If theology is the study of God, then philosophy is the study of man. A tension as old as the study itself has fueled nearly all of its arguments, both between its practitioners and between its detractors and admirers: is philosophy the pursuit of wisdom (as its name implies), or the establishment of an all-inclusive explanatory knowledge about life, the universe, and everything?
Essentially, the tension is between those who call on a higher authority than human knowledge, and those who echo Protagoras' assertion that man is the measure of all things. A lot of the intellectual obscurantism often associated with philosophy can be cleared away when you approach its study from a presuppositional perspective, one that looks at the fundamental beliefs underlying any given philosopher's statements and arguments.
Philosophy isn't simply an intellectual game, however, and it isn't just for old guys in tenured university positions or pretentious young people wearing tight jeans in upscale coffee shops. Philosophy quite often makes compelling reading. Not just for geeks, either; a phenomenal genius might read Kant the way most people read comics, but German Idealists weren't the only ones who wrote about the nature of humanity, our purpose in the cosmos, or whether the cosmos even exists.
Plato's dialogues remain some of the world's most entertaining and intellectually challenging works (though this may have been troubling to a man who seems to argue in The Republic that poets and artists ought to be thrown out of the ideal society). Soren Kierkegaard seldom made direct statements, preferring to tell stories, describe scenes, and adopt pseudonyms. Nietzsche was definitely crazy, but he was also hilarious and poetic.
This isn't the kind of stuff you read just for fun, of course. There's too much at stake to read philosophy carelessly, but that doesn't mean you can't enjoy reading it, especially when many of its most notable authors clearly intended that we should.
Social commentary is often even more entertaining, and not just because men like Alexis de Tocqueville provided all the seamier details of life in times we tend to idealize (in his case, the fledgling United States). Writers like Thomas Paine consistently achieved heights of rhetoric more theoretical philosophers would reject as tawdry....which is exactly why they're so entertaining.
The main difference between philosophy proper and social commentary is that the first is universal and prescriptive, while the second is culturally specific and descriptive. Some writers (Karl Marx, notably) blurred the lines between the two, using evidence collected from society itself to show what things ought to be like, and how men could get there with a little cameraderie and violent revolution.
Of course there are all kinds of reasons to read philosophy, and in the end the entertainment value it provides is at the bottom of the list. However, for those who think philosophical works are just dry sets of abstract propositions, knowing many of the best ones are actually a lot of fun to read may help dispell the fear. And, as the great David Hume argued, the more you know, the more jokes you'll understand—which is a pretty great argument in defense of reading philosophy.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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