The meaning of philosophy

puzzledWhat is the use of philosophy? 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 thought, have missed? I founded Philosophy for Change because I believe that philosophy has a unique vocation, which was central to ancient philosophy but which is mostly 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 – is 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. 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 wasn’t 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 value happiness over meaning. It is easier to acquire. You can buy happiness at the mall, though it doesn’t last for long. Happiness tends to be shallow and fleeting. As a study in The Journal of Positive Psychology argues, happiness is focused on the here and now. It reflects the satisfaction of 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.

Victor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning (1946), argued that having a sense of purpose is a great source of personal satisfaction and resilience. In the death camps in which Frankl was interned during World War II, those who had a sense of purpose were determined to endure the suffering rather than allow themselves to be overcome by it. Frankl observes:

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 really is that simple. The meaning of philosophy is to reflect on meaning. Reflecting on meaning makes life more meaningful, which is why there has always been and will always be philosophers.

Comments

  1. Hi Tim,

    Thanks for a great post. The meaning is exactly what I have been thinking about since the dawn of my existence.

    Kia kaha,
    Danni

    • Cheers Danni. Good to know that there are some philosophers out there!

      Tim

      • I was born a philosopher and will die as one but in between the philosopher stood in the background for about 20 years.

        I can pinpoint exactly when that moment happened when all trust in humans and their existence went out the window so I ceased to see any meaning in life. I thought for many years that these negative experiences were the reason why I was who I was. But as I have grown up and have consciously searched for a deeper, more objective meaning of ‘why’, I have come to realise that whilst they contributed to who I am, the experiences aren’t in fact me. If they didn’t happen at all then I wouldn’t be asking myself ‘who am I, really?’, ‘Why am I here?’ and ‘How can I make the world a better place?’.

        It has been quite a lengthy introspective journey. When I started the journey, at 17, it was painful to open my eyes but it gradually got easier and now I am at the point where I want to see goodness around me.

        I am now allowing myself to see the world from a different perspective. A perspective that has only grown out of the respect for what these experiences have taught me.

        Thanks Tim!
        Danni

  2. Reblogged this on dannignt's Blog and commented:
    Find your meaning.

  3. Another great post, thanks, really enjoy reading you, Tim.
    i shared it on my Facebook page. 🙂

  4. Hi, I am from Kyneton Victoria.
    Please find a set of references which provide a unique Understanding of how to do philosophy as a depth-level process of self-transformation and self-transcendence.
    http://www.beezone.com/whiteandorangeproject/index.html

  5. philosophy can help for academicians in the following ways 1) it enhances the writing skills 2) it builds a strong and effective communication skills 3) it also fosters once analytical capacity on certain philosophical questions. this is my opinion!!

  6. Foolish says:

    I don’t know, most engaging philosophy can be seen as pretty ad hominem, like this post sounds more like self-help than philosophical inquiry. Why is happiness and a meaningful life distinct, can they be? And furthermore you say the goal isn’t knowledge or truth but meaning which appears to me to be a broken tautology; surely meaning is truth? or has it? At this point, this philosophy of epistemology becomes just word play which I see very little value in. Shouldn’t philosophy’s aim be in all areas of understanding with an aim to progress in general human existence?

    • Thanks for the thought provoking questions. On truth and meaning: The notion of truth has been understood in various ways over the years. It typically functions as an absolute, which is why in English we say ‘the’ (as opposed to ‘a’) truth – the absolute, inviolable, fact of the matter. (Notably, even the relativist critique of this notion, holding that truth is subjective and thus relative to individual perception, is an absolute idea – ‘it is absolutely true that truth is relative’ – spot the reductio ad absurdum).

      Meaning, by contrast, tends to be a relative notion. My sense of meaning, and meaningfulness, is possibly different from yours (on account of life experience, social conditioning, and so on). This is not necessarily the case: we may share a common sense of meaning. But, even then, we must find a way to this common sense of meaning by developing a common understanding of the matter. This is one major difference between these notions: Truth is something that is; meaning is something that we must make ourselves.

      My point in this post is that, while granting that philosophers do seek the truth in most all matters (and hopefully improve the lot of human being to some modest extent along the way), they pursue this goal for personal reasons – to be precise, because in doing so, they make life meaningful. Questioning, reflecting, criticising, honing our ideas etc has practical value: it clarifies what is true and essential; it disabuses us of false ideas; it focuses us on better ways of thinking, acting, and living, and so on. But, over and above this, philosophising makes life meaningful. It gives us a sense of our own significance. Which seems to me to be a wonderful thing.

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