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Philosophy as away of life; an introduction – John Symons

Philosophy is a very personal enterprise. Unlike, studying say, communications, business administration, or engineering, the decision to study philosophy, is motivated, not so much by the desire to be famous, rich, or useful as by the desire to understand oneself and the universe more fully.  The opportunity to make space in one’s life for philosophy is a privilege and a luxury, but the urgency of philosophical questions can also feel unavoidable.  All thinking people ask philosophical questions:  How should I live?  What can I know?  What should I care about?  What is real?  Philosophical questions are not answered by running surveys or experiments.  In fact, science alone simply cannot answer these questions.  Science is limited in important ways.  It cannot tell us, for example, whether we should believe the claims of science.  In fact, the value of science is not something that science is in a position to tell us much about.

Basic questions about the nature of value, truth, and reality have engaged many generations of thinkers and continue to occupy a growing cohort of philosophers around the world.  We are all, to some extent, concerned with the answers to these questions.  We all, as Aristotle asserts, by nature, desire to know.  This desire to know, he claims, shows itself in the delight we take in our ability to see, hear, taste, and touch.  We do not simply use our ability to experience the world through the senses in order to pursue some practical goals. We simply value our capacity to experience the world and our ability to distinguish aspects of reality.  We do so independently of whatever practical usefulness experience and perception might have.  It is better to know than to be ignorant.

While we generally value knowledge over ignorance, our path to the specific practice of philosophy can take many different routes.  It usually begins from a private set of concerns and questions.  Problems from one’s own life, questions that one struggles with, feelings that trouble us, are often completely idiosyncratic.  However, once we engage with these things philosophically we very quickly widen and broaden the scope of our inquiry, moving beyond private starting points and practical problems in a way that can help us to achieve deeper understanding. Philosophical inquiry helps us to move from our personal concerns to a more universal or general stance towards those same concerns.  For example, after some incident at work I might begin by wondering whether my boss respects me, this might lead me to wonder about the nature of respect more generally, or why should we care about the respect of others?  What is respect?  When is it warranted? And so on.  I might worry whether my neighbor is deceiving me, and this might prompt a philosophically inclined person to ask whether and to what extent we can ever really know the minds of others.  Rather than asking whether this particular couch is really made of leather, we might move to asking about the nature of reality itself.   Philosophy takes us from the particular circumstances of our own lives to more universal and general concerns.

One ordinary use of the English adjective ‘philosophical’ means a sense of equanimity or peace of mind.  In fact, this points to precisely the effect that philosophical inquiry can have.  Philosophical inquiry can help us to put our own confusions and difficulties into perspective.  In this sense, taking a philosophical stance towards practical problems is sometimes thought to contribute to a kind of calm in the mind of the philosopher. However, philosophy is also rooted in passion. Like the passion of the artist and the poet, Plato described the passion that philosophers feel towards wisdom. This Platonic conception of philosophy is preserved in its name: ‘Philosophy’ is the combination of two Greek words: philein  (to love) and sophia  (wisdom). In some of Plato’s dialogues, philosophy is embodied in his characters as a kind of crazed desire for something beyond the power of finite, mortal beings to achieve.  Unfulfilled desire is the opposite of equanimity. If you are subject to a desire it is not a calm or placid condition. How does this Platonic picture of the philosopher as a being subject to a desire to know, fit with the portrait of the unflappable Socrates who calmly accepts his own death without protest?  There is a way of reconciling the two views of philosophy. In his lectures on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, Alexander Kojeve described philosophy as motivated by the desire for a kind of self-satisfied wisdom; a state in which all questions are answered and all mysteries resolved. Alas, we will never be wise, and yet we strive passionately for wisdom. Perhaps there is something pathological about this kind of desire. The philosophical desire for wisdom, like life itself, involves a tragic component. Understanding this tragic component, understanding one’s goals, understanding how our desires shape us, and understanding how we are limited is a large part of what philosophy provides. Thus, in addition to knowing facts and trying to understand how the world works, the philosopher struggles with the question of what it means to be human.

