Opening Day!

The Spring Semester begins today, and a quirk of the schedule has all my classes this time on Tuesdays and Thursdays: two regular and one Honors Intro to Philosophy sections (“CoPhilosophy,” as I call it, or just CoPhi) and a Bioethics. Dawn to dusk. Hooray.

I mean, Hooray! Really. A fresh start, a clean slate, a tabula rasa. Everybody’s still tied for 1st.

My old season-opening schtick (the Pythons’ argument, Brian’s reluctance to lead, Douglas Adams’ whale and SuperComputer etc.) still appeals, at least to me. But I think this I’ll go with this, this time:

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From a distance, philosophy seems weird, irrelevant, boring…
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and yet also – just a little – intriguing.
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But what are philosophers really for?
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The answer is, handily, already contained in the word philosophy itself.
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In Ancient Greek, philo means love and sophia means wisdom.
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Philosophers are people devoted to wisdom.
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Being wise means attempting to live and die well.
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In their pursuit of wisdom, philosophers have developed a very
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specific skill-set. They have, over the centuries, become experts in
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many of the things that make people not very wise. Five stand out:
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There are lots of big questions around: What is the meaning of life?
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What’s a job for? How should society be arranged?
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Most of us entertain them every now and then, but we despair of trying
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to answer them. They have the status of jokes. We call them
0:56
‘pretentious’. But they matter deeply because only with sound answers
1:00
to them can we direct our energies meaningfully.
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Philosophers are people unafraid of asking questions. They have, over
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the centuries, asked the very largest. They realise that these
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questions can always be broken down into more manageable chunks and
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that the only really pretentious thing is to think one is above
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raising big naive-sounding enquiries.
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Public opinion – or what gets called ‘common sense’ – is sensible and
1:27
reasonable in countless areas. It’s what you hear about from friends
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and neighbours, the stuff you take in without even thinking about it.
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But common sense is also often full of daftness and error.
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Philosophy gets us to submit all aspects of common sense to reason.
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It wants us to think for ourselves. Is it really true what people say
1:46
about love, money, children, travel, work? Philosophers are interested
1:50
in asking whether an idea is logical – rather than simply assuming it
1:54
must be right because it is popular and long-established.
2:00
We’re not very good at knowing what goes on in our own minds.
2:03
Someone we meet is very annoying, but we can’t pin down what the issue is.
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Or we lose our temper, but can’t readily tell what we’re so cross about.
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We lack insight into our own satisfactions and dislikes.
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That’s why we need to examine our own minds. Philosophy is committed
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to self-knowledge – and its central precept – articulated by the
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earliest, greatest philosopher, Socrates – is just two words long:
2:26
Know yourself.
2:30
We’re not very good at making ourselves happy. We overrate the power
2:34
of some things to improve our lives – and underrate others.
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We make the wrong choices because, guided by advertising and false glamour,
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we keep on imagining that a particular kind of holiday, or car, or computer
2:45
will make a bigger difference than it can.
2:48
At the same time, we underestimate the contribution of other things –
2:51
like going for a walk – which may have little prestige but can

2:54
contribute deeply to the character of existence.

2:58
Philosophers seek to be wise by getting more precise about the

3:00
activities and attitudes that really can help our lives to go better.

3:08
Philosophers are good at keeping a sense of what really matters and what doesn’t.
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On hearing the news that he’d lost all his possessions in a shipwreck,
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the Stoic philosopher Zeno simply said:
3:17
‘Fortune commands me to be a less encumbered philosopher.’
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It’s responses like these that have made the very term ‘philosophical’
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a byword for calm, long-term thinking and strength-of-mind,
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in short, for perspective.
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The wisdom of philosophy is – in modern times – mostly delivered in
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the form of books. But in the past, philosophers sat in market squares
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and discussed their ideas with shopkeepers or went into government
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offices and palaces to give advice. It wasn’t abnormal to have a
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philosopher on the payroll. Philosophy was thought of as a normal,
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basic activity – rather than as an unusual, esoteric, optional extra.
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Nowadays, it’s not so much that we overtly deny this thought but we
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just don’t have the right institutions set up to promulgate wisdom
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coherently in the world. In the future, though, when the value of
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philosophy is a little clearer, we can expect to meet more
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philosophers in daily life. They won’t be locked up, living mainly in
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university departments, because the points at which our unwisdom bites
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– and messes up our lives – are multiple and urgently need attention –
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right now.

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