Before Philosophy

There was a time in my life when I believed I was uninterested in philosophy. In hindsight I would say that even then I showed evidence of a somewhat philosophical soul, and had all the same interests that have inspired me to study philosophy over the past decade or so, but at the time I would have said that philosophy was not good enough to merit my time and attention.

I believed this because I was exposed to the notion that philosophy was unrealistic, obscure, and generally just missing the point. This prejudice was communicated in a way that seemed persuasive to me. It feels good to think of oneself as towering intellectually over those who are seen as history’s great minds — and to have accomplished that feat so young as well, and with such little effort!

On the account I received, there are some things very similar to philosophy which are indeed part of the good life that we should choose for ourselves.

-We should be able to live a moral, self-controlled life.

-We should enjoy life in a community of friends.

-We should courageously seek to make the world a better place.

-We should learn how to persuade people, to change their minds, to bind them together with a common vision and a common story and a common vocabulary.

If we were able to do and to have all those sorts of things, after all, what else could we ever need philosophy for?

I would love to say that this approach to the world was itself what eventually convinced me to look beyond it to the study of philosophy, with its internal flaws and contradictions revealing themselves to my inquiring mind. I wish I had seen that the knowledge of personal morality, for instance, or of political justice, was not so obvious as it appeared on the surface and that it thus demanded a more disciplined study into the questions.

There’s a grain of truth there, but that’s not the whole story of how I came to philosophy. As a matter of fact, I began studying philosophy seriously mainly for a couple reasons, neither of which are so impressive in hindsight.

One path that led me from anti-philosophical prejudice to an appreciation for the philosophical was a sense I had that there was beauty to be found there. I had an intuition that philosophy could open up vistas of reality and possibility that were not visible to most of us, most of the time. To speak about being itself, of metaphysical entities, of the variety of sensible experience and the realities behind and beneath it; all these seemed like resources for poetry and rhetoric that were not available elsewhere, and which would be worth studying whether or not we initially believed they might be true.

I also set out toward philosophical study because I realized that, ceteris paribus, someone who’s sufficiently knowledge about philosophy and philosophical history can make the unphilosophical debater look like a bumbling fool. I saw this happen a handful of times (not infrequently with me playing the fool), and thus realized that I needed to be more familiar with philosophy whether I agreed with it or not, if I cared about learning how to be persuasive, as I did at the time.

It was not the most admirable of starting places, perhaps but it was sufficient. It got me moving the right direction, and I have never looked back. As time has passed, I’ve found my relationship to philosophy changing, but it all started with an intuition of its beauty and the manifestation of its strength.

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