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The Negative Side of Philosophy

There are many benefits to a philosophical eduction: clear thinking, practical wisdom, even improved virtue. But perhaps the most important benefit is that of freedom, the sort of freedom that results from the elimination of the limits placed on us by our cultural environment. The study of philosophy, probably more so than any other discourse, allows one to transcend his or her culture, on a local and national level. It allows one to step outside one’s immediate placement in a particular society and critique it. But not everything that results from such transcendence is beneficial. Here I wish to spell out the other side of the coin, the not-so-good consequences of a philosophical eduction and the transcendence that it brings.

The more I study philosophy, the more estranged I become from the social values of my culture and the familial values that I grew up with. While many have long noted the benefits of such estrangement–it may allow one to better give an honest and fair critique of one’s own society–there are negative aspects that often go unmentioned. For instance, I no longer share many of the religious, political, or moral beliefs and values of my friends and family. Such estrangement makes it exceedingly more difficult to relate to them and enjoy their company. And while it may be possible to ignore such differences and find common ground, doing so usually leads to shallow and, ultimately, undesirable relationships.

Furthermore, I no longer understand many of my own culture’s values. I do not understand the ambition for monetary riches and upper-class status that drives the often superficial, capitalistic United States. It is no longer a matter of indifference for me that people feel the need to drive luxury vehicles, have the latest house furnishings, own expensive attire, and are embarrassed if seen with something less. Such actions and values appear to me foolish at best, immoral at worst. Such estrangement leaves me feeling like a foreigner in my own country. Such estrangement leaves me cynical.

Moreover, there are certain moral and political problems that I was once naive to that have become impossible to ignore. I am no longer naive to the problems of social and distributive justice: its becomes more and more difficult for me to take seriously the claims that the successful morally deserve their fruits and the unsuccessful deserve their pains (the assumption resting behind that old American dream). But such a view is so ingrained within the American mind that I find myself always at a distance from my country and its most cherished beliefs and values. And insofar as such beliefs and values have gained a foothold in the lives of those who are closest to me, it becomes all the more difficult to maintain a healthy relationship with them. Change, as they say, disrupts relationships. Philosophy (I say) provides the change.

There is also the problem that arises when there exists a gap between one’s own interests and one’s culture’s interests.  To study philosophy is to undertake a topic or set of topics that your culture neither knows about nor cares about. Chess players, poets, and historians will understand this sentiment. Although it was not always like this, philosophy is no longer a primary value in an education. America is the country of business, a subject often at odds with philosophical reflection. This leaves one feeling more and more isolated from other people, more and more distant from the everyday, more and more unable to relate to and partake in those particular actions and belief systems that are deemed appropriate by society. Some of these experiences may be unique to me, but I doubt all of them are.

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  1. 07/16/2010 at 3:25 am

    Perhaps there is some woe in leaving behind what was comfortable and familiar. Socrates’ cave warned us of that. I wonder, do you think your peers are rational? If so have you tried to find with them the origins of their perspective to find that indivisible truth or few truths that their philosophy rests on the philosophy you once had? It sounds to me thus far you have only peered skin deep into their beliefs and find what you have come to believe much more attractive because of a more through examination and refinement. Should you not do the art of philosophy the service of rendering their opposing vantage to more indivisible truths to better compare the two sets of ideas? Would this not do the reverse and re-energize your sociability and still allow you to embrace the truth of philosophy? Or have supposed to much?

    Assuredly though philosophy often clashes with one’s reluctance to let go of what was simple and familiar.

    • 07/21/2010 at 6:08 am

      Most people I converse with are generally uninterested in or uncomfortable with talking about such things. And there are certain relationships and situations where it wouldn’t seem appropriate to do so. For me, the problem is not simply a matter of difference in beliefs but of value (although, of course, differences in belief can result in differences in value). That’s where the isolation is felt the most. I do just fine when it comes to debating and understanding different philosophical viewpoints. But I am talking not merely about ideas but about ways of life.

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