Even after three years of studying philosophy, I often find it hard to explain what it is exactly that I do. When asked, I answer simply that I study philosophy in Groningen, but I often find myself embarrassingly unprepared for the salvo of questions that is bound to follow. For to be told that one studies philosophy is a rather nugatory and dissatisfying answer to many. And truthfully, I cannot blame them. After all, what does it mean for someone to study philosophy?
I recall a conversation I had with a bus driver some time ago. How exactly we got to this point within the conversation currently escapes me, but after it had come to his attention that I was studying philosophy he seemed visibly confused and proceeded to express his uncertainty as to what exactly that would entail. “So… what is it that you do? Do you just read about what other people think?”, I seem to recall him asking. I told him that this was indeed a substantial part of what it meant to study philosophy; it does indeed involve a lot of reading. Encouraged by the fact that he was on the right path, he proceeded. “But how do you decide who to read?”, he asked me. A little confused, I remember asking him what he meant by this. “Well…”, he said, struggling to find the right words, “I mean, a lot of people got one… don’t they?” Again, I asked him what he meant. “You know, in the end, there are so many people who have got a philosophy of their own.”, he replied. “That’s true,” I told him, “but we primarily focus on the more influential figures.” Initially, I thought I had settled the matter. It wasn’t until later, however, that I realized that this was probably not what the bus driver had meant. It seems idiotic in retrospect, but mine being the self-obsessed mind of a student, believed that the bus driver had asked about the composition of my curriculum. As one does… Instead, as I realized only later, he seemed to have conflated ‘philosophy’ with ‘having a particular view on something’. As almost everyone seems to have one of the latter, choosing to read one instead of another turns the former into a rather arbitrary and trivial endeavor.
Though this might initially be thought of as a solitary and isolated encounter, it, nor the feelings it left me with were entirely unfamiliar. So much so in fact, that I initially believed myself to have had a similar encounter previous to this one that I must have forgotten about but was only now starting to remember. This sense of déjà vu was short lived however, as I quickly recalled that my encounter with the bus driver bore an almost uncanny resemblance to the scenario sketched in the open letter entitled ‘Wat is filosofie? – Brief aan de filosofiestudent’, published in the syllabus for Philosophical Skills all students of my year received in the very first week at the faculty. In this letter, the now former teacher Philosophical Skills Thomas van de Ven, describes a hypothetical family reunion during which we are confronted by our imaginary aunt Martha, who asks us to explain to her what all this weird and mysterious philosophy business is all about. With her question, aunt Martha seems to have touched upon a widely shared curiosity, as the other family members present, their gazes now firmly settled on you, all seem to eagerly await the ‘justification’ for your choice of study.
With this hypothetical scenario, van de Ven manages to encapsulate almost exactly those feelings I found myself struggling with after my encounter with the bus driver. An almost gnawing sense of insecurity, resulting from the inescapable sense that one cannot possibly seem to justify what one has chosen to dedicate oneself to. Not just towards others, but perhaps ultimately not even towards oneself. For there are those whose choice of study seems to guide them almost directly to a certain profession. Amongst the hypothetical family that van de Ven’s letter bestows upon us, we need not look further than Cousin Bob. An engineer who will set out to build bridges and sluices. Or even better yet, take our imaginary sister Anne, who studies to become a doctor and will undoubtedly be saving lives in the near future. I, on the other hand, cannot help but wonder. What is it that I am doing and who am I to become by doing it? More importantly, however, why is it that the more I seem to get a grasp on these questions, the more I seem to dread whatever answers I might find. For I fear that within them I will be unable to find a solution, stumbling instead upon an implicit acceptance of what I perceive to be the problem: the tendency philosophy has to look inward, at itself, has resulted in a sense of distance, isolation, and remoteness from the world outside of the faculty walls.
