Not (Just) An Armchair Exercise

Philosophy has often been saddled with the charge that it is merely an armchair exercise, an activity that has scant meaning for anyone other than the participant, who can leisurely engage in these thoughts by himself within the lazy comforts of his own home. Even then, one may think that this individual process of thinking is of limited usefulness to the participant himself – neither a practically productive enterprise, nor one that provides conclusive answers. One might ask: Of what value is this activity of asking questions such as, “What is the self?” or “What is justice?”, and are there any real implications that result from these careful inquiries? It is not unnatural to hear the common complaint: that talking about these issues will not do anything to ‘change the world’, that philosophy is so ‘out there’ that there is no point thinking over these questions in the first place. Consequently, philosophy is sometimes written off as bearing no real utility to life as we know of it.

Meaningfully, however, philosophy is our tool of excavation, where we uncover the deepest convictions intricately wrought into our very nature. These convictions rise, unbidden, to the surface when we are situated in a new intellectual terrain – vastly different and expansive, yet bearing faint traces of familiarity. Even in the strangest of locations, there are almost always little elements that evoke a distant sense of resonance within us. This strange push-and-pull of dislocation and familiarity pushes us to pin down what it is, precisely, about this theory that bothers us so, and which parts of it we can agree with. And so we begin to find our topographical bearings on this humble testing ground, in the hopes that our convictions can be refined, and sharpened by the challenge. Under this close examination, we get to understand a little better the reasons for why we believe what we believe. We learn how to explain these reasons a little better, both to ourselves and others. Over time, our engagement with the discipline ruptures simple binary categories of ‘academic discipline versus Real Life’, as we find both blending into one. The formative process of thinking through our beliefs beforehand helpfully casts a surer light on our convictions, defining the way we act and reflect in everyday situations. This process becomes all the more valuable when we enter the wider world, where our convictions will surely be jostled about by the social pressures of a new environment – one that may demand of us compromise. Because we have anchored our roots in fertile soil, we are better equipped to thoughtfully consider difficult situations that arise, and find ways to retain our convictions in the face of new, practical challenges.

Yet, lest we see philosophy as only a battling ring where we attempt vigorously to prove our own convictions true, the wildly different landscape that philosophy opens us up to is also one which requires of us a humility and a willingness to grow. Moreover, that landscape is not just inhabited by ourselves, like a territory inhospitably guarded over, but a place that positions us alongside others in conversation. Many practitioners of philosophy exercise a companionable sportsmanship, with a charitableness to difference, and a generosity in spirit to see the best in others’ ideas, before they venture onwards to respectful disagreement. Philosophy is not simply an armchair exercise, if only because it is a distinctly social enterprise, bringing people into conversations with one another. The beauty of it is in the open discourse. As Michael Walzer mentions, we share common possession of important and fundamental ideas, which we debate on because we’re passionate about these ideas – even if common possession doesn’t necessarily mean agreement[1]. At the same time, we sometimes reconsider our previously held beliefs, and learn the humility to recant our position with grace if we realise we’ve been wrong. The relational quality of ‘doing philosophy’ situates us in an ongoing dialogue with others, with a rich and fruitful exchange of ideas, and ensures critical issues are constantly talked about in the public square.

With that said, philosophy may raise an undeniable friction, or tension, between the new ideas we encounter, and the old ideas we hold. This leads us into an initial sense of unease and discomfort, much like the process of finding one’s footing on foreign soil – an uncertain and profound experience. Yet, it is precisely this feeling of being completely out of our depth that will push us, again and again, to navigate new ground, even as we retain our essence of belief, what makes us who we are. If we slowly chip away at the vast expanse of the unknown that greets us every time we begin that conversation or crack open that book, we might find ourselves walking away with new discoveries. Given our human finitude, there may be much that we don’t know, and much that we will never know. Eventually we learn to be comfortable with not having all the answers, and to be able to live harmoniously with some uncertainty – even as we intrepidly forge new paths into new unknowns.

[1] Michael Walzer, Interpretation and Social Criticism

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About the Author

A Year 3 Political Science major, Denise accidentally stumbled onto her inner traveler while living through the beautiful Danish summer. In her free time, she writes fiction for her own amusement, takes naps, and thinks about the world at large.