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The Sound of Action

In the latest in our series of personal views of philosophy, Lisa Kemmerer describes how thinking changes lives…

“Here is one picture of philosophy. It goes on in an ivory tower pursued by cloistered academics who endlessly dispute the contemporary equivalents of question like “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” It is far removed from the ‘real world’. Here is another picture of philosophy. Socrates is hauled into court and sentenced to death – not for anything he might have done, such as sell state secrets to the Lacedaimonians or assassinate Kleon – but for questioning religious ideas and moral ideals, thus bringing about the precipitous transformation of Athenian society. In the first picture, philosophy seems socially irrelevant. In the second it seems to be the most potent force of social change imaginable.”

This paragraph by J. Baird Callicott, in Environmental Philosophy & Environmental Activism, reflects the importance of philosophy beyond books and mere thoughts. Applied philosophy can not only influence the way we envisage the world around us, but the way we live. One might reasonably argue that the only purpose of philosophy lies in its power to guide and transform individuals. Philosophy need not be an idle curiosity, an indulgent passion of isolated scholars; it can be an important aspect of everyday life for every individual. What ought I to eat and wear? How ought I to invest time and money? How should I react when I witness cruelty or violence? Philosophy engages each of us in the ongoing quest to answer the greatest question of our personal existence: “How ought I to live?”

Personal commitment to philosophical ideals has been fundamental to Western thought at least since Socrates walked the dusty streets of ancient Athens. Socrates, rather than renounce the beliefs to which he was committed, chose to die at the hands of those who wished to silence his opinion. Through careful consideration he determined how he thought one ought to live, and was unwilling to retract his determination in order to appease the establishment – or even to save his life.

Plato, much influenced by Socrates, asserted that the fruits of philosophy are only found in daily life. He viewed philosophy as the key to human happiness and welfare, and the only hope for solving ever-present problems of society. Consequently, he believed that either philosophers ought to rule, or rulers ought to become philosophers. Plato’s most famous pupil, Aristotle, was also an applied philosopher; he focused on the social and political problems of his time. Aristotle, famous for emphasizing rationality, believed that rational thought defines what it is to be a human being. But thinking rationally was not the ultimate human end in Aristotle’s mind: humans were expected to act rationally. Reason might guide people to ‘the good life’, but the essence of humanity was reached only by actually living that life.

More than two millennia after the execution of Socrates, many contemporary philosophers still see philosophy as a way of life. Existentialists emerged in the nineteenth century exclaiming that every individual is personally responsible for who they become: we make our own choices, and in the process we ‘invent’ who we are. Philosophical questions are therefore personal and urgent for each individual. Søren Kierkegaard based his early existentialist philosophy on personal experience; understanding and knowledge were important, but thoughts without action were hollow.

The existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre thought philosophy could only be viable when manifested in concrete action. In The Psychology of Imagination he wrote that morality presupposes an individual acting in the world; without action, there can be no morality. In Being and Nothingness Sartre commented: “to be is to act, and to cease to act is to cease to be.” His philosophy holds that we alone are ‘responsible for the world’ and for whom we ‘choose’ to be through our actions; each of us is no more than the life we live.

The power of philosophy is not restricted to professional philosophers. Marxism testifies to the power of philosophy in action amongst the masses. The first commandment of Marxist morality entails participation in the struggle for change. Because it was implemented by millions of people, the philosophy of Marx has had a tremendous effect on the political and economic map of the contemporary world.

Through philosophy, dedicated, thoughtful activists can alter the ever-unfolding history of humankind. Mahatma Gandhi, trained as a lawyer, is famous for his philosophy of nonviolence and civil disobedience, as is Martin Luther King, a theologian and a minister inspired by Gandhi. Neither were trained philosophers, but both lived their philosophical ideals with stunning results: they were catalysts for monumental political and social changes in India, Britain and the United States.

Applied philosophy seems to follow naturally from some philosophical conundrums. Many contemporary philosophers who write on environmental ethics simultaneously work for political and social change. Tom Regan and Peter Singer, perhaps the best-known contemporary philosophers in matters to do with non-human animals, are not only humanitarians, but vegetarians. Many of their daily choices reflect deep philosophical convictions.

For at least 2300 years people have carried the power of philosophy into action. Without application, high-minded thoughts are quickly forgotten; they remain irrelevant to the world at large.

How ought we to live? Socrates and Plato, Kierkegaard and Sartre, Gandhi and King, Regan and Singer changed their lives to reflect personal, philosophical answers to this difficult question. These famous people are exceptional only in their level of commitment to philosophical ideals. Each of us must inevitably choose how we will live: whether we will eat or wear animal products, whether we will boycott McDonalds or Proctor & Gamble, and whether or not we will invest time and money in causes that aim to reduce cruelty and ignorance. Inevitably, actions either testify to personal commitment, or reveal ignorance and indifference.

© Lisa Kemmerer 2000

Lisa Kemmerer is a great ape of the species Homo Sapiens Sapiens who accepts that she has no greater claim to a right to life than any other individual of any other species.

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