How To Be A Good Philosopher

October 6, 2017
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I hold a largely unpopular belief. I believe every person that exists is, by rights, a philosopher. I also believe that the most interesting and important thing about any person is their unique philosophy. The things that we believe and the ways that we act upon those beliefs shapes every aspect of our lives and says everything about who we are.  

Consider this, you have in your mind ideas about love, family, friendships, morals, virtue, happiness, consciousness, politics, nature, and a million more things. You have ideas about how people should act and from those philosophies springs your moral compass. You have ideas about what constitutes love and friendship and from those philosophies springs the successes and failures of our relationships. You have ideas about living and happiness and from those philosophies springs the gushing fountain of your everyday existence. The tangled, messy and difficult cohesion of all of those philosophies has molded you into a certain person with a certain life and a certain set of beliefs.

Now I know a lot of puritan philosophers will say that what I am talking about is not real philosophy, and to that objection, I call bullshit. I will give you that it is not usually formal, academic philosophy, but that doesn’t matter. I don’t have to struggle my way through Hegel or Heidegger to be able to investigate the world with a critical, reasoned and logical eye.

I believe that, to some degree, everyone exercises their mental faculties towards the disciplines of philosophy all the time, without ever knowing it. It may help to see how we approach philosophy in our everyday life by exploring, in brief, the different branches of philosophy.

For the sake of clarity and brevity, I think it is reasonable to group the many different philosophical branches into 4. There is obviously a great deal of nuance within these branches but this will be a good start.

The 4 Branches of Philosophy

Logic

The pursuit of reasoned and rational thought. Ok, maybe this is a bad example for the time and place and situations we find our self in the world because it sure as shit seems like no one is being fucking logical or reasoned or rational right now but, it has been my experience that most people at least attempt to exercise some form of logic in their lives. When we formulate our arguments for the things that we believe. When we poke holes in the arguments of others. Despite how often it is abused, logic is a big part of our lives.

Epistemology

The study of knowledge – of how we can know the things we know and what does knowing mean at all. I think people touch this one less because it is the most fraught with confounding mental gymnastics. This is some of the trippy, mind-blowing shit that swims into your head at sleeping times and keeps you up and anxious into the long hours of morning. Questions like, how is knowing something different than believing something? Or, what constitutes knowing something at all? It may not seem like it, but even these heavy, confusing questions influence the way we think and act in the world. It makes us skeptical or accepting, reasoned or irrational.

Metaphysics

This is the study of the nature of things.The questions of existence, being and our place in the world. This is arguably the foundational cornerstone of philosophy and we all brush against this with constant occurrence. This is a close, heady cousin of epistemology and still asks those mind-blowing questions but it is more relevant to our everyday lives so we approach these questions more often. What you believe of God. Your thoughts on the fundamental nature of humans. Or questions about how we came to be at all. These are the metaphysical questions that influence every aspect of our being – as how we see the world and our fellow humans will determine how we act to them and what we strive for in the world.

Axiology

The least well-known but most accessible branch of philosophy, axiology. This a really broad term to cover the study of those things that we value in the world. This is the large branch of philosophy we spend most of our time in. Our politics, our morals, our ideas of beauty and love and friendship and virtue. All of that lives here and makes up underpinnings of our philosophical beings.

I think you get the point. For better or for worse, you are a philosopher and you do philosophy every day.

How to be a good philosopher

“Wonder is the beginning of wisdom.” – Socrates

The problem is, most people are not very good philosophers. I am not saying that they can not be good philosophers, as I believe everyone can, I am saying that they are not good philosophers now.

This inadequacy of philosophical acumen is birthed from a variety of reasons.

There are many people who do not feel comfortable or confident enough to dig into some of the beliefs that were given to them as they grew up. Some people are scared of the alternatives to their own beliefs or refuse to accept that any belief but the ones they hold could possibly exist. Some people purposely ignore deep questions with the help of the constantly accessible distractions of the modern world. Some people are accidentally ignorant and are not good philosophers because they were never taught how to think critically and reason well.

Whatever the case, there is a path forward. There is a way to be a good philosopher. What follows is my approach towards trying to be the best damn philosopher you can be.

Maintaining a constant curiosity and wonder

I believe that all great and beautiful and miraculous things that come from living come from wonder and curiosity. There is a great deal of imaginative power in the simple joy of wondering why something is the way it is and exploring that curiosity by imagining a million reasons for it to be that way. Wonder and curiosity are the hallmarks of all great achievements. The begin every journey of discovery and, if you do it right, they are constant traveling companions that make pleasant surprises of even the most mundane of discoveries.

Children are master philosophers in this regard. They are great philosophers, not because they always get their theories right, but because they never stop wondering and improving the theories of life as they go. They maintain such a consistency of wonder and curiosity that they are in a perpetual state of examination and discovery. And those are the conditions philosophers must foster.

We often lose that natural inquisitiveness of childhood. As we grow jaded and cocksure through the natural erosion of time, our sense of curiosity in a world that we think we understand diminishes. We think that we have already figured out the right ways to think and believe and live so we stop being curious and we stop wondering. But once you lose that wonder and curiosity about living you lose the ability to be a good philosopher.

Suspending judgement

Being a good philosopher is more than just wonder and curiosity. It is about taking that wonder as far as possible and not judging or dismissing outright the directions or answers it leads you too.

