It is what it is: Its Meaning, Origins, and Philosophical Implications

Explore the profound phrase 'It is what it is.' Uncover its meaning, origins, and the philosophical questions it raises about life and acceptance

Deconstructing 'It is what it is': Understanding Its Meaning, Tracing Origins, and Exploring Profound Philosophical Questions

It is what it is; it remains what it is; that is what it is. Simply put, ‘it is what it is’ is an enigmatic, yet pithy statement, that has entered contemporary language and culture in prevalent and often-repeated ways. Deceptively simple, this three-worded string of words has sparked a host of activities: hermeneutic musings; philosophical, literary and linguistic analyses; and popular and practical considerations. Here, we see the familiar maxim appearing on T-shirts, as tattoos, and in the cultural canon. 

These instances celebrate and condone the resolute acceptance that is routinely attached to the maxim and the practice of uttering it. ‘It is what it is’ is widely regarded as an end – or, at the least, a means – of coping with affliction. But, does its repetition and popular use live up to the promise of its philosophical allure? Is it truly an expression that ‘resists and remakes’? A staple communicative strategy of popular culture, the banality that is ‘it is what it is’ is about all that we might be expected to infer. Or is there more to it than meets the ear? 

Here it is anyway: no doubt about it. For better or worse, good or bad, what is, is. So what? What more could there be to this proposition? 

What follows from this curious affirmation? A lot, as it turns out. Our short contribution has been made with the intention of providing some needed context – historical, semantic, philosophical and otherwise – for the growing presence of ‘it is what it is’ in contemporary culture (and how that eventuated). 

We thought about how these repetitions might correspond to ‘an act of collective faith in the sufficiency of mere description’ and probe its possible source in deep folk wisdom, intuitive appearances and gut-level knowledge of how the world works. 

We also followed our thoughts about popular and folk wisdom to language characteristic of certain psychotherapeutic approaches that mobilise it. Although we resist repeating here the formulaic encouragement that, in this instance, is being offered, we can say that the upshot of our considerations is to make clear that ‘it is what it is’ is not what it appears to be.

Meaning of "It Is What It Is": Embracing Reality

The thing is that it is what it is. It implies that you accept a situation as it currently is, regardless of whether you want it to be like that or whether it’s enticing to alter your perspective to encourage you to start liking it. It can also mean there is nothing you can do about it.

Origins and Cultural Prevalence: From Stoicism to Modern Language

  • Historical Roots: The saying recalls aspects of stoicism, an ancient philosophy that encouraged acceptance of the uncontrollable.

  • Contemporary usage: Since the middle of the 20th century, It is what it is has developed into a well-worn colloquial locution in ordinary speech, literature and the arts.

Philosophical Insights: Acceptance and Resilience

  • Acquiescence to Impermanence: The slogan suggests the acknowledgement that all circumstances are transient, not worth fighting against.

  • Resilience and Inevitability:It is what it is’ highlights the importance of adaptation and responding to reality rather than fighting it.

Navigating Difficult Situations: Practical Applications

  • Public Life: Accepting the little phrase can help individuals cope with tensions and letdowns, knowledge that we’re all finite beings who experience the world from separate standpoints. Ultimately, the little phrase is a reminder that sin implies not an ethical failure, but incompleteness; in the words of Sartre, it means ‘missing the target’. We could all use it to soften any perceptions of being stuck in a morally bleak destination.

  • Solace in Times of Loss and Struggle: A way out of one’s suffering; teaching and testing in the search for emotional equilibrium.

Critique and Nuanced Interpretations:

  • Complacency vs Empowerment: Some think the phrase might make people too complacent, while others think it might empower them to concentrate on parts of the world that are within their control.

Impact on Modern Culture:

  • It is what it is is now a catchphrase in film, TV, music, social media and beyond. Pop culture saved it, pardoning the rhyme.

Embracing the Essence of Acceptance

Ultimately, then, ‘It is what it is’ summarises a philosophy of acceptance, resilience and comprehension in light of life’s unknowns. It is an idiom with ancient roots and modern applications; a way of looking at the world by looking inward, rather than outward.

This at once simple and compelling phrase encapsulates one of the most powerful ideas in the human repertoire, pointing to a place in the flow of life where we can accept, without resistance or valuation, the reality of what is.

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