What use is philosophy today? Is it simply to reinforce the value of critical thinking, or is there something more meaningful to the discipline that academic philosophers, with their passion for critical thinking, have missed? I founded Philosophy for Change because I believe that philosophy does have a unique vocation, which was central to philosophy in ancient times but which is mainly overlooked today. Philosophy is a transformative discipline. It puts us on a path to meaning and truth. Setting out on this path – or even just realising it’s there – can be a life changing experience.
You don’t need a university degree to be a philosopher. All that you need is a dose of courage, a questioning mind, and a passion for meaning in life. Academic philosophers like to put truth at the head of the inquiry, but in fact meaning is the most important thing. Who would set out in search of truth if the search itself was not a meaningful one? Ultimately, it is the desire for meaning in life that draws people to philosophy.
The ultimate goal of philosophy is not knowledge or truth. It is the rejuvenation of life itself.
Most people today value happiness over meaning. Happiness is easier to acquire. You can buy happiness at the mall, but it doesn’t last for long. Happiness tends to be shallow and fleeting. As a forthcoming study in The Journal of Positive Psychology argues, happiness is focused on the here and now. It reflects the satisfaction of our immediate wants and needs. Meaning, by contrast, takes a broader focus on whole-of-life experience. When we dwell on the meaningful life, we expand our horizons beyond the present moment to reflect on the significance and purpose of our existence.
The Swiss psychotherapist Victor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning (1946), argued that having a purpose in life can be a source of immense satisfaction and personal resilience. In the Nazi concentration camps in which Frankl was interned during World War II, those who had a sense of purpose and reason to live were determined to endure the suffering rather than allow themselves to be overcome by it. Frankl remarks:
A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the ‘why’ for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any ‘how.’
What is the ‘why’ of your existence? What is the meaning of your life? If you are struggling for an answer, ask: ‘What do I bring to the world through my gifts? What can I give the world in order to make it better place? How am I living right now? Is there a better way?’
These are not ‘classic’ philosophical questions. But by asking these questions and staying with them, reflecting deeply and honestly on the meaning of life, you become a philosopher. It is really that simple. The meaning of philosophy is to reflect on meaning. Reflecting on meaning makes life more meaningful, which is why there have always been and will always be philosophers.