Humans are thinking creatures and when we are thinking, even dimly, the world can appear as a mystery. Questions open up and are ripe for wondering. Many questions are trivial or perhaps they have already been solved and it’s just a matter of getting hold of the answer or maybe they are yet to be solved but there is a formula or method for doing so. Yet there are other questions that call for reflection about what is or what should be. Thinking about these questions – wherever they may arise, in personal or political life – is philosophy.
Philosophy is not like other disciplines. Philosophy is pervasive, calling for your active involvement, in a way that chemistry or biology do not. Think of the often conflicting desires and obligations in your personal and civic life. How to spend time more wisely? How to treat her? What to say to him? When to let someone fail and when to intercede? When to respond playfully, and when seriously? In public life, what do individuals owe one another when it comes to health care and social security? If beauty is subjective then why do we flock to national parks? When talking with others, when do we make an argument, versus responding with a laugh or with silence?
The only way to avoid such entanglements is to lead a thoughtless (and thus less than fully human) existence. This is to take states of affairs and your role in them as simply given. In this way Eichmann kept the trains running. Less dramatically, this also marks the passivity of too many evenings spent watching TV. Both cases denote flights from the intricate opportunities and responsibilities of life. We have to interrogate the world if it is going to show itself in its splendor. Machines do not question why or wherefore. But for humans to behave like a machine diminishes their lives.
Whoever thinks about such questions is a philosopher. We are not all engineers or computer programmers, but we all are called on to be philosophers. But this doesn’t mean that everyone is equally skilled at such thinking. There may be no ‘right’ answer to philosophical questions as there is with arithmetic, but there are more or less thoughtful ones. “Thinking out” such questions, as Peter Singer (1972) remarks, “is a difficult task.” Academically trained philosophers have a leg up even when they are not the most naturally gifted thinkers: they are trained in making arguments, they are familiar with philosophical concepts and the history of ideas, and they have the time to collect evidence and do the careful thinking. Most people have other duties that call them out from this reflective space.