On Understanding

Philosophy is the love of wisdom. But what does it mean to have wisdom; what does it mean to be wise? To me philosophy is about coming to an understanding about the nature of something. That understanding is based upon one’s knowledge and experiences, and therefore, will most likely never stop changing as new knowledge and experiences are acquired. Speaking with people who have different knowledge and experiences can help reinforce or even make one question their own ideals, whether it be by agreement or disagreement.


By speaking with people who have many different experiences, knowledge, and viewpoints, wisdom, knowledge and understanding is gained. However, that may not be completely consistent with the strange enigma that is the “Irrational opponent.” This is a person who has no logical reason at all for their stances (which makes their arguments sometimes comically idiotic), and are frustratingly stubborn in those stances. I have much experience with this particular type of person, most of which have been denoted as negative and unproductive experiences. I particularly recall (on more than one occasion) my uncle spewing baseless statements over the dinner table as my brother, father, and I retaliate with reasonable ones. Most often he continues speaking over us, completely disregarding our statements. In fact, our attempts at compromise and understanding are furiously rejected, and serve as fuel for his anger as he continues the argument that ultimately goes nowhere. We have all learned to stay quiet when my uncle says something that might be a pathway to a lengthy and unproductive argument. He is not the only person I’ve met who exhibits these traits, but he is the one who has made the biggest impression.


One thing that must be mentioned is this: if someone makes arguments with logical reasoning, they are rational; even if you disagree with them greatly. Also, if a person makes an illogical argument, but is able to come to a logical understanding by the end of the conversation, they are also rational. It is the unwillingness to understand a well-founded argument that characterizes the irrational opponent.


In the article Philosophy as a Conversation, Cartina Novaes speaks about ‘virtuous adversariality,’ and about manners used to produce cooperative exchanges. This, I think, should be especially applied when speaking to opponents who have ideals that conflict particularly with one’s own. One must remain civil, as in a conversation, it is the goal to reach some kind of mutual understanding of the topic or to understand the other’s perspective, even if the participants still disagree on several things. Without civil manners of speaking, a lot gets said, but not much gets done. It’s more like two people yelling for brick walls to move, and expecting them to comply because of the sheer willpower in their voices. Nothing is going to happen, no matter how compelling the argument is. I personally value discussions filled with mutual compromise and understanding, because they end with everyone better understanding their own and others’ beliefs, instead of ending in the participants walking away without having achieved anything.


In the article Talk With Me by Nigel Warburton, the author quotes the first chapter of On Liberty (1859) by John Stuart Mill, which says “Dissenters are of great value even if they are largely or even totally mistaken In their beliefs.” This can be true, but it is something that must be elaborated on. As previously stated, an illogical opponent can still be a rational one, as they may be able to come to an understanding by the end of the conversation, but even, albeit occasionally, a mistaken dissenter who Is unwilling to understand their opponent, aka. an irrational opponent, is occasionally useful for asking questions no one else would. This is useful because it will force the one speaking to the irrational opponent to think up a response they would have never thought of before. This helps a person flesh out their ideas and opinions, and often sparks a person’s passion about the discussed topic.


Throughout this article I have written about the importance of understanding, and about what happens when one refuses to understand another, and becomes an irrational opponent. Understanding, to me, is the foundation of philosophical thought and discussion, and it is the drive to understand that created Philosophy in the first place. The more diverse people with a disparity of experiences a person speaks to, the more that person can understand the world from many perspectives, and the less biased their ideas will be to solely their own experiences. That kind of understanding is a wonderful thing, and speaking to people who will question the merit of your ideas is the kind of thing that a philosopher lives for, because it helps them understand themselves and others more. To be wise is to understand the world for what it is. Why wouldn’t you love wisdom?