Philosophy as a way of life

While I prepare some interviews and reports for the blog, I leave you here a text I wrote a couple of years ago about the consistency required in true philosophy between theory and practice. I think this is a good start for opening the blog.

Could philosophy be a way of life today?

We can find many definitions in history of what philosophy might be. Despite these numerous perspectives, there is no doubt that the essence of philosophy is a philosophical problem in its self. Nevertheless, I think that human thought will always need to attend to the problematic of its time and this is why I believe it is pertinent to portray one perspective of what philosophy is. Knowing how challenging it can be to do this, my intention in this tiny essay it just to note the importance of philosophy as a way of life and how this conception could impact and possibly transform the way we philosophize today.

This idea began in ancient Greece with the emergence of philosophy. Etymologically, philosophy means love of wisdom. We can ask ourselves then what did the ancient Greeks understand by wisdom: did it mean to know many things and be an erudite or did it mean to know how to conduct our selves through life and be happy? But this question would not have occurred to them since they thought that “true knowledge is in the end a practical knowledge, and a true knowledge is to know how to do what is right.”[1]  Philosophical discourse that was not reflected in the acts of who proclaimed it was not considered philosophy at all, but merely rhetoric. We can find the highest expression of the coherence between discourse and action in the death of Socrates who died not because he was guilty of corrupting the minds of the youth of Athens but because he remained loyal to his moral ideals, even if it were to cost him his own life. Nonetheless we know of many other examples of this philosophical consistency in numerous ancient philosophical schools, as those of the Cynics, the Pythagoreans, the Stoics and the Epicureans. These schools were places in which students would learn to internalize the teachings of the philosophers, not in a forced way, but through truly committing their life to the ideal of wisdom. Only those who conducted their lives in accordance to the principles defended in a rationalized discourse could be considered philosophers.

Philosophy as a way of life requiring a constant exercise of body and mind through what Pierre Hadot calls spiritual exercises, that is to say, “personal and voluntary practices destined to create a transformation of the self.”[2] The purpose of philosophy was concentrated in the individual person, but it was far from being a selfish purpose since this transformation was a fundamentally ethical one: self-awareness involves understanding the relationship we have with the world and with others. In each school, philosophical activity started by making people aware of the state of alienation and unhappiness in which they live so that the need to transform themselves became obvious. It was considered unthinkable to be able to understand truth without this transformation.

Michel Foucault distinguishes between philosophy and spirituality as if they were two sides of the same coin and he defines them as follows: “We shall call ‘philosophy’ a form of thought that inquires into how a subject can have access to the truth.” And “we could call ‘spirituality’ the search, the practice, the experience through which the subject will make the necessary transformations to access the truth.”[3] From this distinction we can come to some superficial conclusions. First, truth[4] is not given to the subject before his or her own transformation, from this point of view we can only access truth when we put our own self at stake by becoming conscious of the relationship we have with the world. And second, when a person can transform his o herself, truth can deliver spiritual tranquility and peace with his or her actions and thoughts. From this perspective truth throws light upon the possibilities of moral action, and therefore it cannot be seen as an abstract and uprooted truth, but as a personal and spiritual truth. Philosophy and spirituality constituted a unity as a way of life.

Instead, as Foucault once said, it seems that today truth is not capable of saving us, that is, of transforming us. The philosophical activity has restricted itself in many ways only to the mechanical solution of abstract problems, in which we just make ourselves conceptual tools to attack specific problems without compromising ourselves in the act.

I believe that the actual problem of philosophical activity is precisely this: there is a lack of coherence between our philosophical discourse and our actions. To be a successful philosopher today it is enough to publish all that we can, attend as many seminars as possible, gain academic points within an institution, become an erudite, etc.; all of this regardless of how we act in the world or where we deposit our happiness.

We shall then ask ourselves: for whom is it convenient that philosophy be restricted to technical discourse without compromise to what we postulate? What power is there behind philosophy as mere investigation and not as a way of life? What would happen if institutionalized teaching changed its ways and instead of imparting a disjointed and schematic history of philosophy it taught us the importance of critical thought and unity between discourse and action? Even though today´s philosophical activity finds itself in very different conditions from those of Socrates’ Greece, perhaps the ancient conception of philosophy can give us suggestions for reflection about our role as active participants in the realm of philosophy.

[1] Hadot, Pierre. ¿Qué es la filosofía antigua? FCE, México, 1998. Pág. 30 (Qu’est-ce que la philosophie antique ? Paris, Gallimard, 1995.)

[2] Hadot, Óp. Cit. Pág. 197

[3] Foucault, Michel. La Hermenéutica del Sujeto. FCE México, 2002. Pág. 33

[4] The ancient notion of truth is thought to shape the correspondence theory which states that the truth or falsity of a statement is determined only by how it relates to the world, and whether it accurately describes (i.e., corresponds with) that world. For the ancient schools of philosophy, truth was not a neutral statement for it also implied the moral subject. We can clearly see this in stoicism: they thought that truth depended on our value judgments which opened up the possibility of error. Righteousness followed knowledge, and evil followed ignorance. For these ancient philosophies objective knowledge was inseparable from the possibility of moral action.



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