Philosophy: Not so useless after all.

Growing up notions of philosophy were anathema to me. I don’t recall hearing the word brought up in conversation at home, in school, or even in my friends’ homes. A premise of thought was not truly introduced to me until I was 29 and beginning my venture of stay at home mommydom; ethical and moral notions were introduced a mere couple years before during my undergraduate work. For all intents and purposes, my upbringing was built upon the simple notion that you do what you’re told. In hindsight the tasks required of me as a child sometimes made sense, but seldom were reasons beyond “you have to” and “because that’s the way it is/what I said” given. The nature of these tasks was not up for discussion or rationale.

Being in the school system bred little more thought; a series of tasks laid out before me (despite being in “gifted” programs). It seems to me now, in reflection, that critical thought has almost always been abhorrent. Thank goodness for Socrates, but his genius method had nothing to do with my experience of pre-collegiate formal education. My mind, beyond the spinning and whirring that occurred in the process of memorizing copious bits of information, lay asleep. The only exception being the hormone excess where drama was the name of the inescapable game from middle school on.

Abstract notions, the ability to comprehend, explain, and discuss them: These were taught in the nature of giving a busy mind something to do. But to question? To ascertain the premise of a thought? Heck, even discuss what a premise was? These things were sadly not featured in my life until I took an Intro to Philosophy class about six years ago. It seems odd to come to something that intuitively should be so part of life and learning at such a late date. And I have no explanation for it beyond this steadfast belief by those around me that this simply is the way it’s supposed to be.

It was only natural then that I became religious about politics and believed in democracy, that the choices of most people in a vocal society were inevitably right and good while the minority was sadly never even thought of. This is not to say that I felt whoever comprised the minority of voters deserved to be ruled by decisions of the majority, but truly that it was not encouraged to even think of them. That population simply did not exist for me. Education had many failings, but this one, I think, is perhaps the most damaging. It made an entire group of individuals disappear from thought.

Philosophy, the quest for it or even the practice of it, is what leads to questions about the ramifications of empowering one group of individuals who happen to agree, simply because its bigger, over a smaller group. That this echoes of the days of Jim Crow and pre-sufferage should not be discarded automatically due to superficial differences, but explored because of the almost identical underlying premise: A group matters because we, the majority, say it does and another doesn’t matter because we say it doesn’t.

While the issue of racism and prejudice are not viewed in the same light as democracy the philosophical point remains. Jim Crow laws stood in effect because of popularity; same goes with denying women the right to vote. Conversely, each of these legally institutionalized bits of prejudice were overturned due to the outrage of the populace. The categories into which people were handily sorted and marginalized matters not at all. In the examples I gave it was because of the color of one’s skin or gender, presently it’s about income, and tomorrow could be hair color or what hand you use to write with. The REASON for second hand status of rights is always the same: a powerful group of individuals said so. Color, religion, gender, sexual orientation – is any one of these things more important than another? More horrifying to categorize and cast people aside over? No. Why would it? All involve pre-judgment and none required due process of law to usurp or deny rights. It required a majority and, in some cases, merely a very vocal and politically connected minority.

The conclusion I came to as a result of applying philosophy was that a majority should never hold sway over a minority. That democracy was flawed at its premise. Being even a small part of 51% of any given population does not make “right”, merely “might”. Despite these lessons in history the notion of democracy can still hold a certain appeal so long as the underlying premise, the majority is right/gets what it wants, is overlooked. As is so often the case, the philosophical journey is no more complex than asking what something is, how it works, and that ever perplexing why. Without philosophy and the questions it espouses it is easy to go along with simple statements of presumed fact: That democracy allows people to have a voice. With it there is ease in understanding that democracy allows only some people a voice. One doesn’t even need to understand philosophy in all her pretentious glory to shed a bit of light on any given subject – just skepticism.

Looking back it is easy to see that a system of education such as the one I experienced was not about skepticism or philosophy, but about espousing a certain belief set: democracy – good, people who get hurt by democratic decision – non-existent. I do not think for one instant that these beliefs were the end goal of a quite overburdened system. Belief, however, was. There are times, places, and even people wherein faith is a good exercise. However, if anyone demands it, whether this be a system or person, and denies you the answers to the questions or even the right to ask them, they more than likely do not warrant faith. Just a touch more skepticism and its unceasing mistress philosophy.

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2 responses to “Philosophy: Not so useless after all.

  • Hart

    So interesting. I wonder if the differences between your early education and mine are because I am OLDER, or because I grew up in a college town? I mean Idaho isn’t known as a bastion of progressive thought, but I was encouraged to think and question all the way through. I DID have the mistaken belief through college that if I just explained myself well enough, the people I disagreed with would see the errors of their thinking, but I’ve NEVER trusted (or been willing to give in to) ‘because I said’–not from anybody.

    And theoretically, our democracy system has the judicial to balance the rights of the minority. People grumble about ‘legislating from the bench’ but the bench has ALWAYS been the place where ‘because it’s the right thing’ has made inroads that weren’t popular (Brown vs. the Board of Education, for instance). Sadly, we have a judicial branch at the moment that doesn’t even recognize the right thing, let alone DOING it. (corporations are people, my ass–money being ‘free speech’ means poor people have no voice–nothing more WRONG than that.)

  • Glynis J. Jolly

    It’s hard for me to imagine that you are younger than me but I know this is true. I grew up during the ‘Hippie era’ so philosophy and individual freedoms is something I am quite used to. There are almost always reasons why I should do things the way I was told. No one pushed me into believing anything I didn’t find right for me.

    My only question is . . .
    Who is a more content person? You or me?

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