Philosophy as Fashion 7 September 2006Posted by ABD in ABD, Culture, Philosophy, Politics.
As a student of philosophy, I am often confronted with the question, “Why?” As in, “Why would you do that to yourself?” Or “Why not do something useful instead?” These questions indicate the near impossibility of selling the worth of philosophy to someone who does not already find it worthy. Let me concede at the outset, then, that the strongest reason to study philosophy (i.e., that the examination of life’s biggest questions is its own reward) is the least convincing. But perhaps a weaker reason will suffice.
Leaving philosophy aside for the moment, consider the world of catwalks. I have never been to one (or on one), but it seems clear even to me that what the models are wearing this season is not in season. I doubt that anyone, anywhere, at any time of day or year would actually want to look like a peacock, voodoo doll or contemporary art installation.
That’s not the point, you might say. What the models are wearing represents the designer’s exploration of a new theme or trend in fashion. And I would agree. If the outfits are to make any sense, we must see them as deliberate exaggerations (as I imagine the models would be if we met them in real life). They are not meant to be worn but inspire.
What the designers, catwalks and models inspire in Paris in the spring might find its way (in some modified form) into European designer boutiques that year, into American department stores (in some further modified form) by the following spring, and into Mexican strip malls and Indian bazaars in another four to six years. “That is so last season” inevitably depends on where you stand in the fashion chain: season is as season wears.
Like retracing the clothes we wear, we can also retrace the origins of the words we use in everyday conversation. I believe that when words matter (i.e., where description turns readily to discussion and discussion to debate), they ultimately stem from competing philosophical views. By this I don’t mean that the original meaning of the words was philosophical, but rather that their current meaning is some diluted, vulgarized or otherwise modified version of an original philosophical claim.
Consider some of our buzzwords today. Freedom. Democracy. Diversity. Rights. What we mean by these words in a typical political conversation today may be substantially different from earlier uses in earlier conversations. The differences are the product of philosophy. Some of these differences require close study, but others are readily apparent to most of us (e.g., the substitution of faith for religion, relationship for marriage, partner for husband/wife, chairperson for chairman, and so on). In recovering an earlier meaning of the same word (or an earlier word for the desired meaning), we discover an alternative understanding, perspective or strategy that might illuminate our current condition.
A significant benefit of studying philosophy, then, is to be able to understand the origins of our current political and ethical vocabulary. Another is to participate in the philosophical conversations that will determine the vocabularies of tomorrow–like a Parisian designer that no one knows but everyone wears.
Here’s a final thought. Muslims will sometimes complain of being confronted with impossible choices: faith or freedom, tradition or progress, violence or acquiescence. Just like the question “Have you stopped beating your wife?” puts someone in a bind because it has been framed in terms he cannot agree with, so to with these words. But philosophy teaches us to wriggle out of the confines of particular questions and particular words. It reminds us that wider alternatives are available.
If we can learn how to play the game, we can also turn it around.