Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Philosophy is a life skill

No, I'm serious. Stop laughing.
Despite being a real-life example of someone who has actually got a job out of her philosophy degree (as my father said to the warden of my college over dinner, it was all a matter of finding someone stupid enough to pay me to do philosophy. Yes really.) my feelings about the value of studying philosophy at university sometimes stray from the official 'it teaches critical thinking which is a key transferable skill' line to the secret 'its a way for young people to enjoy their time at uni instead of worrying about classes, exams and the like until they graduate and wake up with a crash to the fact that they just knocked a good ten grand off their earning potential and will probably spend the next five years working as a call centre agent/special needs assistant/waitress until they finally go back and do a second degree or bump into a contact from the private school they went to who can get them a proper job' thoughts.

But in all seriousness, there are at least two things wrong with this. First of all, its probably no more true for philosophy graduates than it is for most other subjects these days. Young people the best of prospects do not currently have, and for more about this mammoth injustice, see the excellent Jilted Generation by my mate Shiv.

The second thing is that earning potential and job prospects really are not the be all and end all of life, and I think we seriously underplay the huge contribution that studying philosophy can make to helping young people be....happy. So this isn't going to be an obvious point, and its true that there are counterbalances. My personal experience has borne out the fact that many philosophy students go off the rails in one way or another - drugs, breakdowns, alcoholism and mental illness (mostly all of them in fact). But this may be explained in large part by the fact that philosophy tends to attract people who are already vulnerable to these things in the first place, via its engagement with big questions. Young men, in the 18-23 age group, are already more susceptible to things like schizophrenia, psychotic episodes, suicide and some of the other things i've unfortunately known to strike students who are away from home, under a lot of pressure, drinking too much and then invited to ponder the meaning of life.

But on to happiness. Philosophy teaches you how to think better, and I want to claim that being able to think better enables you to communicate better, to plan your life better and to more easily acquire and maintain the things that you value in life (apart from money, obvs : ))

People I know are often telling me that I'm good at intervening in disputes, at putting things in perspective, helping people to make progress with things that are bothering them. They say I know how to say the right things, even that I'm wise. No, I'm still serious. And I think its true. I think I'm quite good at giving advice, making people feel listened to, at counselling friends and loved ones through arguments, dilemmas, even obstacles they're facing at work. Part of this is probably explained by the fact that I'm a self-help book addict who has enjoyed a life time of counselling and therapy of various kinds. I've faced some issues myself. Having a husband whose native language and culture are different from my own has also helped.

But most of it, I think, is explained by the fact that I have had a great deal of training and practice in the discipline of arguing. A lot of people think arguing is just about getting the last word, or appearing clever, but we philosophers know its more about clarity in communication. Being charitable to your interlocuter - working out what someone wants to say, even if its not quite what they are actually saying. Searching for the common ground between different positions, or isolating the points of disagreement and seeing how they can be narrowed. Moving to a bigger picture to try to correctly situate a position within a larger framework. Identifying instances of miscommunication or unclarity that are causing a dialogue to get stuck. Any time I read a journal article or prepare a talk, these are the skills I am practising. And they are fantastic talents to have up your sleeve any time that you want to work out why your husband is deliberately winding you up again (he probably isn't) or you're struggling to reconcile the conflicting pieces of baby advice you're being overwhelmed with. Or your brother in law is at your brother's throat about something your sister didn't say to his mum. And so on.

Life can be full of conflicts that have arisen because people have misunderstood each other, or aren't able to express themselves properly, or don't have the tools to realise when they are trying to hold onto inconsistent goals.   Its frustrating for them, and for the people they interact with. Having the ability to diagnose and to avoid these conflicts can get you better, more contented relationships, a more peaceful life, and also the satisfaction of being able to help other people out of their frustrations occasionally.

It might not change the world, or even pay the bills, and it doesn't work every time (there are plenty of examples of famous philosophers who are known to, shall we say, lack emotional literacy). But a life full of friends who understand us, of fulfilling romantic connections and of conflict-free family life, is nonetheless very much a life worth seeking.

No comments: