Recently, someone asked me “what’s the practical use of philosophy?” This is a great question! To a lot of people it seems perfectly useless. That hasn’t been my experience, however. In fact, we can make a very strong argument that philosophy is one of the most practical things you can do. Philosophy can play a big role in creating happier, more meaningful lives.
First, a quick distinction. One reason a lot of people have a bad impression of philosophy is that they have only encountered it in a certain form. There is a kind of philosophy that is primarily concerned with analysis and the meaning of sentences. There is another kind which is more socially relevant but still requires some education in philosophy to understand. Both kinds are “university philosophy,” but neither are what I want to talk about.
There is still another kind of philosophy that has to do with you, your decisions and the meaning of your life, here and now. It’s existential. It is more aligned with what the ancient philosophers taught and practiced than what counts as philosophy in the modern university. We could call it “philosophy as a way of life.”
There are two “gateways” into this powerful kind of philosophy: motivation – why we do what we do – and belief – how we interpret and see the world. Looking at these gateways, we discover that every human being already has motivations and beliefs. Philosophy invites us to examine what is already the case and, gifted with new knowledge, act in a way that demonstrates wisdom.
First Gateway: Motivation
What do we really want? What do you really want? What’s the desire underneath all the ideas the mind comes up with?
Well, why bother with this question? Simply because we spend most of our lives trying to get what we want. Eventually, a lot of people get what they thought they wanted—like money, or success at work, or status—and find that that wasn’t really what they wanted, after all. If we examine our motivation now, then we can save ourselves a whole lot of time (years!) that we might spend pursuing what we don’t actually want.
It’s super important to be clear on what all our efforts are directed toward. If we know the real answer, then we can seek that thing out directly, and not waste time with unnecessary activities. If we don’t know, then we don’t have a clear sense of direction.
After we meet our basic survival needs, we seek something else. Why do we want money, or the thing that money can buy, or the relationship with that person, or the promotion at work, or ______? What would we get as a result? What is it that we want just for its own sake? Happiness? Love? Peace of mind? The end of suffering?
Everyone must look for themselves and find their own answer. Yet what we can say that is that these were the answers of many ancient philosophers. Aristotle said “happiness.” The Epicureans said “peace of mind.” Buddha said “the end of suffering.”
It’s interesting to note how all of these are very close together. The end of suffering is also peace. Peace promotes a kind of happiness or contentment. Contentment brings peace. Love brings feelings of relaxation and peace; probably happiness as well.
The philosopher Gurdjieff suggested that when you begin to find what you really want, you see that it brings, at the same time, other things, like love brings peace and peace brings contentment.
So if we get clear on what we really want, then we can ask the next question: what is it that would bring that into my life? Will money do it? A partner? A promotion? Will anything in the outside, external world do the trick? …Thus begins the path.
Examining one’s motives like this, and finding the true way to fulfill one’s desires, is what the ancients did. It is to practice philosophy as a way of life.
Socrates had this idea of “self-examination,” and discovering one’s motives was a big part of it. But self-examination isn’t a one-and-done thing. “Now I know my desire and I don’t need to examine anymore.” No, examination is done over and over. We keep checking why we’re doing things and our reasons for doing them, and seeing if our motives align with our best interest, and if our reasons actually make sense. Examination is continual because the path to true fulfillment is riddled with distractions and confusion, and it’s nice to stay on track.
Examining our motives makes us conscious of them. The only alternative is to be driven by motives that are unconscious. Through philosophy, we awaken!
Yet someone might dismiss all this talk of motivation on the grounds that it’s a “selfish” starting point. Well, this is not really accurate. First, “selfish” seems to imply that it doesn’t benefit anyone else. That’s not true, because we can see that someone who feels happy or peaceful or loving, is able to spread their happiness and peace and love with other people, whereas someone who doesn’t feel that way, isn’t as able. They are probably trying to feel better themselves.
Plus, the likely alternative is to act selflessly because you’re “supposed to”—because one would feel bad or guilty, otherwise. “Why do you only think about yourself? Why don’t you think about others?” Here’s the funny thing about this: if that’s our motive (to not feel guilty), then we are still motivated to not feel bad and, thus, to feel good. We are still trying to feel good, but we’re doing it in a way that someone else suggested, and it probably doesn’t feel authentic.
It’s for these reasons that Sam Harris suggested that pursuing your own authentic happiness is where “selfishness” and “selflessness” converge. Along the way we find that having meaningful relationships and serving the world are some of the highest sources of joy—can’t we intuit this?—so we do those things because we authentically want to, not because we believe we’re supposed to.
