What 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.