Many people are looking to philosophy the same way some who suffer look for a drug: they want something for the pain.
But this is not doing philosophy. This is buying the spiritual equivalent of a painkiller. In fact, it is the very antithesis of philosophy since what you’re doing is not questioning yourself and your actions but rather trying to look for something that caters to your pre-existing needs and worldview.
Some people believe that producing little videos about what some philosopher said is doing philosophy. It is not. That’s merely popularizing philosophical information, it is not doing philosophy. While this practice definitely has value we should not confuse the two. Making a video talking about martial arts does not make you a martial artist. Nor does watching it. Publishing this piece of text does not make me a philosopher either.
Because philosophy is not a product1 but an activity. The result of it may be writings, videos etc. But let’s not confuse the act of love with the children it may or may not produce as a result. Unfortunately the word tends to be used as a noun, as in someone having a “a philosophy” and people forget that it also refers to an activity, as captured by the verb to philosophize. Philosophies are just, at best, more systematic opinions, and opinions are like…well, you know…everybody has one.
Philosophical activity is something entirely different. Though it has no solid content, no ready-made “solution” to offer your aching soul, it does offer something else. It offers you the exercise your soul needs to get off the couch and walk again after being fed too many “chicken soups of the soul”2.
Just like physical exercise, there are good and bad ways of doing it. You can do it alone, and engage in the soul’s conversation with itself, to use an expression from Plato’s Theaetetus, or you can do it with others, and engage in symphilosophein, as Aristotle would call it. You can do it in the spirit of antagonismos (against another) or synagonismos (with another for a common purpose)3. Done wrongly, it may spiral down to senseless hostility towards oneself and others. You can cause injury without any benefit. That is why Plato cautioned against the misuse of philosophical techniques, like dialectics, and required its participants to have acquired a certain maturity before practicing them, advocating the ethic of dialogue. As I have pointed out in another post:
Though dialectics was not staged as a confrontation it was still a type of “combat, amicable but real”4 yet not against one another [in other words not antagonismos] but as a common undertaking [synagonismos], of willing participants in a climate of gentleness and under the ethics of dialogue that consisted in understanding that:
“A true dialogue is possible only if the interlocutors want to dialogue. Thanks to this agreement between the interlocutors, which is renewed at each stage of the discussion, neither one of the interlocutors imposes his truth upon the other. On the contrary, dialogue teaches them to put themselves in each other’s place and thereby transcend their own point of view. By dint of a sincere effort, the interlocutors discover by themselves, and within themselves, a truth which is independent of them, insofar as they submit to the superior authority of the logos. Here, as in all ancient philosophy, philosophy consists in the movement by which the individual transcends himself toward something which lies beyond him. For Plato, this something was the logos: discourse which implies the demands of rationality and universality. This logos, more over, did not represent a kind of absolute knowledge; instead, it was equivalent to the agreement which is established between interlocutors who are brought to admit certain positions in common, and by this agreement transcend their particular points of view.”5
At this point it may be worth to remember that the love of wisdom properly followed leads from the particular to the universal, so the exercise of Platonic dialectics is essentially an exercise of love, where the interlocutors help one another give birth to truths that go beyond themselves. This was not mere discourse but
“…a “form of life” (to use J. Mittelstrass’ expression) which was practiced by the interlocutors; for insofar as, in the act of dialoguing, they posited themselves as subjects but also transcended themselves, they experienced the logos which transcends them. Moreover, they also experienced that love of the good which is presupposed by every attempt at dialogue. From this perspective, the object of the discussion and its doctrinal content are of secondary importance. What counts is the practice of dialogue, and the transformation which it brings. Sometimes, the function of dialogue can even be to run into aporia [the Greek word for impasse], and thus to reveal the limits of language – its occasional inability to communicate moral and existential experience.
Ultimately, to use the expression of Luc Brisson, what mattered was “learning to live in a philosophical way;” with a common will to carry out disinterested research and in deliberate opposition to sophistic mercantilism. This was already a choice of life. To live in a philosophical way meant, above all, to turn toward intellectual and spiritual life, carrying out a conversion which involved “the whole soul” – which is to say, the whole of moral life. For Plato, science and knowledge are never purely theoretical and abstract knowledge, which could be placed “ready-made” within the soul. When Socrates said that virtue is knowledge, he was not using “knowledge” to mean pure, abstract knowledge of the good. Rather, he meant knowledge which chooses and wants the good, in other words, an inner disposition in which thought, will, and desire are one.
[…] The philosopher’s entire role will therefore consist in permitting his interlocutor to “realize” in the strongest sense of the word, what the true good is and what true value is.”6
Philosophical activity done right can lead to profound insight and transformation, a lifelong love for wisdom, and the communal rejoicing of those who seek it, the Aristotelian syneuōcheisthai7. For Plato it went as far as being a kind of transcendental love, which is where we get the expression Platonic Love from, though nowadays it has lost much of its original meaning8.
It is engaging in that aspect of philosophy that takes you closer to being a philosopher9. It is that which I want to explore with others, not merely exchange philosophical recipes with one another, but learn to cook the marrow of life in the fire of wisdom!
Doing that can be scary. That’s why I always felt that the archetypical motto of philosophy should always be what echoed from antiquity10 all the way to the enlightenment11: Sapere Aude! Dare to be wise!
But you don’t have to dare alone. Dare with me. I make no guarantees of wisdom, I only pledge my courage and goodwill.
- Despite philosophy not being a product, at this point I’d like to thank the Unemployed Philosophers Guild for their permission to use their photo of Nietzsche’s Will to Power Bar that accompanies this post.
- This refers to the famous new agey collection of platitudes offering guidance published under the same title.
- See Dare to be wise for a detailed explanation of the difference.
- P. Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life, p.91, Blackwell, 1995
- P. Hadot, What is Ancient Philosophy?, p.63, Harvard University Press, 2004
- P. Hadot, What is Ancient Philosophy?, p.65 and p.34, Harvard University Press, 2004
- Examined at Eudemian Ethics, VII.12, 1245b4–5.
- See my “What is Philosophy? Part 2: Philosopher: Lover of Wisdom” to get a better understanding of that original meaning and read Plato’s Symposium.
- Though that’s a necessary but not a sufficient condition to merit the title. Read what’s under the What is Philosophy? tag to understand what I mean. You can start with the Introduction in Philosophy, then read the remaining posts under that tag and end with Dare to be wise, to fully realize what it takes.
- See Horace, Epistles, Book 1, Epistle 2.
- See Kant’s famous essay.