Philosophising as a Way of Living

in #philosophy3 months ago

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The idea of philosophy as a way of life comes from the historian-philosopher Pierre Hadot in a book with the same title, Philosophy as a way of Life. Many scholars have used these ideas in their own work, especially in taking philosophy out of the so-called ivory tower of academia. Even Hadot himself (on page 272 of my copy) states rather passionately that:

Ancient philosophy proposed to mankind an art of living. By contrast, modern philosophy appears above all as the construction of a technical jargon reserved for specialists.

This sentiment is shared by many, even in the history of philosophy. What comes to my mind is Henry Thoreau stating that there are no more philosophers but merely philosophy professors as I discussed in this post. He said that almost a 150 years ago. The point all of these philosophers or authors try to make is rather simple. Hadot himself, reading the ancient Greeks, sums it up pretty nicely when he states that there is philosophical discourse and philosophizing.

Philosophical discourse refers to things we think about, ethics, logic, and science. It is the "meat" of theory, theorising, ivory tower stuff. It is thinking about thinking, the cliche term for philosophy. It is not thinking itself. Philosophising, on the other hand, refers to actual thinking, and living philosophically. It is the doing part, the action, activity, practice or praxis.

People love to contrast these two ways of doing philosophy with each other. In a similar type of distinction, people love to contrast analytic philosophy/philosophers with continental philosophy/philosophers. That is why the translator of Pierre Hadot's books, Michael Chase, calls philosophy as a way of life a third way of doing or practising (or living) philosophy.

All of these distinctions aside, the idea of philosophy as a way of life might seem strange at first, and with good reason. Philosophers, in our minds, are people who do not really seem like the type who would live their philosophies like a Christian would live their faith or a doctor living their practice. The doctor is a doctor, the Christian is a Christian. But the philosopher, in our minds, is someone who teaches at the university or who now and then publishes a book. But philosophy is not really something you are. Or that is our modern notion of philosophy. It is a subject at university, a strange section of books in one's local library, and sometimes the word that refers to our way of life in general; think: "what is your life philosophy?"

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But if you read the short essay by Hadot, you will understand this concept radically differently. In short, the idea professed by Hadot is that ancient Greek philosophers lived their philosophies, it was their "religion". If one could not practice a philosophy, it was not worthy of being called a "philosophy". Hence the words of Epicurus that go something like empty and useless are the words (philosophy) of a philosopher that does not cure (one's soul).

But all of this really sounds too similar to religion or a cult to me. A philosophy of life encompasses everything you do, spiritual exercises entail various meditations and "philosophical rituals" that even dictate one's diet and eating regimen. Does the modern philosopher think that dictating what one eats and one's meditations will affect their living? Will it lead to a good life? Or is this way of looking at philosophy too outdated? And again, too similar to modern religions and cults?

I thus prefer the idea of philosophising as a way of living to emphasise the dynamic and active pursuits of this endeavour. It is not the adoption of a philosophy that one lives, blindly following whatever the philosopher who espoused the words and philosophy. It is instead a focus on living, living that contemplates everything from experiences to questions with seemingly no answers to them. Philosophising entails an active pursuit to try and understand whilst knowing that one is only seeing life from this specific perspective. There are others, many others, who also experience life, who have their own opinions and "philosophies" according to which they live. Everyone can philosophise, it is deep thinking about a subject, or what I like to say, it is a fermentation of one's mind. It is the conscious effort to reflect on things in a specific manner, critically, logically, open-mindedly, without holding assumptions that exclude and preclude, and so on.

The idea of living philosophically also encapsulates the profound insight that all of philosophy provides one with a tremendous library of resources from which one can learn, that can profoundly change your life for the better or for worse.

But most of all, it is about keeping an open mind and listening to others.

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I would like to expand on these ideas in the next post because I truly think there is something deeply important hidden in the notion of philosophizing as a way of living that so many other authors overlook.

But until then, happy reading, and stay safe.

All of the writings in this post are my own, unless stated otherwise or hyperlinked. The photographs are also my own, taken with my Nikon D300.

