What comes to mind when you first hear the word “philosophy?” If you think of ancient Greeks stoically pontificating or a bespectacled professor in an ivory tower, then I would like to enlighten your potentially negative view of the subject. Together, we’ll use The Princess Bride to “have fun storming the castle” of said ivory tower which ought to be open to all. See, philosophy makes the world come alive to me with tangible ideas and electrifying mysteries.
“Oh, that’s cool for you,” I can hear you say, “but I’m not a philosopher because that stuff is confusing and pointlessly esoteric.” Now, I understand not everyone is as hostile to deep thinking as that imaginary caricature just opined. Some of you may be interested in the aptly-named “love of wisdom” but find it baffling, no matter how in vogue it is. Look, I’m fascinated by the subject and sometimes I’m completely stumped. I relish the challenge of learning, so it just encourages me to keep digging.
I’m here to tell you that you are a philosopher, too. Everyone is a philosopher. Here’s what I mean — every single person, whether they’ve put much thought into it or not, has a worldview. Your worldview is how you perceive reality and live life.
Philosophy makes the world come alive with tangible ideas and electrifying mysteries.
More simply, your worldview is your own personal philosophy (to use the term generically). That’s why philosophy is important: it’s so much more than sitting serenely on a rock and asking “why?” You aren’t just a philosopher when you have #ShowerThoughts — you do philosophy every single day.
I’ll prove it. We need a little preamble before getting to The Princess Bride, though.
Mental Reality Is Philosophy
Any time you think about life, or reality, or God, or truth, or logic, or anything related to why things are the way they are, you are doing philosophy. You are a philosopher. This is one of the many lessons I learned over a decade ago in my intro to philosophy class in college: Even though I have no degree in the subject and my passion for it doesn’t prevent me from sometimes hitting a wall in understanding some deep concept, I am still a philosopher (in the non-tenured sense). In addition to finding stimulation from my study of the subject, it also makes me a better writer, as Nico Ryan points out in The Understanding Project:
Philosophical study will benefit you as a writer because exceptional writing is, at its core, the product of exceptional thinking.
So, this essay should give you a rudimentary foundation in the essential concepts of philosophy and why you should learn more about it.
I’m about to get technical, but don’t panic.
Philosophy is defined by Dr. Richard G. Howe as “the attempt to think rationally and critically about the most important questions.” This field of thought is normally broke down into three branches and three eras. Don’t worry about memorizing all of this; familiarity will suffice.
The three categories are Metaphysics, Epistemology and Axiology.
Metaphysics is the study of non-physical reality. (If that sounds like a contradiction, then you should contemplate this further!) Subcategories include First Principles (laws of logic), Natural Theology, and Ontology, the study of being.
Epistemology is the study of knowing, and is concerned with truth, belief, and justification for those beliefs (belief meaning an idea, not a religious conviction). Epistemology asks, “What can we know, and how can we know it, and why should we trust it?”
Axiology is the study of value, and is usually split into ethics (morality) and aesthetics (beauty). It is therefore more subjective than the other two, more objective branches.
The three main eras are Premodern, Modern, and Postmodern.
Premodernism refers to all ancient philosophers, from Greeks like Aristotle all the way through the Medieval period like Aquinas. Most of these thinkers based their concepts on metaphysical claims. Vizzini (below) thinks they’re morons.
Modernism began during the European Enlightenment; this was when philosophers became more concerned with rational epistemic proofs than metaphysical theories. Think of Kant, Descarte, or Locke.
Postmodernism is what took over in the 20th century following the mass slaughter of two world wars; axiology became the most prioritized area of thought in an effort to prevent more atrocities. This influence is still with us today with the cross-eyed Postmodern focus on equality on the one hand and moral relativism on the other.
If you want a more in-depth look at the history of philosophy, I recommend Dr. Paul Maxwell’s 28 minute crash course on YouTube.
That’s all you need to know, right?
Not quite.… Keep reading.
I’m going to take you through a plethora of cinematic examples from that timeless classic, The Princess Bride, to show you just how prevalent philosophy is in your life. Let us glimpse the myriad of ways philosophy can affect one’s life, especially in a far-off land of fencing, fighting, true love, and miracles.
Philosophy in Cinema: The Princess Bride
Philosophy is in cinema because it’s part of the fabric of reality. Recall the above gif in which Vizzini insults the major Premodern thinkers. He’s attempting to deduce which cup has been poisoned by Westley before he drinks on of them — a battle of wits.
Vizzini assumes only one cup has been tainted, as evidenced by his back-and-forth reasoning on which glass to choose. This is an Epistemological assumption, since he thinks he has reliable knowledge (a justified true belief) on which to base his theory. This turns out to be a logical fallacy because he didn’t realize that the options of the cups being poisoned or not were not mutually exclusive — they were both poisoned. Vizzini’s error of logic (Metaphysics) related to his source and reliability of knowledge (Epistemology) causes his hilarious demise.
