Why Philosophy?

Those who study philosophy in college are commonly criticized for their separation from the realities of the world. The discipline asks its students to tackle issues with the head, not the hands. However, for the head-oriented, philosophy in fact dictates the actions of the hand through normatively-justified reasoning. The sentence you just read was full of philosophical jargon. To put it plainly, philosophies guide actions.

Martha Nussbaum, in Women and Human Development, defines theory as “the systemization and critical scrutiny of thoughts and perceptions that exist in daily life and are frequently jumbled and unexamined” (35). Let’s unpack that overstuffed suitcase of a statement, shall we?

Start with the thoughts and perceptions; we all have thoughts, and we all perceive things in different ways based on context, biases, upbringing, etc. Nussbaum narrows the idea of thoughts and perceptions into just the category of those that are found frequently in daily life. These thoughts may be subconscious and directed at other people, common activities, or institutions. These daily perceptions are left jumbled and unexamined, meaning that while moving through the motions of our lives, we do not necessarily examine our immediate (and often subconscious) reactions to our surroundings. Thus, philosophical theory allows us to take a critical eye to everyday behaviors that may be considered normal, and instead scrutinize this behavior and systematize it.

Unfortunately, scrutinized behavior is often described with terms that are not used in everyday language, which is why philosophy can seem disconnected from the so-called “real world.” However, Nussbaum argues that these specific terms must be used in order to “sort out confused thoughts,” where confused thoughts are the everyday thoughts are perceptions of individuals. The thoughts and perceptions are confused not because the people thinking them are unintelligent, but rather because so many connotations can apply to one word. For example, if someone self-identifies as a feminist and does not explain his or her specific ideologies, another person could assume that the feminist holds one of many (often stereotypical) viewpoints. However, if we take the time to use philosophical theories to unpack the term “feminist,” we would see that the individual’s perspective is difficult to pin down because of the many definitions of feminism.

In short, philosophy allows everyone to think about the “why” of what they do (of their actions, positive or negative), because without the why, we become victims of our own habits and assumptions.