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I do see philosophy as a way of life, otherwise, what is the point? You have to follow what you believe to be true. If, through philosophy, I come to the conclusion that doing this or that is right, then I must do it. Otherwise, why?

So were the first philosophers. Embodying their philosophy.

I like the comparison you make with religion. It seems to me that they have a lot in common. I have the feeling that what people like Plato called philosophy is today closer to what yogis and mystics in the East do, than modern philosophers in the West.

For sure, I totally agree. Why believe something against all rational thought? That is why academic philosophy is so strange in some aspects. On the one hand, you deal with very abstract thoughts sometimes close to mathematics without any practical use (and hence the struggle to use it in philosophy as a way of life) but also the strange case in which people take arguments to their “logical conclusions” without really believing and living that philosophy because of the absurdity of their conclusions. (There are so many such cases, think about David Benetar’s anti natalist positions with drastic consequences.)

I think that is exactly Pierre Hadot’s case, that philosophy was much more close to those practices in Ancient times that what it is today.

That was an interesting read and it inspired me to debate a bit.

I would regard religion and philosophy as interlinked.

I think a religion encompasses everything you do (or omit to do) through its order. It encompasses the practical as well as the theoretical.

In my understanding, philosophy is a sub-area of what religion is.

In Buddhism, this is more clearly divided and makes it apparent what Christians have also integrated into their religion.
For the Buddhists it is

  • Buddha - the ideal figure in the form of the Buddha (in our case Jesus)
  • Dharma - the theoretical teachings of Buddhism, which are lively discussed or debated (here I would categorise philosophising as a sub-area and what you called

"Philosophising entails an active pursuit to try and understand")

  • Sangha - the practical exercises and coming together in groups for meditation, recitation/chanting as well as events such as celebrations and death (church services, Christian holidays, funerals etc.)

We often call the sages of the West philosophers, the sages of the East probably also, although I have often read the word "mystic". However, I would still regard them both as scholars in contemporary terms. But if the scholars do not engage in religious practice, I would call them professors. I don't think that there is philosophical practice in the mentioned sense.

Modern man forgets the practice and the very material and social needs that are expressed in practice, such as funeral ceremonies, wakes, funeral feasts, services for the dead, baptisms, marriages and so on, because of all the theory.

Regarding a cult/sect:
I therefore do not think that religion of modern times and the cult in one breath, called, fit together. A cult, by my definition, is to be understood as something irrational, detached and negative and destructive, while culture is not. Regarding the Christian faith, the cult followers are those who violate the first and second Christian commandments. A cult persecutes and punishes those who do not belong to it. At the same time, it is said that those parts of the Church who did so were not Christians but cultists who abused religion for their cultist purposes. Which is what they did.

Oh thank you so much for this great comment! I really enjoyed reading it and appreciate the time you spent replying and reading my post! It is truly amazing to see that people will take the time and effort to debate your ideas.

I fully agree with all that you said. Sometimes I think my own understandings of things are so much in negative terms and problematic binaries that I get lost in my own traps/detail.

For sure, the split between cult and religion as you put it is 100% accurate and a mistake in some sense in my post.

I think your argument is so close to what Pierre Hadot tried to illustrate in his work. He states that he could see clearly in the literature when religion (Christian) took philosophy over and the split came between academic exegesis of texts and practical lived philosophy.

But I also want to add that I think that there is still something valuable regarding academic philosophy even with all of its problems of abstraction and being locked in the ivory tower. I think to some degree it is what the philosopher makes with that knowledge that sets academic and practical philosophy apart. So often I find myself reading some philosophy and end up using it in my day to day life and reasoning even if that philosophy was not intended for any practical and pragmatic use.

I hope this makes some sense and that it somewhat responds to your reply.

I sincerely thank you back for your open minded response. I always hope to meet someone who welcomes debate. At least, philosophy is known as a branch which thrives from it resp. officially invites debate and being challenged as something positive or just normal within its own discipline.

To become more certain in what you answered, you agreed upon the delivered notion by me that philosophy is a part within the framework of religious order, is that correct or incorrect? Because I am not quite sure what is meant by you when you say that

... when religion (Christian) took philosophy over and the split came between academic exegesis of texts and practical lived philosophy.

