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.

Life-changing love: Badiou and the birth of possibility

Pierrot le Fou (1965)

What is love? Poets and philosophers have struggled with this question from time immemorial. Before talking about their findings, it is worth noting that ‘love’ is an abstract noun that can be used in a various ways. As Wittgenstein observed, in most cases, the meaning of a word is its use. I love Nietzsche and I also love a good cherry Danish. I doubt that either of these forms of love is what Wendy James from Transvision Vamp has in mind in the song, ‘I Want Your Love’. You see my point. Let’s start by agreeing, then, that love is an abstract noun that can have different meanings depending on its context.

Love comes in many flavours. Ultimately, though, you (and I) are probably not so much interested in the weird and exotic variants of love as we are with big love – true love – the kind of love that Pierrot and Marianne feel in the shot above (from Godard’s 1965 film, ‘Pierrot le Fou’). Transformational love. Pulse-bursting, sweep-us-off-our-feet, turn-your-life-around love. This is the kind of love I am thinking of when I ask: ‘What is love?’ Not just a feeling. A life-changing event. This kind of love is something that French philosopher Alain Badiou takes as a given.

France - "Vous aurez le dernier mot" - TV SetIn The Meaning of Sarkozy (2010) and his ground-breaking dialogue, In Praise of Love (2012), Badiou claims that ‘love needs reinventing’. We need to rethink love as an existential event in which two (or more) people discover a different perspective on life and the world. Lovers, Badiou claims, see the world ‘from the point of view of two rather than one’. This thesis initially appears to be a gloss on Aristotle’s take on love as ‘two bodies with one soul’. However, Badiou’s theory is more interesting than Aristotle’s rather trite conception. It explains, for a start, why love, when it happens, is a life-changing, and often inconvenient, event. It also lends itself to extrapolation in areas of life beyond the realms of romance. Quality collaborations are infused with an element of love, as Badiou understands it. It should come as no surprise that Badiou is a committed political activist in addition to an incurable romantic. [Read more…]

Nietzsche’s demon: the eternal return

Arc De Triomphe @ FineArtAmerica

Arc De Triomphe @ FineArtAmerica

Alexis was in love with life. Fresh out of art school in Fremantle, Australia, she’d picked up a scholarship to study photography under a famous Parisian photographer. Her mother had urged caution but Alexis persisted – and thank goodness! The course – and Paris itself – was everything that she’d dreamed. Her French sponsor found her an apartment in the Latin Quarter, just a stone’s throw from the Place Saint-Michel. Alexis would stroll along the Seine in the evening, up the Champs Elysées to take pictures of the Arc de Triomphe in the flurry of lights.

After two months documenting daily life on the streets of Paris, she had enough material for an exhibition. Alexis felt like she was at the heart of life. Things could go anywhere from here.

One night Alexis was speaking to a friend in Australia. They were reminiscing about their student days, which her friend dearly missed.

‘Do you remember Nietzsche’s idea of the eternal return?’ the friend asked. ‘If I had to choose one time of my life to live out again and again forever, it would be art school’.

Alexis, for her part, was ambivalent about the ‘good old days’. She realized then that if there were a time in her life that she would have again and again, it would be her time in Paris, not Fremantle. The more that she reflected on this, the more her life seemed to come into focus. Looking out the window at the bustling streets, Alexis imagined Nietzsche’s demon coming into her room and making her the offer of Eternal Return. Alexis could hear herself reply, like Nietzsche:

‘Yes. You are a god and I have never heard anything more divine’.

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This post is excerpted from Chapter 3 of Life Changing: A Philosophical Guide

Nietzsche on God and power: timely meditations

Nietzsche – “Desconstruindo gigantes” by Emerson Pingarilho http://tinyurl.com/c4lontc

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) was a thinker at war with his times. To understand Nietzsche’s vision of the death of God and the will to power, we need to understand the world that he lived in.

Nietzsche’s nineteenth century was a time of industry and transformation. Germany was a major industrial and colonial power, unified under Emperor Wilhelm I. European society was being reshaped from within by the emerging middle class, while the working class railed against their conditions and dreamed of revolution as they browsed the works of Marx. Everyone was looking ahead, inspired by the possibilities of science, democracy, socialism and progress.

Nietzsche smelled something rotten at the base of it all. He peeled back the layers of polite conversation to unveil a simple truth. There was no place for God in this brave new world of science and progress. Indeed, most progressives didn’t see a need to make a place for God because they no longer believed in Him. This reflected a major social and cultural shift. God had ruled European society through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance through his emissaries in the Church and State. Religious faith had shaped and colored life at all levels of society, from the rituals of the King’s court to the observances of the working poor. But God had been sidelined through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by the rise of science and the secular state, undercutting the power of the Church. By Nietzsche’s time, God had become a private matter, if not a superstition.

God took ill the day that it became acceptable to question His existence in polite company. He went into seizure the day that science established it was a better guide to reality than faith. ‘God is dead’, Nietzsche declared. ‘All of us are His murderers’ (The Gay Science [GS], §125). [Read more…]

Epictetus on the seas of fate: cultivate the power within

The Roman slaver groaned as it lurched through heavy seas. Below decks, a boy, Epictetus, lay writhing in his chains. His left knee, where the manacle bit into the shin, was trussed in a heavy rag. Two nights ago a crate had come loose in a storm, careered across the floor and crushed his leg. Epictetus had been in and out of consciousness since then.

No one had treated the break. The soldiers who had dragged the crate away retreated when they saw the damage it had done. Now they spoke in whispers and brandished the lash when he begged for help. He was damaged goods. Epictetus could tell that they didn’t expect him to survive the trip.

