What is Philosophy – and what’s it for?

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People are understandably confused about what philosophy is. From a distance, it seems weird, irrelevant, boring and yet also – just a little – intriguing. But it’s hard to put a finger on what the interest really is. What are philosophers? What do they do? And why does one need them?

Luckily, the answer is already contained in the word philosophy itself. In Greek, philo means love – or devotion – and sophia means wisdom. Philosophers are people devoted to wisdom.

Though a rather abstract term, the concept of ‘wisdom’ isn’t mysterious. Being wise means attempting to live and die well, leading as good a life as possible within the troubled conditions of existence. The goal of wisdom is fulfilment. You could perhaps say ‘happiness’ but ‘happiness’ is misleading, for it suggests continuous chirpiness and joy, whereas ‘fulfilment’ seems compatible with a lot of pain and suffering, which every decent life must by necessity have.

So a philosopher or ‘person devoted to wisdom’ is someone who strives for systematic expertise at working out how one may best find individual and collective fulfilment.

In their pursuit of wisdom, philosophers have developed a very specific skill-set. They have, over the centuries, become experts in many of the general, large things that make people not very wise. Six central ones have been identified:

1. We don’t ask big questions

What is the meaning of life? What should I do with my work? Where are we going as a society? What is love? Most of us have these questions in our minds at some point (often in the middle of the night), but we despair of trying to answer them. They have the status of jokes in most social circles: and we get shy of expressing them (except for brief moments in adolescence) for fear of being thought pretentious and of getting nowhere.

But these questions matter deeply because only with sound answers to them can we direct our energies meaningfully.

Philosophers are people unafraid of the large questions. They have, over the centuries, asked the very largest. They realise that these questions can always be broken down into more manageable chunks and that the only really pretentious thing is to think one is above regularly raising naive-sounding enquiries.

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2. We are vulnerable to errors of common sense

Public opinion – or what gets called ‘common sense’ – is sensible and reasonable in countless areas. It’s what you hear about from friends and neighbours, the stuff that’s just assumed to be true, the stuff you take in without even thinking about it. The media pumps it out by the gallon every day. But in some cases, common sense is also full of daftness, error and the most lamentable prejudice.

Philosophy gets us to submit all aspects of common sense to reason. It wants us to think for ourselves, to be more independent. Is it really true what people say about love, about money, about children, about travel, about work? Philosophers are interested in asking whether an idea is logical – rather than simply assuming it must be right because it is popular and long-established.

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3. We are mentally confused

We’re not very good at knowing what goes on in our own minds. We know we really like a piece of music. But we struggle to say quite why. Or someone we meet is very annoying, but we can’t pin down what the issue is. Or we lose our temper, but can’t readily tell what we’re so cross about. We lack insight into our own satisfactions and dislikes.

That’s why we need to examine our own minds. Philosophy is committed to self-knowledge – and its central precept – articulated by the earliest, greatest philosopher, Socrates – is just two words long: Know yourself.

4. We have muddled ideas about what will make us happy

We’re powerfully set on trying to be happy, but go wrong in our search for it on a regular basis. We overrate the power of some things to improve our lives – and underrate others. In a consumer society, we make the wrong choices because, guided by false glamour, we keep on imagining that a particular kind of holiday, or car, or computer will make a bigger difference than it can. At the same time, we underestimate the contribution of other things – like going for a walk, tidying a cupboard, having a structured conversation or going to bed early – which may have little prestige but can contribute deeply to the character of existence.

Philosophers seek to be wise by getting more precise about the activities and attitudes that really can help our lives to go better.

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5. Our emotions can send us in dangerous directions

We are inescapably emotional beings but regularly forget this uncomfortable fact. Occasionally certain emotions – certain kinds of anger, envy or resentment – lead us into serious trouble. Philosophers teach us to think about our emotions, rather than simply have them. By understanding and analysing our feelings, we learn to see how emotions impact on our behaviour in unexpected, counterintuitive and sometimes dangerous ways. Philosophers were the first therapists.

6. We panic and lose perspective

We are constantly losing a sense of what matters and what doesn’t. We are – as the expression goes – constantly ‘losing perspective’. That’s what philosophers are good at keeping a hold of. On hearing the news that he’d lost all his possessions in a shipwreck, the Stoic philosopher Zeno simply said: ‘Fortune commands me to be a less encumbered philosopher.’ It’s responses like these that have made the very term ‘philosophical’ a byword for calm, long-term thinking and strength-of-mind, in short, for perspective.

What we call the ‘history of philosophy‘ is made up of repeated attempts over the centuries to address ways in which we are unwise. So, for example, in ancient Athens, Socrates paid special attention to the problem of how people get confused in their minds. He was struck that people didn’t quite know what they meant by key ideas – like courage or justice or success – even though these were the main ideas they used when talking about their own lives. Socrates developed a method (which still bears his name) by which you can learn to get clearer about what you mean by playing devil’s advocate with any idea. The aim isn’t necessarily to change your mind. It is to test whether the ideas guiding your life are sound.

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A few decades later, the philosopher Aristotle tried to make us more confident around big questions. He thought that the best questions were those that ask what something is for. He did this a lot and over many books, asked: What is government for? What is the economy for? What is money for? What is art for? Today he would be encouraging us to ask questions like: What is the news media for? What is marriage for? What are schools for? What is pornography for?

Also active in Ancient Greece were the Stoic philosophers, who were interested in panic. The Stoics noticed a really central feature of panic: we panic not just when something bad occurs, but when it does so unexpectedly, when we were assuming that everything was going to go rather well. So they suggested that we should arm ourselves against panic by getting used to the idea that danger, trouble and difficulty are very likely to occur at every turn.

The overall task of studying philosophy is to absorb these and many other lessons and put them to work in the world today. The point isn’t just to know what this or that philosopher happened to say, but to aim to exercise wisdom at an individual and societal level – starting now.

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The wisdom of philosophy is – in modern times – mostly delivered in the form of books. But in the past, philosophers sat in market squares and discussed their ideas with shopkeepers or went into government offices and palaces to give advice. It wasn’t abnormal to have a philosopher on the payroll. Philosophy was thought of as a normal, basic activity – rather than as an unusual, esoteric, optional extra.

Nowadays, it’s not so much that we overtly deny this thought – we are always getting snippets of wisdom here and there – but we just don’t have the right institutions set up to promulgate wisdom coherently in the world. In the future, though, when the value of philosophy is a little clearer, we can expect to meet more philosophers in daily life. They won’t be locked up, living mainly in university departments, because the points at which our unwisdom bites – and messes up our lives – are multiple and urgently need attention right now.

To embark on a life led by philosophy, please visit: www.theschooloflife.com

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