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Philosophy: A Call to Action

Calvin H. Warner asks if philosophy can improve our lives.

“Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is to systems of thought,” wrote John Rawls in A Theory of Justice (1971). This simple comparison elucidates the central task of philosophy rather well.

It seems just as plain to me that happiness is the central value of human existence. But as with truth and justice, determining that happiness is good is hardly an accomplishment: the tricky part is to understand what happiness actually is. Yet knowing what happiness actually is also falls short of telling us how we can attain it; and if we can’t do that then we have missed the point altogether. So what has philosophy to say here?

Philosophy is somehow presently both in a Golden Age and in a Dark Age. In the Western world, thousands of salaried philosophers write hundreds of books each year, protected by some of history’s most robust freedoms of speech. Yet many outsiders lament that much of this prodigious output is commentary on commentary, and many academics are writing only for a handful of readers in their own sub-speciality. My diagnosis is that philosophy has disengaged from its most critical subject matter, largely because of institutional pressures to publish on niche topics rather than on issues that might interest the public. If you think that esoteric research with an audience approaching zero is a better use of philosophers’ time than contributing to the public’s understanding of their world, then we disagree deeply about the purpose of philosophy.

I do agree with A.J. Ayer that philosophy is the analysis of concepts; but I have long felt philosophy does itself a disservice by neglecting some of the most interesting concepts. Mind, self, language, ethics, and beauty are all deeply fascinating concepts with a rich philosophical tradition; but love, humor and happiness are just as important. Further, as Ben Franklin (supposedly) wrote, “well done is better than well said.” Our interpreting the world, to dance around Marx, is a good start; but if we believe what we write, the point, surely, is to then engage with the world and improve it.

Happiness has been variously defined by philosophers. John Stuart Mill considered happiness the output of an equation: pleasure minus pain – with higher-order pleasures (enjoying art or writing philosophy) to be given a higher weighting than lower-order ones. Aristotle thought happiness was found in achieving eudaimonia or ‘good spiritedness’ – an inward state of contentment reached, at least in part, by a life of moderation. Thoreau discovered that happiness could not be caught by pursuing happiness itself, but instead by focusing on reconnecting with our innate selves, the part lost in our transition to modernity – to oversimplify, by unplugging ourselves. Aquinas said happiness is knowing or attaining God. Nietzsche’s views are certainly too complex to distill into a bumper sticker; but ‘striving toward a higher level of self-actualization’ would be a good start. Kant, for his part, does not view happiness as a core value; but if you happen to find contentment in the rigor of living a life according to the harsh dictates of pure rationality and duty, there’s no sin in that. Jesus and the Buddha have much in common, including a conception of the good life that includes the rejection of wealth in favor of a commitment to service and spiritual seeking.

What is absent from all these great thinkers is the cult of conspicuous consumption that today has such a grip on the Western mind. Modern people are drowning in debt, unhealthy, depressed, anxious over political and economic instability, alienated in their work, stressed by their commutes, their families, their meager retirement savings, and (whether they know it or not), longing to reconnect with nature, community, and their true, passionate selves. The West’s canonical philosophers have varied cultural backgrounds, but they have all understood that we cannot consume our way to happiness. It’s not leisure and convenience, but work or other striving that make us happy. The key is that the work be aligned with our passions, skills and interests, so that what we produce is something in which we take pride and purpose.

Thoreau wrote in Walden (1854) that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” We must acknowledge that, in our exorbitantly wealthy world, there is still deep poverty and inequality throughout the globe. But at the same time, we must realize that so much of our desperation in the Wealthy West is self-imposed, and it is in an awakening from the dogmatic slumber of consumerism that we will be able to pave the way to our freedom. It turns out we can live frugally, and instead of a bigger house or nicer car, we can buy our freedom and take up work in a craft we enjoy (say, philosophy) or spending more time with those we care about most. There is something pure and natural in gardening instead of buying fast food, or walking to work instead of driving. These pleasures require an investment of time, an intentional structuring of one’s day; but to borrow from Pete Adeney, how slothful have we become that we prefer to scoot about in gasoline powered chairs rather than use the bodies God or nature has blessed us with?

There is much analysis yet to be done concerning the gap between our modern surplus and human happiness. But the radical work of standing in the way of a culture charging in the wrong direction has always been the role of the philosopher – yet not in the pages of exclusive journals where we write in highly technical jargon behind a paywall that only university libraries can afford. It is up to us philosophers whether we will continue in our current pattern and become extinct by budget cuts and underemployment, or if we will reclaim our place in the cultural discussion by standing up for truth, sanity, and happiness.

© Calvin H. Warner 2018

Calvin H. Warner holds an MA in Philosophy from Georgia State University, where he also taught Introduction to Philosophy. He currently attends Vanderbilt University Law School.

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