Richard Farr wants to help you wrap your head around a happier way of life. Farr has always had a love of words and what we do with them—including deep reflection and contemplation, but he didn’t make those discoveries on his own. In fact, many of the viewpoints he looks forward to sharing in his upcoming course Philosophy and Every Day Life came thanks to a youth devoted to literature. “I had a brilliant High School history teacher who gave me a copy of E.H. Carr's book What is History?” Farr recalls. “It's not a history book - it's a philosophy book by a historian about questions like: what counts as historical knowledge, why are we more interested in some things than other things, what counts as bias, etc. etc. I remember devouring it, amazed, and saying to him (maybe not very diplomatically!) ‘This is so much more interesting than all the other stuff we've been studying!’ Then I read Bertrand Russell's The Problems of Philosophy, and it was like – ‘I've already been thinking about this stuff, and it's totally cool, and no one told me it was even a thing!’”
Farr says though much of philosophy is abstract and technical, he’s always been drawn to the “ethical” aspect, what he describes as the “What’s Life All About” side. “I had the interesting experience of being at a religious school as a teen,” he says. “Not really feeling like I believed what I was being told to believe - and having a very intelligent, liberal-minded school chaplain whose response to that was to actively encourage me to think, read, and talk about those questions. He was saying in effect, as a philosopher would: “Don't just believe what you're told to believe; get some help with working it out for yourself.’”
Students looking to join Philosophy and Every Day Life are not be expected to bring with them a voluminous knowledge of philosophy. Farr stresses the class is not about debating qualities of a belief, but applying them to life’s daily challenges. “I will definitely not be assuming any familiarity with philosophy, and will offer an overview of what philosophy is about - what kind of activity it is, and why people are drawn to it. There's a pretty clear distinction between studying the history of philosophy (what some famous dead people said about certain things in the past, and who influenced whom) and doing the activity called philosophy that they were engaged in.”
Farr points out philosophers don't waste time revering famous dead philosophers. “They engage with them only because they're smart and full of interesting but ambiguous things to say - so it's a bit like saying, ‘OK, we have ten people in the room wanting to discuss what justice really is - but let's open the door and invite Plato and Nietzsche in too, and see what they have to say.’
As Philosophy and Every Day Life is a short introductory course, Farr plans to keep any kind of expansive discourse to a minimum. “I wish to emphasize that we're doing philosophy whenever we ask certain kinds of questions and use our reasoning to try to get clearer about them,” he says. “A lot of this course comes out of the ancient Greek tradition, so I'll be throwing around some names and perhaps-unfamiliar concepts - but those are just tools for helping us to do what Socrates begged the Athenians to do more of: think, talk, listen, think!”
Skepticism is good; in fact, it is a principal part of Farr’s class. “The philosopher Bertrand Russell said that the point of philosophy was not to find the ‘right’ answers but to ‘enlarge our thoughts and free us from the tyranny of custom,’” says Farr. “That's true in many ways. An obvious way is: every human society trains its members to assume certain ideas and values without question - usually, by assuming that ‘my’ society is superior to all others. Philosophy gives you tools for skeptically examining those kinds of largely unquestioned assumptions.”
“Here's a nice controversial example: all Americans are raised to take it totally for granted that the US is not only a democracy but the best of democracies. Yet it's possible to argue, and has been argued (note: I'm not saying it's true!) that this is a convenient illusion - that the US - like all western ‘democracies’ - is really an oligarchy cleverly disguised as a democracy. Without philosophical thinking, a debate like that can't even be imagined. At a more practical level, we are constantly being told to believe X about a product or agree to Y medical advice; doing some philosophy helps train you not to say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ before first saying ‘Wait - actually it's not even clear what you mean by X and Y.’ Feeling confidently independent of other people's half-baked opinions is a real gift!”
Farr says Philosophy in Every Day Life will be a unique opportunity for students to challenge how they see themselves and their world. “Many people never really start philosophizing, because they think the answers to all their questions are obvious - but doubt and curiosity are habit forming, and once you start you may (I hope!) never stop. Above all, I'd come back to that idea of intellectual confidence again: you learn to trust your own judgment more, especially your own judgment of other peoples' judgments. It doesn't mean having all the answers; it means being comfortable with your own understanding of what answers you do and don't have.”
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Learn more about Richard Farr by visiting his website.