Why We Need Philosophy In PME

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‘If [people] cannot think well, others will do their thinking for them.’ 

– George Orwell

Professional military education (PME) underpins the study of the profession of arms within the defence community. It enables the transfer of knowledge, wisdom, and experience within services. Without PME, modern militaries would be failing as professional organisations given their responsibility to promote the development of ‘warrior-scholars’. 

However, PME which focuses solely on the military isn’t enough. PME is holistic; it encompasses not just technical and tactical mastery of military matters but also personal development of character and judgement. Here philosophy has much to offer, providing a valuable tool for understanding ourselves and the world around us.

Philosophy is literally a ‘love of wisdom’– it is the rational, abstract, and methodical consideration of reality as a whole or of fundamental dimensions of human existence and experience. This is, in essence, learning and applying various frameworks to provide insight and practical guidance to address real world situations and challenges. 

This begs the question: why study philosophy as part of PME?

We each have our own philosophy, our own way of interpreting the world. Studying the philosophies of others can help us to deliberately develop our own worldviews. It does this through exposing us to new ideas and challenging our assumptions and beliefs, things that can often exist subconsciously. 

Exposure to new ideas coupled with critical self-reflection does two things. 

First, it helps us to deliberately choose who we are and what we believe, as opposed to letting our beliefs and values be solely the result of our environment. 

Second, it protects us from the influence of harmful ideas. 

Philosophy achieves both by forcing us to recognize why we believe something, rather than just what we believe. It helps us to think independently and to critically consider ideas, rather than accept blindly and be slave to the thinking of others. Deliberately developing ourselves in this way leads to better self-awareness, which leads to better judgement and leadership.

This concept is reinforced by an article on the widely read blog Farnam Street about Ayn Rand’s thoughts on the importance of philosophy. While Ayn Rand is often seen as a controversial figure, this does not preclude the value of her thoughts on the topic. (Doing so would be to fall victim to the genetic logical fallacy). 

Philosophy not only aids in developing our intellectual judgement but is an important basis for moral and ethical thinking. Many philosophers discuss ethics in their thinking, such as Aristotle exploring virtue ethics and the golden mean in Nicomachean Ethics, or the ethics of care established by Nel Noddings and Carol Gilligan.

In studying the philosophies of others, we can understand the differences between people, especially where this may have a uniquely cultural dimension. The study of philosophy can help to understand the deeper ‘why’ behind what drives other people and groups in their actions. This can either be used to interpret actions in the appropriate context or to develop strategies to counter or exploit certain aspects of their thinking. Philosophy aims to help us to better identify and understand the challenges we encounter in the world, and so studying philosophy is an important part of accessing that capacity.

Getting started in philosophy can often seem like a daunting task. It can be difficult to decide where and what to start with, so let me be your guide. There’s a plethora of literature from which to start studying philosophy which encompasses simple introductions through to textbooks and classic scholarly works. 

For a general introduction, Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder is an excellent book that provides a broad overview of notable philosophers and their ideas. Other books include the great works, such as Meditations by Marcus Aurelius[1](famous for his approach to Stoicism), Henry David Thoreau’s Walden and Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s Army Life in a Black Regiment. Complementing this body of literature is a variety of online multi-media sources that include the Philosophy channel on YouTube as well as websites dedicated to philosophy education, ranging from blogs, like Philosophy Talk, to university websites, like MIT’s philosophy courses

Another source is Philosophy Now: A Magazine of Ideas which is the most widely read English philosophy periodical and aims to “corrupt innocent citizens by convincing them that philosophy can be exciting, worthwhile and comprehensible”. In a recent interview with Grounded Curiosity, Regimental Sergeant Major-Army Grant McFarlane recommended this as an essential part of junior leader professional development

Philosophy offers an important addition to the curriculum of professional military education, one that looks beyond purely military matters. Philosophy, and its study, are important parts of holistically developing as military professionals and leaders. It can help us to better define and understand ourselves, to armour us against hostile ideas and to aid us in understanding the perspectives and beliefs of others. To not study philosophy or critically consider philosophical thought means giving up a tool uniquely suited to interpreting ourselves and the world around us. 

About the Author: Officer Cadet Chris Wooding is a trainee officer in the Australian Army. He is currently at the Australian Defence Force Academy studying a Bachelor of Science, majoring in Mathematics and Computer Science. He has a strong interest in military history, strategy and how to think better. You can follow him on Twitter @cr_wood1.

[1] As a note, there are many different translations of Meditations, not all of which are the same and may offer different interpretations of the same source material.