This afternoon I went to a philosophy lecture. There were students and faculty from philosophy as well as history, English, classics, religion, Spanish, and creative writing, and a couple of librarians to boot. The topic was Rousseau, specifically Rousseau’s attitude toward philosophy. The question: does philosophy make us happier, or does it, by revealing the flaws of what we think and believe, “undermine” us?
“Philosophy” in this sense is the habit of mind that leads us to ask “why” and “what if it were otherwise” and “how do I know?” In other words, it’s the fundamental habit of mind that a Sweet Briar education — like an education at any fine liberal arts college — promotes, a habit of mind that questions assumptions, challenges received wisdom, and interrogates common sense. And Rousseau and many other philosophers have asked whether, all things considered, that kind of thinking might do more harm than good.
All of in the room, I think, could tell stories about moments when education had in fact destabilized or confounded us; moments when we discovered that what we took for granted had been rejected by minds much more brilliant than ours, that what we had always believed to be true clearly wasn’t. At moments like that, we’ve all felt as if the ground has been cut out from under our feet, as if we’ve literally been undermined.
And yet, I’ll bet that not a person in the Browsing Room believed that a philosophical habit of mind is inimical to happiness. We were gathered there precisely because we’re committed to the expansion of possibility, the awakening of insight, and the deeper understanding of humanity that can follow from those moments of intellectual disequilibrium.
I left the lecture thinking that this may be why community seems so essential to liberal education. It would be possible to encounter those questions and experience that disequilibrium alone. But in a community of fellow philosophers, other people seeking truth and understanding in a spirit of mutual respect, it’s much harder to lose yourself. With guides and fellow travelers, moments of disorientation are much less troubling, and it’s more likely that all will find what they’re seeking.