One of my favorite things about studying philosophy is that the practice of critical thinking and argumentative analysis develops one’s skills in thinking outside of the box. It helps one see how one idea connects to another, how one assumption leads to a certain conclusion, and in life, it helps us better understand how and why things are the way that they are. But the best thing about better understanding how and why things are the way that they are is that this helps identify, more precisely, where we can direct our energy and attention in order to makes some dramatic changes. We can see that our lives and experiences haven’t always been as they are and they don’t necessary have to remain as such. In other words, the real value of engaging with a type of philosophical thinking does not derive from generating descriptive accounts of what is but rather from wondering what could be. And in many ways, this practice takes us far beyond any dependence on “Truth.”
One method of deconstructing our belief that things are the way they are because they have to be that way (“Always have been and always will be!”) is that of conducting a genealogy. It’s a way of looking back and seeing that certain events, turns in thought, and shifts in values are what led to where we are right now. This is a process of uncovering that this – what we have, know, and experience right now – is not how things always have been or even have to be. Instead, it is revealed that what is right here and now is simply the result of how things became. But just because our events, thoughts, and values so far have developed into what we’ve got – the status quo – that doesn’t mean that it has to remain the same. Ladelle McWhorter explains, “Genealogies simply undermine particular knowledges or knowledge systems by casting doubt on claims that assert themselves as fully justified. By marshaling overlooked evidence, a genealogy shows a community of believers that those claims are not fully justified according to their own standards of justification…Timeless, universal truth does not enter into the picture at all on this construal…universal truth at the genealogical level is simply irrelevant…[One] only has to show that his genealogical stories are better justified than those histories” (Bodies and Pleasures, 49).
Wait. What happened to truth?
The other thing that I’ve learned from studying philosophy is that Truth is a dangerous thing. That is, Truth with a capital “T” is dangerous because it closes off any route to new ways of thinking. It suggests, “This is the answer.” And if one claims to have the answer then one is too tempted to say, “I’m right and you’re wrong.” This is obviously super scary when the “Truth” that one asserts is used to justify the harmful, violent, and abusive treatment of others. If one says, “The Truth is that White people are more advanced, more intelligent, and more moral (or beautiful, blessed, rational, valuable, civilized, etc.) than any other group of people.” (Obviously, substitute “White” with any other dominant group throughout history and you’ll have a lovely recipe for oppression and domination on your hands.)
One could offer a counter-argument and say, “That’s not true at all!” and develop an account of what really is the case: “This disenfranchised group of people is just as moral, rational, valuable, etc.” But to argue in terms of truth, or by using competing truth claims, can easily devolve into a fundamental and insurmountable disagreement. And then we’re met with the problem again of justifying our premises and assumptions. It’s an uncomfortable problem that can be very frustrating, especially when the argument focuses on something so important as social justice and moral rightness. Well, here’s a little video that I did that explains how I deal with these types of confrontations. I know that “Truth” is shaky, but that doesn’t mean that we have to settle by “agreeing to disagree.” We can still justify why one view is better than the other.
Arguing in these ways, in the interest of improving our lives and experiences, might sound “ultra-progressive” but it is not at all removed from the fundamental motivations that inspired Western philosophy so many thousands of years ago. Martha Nussbaum notes that all of the Hellenistic schools of ancient Greece and Rome (the Stoics, Cynics, Skeptics, Stoics, Epicureans) “dedicate themselves to the searching critique of prevailing cognitive authority, and to the amelioration of human life as a result. All develop procedures and strategies that are aimed not only at individual efficacy, but also at the creation of a therapeutic community, a society set over against the existing society, with different norms and different priorities” (The Therapy of Desire, 40). Thinking outside of the box to change ourselves and the status quo has always been the highest goal of philosophy.