Throughout its history, philosophy has been portrayed as both pathological and salutary. Most of us find moments of frustration and moments of great satisfaction in philosophical inquiry.  Some of us begin the study of philosophy from a spirit of curiosity, while others are driven to it because the basic philosophical questions are inescapable.  For readers who are looking for some way of studying basic problems in a systematic and disciplined way the tradition of analytic philosophy, which dominates the academic study of the discipline in the English-speaking world offers many great resources.  In these articles for Manaa I will introduce philosophy to you via personal experience using the resources of analytic philosophy.  My goal in these articles is to begin with ordinary, but unavoidable problems, that force us to confront basic philosophical issues.

Many of the questions that we ask in daily life can serve as the starting points for philosophical reflection: We want to know how to choose a career, whether we should marry for love, for financial security or not at all, whether we should take Prozac or other anti-depressants, whether we should abandon career or school in order to devote ourselves to the service of the poor, we want to know how we should evaluate scientific theories, how we should manage questions of public policy, what kind of arts and entertainment are worthy of our attention, whether people are trustworthy, etc. These and many other questions like them play a role in the practical decisions we make.  They also have a purely philosophical component. As mentioned above, there is no science that will tell you how to evaluate science and no human expert can tell you with authority what you ought to ultimately value.   Philosophy involves the challenge of working out questions concerning value, truth, beauty, reality and meaning, for oneself, drawing on the wisdom of tradition, but without unthinkingly simply repeating that traditional wisdom.

In practice, it is often not entirely clear to us, how we make the decisions we finally make. Sometimes, in matters that are relatively straightforward; certain simple financial decisions, etc. We can settle on a clear correct answer that we can defend in simple terms. However, most of our decisions happen because of the obscure and confused pushing and pulling of desires and beliefs. While we might retrospectively project some transparent reasoning process onto our decision-making, often, this is mere rationalization or confabulation. One of the goals of philosophical reflection is to make our ordinary decision-making clearer to us. The philosopher is motivated by the injunction to ‘know thyself’. Coming to know oneself involves learning some skills and cultivating some virtues. Philosophical practice allows us to begin to reflexively question our own settled habits of thought. In practice this is a wonderfully liberating byproduct of studying philosophy. But just because you question old patterns of thought that you had previously accepted, doesn’t mean you will decide to reject them. You might find yourself realizing that in fact you accept what you had always been taught and believed but that now you have an informed understanding of those teachings and beliefs.  It is often the case that we come to understand the wisdom of our grandparents or other elders late in our own lives.

After studying philosophy, you will find that you have become more conceptually nimble. I’m not exactly sure how this happens, but people who study philosophy tend to be able to see relationships between concepts that others might miss. They also recognize and work to understand the complexity of simple-seeming concepts. Concepts like love, consciousness, truth, or beauty for example, might seem simple, but as we shall see, they are rich and complex.  As we question the nature of important and simple seeming concepts, we gain understanding that illuminates our lives and improves our decision-making.

One of the more challenging aspects of philosophical investigation is that it compels you to recognize that you ought to become a more responsible thinker. We live in a period in history in which stupidity, and stubbornness are seen as virtues in large parts of the popular culture in the West. At its best, philosophy is humbling.  It forces us to recognize our own shortcomings as thinkers. It also requires courage.  It is difficult to have the courage to change your mind when you’re wrong. It’s very difficult, especially in Western cultures where consumer choice and preference is glorified and manipulated, for many of us to recognize the difference between opinion and truth and for us to avoid accepting claims simply because they are pleasant or nice. Philosophical investigation challenges, rather than panders.

In this series of articles, for Manaa I will introduce philosophy to you by going deeper into aspects of ordinary life that elicit philosophical questions.  Questions about knowledge, reality, and meaning, emerge naturally from our aspects of our daily life.  I hope that you will find that philosophical inquiry is not only urgent and unavoidable, but also gratifying and illuminating.

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