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Thursday, November 10, 2016

Never lose another argument with your family again

When I left Limerick to go to university, it was to study English literature and philosophy.  When you come from a poor background and are raised by a single parent, that’s a relatively controversial choice. More than one person told me that I was lucky to be able to go to university at all, and wouldn’t I study the law, or medicine, or something that would make money and help my mother in her old age? Why, they’d ask, would I take this fantastic opportunity, and waste it on sitting around with a shower of socialists toting Chanel handbags and rich daddies and talking about Jaysus poems?

It turned out they were right to a point. I love Jaysus poems. I love Jaysus novels and plays too, and was expeditiously taunted at school whenever other kids caught me reading Shakespeare outside the classroom. But enjoying literature and the act of deconstructing it as though it is a logical or scientific enterprise are very different activities.
I discovered a couple of years into studying English that it wasn’t for me. I didn’t actually want to study literature, it turned out, I wanted to read and enjoy books. Studying literary theory is a bit like accidentally wandering backstage during a production of Hamlet and hearing the actors bitching about the guy playing Polonius because he parked his 1998 Nissan Micra across two spaces.

The analysis of literature didn’t suit me. It superimposes a lens through which you are required to view the work and world, and considers everything in relation to structures such as gender or postmodernism or other possibly useful but rather limiting concepts. An excellent novel or poem gestures at concepts and ideas, but can’t soundly defend or unemotionally delineate their contours. Of course I finished the degree anyway – people from a background such as mine seldom quit because something is less fun than they anticipated.

Philosophy, on the other hand, starts at the beginning. The only walls that enclose it are the limits of human reasoning. It is a maddening, liberating, electrifying practice and field of study that forces you to question every lazy belief you hold, every statement you hear. It robs you of the sloppy confidence with which most of us declare what we believe to be unquestioningly true. In its place it gives you an ability to see to the bottom of things, deconstructing your arguments and those of other people in order to better understand them. It undresses lazy assumptions and poor thinking, leaving them shivering in the nip in front of everybody like the emperor without his clothes.

Philosophy exposes hubris. Most men I’ve met seem for some reason to believe that they inherently know how to fight, should they ever be called upon to defend themselves. They don’t realise it’s a skill until someone who actually practices a martial art or other method of self-defence beats the crap out of them. Debate and argument are similar. People sometimes disdainfully ask me what philosophy is, presuming it to be high-falutin’ and useless without realising that they use it every day when they try to justify a thought, whether in an argument with their husband, or articulating the merits of Hillary over Donald, or vice versa.

It becomes evident that debate and argumentation are skills only when someone who has studied these things has given you the philosophical equivalent of a roundhouse kick to the face. Sadly, rather than questioning ourselves, most of us will get up off the floor, scratch our head confusedly, and say ‘I’ve a right to my opinion’ like the guy who has just been beaten in a fight muttering ‘The other fella just got lucky’.

November 17th is World Philosophy Day, and a brilliant reminder that philosophy is for everyone. As a wonderful introduction to its usefulness as a life skill, I can’t recommend Alain de Botton’s The Consolations of Philosophy enough. Philosophy is not just for stuffy academics with elbow patches, it is for all of us. If you need extra encouragement to read more of it, no one in your family will ever win an argument against you again. And people say it isn’t a practical skill. . .
Laura Kennedy