored track shoes. He should also recognize that, People are more important than beliefs, is a belief. How could he have missed the inconsistency? At some point, one guesses, he stopped caring about ideas—especially about their quality, as opposed to their convenience.
Not everyone can be Chesterton or C. S. Lewis, of course. We cannot all become dragon slayers of conventional wisdom. But any of us can make as start by learning to ask the right questions at the right time and to observe the standards that validate popular ideas. How do the actions of people around us reveal what they presuppose about what exists, what we can know, and what is of value? Based on what they do, can we determine how they would define concepts like ‘truth,’ ‘evidence,’ and ‘rationality’? As soon as we start to ask and answer these diagnostic questions, we have entered the world of philosophy.
Philosophy can certainly do harm in the wrong hands, just as preaching, evangelism, and church music can do great harm; but it can also reveal the power of the Christian worldview to account for the full range of human experience. Philosophy can show us the extent to which Scripture answers life’s ultimate questions, whether directly or by remote implication. In other words, it can give us even more reason to praise the God who created us, who saves us, and who sustains us every day. At the very least, philosophy can help us to eat right intellectually and avoid destructive fashions.