Boethius, sixth century Roman philosopher, writes his work, The Consolation of Philosophy, while in prison awaiting execution, having been accused of treason. His aim in writing this work is to show how Philosophy means to console in that pursuit of her was for the good, which is of utmost value and possession of which brings lasting happiness. Even in prison one can be consoled by pursuit and possession of the good. The main character, Philosophy, characterized as feminine, argues that because Boethius is still able to pursue the good, he has no room to murmur and complain about his undesirable circumstances.
In contrast to Boethius’ consoling view of philosophy, I recently read the statement, in connection with students of philosophy classes that I teach, that “Philosophy makes some students feel uncomfortable”. Apparently, for some students philosophy has the opposite effect of consolation. Why is this so?
Philosophy as the foundational discipline in the academy is an area of study that deals with foundational questions such as: “how do I know?” “what exists ultimately?” and “what ought I to do?” Considering these questions, often for the first time, may be uncomfortable for students. Is Examining the foundations of knowledge, especially when we think we already know, easy? Is a serious confrontation with the nature of reality a stroll in the park? What about providing rational justification for how we – not just some philosopher in the abstract, thousands of years ago – would answer the question “what is the good?” What if we find we lack rational justification for our answer to that question? Philosophy is not only uncomfortable, but it can expose our nakedness.
The etymology of the word “philosophy” is “the love of wisdom”. What is wisdom? How do I know if I have wisdom? If I lack wisdom, how do I obtain it? Some traditions have contrasted the wise person with the simple and the fool. The simple person is one who thinks knowledge of the good is not necessary. The simple thinks he/she can go with the flow, often blithely unaware of the dangerous rapids just up ahead. The fool is one who thinks they already know, but they do not actually have knowledge of what is good, and furthermore often want to teach others. Who is wise? What is it to love wisdom? If we truly loved wisdom, what would pursuit of wisdom look like, and would it be comfortable?
Philosophy as a discipline is usually associated with the method of critical analysis of assumptions – particularly assumptions about what is basic. When we are pushed to critically examine our most cherished beliefs, and our reasons for holding those views are wanting, it is most definitely uncomfortable. When our views are shown to be lacking sufficient rational justification, we either have to change our views, or we have to dig in, hold on, and abandon reason. I can see how students may perceive philosophy as an uncomfortable enterprise.
It is uncomfortable to work through, and continue to work through, foundational questions as a human being, as a student of philosophy, and as a teacher of philosophy. It is also very uncomfortable for the teacher of philosophy to expose a lack of rational justification in a public, classroom setting. I highly recommend that students of philosophy who are worried about how uncomfortable uncovering assumptions can be should read the account of the trial of Socrates.
One who lives the examined life cannot escape the discomfort of critically examining his/her own foundational beliefs for whether he/she has good reasons for holding to those beliefs. Socrates said “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Is that an uncomfortable statement? Is is politically correct? Is it true? If we cannot apply philosophy to ourselves first, then we ought not apply it to anyone else. We ought to be silent – forever. Talk about discomfort.
We use philosophy to construct systems of belief, then these systems get lived out in cultures and civilizations. Some cultures and civilizations are no longer around. Shouldn’t we ask why? Were they systems of belief built upon faulty assumptions? What about our culture? What are the foundations upon which our civilization rests? What about other civilizations in our world? Is it uncomfortable to critically analyze the assumptions of our fellow classmate’s culture? Do we accept the popular assumptions of cultural relativism? Moral relativism? Given our culture’s political correctness, it is highly uncomfortable to critique any belief, culture, or civilization (other than the West). Yet, critical analysis is the job of philosophy. So, yes, philosophy is uncomfortable – necessarily. Students should not expect it to be otherwise.
Plato’s Academy is the foundational educational institution in the West, and it begins with the study of philosophy. Philosophy is the cornerstone of education. Education involves change and growth. Change and growth are uncomfortable. Thus, education will be an uncomfortable process. Where I teach, we are encouraged to be lifelong learners. In a sense, this seems to imply that we are to be uncomfortable all of our lives. I can attest that the more I know, the more uncomfortable I become. Life is very very uncomfortable when we pay attention.
I am uncomfortable with the fact that some of my students have complained that philosophy makes them feel uncomfortable. I have decided that part of the problem is that I have not given them enough warning. This post is my way of remedying that situation. Philosophy, when done well, will dig up underlying assumptions, turn them over, examine them with the magnifying glass of reason, and oftentimes we will be forced to toss cherished assumptions aside because they lack sufficient rational justification. Or, more realistically, we resistantly and clutchingly bring those assumptions like the ring Frodo must cast into the fires of Mordor for destruction. But on rare occasions we will set our well-founded assumptions like multifaceted diamonds in a shining band of gold to be cherished forever. Those treasures of truth are what make the discomfort of digging and searching and sifting and examining worth the effort. Then comes the comfort and consolation of philosophy when we find ourselves in trying circumstances.
I tell my students that the love of wisdom is like searching for fine treasure. It is going to require a lot of work, but we are wealthy for having endured the difficult, and often agonizing, pursuit. The meaning of life is what is of most value, and thus finding it will require our utmost effort, and will thus be utterly agonizing, but absolutely worth every second. So, let this be a warning and an invitation: Philosophy makes some students feel uncomfortable. Yet, possessing that which is of ultimate value is the consolation of philosophy.