What is philosophy and why should I care?

It happened again. This time in a public place. I was walking with the crowd into Central Station when I stopped to talk to one of the charity workers who hover like butterflies about the station entrance. These guys usually freak me out a bit – with their friendly handshake that holds you in place and their sales patter cloaked as bonhomie – but I was feeling playful on the day, and so I went along with it, waiting for my chance to explain how I was already donating to a handful of charities and would rather keep my credit card details to myself, thank you very much.

The spruiker must have picked me for a tough sell because he played the long game. Instead of diving straight into an account of his employer’s good works, he decided to inquire into mine.

‘That’s an interesting set of sideburns you’re sporting, mate’, he said. ‘I bet you have an interesting job. What do you do?’

Did I groan aloud? I’m pretty sure I swallowed it. But I knew what was coming.

‘Well, I write’, I said. My interlocutor beamed expectantly. ‘Philosophy’, I added, after a pause. ‘I am a philosopher’.

That killed it. It always does. I’ve never had a hostile reaction from anyone. But the response is rarely what I’d consider positive. Usually, you see a glazed look appear in the other’s eyes. I imagine cogs and wheels turning in their brain as they try to slot you into some recognizable social role. Philosophers don’t fit – that’s the problem. A philosophy academic passes muster because he or she has an office, working hours, a salary and tax bracket – all the things that go to comprise a recognizable social function. But philosophers per se have no function. It confuses people.

‘Philosophy’, the spuiker replied, recovering himself. ‘That’s great! So … what is your philosophy?’

What is my philosophy? I’d like, if you don’t mind, to hold off on this question for a moment. I am happy to say that, after years of studying, conversing, reflecting, debating, and generally making a nuisance of myself, I do have a set of ideas that I’d presume to call ‘my’ philosophy. But I’ll come to this later. First, I’d like to say a few things that I would have loved to have explained to my friend the charity worker (and to everyone else whose eyes have ever glazed over when I told them I was a philosopher) but didn’t have the chance to do so.

First of all, what is philosophy? Second of all, why should anyone give a good god damn?

Philosophy is the love of wisdom. We associate philosophy with dry academic arguments and impenetrable books. But these are features of a professionalized academic tradition that has grown up within a competitive university environment. They are not features of philosophy itself. The fact is anyone can be a philosopher. You are a philosopher when you look at the stars at night and wonder how many years it has taken for their light to strike your eyes. You are a philosopher as you stand at the bedside of your dying parent, tearfully acknowledging that without this person you would not exist, and that one day it will be you lying in that bed with a younger you standing beside it, the same tears welling from similar eyes. There is a feeling of helpless wonder associated with philosophical thinking that can be almost painful. Once you slip into this state it is hard to snap out of it.

Non-philosophers think it is weird. For philosophers, it feels like being human.

Philosophy is associated with critical thinking; but critical thinking is not philosophy. Critical thinking is a set of strategies and techniques that philosophers have invented to help them get clear on things. ‘Getting clear on things’ might suffice as a definition of the job of philosophy. Let’s face it – life is a mess. Most of us struggle just to make it through day by day. Philosophy is what we do when we slow things down and take a good hard look at the meaning of it all. There are a bunch of questions that we tend to ask ourselves in these moments (‘What is happiness?’ ‘Is there any such as truth?’ ‘How can I become a better person and get more out of life?’), but just asking these questions doesn’t make you a philosopher. You become a philosopher by asking these questions and holding the thought – potentially without end.

Philosophy is a state of mind. From a practical standpoint, it is useless. But this doesn’t mean that there is no point to it. On the contrary, philosophy is everything.

Do you want to be the best that you can be? Do you want to affirm life for everything good and bad in it? Do you want to open your mind to the mysteries of the universe and feel your heart dance to the rhythms of time? You need a philosophical disposition and state of mind. Cultivating this state of mind is not easy. It takes practice – a lifetime of it. But as the philosopher Benedict de Spinoza reminds us: ‘Everything excellent is as difficult as it is rare’. If you care about life, you’ll devote yourself to the effort. If you don’t care, you won’t. I wish there was an easy way out of this impasse, but there isn’t. Care is the nub of it. People who don’t care will never be philosophers.

My definition of philosophy? In the end, philosophy is care. Philosophy is care for what exists and for existence itself. It hinges on a care for truth, meaning ‘the way that things really are’. And it unfolds, for those who care to stay with it, in an ethos of care for self – a life-practice based in virtues like simplicity, honesty, directness, and flourishing. I always feel sad for people who tell me that they don’t have time for philosophy. ‘What? You don’t have time to take care of yourself? What makes you think that your tasks and responsibilities are so important that you should pursue them to the neglect of your higher self?’ It really does come down to care. Some people don’t care. They race through life hot and bothered, building, connecting, accumulating and consuming, until their life has become so crammed full of people and experiences that they can scarcely breathe, much less turn around and take a look at how they are living.

