On Philosophy

“Life has its own hidden forces which you can only discover by living.” - Soren Kierkegaard

My first degree was a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy. Had I not gone on to get a subsequent degree in computer science, this might have been a mistake for anything other than contemplating my own lack of employment. Fortunately, philosophy includes logic, analytical thinking, and other tools that are useful in programming and in life. Another outcome is that I often ask questions about how I’m living and whether it’s working (which I suspect would have happened regardless of any academic choices).

History

Rightly described as the wanton and inaccurate reduction of millenia of history into a paragraph.

Philosophy predates most of our specialized fields of study because at one time it encompassed most of them. Art and language are obvious exceptions. We get the word (and the Western foundations of philosophy) from the Greeks - philosophia, “love of wisdom”. A good bit of Greek philosophy was absorbed into catholic church teachings. While there were a few medieval philosophers, trends and forces where not in play to make questions (and learning in general) a focus until the end of the Middle Ages. With the Renaissance and Enlightenment, fields of study began branching out of what was historically considered Philosophy. So called ‘Natural Philosophy’ became the physical sciences. Other aspects of philosophy became sociology, linquistics and economics. One of the most important offshots (as pertains to philosophy as something personal) was the study of the mind which became Psychology. As a field of study, Philosophy has been relegated to a collection of esoteric subjects in academia - metaphysic, epistemology, aesthetics, ethics, etc.

What Is It and Why Should We Care

Fortunately, the starting point of philosophy as a tool is more important than where it has ended up as a discipline. The original sense of the word (and the part of it that drew me to study it in the first place) is the one that ultimately matters.

As much as modern life tries to convince us otherwise, the way to a fulfilling life is not convenience, enjoyment, and pleasure. The point of philosophy in the classical sense is to answer the question, how can we live well? Most of us think we want an easy life, but what we’re searching for is a good one. There are plenty of gurus and religions out there that will tell you how to live. For some people, perhaps that works. I am not in that group. I’m in the group where we have to find our own answers. Because people are different. And because people are fallible (including those that founded and sustained that religion).

This is why philosophy matters. When you boil it down to the personal level it is a process that helps you ask questions and determine how to live.

  1. Be curious, ask questions, seek to learn what is true.
  2. Understand yourself and what you value.
  3. Understand the world and your place in it.
  4. Synthesize and you have a set of axioms, principles, and practices.
  5. Cultivate a useful (read actionable) world view and personal philosophy. Live a good life.

There are two obvious facts that need to be pointed out. First, it is not enough to go through this process once. It’s an ongoing act of questioning, experimenting and refining. Second, it should go without saying that different people will arrive at different answers. If your philosophy doesn’t make room for others then it’s wrong. There is no one answer to the human questions that life gives us. Even our answers may only serve us for a time. The crucial question we must ask of our philosophy is ‘does it work’. If not, there is still more to be done.

By way of closing, we should keep in mind the maxim employed by Socrates (from an inscription on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi) - “Know Thyself”. An ancient saying and one that has been at the essence of life and Philosophy from the beginning. A no less important maxim comes from the most remarkable Richard Feynman, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.”