WHY EVERYONE IS A PHILOSOPHER
Everyone is a philosopher.
Someone might disagree with this. They might say, "No, I'm not a philosopher."
But in saying this, they’d be making a statement about an idea.
Which is to say, they’d be doing philosophy.
If you’re reading this right now, chances are you already think of yourself as a philosopher. Which means the idea that you're a philosopher isn’t exactly breaking news.
So instead, I’m going to imagine that I’m writing to someone who doesn’t think they’re a philosopher.
To them, I’m probably say something really witty, like: "Yes, you are too a philosopher."
At this point, that person and I would probably start having a conversation. We'd be talking about an idea.
Which is to say, we're doing philosophy.
buries its undertakers.”
- Etienne Gilson
That's what philosophers do: explore ideas.
They think, talk, and sometimes argue about them, and sometimes write boring books about them. At its best, it’s about the love of wisdom, the pursuit of truth. It’s a love story, and it's about a hunt.
A few years ago, Stephen Hawking said “philosophy is dead.”
That’s a really interesting philosophical idea he put out there. It would be fun to have an interesting philosophical conversation about it.
So, none of us can avoid being philosophers.
We can’t not have a philosophy.
We live by ideas.
Ideas make up the intellectual oxygen we breathe. We might not notice it, in the same way we don’t necessarily need to notice oxygen. But we’re breathing in, swimming in, and navigating through ideas, all the time, every day. "I want to be happy is an idea." So is "I have to go to work tomorrow," or even "I like tacos." They're ideas.
Real philosophy – not the kind of hyperintellectual mental pretzel-twisting that many academic types subject us to (which probably inspired Hawking’s little crack above) – is pretty simple. It’s looking at ideas, the way a jeweler looks at diamonds, and trying to figure out which ones are valuable or worthless, real or phony.
And this is where it all starts getting interesting.
Everyone has a life philosophy.
A life philosophy is like a heartbeat.
We might not be aware of it, and we might never think about it. But if we’re alive, we have one.
Every person’s philosophy has been forged in the foggy, blurry heat of life experiences.
“Life is fired at us
- Jose Ortega y Gasset
Each of us has to make sense of life. We can’t not try to make sense of it. Our life philosophy is the result of that effort.
We could call it our “core personal narrative.” It’s our blueprint of the world and ourselves, the ongoing story we’re telling ourselves that makes sense of the raw experience of life. It’s the result of our efforts to translate life into something at least halfway coherent.
A life philosophy is made up of certain components.
A car is made up of a few key elements – let’s say wheels, an engine, and a place for someone to sit. If it’s missing any of those, it probably isn’t a car.
It’s the same with a life philosophy.
Everyone has a system of metaphysics, an epistemology, a system of ethics, a model of human nature, a teleology. (There are plenty of others, but those are the big ones.)
That’s the “jargon” version. But each of those words is really based on a few simple questions.
What is real?
How do I know?
How should I live?
What am I?
What’s the point?
Now let’s connect these together.
“What is real?” is metaphysics.
“How do I know?” is epistemology.
“How should I live?” is ethics.
“What am I?” is human nature.
“What’s the point?” is teleology.
There are others that get into more specific topics: aesthetics, political philosophy, axiology, the philosophies of science, education, mind, religion, and so on. But those listed above are the big ones.
These underlie pretty much everything we do.
These are like the concrete foundations of the intellectual building we live in.
We probably don’t think much about the foundations of the buildings we enter, hang around in, and walk out of every day. We assume they’re there, we assume they’re solid, and we usually assume that we don’t need to bother thinking about them at all.
But everything above ground is built on top of them, and is completely dependent on them.
If those foundations collapse, everything built on top of them will collapse along with them. Or, if those foundations are strong, everything built on top of them is at least based on something solid.
Our life philosophy works basically the same way.
This might seem a little strange at first, so let’s break it down a little.
Let’s start with maybe the simplest idea we can think of.
“I want some ice cream.”
OK, that’s simple enough for now.
So, what in the world could be “philosophical” about something as plain and straightforward as that?
Hidden within the idea “I want some ice cream” (and it is an idea) is a surprising amount of philosophy. The phrase “I want some ice cream” has components of metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, human nature, and teleology baked into it.
