OnWords: Philosophy

May 16, 2017

I recently heard a well-respected radio host describe Donald Trump’s “America First” approach as a (quote) “philosophy.”

Hearing this caused me a bit of cognitive dissonance.

Etymologically, “philosophy” is a love of knowledge or wisdom—qualities I don’t see a lot of in current politics in general, and considerably less so in this particular administration. But, like many of you, I was trained in philosophy’s more formal meaning: a system of internally consistent and logically related principles.

Again, I feel more cognitive dissonance when this definition is applied to president Trump’s “America First” approach, which can’t decide if Vladimir Putin is charlatan or saint.

So is philosophy, like so many terms these days, approaching meaninglessness through overuse? That’s possible. But another interpretation is that the word “philosophy,” rather than being overused, is poorly used because it’s underused.

As much as the word “philosophy” can be helpful when we’re looking for terms to describe a collection of statements about the world, philosophy as a field is generally dismissed as irrelevant to actual life, as somehow the opposite of “practicality.” Rather than being merely the realm inscrutable dead, white men, analyzing their internal rationality can help us determine the quality of the statements of our current batch of powerful, white men. For example, we can use philosophy to critique the logical inconsistencies between promises of health care for all and market-based solutions that demand profit.

So perhaps the key to better uses of the word “philosophy” would be the actual application of philosophy itself.