Why philosophers?

When I first told friends about my plans to write a book about Spinoza, I got a lot of raised eyebrows, open mouths, and barely suppressed mutterings that sounded a lot like “You must be insane.” But I refuse to believe that teenagers have no interest in philosophy.

Just consider the kinds of questions that philosophers ask. Why are we here? Does the world even have a purpose that makes that question meaningful? What is the best way to achieve happiness? Can we ever truly understand another human being? Is there a God? The list goes on and on.

School of AthensThese questions are important. They hover around us in our passage through life, and our answers to them, whether well considered or not, shape the way we relate to ourselves, to others, and to the world in which we live. They determine our personal lifestyles, our involvement in our communities, our vision of government. They steer us towards religious belief or non-belief, towards activism or quietism, towards novelty or tradition.

Most teenagers I have met know that these sorts of questions matter. When teachers get good discussions going about a meaty question, our students don’t hear the bell signaling the end of the period. I love to watch as students tackle big questions, develop intelligent responses, and address flaws in their own reasoning.

But our thoughts do not arise spontaneously, out of nowhere. People throughout history—whether ancient Greeks, medieval Christians, Renaissance humanists, Enlightenment skeptics, postmodern atheists—have grappled with many of the same issues that continue to occupy us now. Their answers are whetstones against which we can sharpen our own thoughts as well as signposts along the path that has brought us to where we are today.

Unfortunately, books about philosophy and philosophers are often quite difficult, even for adults. Through my writing I am trying to make our grand philosophical heritage accessible to young readers who care about big questions.