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Many colleges and universities are either eliminating or thinking about eliminating philosophy departments on the premise that the major is not very practical and does not include a direct job pipeline. For several reasons, this is very misguided.
First, not everything about life is or should be about your job. Being human involves more than working at a job. It involves thinking, contemplating, finding, and creating meaning and value. All of these things involve philosophy.
Second, living in a diverse community requires an understanding of such philosophical connections and tolerance, diversity, fairness, equality, and justice. Understanding these concepts requires a philosophical study of them.
Third, being an active participant in the civic life of your community entails contributing to the politics of that community by engaging in dialogue and voting. Both of these require critical thinking which again is a philosophical endeavor enhanced by the study of logic and argumentation.
Fourth, living in our diverse world requires each of us to have some understanding of the basics of morality and ethics. While a study of philosophical ethics won’t in and of itself make one a moral person it can engage one’s understanding of important moral concepts and how they are related to many of our most pressing problems.
Lastly, philosophy is indeed quite practical in the job world. Law schools have recognized for years that philosophy majors are uniquely qualified to succeed in the law and many law school graduates are successful philosophy majors. Other careers can be enhanced by a strong background in reasoning, problem-solving, critical thinking, and conceptualization all of which you receive excellent training in by studying philosophy.
If we are open to them, many philosophers have useful lessons to teach us that we can apply to our everyday life. Here are just a few examples:
With Valentine's day a day away my philosophical thoughts turn to love. There's more to the concept than meets the eye. A good book on this topic which outlines the various distinctions philosophers have made regarding the concept is Christopher Phillips Socrates in Love.
In the book, Phillips outlines the five Ancient Greek concepts of love as follows:
Here are some philosophically inspired resolutions for you to adopt in the new year:
1. Become a sage. Chuang Tzu once said, "The sage looks at the inevitable and decides that it is not inevitable. The common man looks at what is not inevitable and decides that it is inevitable." Recognize that what appears to be inevitable is not and take one step to become a sage.
2. Improve the quality of your thoughts. Marcus Aurelius recognized that "The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts." So, resolve to take this step towards becoming happier in your life.
3. Find time to sit still. Blaise Pascal once said, "Most of the evils of life arise from man's being unable to sit still in a room." Take some time to be still, meditate, or just relax with no distractions. It's good for the soul.
4. Take some risks. Paul Tillich once said, "He who risks and fails can be forgiven. He who never risks and never fails is a failure in his whole being." Don't be a failure, try something new!
5. Examine your beliefs. David Hume pointed out that "A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence." Take some time to examine your beliefs and the evidence for them.
6. Spend some time with good friends. Epicurus recognized that "Of all the means which are procured by wisdom to ensure happiness throughout the whole of life, by far the most important is the acquisition of friends." Re-connect with friends.
7. Be mindful. The poet Tagore observed, "The greed for fruit misses the flower." Remember to stop and smell the flowers on your journey.
8. Be satisfied with what you have. Epicurus once remarked that "Nothing satisfies a man who is not satisfied with a little." Focus on and appreciate what you have.
9. Identify your purpose. As Nietzsche once said "He who has a why to live for can bear with almost anyhow." be sure you are clear about the meaning and purpose of your life and strive to live accordingly.
10. Be a prepared observer. Louis Pasteur once remarked that "chance favors the prepared observer. Be ready to take advantage of new opportunities that arise this year.
In a recent discussion with a friend, we were talking about doctors who treat patients by just giving out prescriptions and not treating underlying causes. Many doctors do this because that is what patients want.
This started me to think about how many areas of life we focus on what we want and ignore what we need.
Doctors give patients prescriptions to relieve their symptoms because that's what they want. But, what patients need is for doctors to address the causes of their ailments and treat those.
But, doctors are not the only ones.
Teachers give students A's because that's what they want. But, students need to be challenged and taught to value lifelong learning.
Food manufacturers give customers food loaded with fat, salt, and sugar because that's what they want. But, what we need is healthy real food.
Can we blame them for giving us what we want? Only partially.
So, you get what you need. So what? You are harming yourselves and others by ignoring what you need.
Ask yourself what you really need and focus on that.
