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The Life Philosophical

by Rick Lewis

“The point of philosophy is to start with something so simple as to seem not worth stating, and to end with something so paradoxical that no one will believe it.”
Bertrand Russell

“Philosophy is like a washing machine. It takes what is familiar and turns it round and round, leaving it on its head, or in a new arrangement, so you can see it from a different perspective.”
Anja Steinbauer, 200 Words to Help You Talk About Philosophy

The Cambridge don G.E. Moore, when asked “What is philosophy?”, used to wave a languid hand at the books lining the shelves in his study and say “It’s what all those are about.” Some students found this unhelpful. Moore’s friend Ludwig Wittgenstein perhaps had a better reply. He would say that philosophy is not a subject but an activity. It is something you do.

Philosophy explores a vast variety of questions. Many of them arise inescapably in the course of life; questions to do with values and ethics and living finite lives in a society full of folk with different points of view. Other questions are a little more rarefied, such as the nature of mind or the structure of logical arguments or the difference between universals and particulars. People wrestle with them out of curiosity or from a need for certainty about the nature of the universe, or of the reliability of knowledge. Occasionally, philosophers think about the nature of philosophy itself – which is the main theme of this issue. Our contributors explore the life of the philosopher, why philosophy matters and how it can be done better.

In our lead article, Eldar Sarajlic discusses what it is like to do philosophy – what kind of experience it is. This reminds me of Thomas Nagel’s famous paper ‘What Is It Like to Be a Bat?’. I imagine a group of bats hanging around arguing over ‘What Is It Like to Be a Philosopher?’. A common charge brought against philosophy by its critics is that unlike in the sciences, nothing ever really gets settled: philosophers are still arguing over many of the same questions that vexed Plato and Aristotle. Mathis Bitton asks if we’ll just keep flying around in circles forever, or if some kind of progress is possible. Fortunately, he concludes that it is. Alexander Jeuk frets that the best philosophy being written today isn’t a patch on the great philosophy of the past. He blames academic philosophy’s division into increasingly narrow and specialised sub-categories and the perceived need to ‘locate’ new contributions in terms of ‘the existing debate and recent publications’, saying that this discourages exactly the kind of wide-ranging speculative investigation that is the hallmark of really great philosophy. He explains what, in his view, we should do differently to “make philosophy great again”. Martin Cohen in his article considers where philosophers get their ideas. His answer, that inspiration often comes from literature, seems sensible and convincing; though I also like the claim made by humorous writer Terry Pratchett that inspirations are invisible high speed cosmic particles slanting down from outer space, most of which for better or worse never hit anyone. George Sher considers a question once raised by the late Bernard Williams: why should anyone bother writing about philosophy, unless they are extraordinarily good at it? Even if we are gloomily certain that what we will write is likely to be unoriginal or wrong or soon forgotten, Sher proposes three excellent and cheering reasons to go ahead and do it anyway.

What about reading philosophy, rather than writing it? Unlike reading about boats, golf, history or indeed most of the topics covered by the other magazines on the newsstand, reading philosophy is never purely passive. To understand any philosophy text, you need to walk in the author’s footsteps, following their arguments. You are unlikely to do this without forming views as to whether those steps are satisfactory. In other words, generally you can’t read philosophy without doing philosophy.

In addition to the importance of the questions themselves, philosophizing can teach us some essential life skills. It encourages us to dig deep, to search for underlying principles that apply to a multitude of cases (the ancient Greeks called this the search for arché, or principle). It encourages us to cultivate the virtues and seek excellence (or arete, as Aristotle would have put it). It teaches us to treat assertions and assumptions sceptically, to test the soundness of arguments, and also to see things from a different angle – just as bats do, in fact! These are useful habits in a world saturated with disinformation and confusion.

So if you can cast a new light on any of philosophy’s big questions, then that’s wonderful. But even if you can’t, then reading and thinking about them will bring benefits in your life. In other words, don’t ask what you can do for philosophy; ask what philosophy can do for you!

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