Later in the story, the six-fingered villain Count Rugen claims to have used a water-powered device to suck one year of Westley’s life away. While this is an exaggerated, fantastical claim to our realistic, scientific standards, it’s a sobering Metaphysical question in the realm of the story. Westley physically suffers from this life-sucking procedure, making us wonder: can a body’s life force, or time-to-live, be removed and stored by a machine? If it’s true in the storyworld, then Westley is in great danger!
In the same scene, Count Rugen asks, “How does that make you feel? This is for posterity, so be honest.” His desire for Westley’s subjective opinion and correlating its worth with its temporal endurance show his personal Axiology, or theory of value.
Axiology typically focuses on morality and beauty, but Count Rugen is one of the bad guys, so he doesn’t care about objective goodness or beauty. He believes other aspects of life possess greater value, and makes decisions that hurts others accordingly. That’s his personal ethical framework, and is most definitely a flaw in his character. From a storytelling perspective, this making him a “good villain,” if you’ll forgive the phrase.
This differs from Westley’s Axiology when he compares Inigo’s swordsmanship to artistry, and would “rather destroy a stained-glass window” than kill the Spaniard.
Vizzini’s error of Metaphysics and Epistemology causes his hilarious demise.
Okay, one more example before we storm the castle.
Finally, in the Fire Swamp, Buttercup and Westley must dodge quicksand and fire spurts to survive. Buttercup fearfully raises another question: “What about the ROUSs?” That is, the giant rats called Rodents of Unusual Size?
Westley’s quip before being attacked by a ROUS is first and foremost a false truth claim (Epistemology) meant to reassure Buttercup. Still, in another sense, it is an Ontological (and thus Metaphysical) assertion about local rodent megafauna which do in fact exist in the Fire Swamp! Why lie, you ask? Because Westley morally values (Axiology) her emotional state over her zoological accuracy.
See? All three branches of philosophy covered in one scene from a beloved 1980s fantasy action comedy. Want something a bit more up-to-date? I’ll do you one better! Do you ever find yourself trying to figure out why is Gamora?
If Drax can do philosophy, so can you!
You see, there is no facet of life disconnected, even tangentially, from philosophy. If you’re trying to assess whether I’m right or not, then you’re doing philosophy right now. Rest assured, you don’t have to become an expert; just be familiar with the concepts so you can determine if a claim or idea is logical and relevant. Professor of Philosophy David Egan weighs in:
How is philosophy useful? The response I’ve learned to counter with is that the question being asked is itself a philosophical question. …In other words, we’re all doing philosophy all the time. We can’t escape the question of what matters and why: the way we’re living is itself our implicit answer to that question. A large part of a philosophical training is to make those implicit answers explicit, and then to examine them rigorously. …If we can’t avoid living philosophically, it seems sensible to learn to do it well.
Similarly, The New Heretics point out that “if you do not control and shape your philosophy, it will not stop you from forming one…it will just simply be a very poor one.”
You may be thinking that this is all well and good, but it doesn’t affect you since your concept of reality, your worldview, seems to work fine for you and has for most of your life, thank you very much. Perhaps…but I’m not done since one’s philosophy touches much more than a person’s intellectual fortitude. Paramount to everyone’s life is his or her philosophy of God — your theology. Just like you are a philosopher, you are also a theologian, even if unknowingly or unwillingly.
You Are a Theologian
Ugh. He’s talking about religion.
No, not exactly. Religion and theology are not synonyms, as the venerable Dr. R. C. Sproul explains in his book Everyone Is a Theologian:
The study of religion has traditionally come under the broader context of either sociology or anthropology, because religion has to do with the worship practices of human beings in particular environments. Theology, by contrast, is the study of God. There is a big difference between studying human apprehensions of religion and studying the nature and character of God Himself. …He is the foundation and source of all other truth. Everything we learn — economics, philosophy, biology, mathematics — has to be understood in light of the overarching reality of the character of God. That is why, in the Middle Ages, theology was called ‘the queen of the sciences’ and philosophy ‘her handmaiden.’
As the handmaiden to theology, the two disciplines are best understood as connected and mutually supportive. In fact, as Dr. Howe elucidates, the two often use the same tools of logic and deduction. This is even more true, not less, in our scientific age. Thus, philosophy should harmonize with theology. In fact, as Dr. Brian Huffling points out, it’s impossible to not use philosophy when doing theology. Just like philosophy is unavoidable to all, so is theology. Maxwell puts it thusly: “Even atheists have a theology, but it’s just three words: ‘God doesn’t exist.’”
All of this matters because your philosophy and theology make your worldview, which then informs how you think, treat others, and treat yourself. If there’s one thing you take away from this article, it’s that: even if you don’t think you have a philosophy, or don’t need a theology, you already have both. Have you ever examined that which you take for granted about your own existence? These are questions all people ought to consider — not just Westley, Buttercup, Inigo, and Fezzik. What type of philosophy do you embody, and how does it affect your life? Let me know in the comments below.