Well, it assumes that there really is such a thing as an “I,” for example, and also that there is such a thing as “ice cream” (that’s metaphysics). It assumes that we know something about what ice cream is, how to get some, how to eat it, and what effect it will probably have on us. (That’s epistemology). It raises the question about whether we should eat the ice cream or not. (That’s ethics). It assumes that I’m the kind of thing that can even eat and even enjoy ice cream – that I’m a human being, and not a goldfish or asteroid or triangle (human nature.) Ideas about the purpose of the ice cream – will it make me happy? Stop me from being hungry? Shower me with waves of pleasure? – are baked in to all of this. (That’s teleology.)
Of course, most of the above seems pretty dumb and obvious, and it might make philosophy seem to waste time raising silly questions and confusing everyone for no good reason. Just eat the dang ice cream, already!
But this is where things start getting tricky.
Remember: the point in the example above (er, teleology) was to try to come up with the most simple idea we could imagine.
But did you see what happened there?
Even with our ultra-simple, bare-bones, seemingly idiot-proof, ultra-obvious example, we still accidentally found ourselves colliding with a question that could actually be pretty hard: should I eat the ice cream?
Lots of folks experience a whole lot of suffering over that very question these days. Should I eat the ice cream, or not? For folks who struggle with their weight, that question can take on serious gravity.
It's no abstract, armchair navel-gazing we're talking about here.
We just tried the simplest idea we could think of, and still found ourselves in a dogfight with an idea that could potentially lead us to either more happiness or more suffering.
But now, imagine what happens when we start looking at things that are more complex. (Which is approximately 99.99% of life.)
That’s where things get a lot tougher. And more interesting.
The idea of “happiness” is one example. There’s plenty of room – and room for error – when it comes to the topic of happiness. Figuring out what it is, how to achieve it – or asking whether it even is something we can “achieve” at all – is no small task. If our idea of happiness (and it is an idea) is that it's something we can achieve through doing heroin, for example, we’re probably setting ourselves up for some unnecessary suffering. And that unnecessary suffering would be the direct result of a bad life philosophy, or even more simply, bad ideas that we didn’t recognize as bad ideas.
"The meaning of life" is another big idea. Or what to do for a career, whether to get married or have children or not, or whether there’s a God or not, or why we suffer, or what we can do about it, or…you get the idea.
All of these topics involve complex, multi-layered, thickly-woven tapestries of ideas.
But they and their answers are based – if you trace it back far enough – on those five or so basic questions we mentioned above.
And here’s where things get even more interesting.
Some ideas are better than others.
(Crazy idea, I know.)
Let’s say I have an idea that 2+2=7. Or, let’s say I believe that everything in the universe is secretly made of spaghetti sauce, and the answer to the universe is meatballs. Or that I have a pet hamster that’s fully enlightened, and everyone needs to start worshiping it right now! to prevent the world from exploding.
If I really believe those ideas, well, let’s go out on a limb here and say that I’m probably going to experience at least a certain amount of unnecessary suffering in life that could otherwise be avoided.
Bad ideas often lead to unnecessary suffering.
Good ideas, more often than not, usually lead away from unnecessary suffering.
Philosophy is about weeding out bad ideas and nurturing good ones. Philosophy, then, should play a crucial role in experiencing more happiness and less suffering in life.
If I have more good ideas (better than the idea that I should spend all my time obeying a hamster, for example) than bad ones, odds are I’ll probably be a happier, healthier, deeper, more genuine person.
Which brings us to a pretty simple point: our life philosophy has a profound impact on our quality of life. And our happiness, and sanity, and relationships, and all the rest.
If someone's life philosophy is full of bugs, errors, and bad ideas, then they're probably setting themselves up for some unnecessary suffering.
(And if someone thinks there are no such things as “bugs, errors, and bad ideas” – that everyone is right about everything, well, that probably means they’ve taken either a few too many philosophy classes, or not quite enough.)
A life philosophy is like the blueprint of a building.
Some buildings are highly fragile.
The question, in some cases, isn’t if they’re going to collapse at some point. The only question is when.
Other buildings are built to withstand earthquakes beyond the magnitude of anything we’ve actually seen.
It’s the same with a philosophy of life.
(That, by the way, is how we describe an "existential crisis." It's what happens when all or part of a life philosophy collapses. It’s basically someone deciding that certain fundamental components of a life philosophy aren’t solid.))
Let’s do a quick recap:
We’re all philosophers. All life philosophies are made of certain essential elements (metaphysics, epistemology, and so on.) Those elements originate in a few basic questions life throws at us (what is real, how do you know, etc.) Our answers to these questions can determine a great deal about how much happiness or suffering we experience in life. Some life philosophies are full of bugs and errors and are highly fragile, while others are rock-solid and are built to endure anything life can throw at us.