Does this sound like you? You need to learn to love life, my friend. Slow down, take care. Spend some time looking at the stars. Wonder. Dream. Try to take stock of it all. This is how you become a philosopher.

What is my philosophy? My philosophy is that we should learn to be philosophers. Not scholars, dialecticians, or professional knowers: philosophers.

Philosophy is a simple thing, really. To philosophize is to care for life.

Comments

  1. “Non-philosophers think it is weird. For philosophers, it feels like being human.” – Beautifully put, Tim.

  2. Robert Nozick used to call himself an epistemologist to escape awkward conversations.

  3. I am thinking, you wait long enough someone will eventually come along an tell you straight what philosophy is about. And you did, Tim.

    If the world was straight forward, black and white, without contradictions, then we wouldn’t need philosophy to figure things out.

    The other day something went wrong. I rationalized and was philosophical about it. And that is what philosophy is also about, putting things into perspective.

  4. I just joined this group about ten minutes ago and your piece is the first thing that I have read in this group. I feel like I just arrived home.

  5. “The fact is anyone can be a philosopher. You are a philosopher when you look at the stars at night and wonder how many years it has taken for their light to strike your eyes. You are a philosopher as you stand at the bedside of…”

    I’ll be the first here to go critical. This is sort of a mushy definition, and those who make a good living as professors in the field would feel rather threatened if this were to be taken seriously. Besides wonder and a fascination with interconnection philosophy also requires careful processes of definition and delineation, which you’re sort of missing here. It’s a balance question.

    One of my own favorite definitions of philosophy, which I picked up at a seminar in New York last year, is that it is “a process of asking questions that come naturally to young children, using methods that come naturally to trial lawyers.” There are lots of ways of doing this without becoming mystics or Heideggerians.

    But as long as I think of your text as advertising copy for the field rather than an example of philosophical thought it is quite likable.

    • Well, I am glad I’ve produced some likable advertising copy for the field. This wasn’t my intention in writing the post, I must say; though philosophy could do with some decent ad copy, so I hope I have done it some service.

      Am I offering a ‘sort of mushy’ definition of philosophy? I’m not sure that I’d describe it as a definition, to be honest: it’s more an evocation of the state of mind that is required for philosophical thinking.

      I like your definition of philosophy as “a process of asking questions that come naturally to young children, using methods that come naturally to trial lawyers.” I guess my starting point is the observation that the state of mind that we tend to slip into as adult professionals (even as philosophy academics) is far removed from that of young children, and hence the questions that we tend to ask in this adult professional state of mind may not be as deep and penetrating as we take them to be. Yet, when we gaze at the stars or run up against our mortality, it shakes us out this mindset and remind us, if only for a moment, of how incredible this journey really is.

      Is this not the beginning of philosophy? Certainly, dialectic is required to explore philosophical issues in depth. But without wonder and awe, would we have a reason to engage in philosophical dialectic? Perhaps the demands of our profession might drive us to do so. But a passionless philosophy academic is a terrible thing to behold (I speak as someone who knows a few, and once considered becoming one). Not a good advertisement for philosophy at all!

      I can tell you are a serious thinker, so I am glad that you took the time to respond to my post. I want to assure you that, behind the copy, there lurks another serious thinker, albeit one pursuing a different strategy for engaging minds. Since leaving academia, I have devoted myself to transforming my style of thinking and writing in order to express to a non-academic audience some general philosophical insights that I believe are important. I am only starting to get it right. Please bear with me. Hopefully in time I will find a way of being taken seriously in my new guise by my academic friends without posing a threat.

      • Tim,

        Thanks for taking me seriously. I am not an academic.

        I took up philosophy to better understand the goings on of the world. History and science, the other means of understanding, did not offer enough. Those disciplines didn’t read between the lines like philosophy does.

        By trade I am a picture framing. I now say that I don’t only frame pictures, I also frame ideas. At the moment I am engrossed in the philosophy of sustainability. Sometimes I imagine people saying ‘don’t give up your day job’.

  6. Sammy M. Basudan says:

    Nice,,

    This is the first article I read, I have just joined the group..
    I think what you are doing is the essence of philosophy.. since my idea of philosophy is the process of understanding self imposed questions and refining the answer to the most condense state that remain clear to a child’s mind..

    I believe everyone is a philosopher, because I believe that everyone go through his live following a cretin understanding of how life should be and how does it actually work.. They might not be aware of it in general but never the less they act according to its principles..

    The accuracy of a developed understanding that doesn’t clash with the experienced reality reduce confusion and therefore increase acceptance and peace with the nature of things..

    My respect to your shared view..

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