One true sign of bad philosophy is certainty. Anyone who believes they have absolute dominion over the truth is an idiot, and what’s worse, people like that typically attempt to impose their will and shitty philosophy on others with a force of confidence that is hard to deny. In order to be a good philosopher, you must never accept that you have found the capital T truth and you must never accept such a lofty claim from others.

A general and healthy bit of skepticism goes a long way in making sure you are doing your due diligence in the pursuit of philosophical answers. Those first answers you come across when in pursuit of the big questions are going to seem appealing, but you can’t stop there. You have to imagine they might be wrong and keep digging. No one says you can’t come back to them but you have to make sure they are something resembling a certainty by putting them to the test, suspending your judgment of other contrarian ideas, and continuing your investigations with a vigor born of knowledge above all things.

Being honest with yourself and with the world

Philosophy requires a stark and horrific level of honesty. This scares a lot of people away but it is a liberating thing when you get comfortable with it. Investigating the world as it is, and not how you want it to be, is something that will keep humble, worry and embolden you. If you are willing to travel the world in pursuit of an earnest Truth you will occasionally be lost, occasionally found, occasionally breathless at the heights you can reach and occasionally heartbroken at the depths you must dwell.

And what’s more, if you keep honesty as your travel companion you will frequently feel like you are traveling completely alone. There are very few people who will join you in your honesty but that’s ok. Being alone doesn’t mean lonely and facing the truths inside you and outside in the world, will bring you to a depth of understanding and comfortable quietude.

Putting into practice the truths you suspect you found to make sure they work as well in action as they do in theory.

The most important aspect of being a good philosopher is not merely to think deep thoughts or to spout witty arguments. The most important aspect of every philosopher is putting into action the truths that are found in our philosophical searchings and find out if they are as applicable in action as they are in theory.  

None of this philosophical shit matters a hair if it doesn’t prove itself out in your life. A philosophy that does not touch upon life and the living of it is mental masturbation. I am not saying there isn’t a place for that, but, despite Cynic philosopher Diogenes predilection for masturbating in public, that sort of philosophy should be mostly kept behind closed doors. And we should do philosophy in order to bring it out into the world.

With that being said, I believe even the most obscure and esoteric questions in philosophy have the capacity to touch our lives in some way and shape the way we live. But that can only come from putting into action those theories you are tossing around in your head about the way the world works and making sure they hold water. If they don’t, you jettison them for some new ones and repeat the process.

What you need to be a good philosopher

“Be a philosopher but amid all your philosophy, be still a human.” Scottish Enlightenment philosopher, David Hume

Despite appearances, you do not need grey hair, a pipe, a vest or a jacket with elbow patches to be a good philosopher. All you need are a few virtues of humanity that can be sharpened and developed through your continued interaction with deep, critical thought, and practical, tactical application of the philosophies you explore in your life.

What follows is not an exhaustive list of attributes needed to be a good philosopher.

Wonder and curiosity

I already mentioned these two characteristics of a good philosopher but they are important enough to repeat. Wonder and curiosity are the greatest requirements of a good philosopher. This means keeping an open mind, a sharp eye, and a playful smile turned to the world in the pursuit of all of life’s great mysteries.

If you can maintain these things, unsullied by the natural creep of pessimism and the alleged understanding that comes from age, you will instantly be one of the best philosophers in the world. On the same philosophical level as children, and they are some of the most brilliant philosophers the world has to offer.

Discipline  

A good philosopher has to be a master at doing what needs to be done. I have spoken often about the myth of motivation as a means to achievement and a good philosopher needs to learn the hard lessons of sticking with something even when it is difficult to do so.

You are going to have to labor through some difficult books, articles, questions, and answers. You are going to have to make time to read and write and think and that is going to mean an occasional bit of deliberate loneliness. Loneliness is a gift for a philosopher though. It is something you should come to love and appreciate.

Humility

Perhaps the most difficult attribute to cultivate, a philosopher needs a healthy dash of humility if she is going to go rushing off into the rushing rapids of philosophical thought. This means being able to admit when you are wrong. This means not believing that the answers you have found are the only answers available. This means listening to others opinions and giving them careful consideration. It also means not taking everything so seriously.

Most of all, this means not being an arrogant asshole just because you think you have a little bit of knowledge. Whatever you think you know, someone else knows more and you will never know as much as you should or could.

Courage

One needs a healthy dose of courage to do philosophy well. It requires courage to dig deep into your own mind and to investigate the nature of what you find there. It requires courage to explore life and to not be afraid of the answers you might find. And it requires courage, not just to think about these things, but to act upon them – especially if they are unpopular but necessary beliefs. That requires a strength that few people can muster but it is essential to be a good philosopher.

Summary

I have spoken in a previous article about what gifts philosophy gives your life, so I won’t go into it in detail here, but I do suggest you read that article as it may strengthen your resolve in doing the hard, lonely, but substantial work of philosophy.

The fact is, the world needs good philosophers more than anything right now. The world needs reasoned and logical approaches to the hard problems of living. The world needs as many people as it can get with that have wonder, discipline, humility, and courage. And whats more, your life needs it.

So this is my challenge to you, look at your life. Look at your beliefs and reasons and actions and find the philosophy in them. Find the philosophical threads of your belief that string together your being and investigate them – hold them up to the light and making sure they are clear, transparent, meaningful and true. In that investigation, you will find the opportunity to become a better philosopher and through that, you will find a deeper, more meaningful existence. Becuase that is what comes of being a good philosopher. 

 

 

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