In my view philosophy was not taken over by religion. Religion was there first, from my point of view (imagining the very ancient peoples worshipping nature in the form of gods and ff), as well as philosophers were there in co-existence, as a natural consequence of the respective religious beliefs and its orders. You have, let's say, the Ten Commandments, and then you have people who talk about them and interpret them. Or, you have Genesis and as a result, human beings try to make sense of it. Those, who were and are particularly good at making sense or asking surprising/challenging questions became known philosophers (or, were censored). I hope, I delivered my set of mind adequately.

In the professional departments of the religious institutions becoming theologians are being taught to debate - for me, this is an essential part of becoming a philosopher.

It leaves me irritated since I don't know what you might mean by "practical lived philosophy". A philosophy becomes commonly (practically) lived if it is understood by everyone, which is religion still, as it is more common (in practice anyway). Since I don't know myself a unified philosophy but many schools and streams of philosophy.

For the sake of the matter, let's take this example: when someone died, I say "May he rest in peace." This phrase is known by everyone because of the practice to say it out loud over and over and over throughout time.
I think that is the result of priests saying so and the congregation said so, who were the people and who are therefore "common knowledge", hence practiced religion. Or maybe the people said so and then the priests started saying so. But on some end the practice took over to a very large scale.
Words which come immediately to the mind of everyone in the Western and Eastern realm without having to think, is what I mean.

So often I find myself reading some philosophy and end up using it in my day to day life and reasoning even if that philosophy was not intended for any practical and pragmatic use.

I am open to examples you can give to me. Are these specific terms or phrases, or do you talk about a certain method of logic or interviewing? Can you be a bit more specific in terms of examples from your daily life? I myself think of the example of dialogue as a method to be in touch with another human being. In the Buddhist teachings it is mentioned, for example, that between the master and his disciple the master answers in secular terms when his student asks a metaphysical question and if he asks an everyday question he answers in metaphysical terms.

Master, please hand me the knife," and he hands them the knife, blade first. "Please give me the other end," he says. And the master replies, "What would you do with the other end?" This is answering an everyday matter in terms of the metaphysical.

Source: https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/25026-here-s-an-example-someone-says-master-please-hand-me-the

philosophy is a part within the framework of religious order

I know that this is not the best kind of response, but as a philosopher I must come clean that I am not always 100% what we mean with philosophy. Or in other words, there are so many understandings of philosophy out there.

In my view philosophy was not taken over by religion

True, but I think, if I understand Pierre Hadot's argument correctly, the split between religion and philosophy in ancient Greek was different to our understanding of philosophy vs. religion today. But I totally understand what you are saying as well. (If I remember correctly, and correct me if I am wrong, but Socrates believed in the gods but different to those of ancient Greece. Today, philosophy is sometimes synonymous with a-religiosity.)

Those, who were and are particularly good at making sense or asking surprising/challenging questions became known philosophers

Again, according to Pierre Hadot, sorry for bringing him up the whole time, makes this exact split. To him, Hellenistic philosophers and those before Hellenistic philosophy, did not make this split between the text and the exegesis of a text, as you made. Or, there were only philosophers living their philosophy, there was no exegesis as such or as we understand it today. There were only philosopher living their philosophy, and most of them did not even write this down. If you could not practice your philosophy, that is, live your philosophy, it was not a worthy philosophy. But since then, the image of philosophy changed, and I personally think just living one's philosophy today is not all that viable. (But this is maybe an argument for another day.)

Since I don't know myself a unified philosophy but many schools and streams of philosophy.

Exactly, I totally agree with you on this. Today, philosophy is radically different to philosophy (again, according to Hadot) practised in ancient Greece.

specific terms or phrases

The easiest that comes to mind are some of the phrases from ancient Greek Pyrrhonism. They had a phrase ou mallon, I think that is the spelling, but essentially it means "no more this than that". In my own life, I try not to add additional beliefs to things, for example, that it is inherently bad/good to be hot or cold, as per the Pyrrhonians, this extra "layer" of beliefs is what causes disturbances in life. Maybe this makes sense? I can give other examples as well.