The act of raising questions is a heavily situated endeavor and I feel like sometimes it is forgotten, or perhaps not remembered frequently enough, that the act of philosophizing is done, for the most part at least, amongst other philosophers. This seems to turn philosophy into a discipline which predominantly engages with and within itself. A fact that I’m reminded of, quite painfully I might add, every time I try to talk to someone outside the faculty walls about the use, worth and relevance of philosophy. For to explain these things to someone who is unfamiliar or less well versed within philosophy is quite a daunting task. In my experience ‘they’, if you’ll forgive this gross generalization, have little idea what the study of philosophy would entail, and even less of an idea of how philosophy could ever be socially relevant. And how could they? Philosophers themselves don’t even seem to be able to agree. Furthermore, how could you, a ‘student of philosophy’, perhaps not yet on the ‘inside’ but definitely no longer on the ‘outside’, ever manage to explain such things to them? After all, the only language you seem able to explain yourself in is one that is comprehensible only to those who already know how to speak it. What both confuses and frustrates me, however, is that ‘we’ (here I go again) have not only come to expect these painful confrontations, but almost seem to implicitly accept them. For why else would those who are tasked with educating the next wave of potential philosophers feel the need to forewarn their new pupils by writing them a letter in which they not only tell them to expect such confrontations, but also provide them with the ammunition they might need to save their own skin. Thought this letter is clearly intended to be educational, it does in my mind portray a rather troublesome pattern of expectation. One that seems to suggest that outside of the faculty walls one will predominantly be met with confusion and a lack of understanding. Something that will inevitably cause one to look for shelter behind the safe and understanding walls of the faculty.
Granted, that same letter also speaks of “The philosopher who leaves his contemplative tower and takes on an active attitude (…)” (my translation). But it must also admit that such a socially engaged philosopher is a rarity these days. Although one can identify within the letter the sentiment that this needs to change, to identify a concrete manifestation of such a desire within the curriculum of the bachelor philosophy is a rarity. The only real concrete example in my mind is the so-called ‘Buiten de Muren project’. A project during which second year students were tasked with finding a topic or issue outside of the walls of the faculty with which they could then philosophically engage with. Though initially appearing as the perfect antidote to the type of isolation and remoteness I fear philosophy has become subjected to, ironically enough, the results of these projects were shared almost exclusively within the walls of the faculty.
This reluctancy to leave the faculty walls, for the discipline to engage with something that lies outside of itself seems so far removed from what I’ve repeatedly been told philosophy should and does entail. For when looking at philosophy etymologically, one can identify the Greek words Philo and Sophia which, when combined, translate roughly to ‘a love of wisdom’. Such a definition, however, appears to be closer to a state of mind than the job prescription for a professor. Nor does it seem to prescribe the apparent remoteness and sense of isolation I seem to be able to identify. Instead, these seem to be the result of philosophy’s place within the university, which in turn exposed it to processes of professionalization and institutionalization. This professionalization of philosophy, and the intense specialization that accompanied it, demanded of philosophers a quality of publication that required the restricting of one’s attention towards one specific area of the discipline. As a result, the majority of what philosophers publish is gibberish to most, and comprehensible only to those specialized few. Equally, whatever philosophers end up writing about seems minute and trivial to those who have not similarly dedicated themselves to a specific research program.
It would seem then that philosophy has isolated itself from the rest of the world by surrounding itself with walls only those who are already on the inside know how to climb. Developments which, although they are both explainable and understandable, are regrettable, nonetheless. For in my mind, philosophy has much more to offer than it is currently providing. For the critical and skeptical mind of the philosopher, one that knows how to formulate clear and targeted questions should not be locked away somewhere it will go to waste. I think philosophy will be best served amongst the people, there where it can both teach and learn. Philosophers should be more socially engaged, where their ability to take on a meta-perspective and formulate critical arguments can actually be used to bring about change, instead of merely reflecting on it. In order to do so, however, I think philosophy will have to step outside of the university. Step outside of the faculties. If not entirely, then at least partially. This will cause philosophy to change, drastically I would imagine, and this will be a scary process. But then again, they say fortune favors the bold. And whatever philosophy is bound to lose, I truly believe it shall prove to be incomparable with what it stands to gain.
- van de Ven, Thomas. “Wat is filosofie? – Brief aan de filosofiestudent,” in Syllabus Filosofische Vaardigheden (September 2019 version), p. 6-9.
- Flewelling, Colleen K. ‘Introduction,’ in The Social Relevance of Philosophy, p. 1-3. Lexington Books: 2005.
- Tripodi, Vera. “The Professionalization of Philosophy and the Criteria of Philosophical Knowledge.” Transcultural Studies 12 (2016): 216-230.
- Bransen, Jan. Waar filosofen van houden. Leusden: ISVW Uitgevers, 2016
 Translation: What is philosophy? – A letter to the philosophy student.
 Thomas van de Ven, “Wat is filosofie? – Brief aan de filosofiestudent,” in Syllabus Filosofische Vaardigheden (September 2019 version), p. 6.
 Colleen K. Flewelling, ‘Introduction,’ in The Social Relevance of Philosophy.
 Van de Ven, “Wat is filosofie?” p. 9.
 Vera Tripodi, “The Professionalization of Philosophy and the Criteria of Philosophical Knowledge,” Transcultural Studies 12 (2016), p. 218-219.
 Ibid. 220