Second Gateway: Beliefs
Bertrand Russell once said something to the effect of, ‘Everyone already has a philosophy… and philosophers are just people trying to see if their philosophy is really true…’
He meant that everyone has a belief system, whether conscious of it or not. It’s running all the time, in any case—perpetually translating the world. One sees the glass half empty; another, half full. One sees a problem; another, an opportunity. One sees a criminal; another, a person suffering. One sees an empty, meaningless world; another, the manifestations of God. And the belief system makes it so!
At some point we become sensitive to the fact that other people are seeing things in a very different way than us. They hold opinions that are different from our own. They may even try and convince us that they are right and we should change our beliefs.
Well, changing beliefs has consequences. If we adopt someone else’s beliefs we start to see things differently and start to feel differently, as well. This can happen very quickly and we won’t necessarily be aware of what’s happening.
Our beliefs are responsible for how we’re perceiving the world and—from a mindfulness perspective—how we’re feeling about life, too. It’s so important, then, to be aware of our beliefs. No matter what we think the truth is, we can at least avoid falsehoods. On the emotional level, we can likely save ourselves a lot of unhappiness that stems from distorting beliefs.
This is not the place to talk about how to become aware of our beliefs and change them, and thereby change our lives. That is a committed process, and there are resources for that.
We can say, however, that philosophy is chiefly concerned with aligning our belief system with reality, as much as possible. It is “love of wisdom” and love of truth. Aligning with reality evades the negative emotions that stem from beliefs that distort reality, and vaporizes the fear of “being wrong.” On a positive note, as love of truth it cultivates the virtues of honesty and humility.
This aspect of philosophy ties in, again, with motivation. Once our core motivation is known, then we’ll design a way of attaining it. We’ll do so according to our model of reality, our belief system. But if this belief system is giving an inaccurate model, then the result will be a poor method of attainment. Likewise if the belief system is accurate then our way of attaining what we desire can be efficient and effective.
The strength of this argument derives from the fact that everyone is moving through the world according to their beliefs. We can be conscious or unconscious of our belief system. There’s only two alternatives. Philosophy leads to the alternative that is helpful and desirable. How’s that for practicality?
From this point of view we can claim that philosophy is very practical, indeed. The underlying reason is: all our actions are governed by motivations and beliefs. Whether our actions lead to what we want, and whether our beliefs conform to reality, depend on how conscious we are of their motivations and assumptions. Philosophy—or philosophical inquiry, more precisely—makes us conscious.
In addition, inquiring into the nature of reality has its own appeal that motivates people to inquire for its own sake. They just want to know the truth. These true philosophers only count as true what they can discover for themselves, and meet all opinions with a healthy dose of skepticism. Many come to find that the world, as represented by popular opinion, falls far short of the truly glorious and amazing world revealed by their inquiry. For example, Socrates said in one of Plato’s writings:
Now of the place beyond heaven no earthly poet has ever sung truly… Even the most beautiful visible motions fall far short of the true motions beyond the heavens which trace out the true mathematical equations of the universe—intelligible, beautiful and just. What is in this place is without color, without shape, and without solidity—that being that really is what it is, the subject of all true knowledge, visible only to the eye of the mind, the pilot of the soul, delighted at last to be seeing what is real, and watching what is true. And this is where we find true beauty, justice, knowledge, being and courage—that meadow of the truth which only the mind can see.
Wonder and Death: The Existential Drive behind Philosophy
The kind of philosophy we’ve talked about is existential, less concerned with theories and more with affecting one’s life.
Because it’s existential, I wonder if these arguments are really persuasive, or if this kind of philosophy comes about as a result of a deeper “encounter” with life. For example, Aristotle said that philosophy “begins in wonder”—like looking at the stars and imagining how far away they are, how much larger than Earth they are, how the cosmos stretches on infinitely.
Perhaps it is the case that simply telling someone that their life is directed by motivations and beliefs isn’t enough to ignite the flame of philosophy within them. Perhaps a person has to realize their own finitude: “I will die, I don’t know when, and I may only have this life to live.” If we could die any day, why would we hesitate to act on what we love, rather than be driven by fear? Moreover, in the face of death, the petty things we care about and spend our time discussing don’t make any sense.
Knowledge of our own death awakens something within us. ‘Keep death close; be fully alive.’ But who can argue this to us? The insight–and urgency–comes when we sincerely want to know how to live, and our mind is radically open.
Or perhaps we are struck by wonder, like lightning. Wow, it could be anything! There are billions of human beings on Earth, alone, that are all having experiences as complex and meaningful and rich as yours, simultaneously. Plus, trillions more organisms beyond that, having conscious experiences that are unimaginably different from a human experience. Not to mention the fact that the human brain can actually imagine this reality, describe it with concepts and language, and communicate it to another brain. What in the world is going on?
…It doesn’t have to be that grand, either. A warm hug from a friend makes us realize: love is real.
I could contemplate that for an eternity.