Buddhist teachings it is mentioned, for example, that between the master and his disciple the master answers in secular terms when his student asks a metaphysical question and if he asks an everyday question he answers in metaphysical terms.

I really like this example, thank you so much! In the back of my mind, very deeply buried away, I am familiar with this example, having read about it many moons ago.

Thanks again for this thoughtful reply! I hope that you find the answers here engaging with your reply.

Thank you, I welcome your reply and I hope, you aren't bothered by yet another response from me. I like debating very much. If you don't have the time for it, I would understand.

As I understand it, philosophy deals with the questions of existence and, for me personally, it is impossible to separate it from questions or attitudes to life and death. If philosophy has faith based dogmas as the basis of its reflections, which in turn are composed of practical habits and theoretical superstructure, philosophy I would describe as the child of religion, which answers the questions and issues raised by it by providing ongoing perspectives.

If religion is the mother - providing society with an order - the daughters and sons are the philosophers who push against certain aspects of the order and provide the peoples with their newly gained perspectives and questions. Therein often lays a risk to disturb the order in such a way that it can potentially shake it on the whole.

Philosophers like Sokrates challenged the religious order of his time, he did offend the current beliefs but he didn't question, for example, how bridges shall be constructed or how agriculture shall be maintained. It can be said that what he indeed questioned, were certain rules of the religion of his lifetime.

Today, philosophy is sometimes synonymous with a-religiosity.

This estranges me quite a bit. If you take the mother out completely and put the sons and daughters on their own, what are they supposed to distance themselves from, what are they supposed to question? In other words, if you separate religion from philosophy, there won't be much left of either, no? It's like removing the background from a picture and leaving only the foreground. But this would make the picture incomplete, as you would have robbed it of its perspective wholeness.

Or, there were only philosophers living their philosophy, there was no exegesis as such or as we understand it today. There were only philosopher living their philosophy, and most of them did not even write this down. If you could not practice your philosophy, that is, live your philosophy, it was not a worthy philosophy.

I have great difficulty with this description. How I see it, a philosophy cannot be lived by any individual if no one else lives it; it is then something that one could recognise as a peculiarity in a person's character, but nothing generally valid. It is impossible for me to think that at any time philosophers have lived as such in connection with their own philosophical outlook. In other words, they took something as a basis for practising it, as you say. But there could not have been such a practice if it had not been recognised by many others as worthy of practice, as I think. It is then a highly personal trait, I would say.

The only thing I can think of is the practice of philosophising in and of itself (hence, in general), where one person is in a living dialogue with another, practising the art of asking and answering questions, which I equate with "being a good philosopher", that is, not offering one's own theory of life and death per se, but rather seeking to fathom it in dialogue with a personal counterpart.

... In today's jargon, this would perhaps be described as an excellent interviewer who does not seek to put their interview guest on the defensive or on the offensive, but instead shows a genuine interest in their positive potential, i.e. has an inspiring effect on them - which then would water down their roles as "interviewer" and "guest" but let them become a couple in dialogue. Could it be, that it is this, what you mean?

Thank you so much again for such a beautiful response, I truly appreciate it. I am sorry if my reply might be short, I had an accident with my laptop and some water, I think it is fine but I am resting it for a while to dry out.

That said, you closing two paragraphs resonate extremely with my own view. As a philosopher and researcher in philosophy, my focus is on philosophical counselling and African philosophy. And what you explained in the last two paragraphs is so close to the conversational school of African philosophy. In this school, conversation plays an incredibly important role regarding the questioning disposition and way of life, or as you said what you understand to be a good philosopher. So I think this school of philosophy resonates very close to your view of philosophy, if I read this correctly.

And I think what you say is so important in the earlier parts as well. Without the mother what is philosophy? I would say without the mother the son or daughter becomes the mother. I am thinking about the stoics or epicureans. In my modern understanding of theirs schools of thought, they pretty much resemble their own religions, thus explaining metaphysical assumptions, explaining physical phenomena and having their own moral frameworks through ethics.

So, I think you have a very important idea there, that philosophy does not promote a way of life as such but rather a questioning disposition.