Hand-me-down thinking not needed
February 25, 2010
Often those who study the history of philosophy and compare it to the history of other disciplines, especially science, complain that in philosophy no progress is made, that philosophers keep talking about the same thing, that nothing ever gets resolved.
It appears clear that in each age most of the same philosophical issues are debated, theorized about or reflected upon as are explored in others, albeit in somewhat different terms. Thus the topic of free will may get rechristened “human agency” yet the basic problem in focus is the same — are people free to determine or cause some of what they do? Ancient, modern, and contemporary philosopher all address it, with only a few exceptions and opposite positions are defended in every age. Whether God exists, does the universe have a beginning, what is the nature of moral goodness and evil — all these issues keep getting revisited and though answers are defended, they do not seem to have lasting power but seem to need renewed support again and again.
I want to suggest a reason why and why that fact doesn’t diminish the discipline’s importance, nor its capacity to arrive at true conclusions.
It is well recognized that teens tend to resist explicitly stated advice from elders. Arguably they do accept, at least subconsciously, leadership if it comes in the way of examples set for them by intimates. Becoming financially responsible, for example, may involve encountering one’s parents’ or guardians’ repeated responsible conduct — if they routinely pay their bills, keep their promises, etc., so the teens can witness this without however preaching the practice at them, this is quite likely to carry influence.
One reason may be that teens are in the process of taking over the management of their lives and want to learn about this from experience and practice rather than from explicit instructions.
Even the more complex matters of accepting their family’s values, religious or political, seem to follow this process.
Teens are about to assume the governance of their affairs and to do this they would naturally want to start thinking for themselves.
It is quite probable that human beings confront their most important and basic issues, ones treated within philosophy, similarly. A new generation will not take kindly to just accepting, without question and personal involvement, the vital ideas from past generations even if these ideas turn out to be right. It seems more likely that they will want to reconsider the basics on their own, with help from those who dealt with them earlier. And philosophy is where the basics are studied, examined, criticized, accepted or rejected.
Philosophy is also a discipline in which discussions are not thoroughly fraught with specialized jargon but are conducted in fairly ordinary terms. Everyone can access these ideas instead of submitting to the authority of experts as one would normally do in the case of most of the sciences, even when these bear directly on one’s life, such as medicine, nutrition, biology, psychology, or sociology. Thus most who have an interest in philosophy will want to and are likely to be able to explore its topics directly or through participation in the work of contemporaries, not by reading up on the topics as dealt with in the past.
This, then, places into the hands of a certain group of people in every new generation the task of revisiting the topics of the field.
No new generation will want such matters to be simply handed down from earlier ones.
Anything else would go contrary to human nature!