So our task, at this point, becomes pretty clear.
The task, now, is for each of us to make our own life philosophy as strong as possible.
Which raises a new question.
What makes some life philosophies fragile and others antifragile?
How do some life philosophies become stronger through life experiences, while some become weaker? What makes some life philosophies full of bugs, mistakes, and errors, and some rock-solid enough to withstand whatever life throws at it? What can we do to make sure our philosophy is leading us toward more truth, goodness, beauty, life, ice cream and puppies, and away from things like worshiping hamsters?
That’s the challenge.
There’s also one crucial matter we should clarify.
We aren’t looking for some kind of “one life philosophy for everyone,” in a restrictive, cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all template that discourages individuality.
Exactly the opposite. The idea isn’t to kneecap creative thinkers, but to empower them. The idea is to help prevent them from running off cliffs, wasting time, or reinventing wheels.
The idea of a “good life philosophy” should leave the door wide open for individual freedom. The idea is for artists, poets, nonconformists, weirdos, mystics, and just those who march to the beats of their own drummers to do what they do. Nothing we’re looking at here threatens anyone’s freedom to think and philosophize as they want.
Because it's possible to do it better.
The idea is to figure out the core principles behind it all.
We can compare it to writing novels.
It’s not a matter of anyone telling anyone else what to write. It’s more about learning basic principles of grammar, drama and plot structure, and so on.
So, write whatever you want. The doors are wide open. But learning certain principles of good writing can likely help a novelist express what they’re really trying to say.
Or music: compose whatever you want. There's total freedom there. But learning music theory, and basic principles of how music works, can help you become a better musician.
Or painting: there’s total freedom in what to paint, but if you arm yourself with some of the basics of color theory and composition and so on, there’s a better chance that your painting will turn out better than not. (And what does “better” mean? That would take us to aesthetics, which would mean more philosophy. Sorry, Dr. Hawking. We still have plenty to do.)
So, to apply this to a life philosophy: it’s less about what to think, more about how to think.
The core idea here is inflexible principles and total freedom living together in harmony. As August Turak described, it’s the best of both worlds and the worst of neither: maximum freedom and maximum principality. Instead of the classic conflict of either hard dogma squashing individual expression or individual expression rebelling against hard dogma, it’s putting each in the service of the other to the benefit of both.
After all: there are core principles behind strong buildings and fragile ones.
And it’s the same with a life philosophy.
To bring up just one example: in a philosophy, the metaphysics, epistemology, ethics and so on are all interconnected.
These different areas depend on each other. Your answers in epistemology, for example, are intimately connected to your answers in ethics. And even the order you ask and answer certain questions in, for example, can make a huge difference in the final answers. And a few small errors early in the process can lead to huge problems later.
Exploring these kinds of things takes courage.
“A very popular error:
having the courage of one’s convictions;
rather it is a matter of having the courage
for an attack on one’s convictions . . .”
- Friedrich Nietzsche
Exploring all this, consciously and deliberately, is the task of a philosopher.
And you’re a philosopher.
So now, the challenge now is to become a great one.
“The important thing is
not to stop questioning.”
- Albert Einstein
When you go to a doctor, or dentist, or airline pilot, or chef, you expect a certain level of competence and expertise. You hope and expect that they’ve been trained, they know a few things about a few things, and they’re at least halfway good at what they do.
But when it comes to each of us constructing our own life philosophy, which many of us are doing these days, we typically entrust that to a rank amateur: ourselves.
Of course, it’s not our fault. Sometimes we make it work. And sometimes, we even knock it out of the part.
But no one usually trains us in how to build a strong life philosophy.
Which means we have to figure it all out for ourselves. Which means we often find ourselves doing it the hard way.
Which can be inefficient. It can mean reinventing the wheel, working on problems that have already been solved, and wasting years barking up wrong trees.
It's a challenge that can be easy to underestimate. It can mean life confronting us with situations we're unprepared for. It might be like finding ourselves tasked with building a space shuttle, armed only with a hammer, a roll of toilet paper, and piece of used dental floss.
Of course, we do the best we can. And of course, sometimes it turns out just fine. Even great.
But still, it brings us back to our point: we should work to become the best philosophers we possibly can.
And we need more good philosophers out there.
