From a distance, philosophy seems weird, irrelevant, boring…
and yet also – just a little – intriguing.
But what are philosophers really for?
The answer is, handily, already contained in the word philosophy itself.
In Ancient Greek, philo means love and sophia means wisdom.
Philosophers are people devoted to wisdom.
Being wise means attempting to live and die well.
In their pursuit of wisdom, philosophers have developed a very
specific skill-set. They have, over the centuries, become experts in
many of the things that make people not very wise. Five stand out:
There are lots of big questions around: What is the meaning of life?
What’s a job for? How should society be arranged?
Most of us entertain them every now and then, but we despair of trying
to answer them. They have the status of jokes. We call them
‘pretentious’. But they matter deeply because only with sound answers
to them can we direct our energies meaningfully.
Philosophers are people unafraid of asking questions. They have, over
the centuries, asked the very largest. They realise that these
questions can always be broken down into more manageable chunks and
that the only really pretentious thing is to think one is above
raising big naive-sounding enquiries.
Public opinion – or what gets called ‘common sense’ – is sensible and
reasonable in countless areas. It’s what you hear about from friends
and neighbours, the stuff you take in without even thinking about it.
But common sense is also often full of daftness and error.
Philosophy gets us to submit all aspects of common sense to reason.
It wants us to think for ourselves. Is it really true what people say
about love, money, children, travel, work? Philosophers are interested
in asking whether an idea is logical – rather than simply assuming it
must be right because it is popular and long-established.
We’re not very good at knowing what goes on in our own minds.
Someone we meet is very annoying, but we can’t pin down what the issue is.
Or we lose our temper, but can’t readily tell what we’re so cross about.
We lack insight into our own satisfactions and dislikes.
That’s why we need to examine our own minds. Philosophy is committed
to self-knowledge – and its central precept – articulated by the
earliest, greatest philosopher, Socrates – is just two words long:
We’re not very good at making ourselves happy. We overrate the power
of some things to improve our lives – and underrate others.
We make the wrong choices because, guided by advertising and false glamour,
we keep on imagining that a particular kind of holiday, or car, or computer
will make a bigger difference than it can.
At the same time, we underestimate the contribution of other things –
like going for a walk – which may have little prestige but can
contribute deeply to the character of existence.
Philosophers seek to be wise by getting more precise about the
activities and attitudes that really can help our lives to go better.
Philosophers are good at keeping a sense of what really matters and what doesn’t.
On hearing the news that he’d lost all his possessions in a shipwreck,
the Stoic philosopher Zeno simply said:
‘Fortune commands me to be a less encumbered philosopher.’
It’s responses like these that have made the very term ‘philosophical’
a byword for calm, long-term thinking and strength-of-mind,
in short, for perspective.
The wisdom of philosophy is – in modern times – mostly delivered in
the form of books. But in the past, philosophers sat in market squares
and discussed their ideas with shopkeepers or went into government
offices and palaces to give advice. It wasn’t abnormal to have a
philosopher on the payroll. Philosophy was thought of as a normal,
basic activity – rather than as an unusual, esoteric, optional extra.
Nowadays, it’s not so much that we overtly deny this thought but we
just don’t have the right institutions set up to promulgate wisdom
coherently in the world. In the future, though, when the value of
philosophy is a little clearer, we can expect to meet more
philosophers in daily life. They won’t be locked up, living mainly in
university departments, because the points at which our unwisdom bites
– and messes up our lives – are multiple and urgently need attention –