For decades, some variation of this conversation has occurred around the dinner tables of families of college freshmen on their first visit home:
Parent: So what have you been learning in college?
Freshman: Well, in Philosophy 101, the professor tried to convince us that it was not certain that the chair in the front of the room was actually there.
Parent (usually, but not always, to him-or-herself): For this we’re paying $50,000?
What the student was probably recounting, albeit rather imprecisely, was the argument of eighteenth-century Irish Bishop George Berkeley which runs something like this:
1. The only source of information we have about the so-called external world is our five senses.
2. Our senses give us a lot of data about the so-called “objects of perception”—color, shape, smell, sound, etc.
3. Traditionally, philosophers thought that these qualities somehow “inhered” in what they called “substance,” a substratum of reality that could not itself language about substrata and inhering, and that is pretty much the common sense view, then and now.)
4. But, if we can’t see or hear or smell this “substance,” why should we believe in its existence? [See 1 above.] Wouldn’t it be truer to our experience to say that what we call “the external world” is just sense data in our minds—and nothing more? Esse est percipi, said Berkeley. To be is to be perceived. Period.
Generations of students have been asked to wrestle with Berkeley’s argument. To what purpose? Will a prospective employer ever ask them to defend the notion of substance? In their chosen profession, will there ever come a time when a client needs to know whether to be is, in fact, to be perceived?
In short, why philosophize? Particularly at this moment in history, when jobs are scarce and tuitions are high, why study philosophy or, for that matter, any of the humanities?
Enter metaphilosophy, the philosophy of philosophy, not to be confused with Metta World Peace, the Knicks’ newly acquired power forward. When Danny Klein, my co-author of “Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar,” and I were introduced at Google Authors, our host said, “Philosophy is a great subject to major in, because it’s the only subject you can major in that will teach you how to argue that philosophy is a good subject to major in.”
So perhaps we should look to philosophers themselves to tell us why we should care about questions like Zeno’s racetrack paradox or Berkeley’s dismissal of substance or Philippa Foot and Judith Jarvis Thomson’s so-called trolley problem.
I think the beginnings of an answer may be found in Aristotle’s notion of “formation.” To wrestle with basic questions about the nature of ourselves or the world we inhabit or the interface between the two or how creatures such as we should behave in such a world forms us in some way.
Philosophy—and the humanities in general—prod us to ask why.
In light of Zeno’s argument, why should I believe that motion is real? In response to Berkeley, why should I believe that there is more to the world than sense-data?
The asking—and answering—of these questions changes us, forms us, makes us more human. Hence, “the humanities.”
Can I get by without ever asking or answering these questions? Well, yes.
Can I get by without reading poetry or listening to music? Again, yes. Contra Socrates, is the unexamined life really worth living after all?
Well, sure. But is a life lived without asking why a more impoverished life? There’s the question.
Next time: the trolley problem and formation.
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