Epictetus would prove them wrong. All he needed to do was to control the pain. Try as he might, there was no stopping it. He had tried to blank it out, but it was oppressively – there. There had to be some way of dealing with it, the boy thought. What was it that the Stoics taught? Cultivate the power within. Epictetus struggled to apply the Stoic teaching.

[Read more…]

What does it feel like to seriously confront death?

I answered a question on Quora: ‘What does it feel like to seriously consider the prospect of your own death?’ You’ll know if you’ve read Life Changing that I believe that confronting death is the best way to get in touch with who you are and what you think is important in life. Answering this question enabled me to go deep into intimate territory. Thanks to Seb Paquet for inviting me to take the plunge.

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It’s the people who haven’t done what they came to do in life who are the most scared of death.

As an atheist, I don’t see any reason to suppose that there is an ultimate meaning to life. Human beings are a cosmic accident (an accident that was inevitable in the scope of eternity, which doesn’t make our existence any less random or arbitrary). Conceding there is no ultimate meaning to life, however, doesn’t stop us from wanting to know the meaning of our own life. As Albert Camus claims, human beings are remarkable for the fact that they can acknowledge the meaninglessness of existence and affirm life regardless.

The attitude of existential revolt defines the human condition. It’s a bleak teaching, but having reflected on it for 20 years, I’m ready to say that Camus was right. [Read more…]

What is philosophy? An expression of care for life

I was invited by Rev. John Queripel to speak on philosophy at the Bondi Chapel by the Sea. Rather than prepare a talk, I spoke off-the-cuff and from the heart about my own experience of philosophy, which I understand as an expression of care for life. Peter Dowson from Bondi Storytellers was there and captured the moment on film. Thanks Pete! I owe you hugs and beers.

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Excerpts:

‘The basic idea that I want to share with you tonight is that the philosophical disposition, the philosophical state of mind, is an expression of care for life, care for existence’.

‘We are creatures that have the capacity to create value. And the fact that we have the capacity to create value … is attested by the fact that our sense of the value of things grows and decreases, waxes and wanes, depending on how we are feeling. You know how it is, you wake up in the morning and you are feeling a bit blue and nothing seems to have any value, nothing seems to have any importance. But then on another day, you’ve had a few triumphs and all of sudden those things in the world that really seem important just come into relief for you, and you are reminded about what it is in life that you find so valuable… I think that what we are experiencing in these moments when value comes into relief for us is … our own power to care about life. And this ability to care is very very important. Without it we are sociopaths, essentially. We need to care … in order to be good human beings’. [Read more…]

See like a Stoic: an ancient technique for modern consumers

Marcus Aurelius (121-180AD) grew up surrounded by beautiful things: great art and architecture, sumptuous foods, fine wines, and artfully tailored robes. When he assumed the title of Emperor of Rome, he had everything that he could possibly desire. Marcus, however, was a Stoic philosopher, so he knew that the law of life is change and that one should never let oneself become too attached or invested in material things. To maintain his composure in the midst of plenty, he would seek to transform the way that he saw the things that he desired. This helped him get a grip on his desires and achieve Stoic peace of mind.

Marcus’ approach to consumables and other possessions provides a handy guide for modern consumers who seek to overcome the allure of products that they want but don’t need. Instead of looking at clothes, jewelry, food, and art through the lens of desire, Marcus advises that we view these things as pure material objects and evaluate them accordingly. He outlines this technique in The Meditations as follows:

When we have meat before us and other food, we must say to ourselves: “This is the dead body of a fish, and this is the dead body of a bird or of a pig, and again, this Falernian [wine] is only a little grape juice, and this purple robe some sheep’s wool died with the blood of a shellfish” … so that we see what kinds of things they are. This is how we should act throughout life: where there are things that seem worthy of great estimation, we ought to lay them bare and look at their worthlessness and strip them of all the words by which they are exalted. For the outward show [of things] is a wonderful perverter of reason, and when we are certain the things we are dealing with are worth the trouble, that is when it cheats us most (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 6.13).

The best way to follow Marcus’ approach is to treat it as a practical exercise. This is the approach that I take to philosophical concepts in Life Changing: A Philosophical Guide.

[Read more…]

‘We are capable of incredible things’: Tim Rayner interviewed by Frederick Malouf on Bondi FM

I spoke with the indomitable Frederick Malouf on Bondi FM a few weeks back about philosophy, trust, collaboration and the meaning of life. I’ve transcribed some choice snippets below. You can listen to the whole interview here: Interview – Bondi Locals @ Bondi 88FM. [Read more…]

Flow and the 21st century canyon

James Martin, founder of the 21st Century School at Oxford University and author of The Meaning of the Twenty First Century (2006), has a powerful analogy for thinking about our situation today. We are like a group of canoeists paddling down a broad, deep river. For a long time, the current has been steady and slow. We have relaxed into the ride, hypnotized by the flow and the canopy of blue overhead. Suddenly the vessel quakes. We look up and see a bottleneck canyon ahead. The mighty river is being forced through the canyon. When a river runs through a canyon, things change quickly. The water turns to rapids – indeed it is already churning into foam about us.

No one knows how bad these rapids will become. We don’t know if we can make it through the canyon. Still there is only one way ahead. Into the rapids we go.

When the river of life gets rough, there is only one thing to do. Put on that helmet, strap on that life-preserver. It is time to get ready for change.

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This is an excerpt from my book Life Changing: A Philosophical Guide. Life Changing is available in Kindle and ebook versions. Paperbacks will be available on Amazon soon.

Check out the UK-based Philosophical Foundation, where I am June’s guest blogger.