Beyond Assumption: The Goal of Philosophy is Autonomy
Although philosophy begins with wonder and questions, it does not end there. The reason why you are not a philosopher yet is that you have not questioned most of your beliefs. They are merely the assumptions of your thinking. You believe many things without having thought about them, merely assuming them, sometimes even without evidence or good reasons. Philosophy tries to go beyond the conventional answers to these questions that you often take for granted. Philosophy examines these beliefs, not necessarily to reject them but to learn why we hold them and to ask whether there are good reasons to continue holding them. What the study of philosophy does for you is to make your ideas explicit, to give you the means of defending your assumptions, and to make alternative suppositions available to you as well. In this way, your basic beliefs about reality and life become your own beliefs. You thus gain a kind of independence and freedom, or what some modern philosophers call “autonomy”. The goal of philosophy, then, is autonomy: the freedom of being able to decide for yourself what you will believe in by using your own rationality.
Here is an example. Suppose you have been brought up in a deeply religious family and have had a strong belief in God. After you enter college, you are immediately confronted by fellow students, some of whom you consider close friends and admire in many ways, who are violently anti-religious. Your first reaction will be almost like physical illness; you feel weak, nauseous, flushed, and anxious. You refuse to listen, and if you respond at all, it is with a tinge of hysteria. You feel as if some foundation of your life, one of its main supports, is slipping away. But slowly you gain some confidence; you begin to listen. You begin to ask yourself how you came to believe your religion in the first place, and you may come up with the answer that you are “conditioned” by your parents and society in general. After you look into both sides of the arguments for and against God discussed in your freshman philosophy class, for the first time, you can weight their merits and demerits against each other without defensively holding onto one and attacking the other. After your reflection, you may remain a believer or become an atheist, or you may suspend your judgment for further investigation. Whatever you decide, your position will no longer be naive and unthinking. You have confidence that your position is secure. You gain your autonomy!