“How very paltry and limited the normal human intellect is,
and how little lucidity there is in the human consciousness,
may be judged from the fact that,
despite the ephemeral brevity of human life,
the uncertainty of our existence
and the countless enigmas which press upon us from all sides,
everyone does not continually and ceaselessly philosophize,
but that only the rarest of exceptions do. “
There seems to be a bit of sloppy thinking going around these days.
Many folks start with unexamined assumptions and move on to inevitable conclusions without ever stopping to take a look at the whole business.
And this shows up in some of the incoherent ideas that get thrown around a lot nowadays.
It all might be kind of fun and amusing, if the impact of it weren’t so real.
After all, we fight wars about ideas.
World War II, for example, was about folks on one side who got an idea that they should rule the world. Folks on the other side disagreed, and thought that particular idea was a bad one. Luckily, in that case, the folks with the better philosophy (yes, better) won that one.
If that disagreement about those ideas could have been resolved by philosophical discussion instead of the way it was, well, that might’ve saved everyone some unnecessary grief. To put it mildly.
Every tyrant and dictator is a servant of his or her ideas.
(OK, this is taking us down a weird path, but let’s go with it for a minute.)
Philosophy is better than war. Words are better than bullets. Verbal arguments are better than physical violence. (We’re making some axiological statements here that would require some philosophical conversation to really flesh out.) War is trying to solve a philosophical disagreement with bullets and bombs. When disagreements don’t get resolved verbally, on the idea/mental/conceptual level, they can wind up being expressed physically. Verbally is better.
But even most conversations these days seem to be less about real philosophy – a spirit of mutual inquiry into truth – and more about verbal warfare. Many folks seem less interested in inquiring into the truth than about their ideas simply overpowering someone else’s ideas.
But still: despite stakes being this high, folks rarely yell "stop the presses!" and take an honest look at their own life philosophy until they ram into some kind of existential crisis.
We live by ideas, but we rarely stop to examine the ideas we live by.
“Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind
and proving there is no need to do so,
almost everyone gets busy on the proof.”
- John Kenneth Galbraith
And this brings us to a peculiar realization.
If folks rarely stop to examine their own life philosophy, and their life philosophy determines a great deal of their happiness and success in life, that means their happiness and success in life is determined by something they don’t really know much about.
Let's do a short thought experiment that might illustrate the strangeness of this situation.
Let’s imagine you were hooked up to a machine.
The job of that machine is to make all of your life decisions for you.
Every single decision in your life – what to eat, your career, who you marry, and everything in between – would be decided by this machine. And you have to do what that machine decides for you.
If you were actually in this situation, well, you’d probably want to understand that machine, right?
Is it intelligent, or dumb? Is it smarter than you, or dumber? Does it have your best interests in mind, or someone else’s? Was it engineered for the purpose of giving you a great and fulfilling life, or for the purpose of making the engineer richer? Was it designed by someone like your Mom, who just wants you to be happy, or is it The Matrix, designed to suck you dry and leave you like a used-up battery?
Chances are, if you were fully aware of your situation, you’d probably want to take a close look at that machine, and make sure this thing was something you can, and should, trust.
And even then, few of us would agree to anything even close to this.
Turning absolute control of our lives over to a machine we don’t understand seems, in most folks’ eyes, to be a bad idea.
But in a way, each of us might already be hooked up to a machine like that.
It’s our life philosophy.
The CPU is our own mind. The hard drive is full of experiences and lessons we’ve absorbed from who knows where in life. The "programmers" were our parents, teachers, professors, friends, media, Google, celebrities, Twitter, marketing directors at major corporations, that kid in first grade we don't even remember anymore - the list goes on.
Unless we’ve really stopped the presses and made a deliberate effort to take a look and see what’s in there, to really know ourselves, and make sure it’s working properly, and is leading us down a road we want to travel, we might just be hooking ourselves up to The Great Unknown and hoping for the best.
“That which we do not bring to consciousness
appears in our lives as fate.”
- Carl Jung
But luckily, there’s a proven cure for all this.
It’s not flashy. But it can be pretty effective.
It's turning everything we have over to Google.
It's doing real philosophy.
Stopping to really think hard about stuff, tune out distractions, explore core ideas and Big Questions and existential riddles and so on isn’t incredibly glamorous.
It won’t make screaming fans fall all over themselves to throw their underwear at you. (Not at first, anyway.) It won’t necessarily get you faceless legions of Facebook friends or Twitter followers. It won’t (necessarily) make you wealthy enough to buy gold-plated toilets.
But it might get you something infinitely more valuable.
So, you’re a philosopher.
This puts you in a position of great power.
Use it wisely.
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