A Personal Essay on Philosophy
There have been countless books, articles, research papers, and even cringe Instagram captions written on philosophy, but what does philosophy even mean? what is its point? Isn’t it just depressed old dudes in togas making stuff up because calling yourself a philosopher is marginally better than calling yourself unemployed?
The great thing about philosophy is that no one knows anything for sure and it is just your word against mine. First Plato came along and wrote some things about justice and society and such, then Diogenes came and said “… yeah all of that is stupid, justice is artificial and society is lame boo”, then Marcus Aurelius came along and said “meditate, and detach yourself from your feelings or something”, in the last century communists became philosophers and philosophers became communists, people like Heidegger and Hegel came along and wrote some stuff no one could understand, then depressed dudes said “life is meaningless and existence is suffering” and called themselves nihilists and had all their quotes stolen for Instagram captions, then French dudes and dudettes like Jean Paul Sartre came along, wrote some stuff about how the universe is uncaring of our happiness, and hence everything you do is meaningless, to which the Chads who called themselves “absurdists” like (daddy) Albert Camus said “yeah Jean speak for yourself, I have enough meaning in my life, in fact, I have a party to attend right now, I would invite you but when you start blabbering about an uncaring god who is uncaring of our misery and stuff it’s such a buzzkill bro”
If so, isn’t philosophy useless then? The short answer is “NO!” and the long answer is “NO!!!”. For all of human history humans have tried to make sense of everything. Have fanatically tried to explain and understand how things work. We cannot bear not knowing and are obsessed with reasons, however fantastical and downright stupid they may be. We need to be able to have a reason for things so much so that when a dude said “You know the lightning thing that happened last week with the rains, about which we know nothing, yeah so there’s a dude with a long beard that lives in the sky who can kill you whenever he feels like and demands that you pray to him twice a day, oh and he won’t answer. ever. and we also have no way to PROVE he is there, but he is, bro trust me, yeah, he does the lightning thing, its pretty wild” people were like “yeah bro makes sense”
More memes? More memes.
It is this knowledge, this finding reasons from the chaos, making things line up, that philosophy has striven to do. The ideas of justice, and what it is, were written about by Plato to make sense of the society around him. When ethicists write about morals and what is right and wrong it is not an attempt at vanity, instead an exercise in reasoning, why do men behave the way they do, who decides what is right, what is even “right”, is there an objective approach to morals, a 10 step BuzzFeed tutorial? When absurdists talk about meaning of existence they are aiming at understanding the goal of existence itself, and who decides these goals and are they pre-ordained? Or are you in charge of your own destiny? Which is better? To have no control over your life, or to be culpable of your own demise?
Science, philosophy and art, as the brilliant podcaster Steven West says, have always been the only tools we have to make sense of things. All three are unique and indispensable in their own regards. For example, consider this: A doctor has two patients who need a lung transplant and only one lung. The first patient is an avid smoker with emphysema and the other a 16-year-old girl with lung cancer. This same situation will be explained by a scientist, a philosopher and an artist in hugely different ways. While a scientist may be able to explain the nuances of surgery and compare the success rate of both patients, a philosopher will try to contemplate the doctor’s choice, and its ethical credentials by asking questions: If the doctor chooses the girl and not the smoker does this mean that being responsible of your own ruin invalidate its seriousness? Had the smoker been a close relative and the girl a stranger, would the doctor choose differently? Is it fair for the doctor to decide who is worthy of living, by employing criteria that she deems important? The artist at the same time may render her service by depicting the dilemma of the doctor, the anxiety of the patients and the fear of death in incredibly intricate details of her brushstroke or the notes of her music.
I was introduced to the study of philosophy by my grandfather three years ago, and since, have been utterly enchanted by the challenging yet intellectually stimulating world that countless thinkers and philosophers have weaved for centuries. The idea of the eternal pursuit for the meanings of life, rationality, epistemology, reasoning, truth and more by the human brain and its persevering fascination with these perplexing questions has been a thing of continued bewilderment for me. Admittedly, my study of philosophy has not been so much so as about finding answers to the mysteries of life as about begetting questions. The more I read the genius works of Heidegger, Hegel, Sartre and more, the more I found myself bemused by the simplest questions I had till then considered insignificant. It could be said that the mundane monotony of life turned into a source of mystery and continuous amazement, it turned from prosaic to poetic.
The topic of philosophy that interested me more than most was that of ethics and morality. I found it when I, by happenstance, found an old copy of Immanuel Kant's "Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals" in the school library. I had until then thought of ethics and morals only in the context of religion and tradition, and hence had no interest in them. But Kant's work attempted to free morals from the constraints of orthodox authority and place them in a structure of human conscience and intelligence. The more I read the more I was captivated. I had been so entranced by his words that I could not hear the bell signifying the end of the period and sat reading for 3 hours straight when i was finally ushered out by the librarian. My investigation and analysis of Kantian ethics continued with time. As time furthered, so did my amazement. I spent hours on end reading and reflecting. The main reason I was captivated by it was because of its nuanced and relative nature. Kant's categorical imperatives were not so much a set of objective morals as an objective method to arrive at subjective morals. At the heart of the theory lies choice.
I found great help in my grandfather whenever I wanted to learn more. We read each other excerpts written by various philosophers and spend hours discussing and debating them. It became our favorite activity, and we bonded greatly, over philosophy. I have since come to realize that philosophy bleeds into everything around us; literature, science, economics and not least politics. I found myself drawn to politics only last year. The introduction of the contentious Citizenship Amendment Bill and the country wide protests it triggered accelerated my involvement in and opinions regarding politics. I have, since, never been able to extract one from other, and have given up trying because only together do either of them truly become useful.
It is this magic of philosophy that has always stayed with me. I hope some of this magic will stay with you too. Till next time