My passion for philosophy germinated during high school, when I was on the debate team and began to think about political issues. Then in college I took courses in ethics and logic, and learned how to analyze arguments and how to reduce professors to silence with a few questions asking what they meant by key words they would use. The results of my interactions taught me to use my new critical power sparingly, and I become more interested in interpreting Plato’s dialogues, mastering Husserl’s phenomenology, and probing the complexities of Hegel. Years later, I would plunge into Chinese philosophy and devour writings on the golden rule, all the while expanding my concepts of truth, beauty, and goodness.
The wide variety of courses that I was privileged to teach, together with the freedom to teach courses centered on experiential projects, gave additional opportunity to make this expanding culture understanding real for me and for my students. The overarching question was—and remains—how to live a human life.
The benefit of philosophy that I find central is increased insight into meaning. Many people use big words with little understanding of their meaning; thinking carelessly, they do foolish things and are taken in by sophistry. Despite their knowledge and occasionally fine insights, they take no interest in developing a sturdy network of meanings integrated into excellent concepts. Philosophy protects us from sophistry, gives us a language to identify and explain what is wrong with the bad reasoning that mars much commercial, political, and religious communication. When Socrates talked with people who were thinking poorly, he would not support them by saying, “Everyone has diverse ideas, and that’s your truth.” He would challenge them, provoke them to inquiry, and help them make progress toward better thinking. My method nowadays is more gentle, but I share Socrates’ concern.
A good philosophy provides us with an excellent set of questions for interrogating experience. It enhances self-understanding and leverages growth; it enhances our ability to find the prayer that fits the problem; it deepens our concept of the God we worship. Philosophy empowers us to understand difficult ideas and persons with different perspectives. Philosophy enables us to reformulate worthwhile ideas that are poorly expressed in popular culture. For example, people talk of valuing diversity; but brutal dictators are diverse, but we do not value them for that reason. Rather the point is that we need to affirm our common humanity, work to understand and respond constructively to our differences, and celebrate the unique personality of everyone we meet.
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