“One should count each day a separate life.” So says the philosopher Seneca. The Stoics encouraged us to cultivate the proper attitude towards death as they did towards life. The implication of Seneca’s quote is that we should take note of how we live our life each and every day. And strive to make our answer a resounding yes each and every day. It has been said that the study of philosophy is a preparation for death. This is not a morbid sentiment but rather one to encourage us to make the most of our life and to appreciate each day and consider each day an opportunity to accomplish something so that we can say the world was a better place for our having lived.
Much of the stress we are under is the result of a confusion of wants and needs. Many people believe they need things when really these things are merely wants.
The philosopher Epicurus distinguished these and discussed the problems in confusing them long ago. There are three categories of desires. The first are natural and necessary and include the basics: food, clothing, shelter, as well as friendship, freedom, and thinking. We require these in order to be happy. And, for Epicurus, these are all that we require in order to be happy.
Discussing controversial ethical issues can be difficult for many precisely because they have a strong emotional content. While no one suggests completely ignoring one’s emotions when addressing these issues, it is beneficial and constructive to be able to distinguish reason from emotion and to allow reason to guide and inform our emotions. This may sound like an impossible task but it can be done. There are several useful philosophical insights that might make this task easier.
Aristotle writes extensively about happiness in his book the Nicomachean Ethics. In it he says "what is always chosen as an end in itself and never as a means to something else is called final in an unqualified sense. This description seems to apply to happiness above all else: for we always choose happiness as an end in itself and never for the sake of something else." The rest of the work considers the best means to achieve this ultimate end and Aristotle ultimately concludes that a life lived according to the virtues is the best means to this ultimate end. Given this analysis the question becomes how does joy differ from this?
It's an interesting question. I was once asked by a philosophical counseling client: "Can you become wise by doing unwise things?" It may also sound like a strange question but the premise behind the question was whether experience, even the experience of making mistakes and learning from them, could lead to wisdom. Let's look at it by looking at the concept of wisdom and seeing where this leads us.
"Wisdom is organized life." So says philosopher Immanuel Kant. Perhaps wisdom can best be thought of as the product of learning from doing many unwise things. However, without this learning, I'm not sure wisdom naturally arises from simply doing unwise things. In a similar vein, wisdom entails knowing what you do not know as Socrates realized when he was dubbed the wisest of all men. Since he knew there were many things of which he was ignorant he concluded that it must be because he knew this which made him wise.
Henry David Thoreau once said, "it is characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things." This may also argue against the notion that one becomes wise by doing unwise things. Aristotle pointed out in his Nicomachean Ethics that one becomes a virtuous person by getting into the habit of acting virtuously. Perhaps this also applies to wisdom. We must get into the habit of acting wisely to become wise people. So, becoming a wise person would then be the product of doing many wise things.
Also in the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle distinguishes practical from philosophical wisdom. Practical wisdom deals with action, while philosophical wisdom deals mainly with contemplative virtues. Both are important. Both must be practiced with deliberation. Both are important to our happiness.
An important consideration behind the original question is whether it is possible to recognize in advance that an action is wise or unwise. To the extent that it is possible to recognize an action as unwise, it seems unlikely that wisdom would result from doing that which is unwise.
I share this line of thought with you here for three reasons:
1. First, it shows the kind of question that often arises from reflection on our everyday life and the problems we face. Many questions we ask in the course of our life are, at their root, philosophical questions. While they may not seem like it on the surface if you dig a little deeper the underlying premises behind the question as well as how they can be answered rely on philosophical principles.
2. Second, it shows that philosophy can shed light on this kind of question. Philosophers have been thinking about such issues for centuries and we can benefit from their reflection. Philosophers don't offer ready-made one size fits all answers but then these kinds of questions can't really be answered that way. They require individual reflection and individual application.
3. Third, it shows that to benefit from this kind of counseling one must enter into a dialogue of some kind. The dialogue can occur between a client and a counselor. Or the dialogue can occur between a questioner and some philosophical reading. Either way, the point is to enter into a dialogue and reflect on that dialogue.
Perhaps once cannot become wise by doing unwise things, but once can become wiser by engaging in philosophical inquiry and dialogue. And this dialogue can always be enhanced by having a philosopher as your dialogue partner. Email me to start your philosophical dialogue!
KEVIN J. BROWNE
Philosopher / Educator