Many students are not quite sure what philosophy is; indeed, most people know very little about the subject. Some think that it is an abstruse, even dangerous combination of astrology, psychology, and theology. Others think that philosophers are among the intellectual elite, people of great wisdom. This exalted view of philosophy is due at least in part to the fact that it is seldom studied before college. Elementary and secondary school students study math, literature, science, and history, but not philosophy. When students enter college, they often seek to avoid philosophy because of its alleged difficulty.
Those who do take philosophy in college find themselves discussing technical questions of little or no evident practical value. This apparent impracticality seems reason enough for rejecting the study of philosophy out of hand. However, this chapter will attempt to show that many initial fears and reservations about this discipline are unfounded. It is true that in many ways the study of philosophy is unlike the study of any other subject. One is not asked to memorize dates, formulas, or rules (at least these are not the most important aspects of the study). There is no field work or laboratory experiments, and no need to purchase any technical equipment such as a slide rule or microscope.
What is needed to be a good philosopher? At various times everyone philosophizes. This means that a course in philosophy is not an attempt to teach some unusual set of facts or to provide a totally new skill. It is, rather, an effort to help the student improve an ability that he already possesses and at times exercises on his own. This philosophizing takes place whenever one reflects upon either the fundamental presuppositions of thought and action, or the ends to which the conduct of human life should be directed.
Suppose you and a friend are discussing nutrition. You both express concern that the widespread use of pesticides and additives in the production of food has serious and damaging effects on the human body. You remark that the increased instances of cancer in modern society are directly related to the expanded use of chemicals. To this point your discussion has not been philosophical; it has been biological. But then your friend remarks that the government has a responsibility to ban such agents from foods, since all persons are obligated to preserve life. You disagree, asserting that the highest good is not the preservation of life. Furthermore, you contend, the government has no obligation to its people except non-interference in their private affairs. Your discussion has now turned to philosophical issues. You are raising the issues of “obligation” and the “end” or “meaning of life.”
What, then, do you need to be a good philosopher? More will be said later about the tools of the philosopher. Briefly, however, the indispensable ingredient possessed by a good philosopher is an inquiring or questioning mind. You have the necessary equipment.