Why Philosophy cannot die while we’re living
Everyone lives by a philosophy. By a philosophy I mean the collection of fundamental beliefs, goals, methods, practices, principles and values that make up our worldview and determine our behavior, actions, decisions and our attempts to understand, explain and master the world we live in, at any given point in time. Whether we are conscious of it or not, our philosophy affects what we do in life, why we do it and how we go about doing it. It affects the quality of life and its purpose. In short, irrespective of what philosophy we have, it is of singular importance to our lives whether we acknowledge it or not.
The activity of philosophy can be described as the willful process of becoming aware of that collection, submitting it to critical examination and experiment, and changing our lives through the insights and results generated by that activity. In short, it is the art of living — its artists, the philosophers — its purpose, the good life.
The conception of philosophy referred to above cuts through many different disciplines and practices and utilizes learning from all in the service of the art of living. This conception of philosophy, explained and explored in more detail in my What is Philosophy? series1, is hardly idiosyncratic but consistent with the original historic definition and practice of philosophy as found in its place of origin, ancient Greece. Philosophy literally means the love of wisdom; an endless quest for mastery in the art of living.
It should therefore come as no surprise that what we now call science, including a number of the particular sciences themselves, were the result of philosophical activity.
The beginning of science in the Western world tends to be attributed to Pre-Socratic philosophers, like Thales and Democritus, while later philosophers, like Plato and Aristotle, are generally regarded as either having fathered or made major contributions to several branches of knowledge2. Isaac Newton did not call himself a scientist but a natural philosopher3, whereas the most influential publication of the 18th century Enlightenment4, the Encyclopédie, placed most of the sciences under philosophy5. In fact, up until the 19th century what we now call the natural sciences were then the province of natural philosophy6.
Though we can go through life without ever painting, playing music or writing verse, it is impossible to go through life without making any judgments about the nature of the world and what we ought to do in it.
That is why, as long as we live, there will always be a measure of philosophizing7, and philosophy will die only when consciousness and reason are extinguished from the universe.
The right question, therefore, is not whether philosophy is dead or not, for anyone questioning existence is already engaged in some form of it, but whether we want to remain beginners in the art of enquiry and living8 or become its masters.
Philosophy Now and Then
After I finished a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree in philosophy, at the beginning of the 21st century, I was hit by two realizations. The first was that philosophy as originally conceived is of fundamental importance to everyone no matter what life they choose to live. The second was that it was not being taught or practiced that way anymore in contemporary universities.
Most contemporary professors of philosophy teach you how to analyze the good life rather than live it. But mistaking conceptual dissection for philosophy requires you to kill her in the process. That is what most professors have been doing the past century: Killing philosophy and making a living being the anatomists of thought. No wonder people lost interest in philosophy, since hardly anyone wants to solely be an anatomist of thought – yet everyone wants to live a good life.
The original conception of philosophy grows directly out of our recurring need to ask fundamental questions about life and the universe, discover the best methods to answer them and find ways to apply those answers. It recognizes no departmental borders to its activity but explores all fields helpful to its quest. It starts with wonder and is motivated by love.
That is why in antiquity, the commercialization of philosophical activity perpetrated by the sophists who clearly exhibited motives other than love, was heavily criticised by the philosophers of the day on moral grounds, describing it as prostitution of the soul9. In fact, the great schools of antiquity, like the Academy of Plato and the Lyceum of Aristotle, famously did not charge any tuition fees10.
Philosophy was not done for profit, or to serve any particular doctrine, but to discover common truths. Philosophers holding different views debated one another, in the spirit of friendship and parrhesia11, without being forced to reach similar conclusions12.
Philosophy was predominantly done in public spaces, like gymnasiums or stoae, while philosophers lived communally near those spaces13. They used donations and their own wealth to set up the equivalent of modern foundations in ancient times so that philosophical activity remained free, the philosophers free from the need to labor, and the grounds related to each school passed on to posterity for that use alone14.
Though philosophers at times dealt with topics considered esoteric to the general public, they also actively participated in public affairs, Socrates famously engaging anyone willing, regardless of their station in life, to philosophically examine topics both personal and public15.
Unfortunately, the original conception of philosophy is dead in contemporary academic institutions and dismembered both in and outside the academy16. Some parts are still done in isolation at philosophy departments, others have migrated to the humanities and sciences. Some have been taken up by activists, intentional communities and think tanks, others are hijacked by modern sophists like life coaches, “philosophical counselors”, motivational speakers, management consultants, or the modern medley of religion, spirituality, therapy, yoga, meditation and self-help.
The original conception of philosophy may be dead in the institutions that ironically get their name, “academic”, from an ancient philosophical school that fully embodied it, namely Plato’s Academy, but the yearning for wisdom has never died in the hearts of men. If philosophy is to be reborn, both in and out of the academy, it needs to meet that yearning with a conception — and motives — worthy of it. That conception exists but it has been forgotten.
As mentioned before, the Greek word for truth, aletheia, etymologically means “not-to-forget”. When we forget what things mean, we can’t tell the counterfeits. What goes by the name of philosophy nowadays, in and out of the academy, cannot fulfill the yearning of the heart for wisdom, just like fake food cannot nourish the hungry.
It is only by remembering the original meaning of philosophy that it can be reborn. As long as it stays forgotten, we’ll be giving birth to stillborns. A tragic irony given the archetypical philosopher, Socrates, described the role of the philosopher as that of a midwife17, helping others give birth to their ideas.
The Philosophy Reborn Initiative
The Philosophy Reborn initiative is about remembering the original meaning of philosophy in theory and practice.
It’s about ending the dismemberment of philosophy, recognizing no departmental borders to its activity and reclaiming domains currently hijacked by charlatans and modern sophists while offering something better — for free — just like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.
In order for philosophers to be able to offer philosophy for free, they need to be free themselves, which is one of the reasons I launched the Regenerating Freedom initiative, which aims to help any group of people achieve freedom from necessity in a way that doesn’t harm the environment, depend on the government, or require the servitude of others. Its goal is to use modern technology to achieve that with the minimum amount of labor. Using that initiative would allow philosophers to re-create the preconditions for pure philosophical activity in the form of self-sufficient philosophical communities — Academies Reborn — which can afford to avoid market pressures and the ceaseless search for grant money. In such a setup philosophers can virtually eliminate administration work, make teaching voluntary, grading optional or unnecessary, and abolish the publish-or-perish mentality and anything unrelated to the activity itself or the wishes of those engaged in it — perhaps even one day create their own Callipolis18.
The Philosophy Reborn initiative is about ending philosophy’s self-imposed exile from the public sphere, while utilizing or creating technologies, like Autodialectics, to universally augment philosophical activity and progress.
It’s about daring to be wise, restarting the Enlightenment19 — and this time — getting it right20.
The two, inquiry and living, famously featured in the Socratic dictum that “the unexamined life is not worth living”.
As a result, the successors of Plato and Aristotle in their respective schools many times had philosophical opinions at odds with those of Plato and Aristotle, see Hadot’s What is Ancient Philosophy?.
It’s worth noting that there have been academics, Nicholas Maxwell and his “From Knowledge to Wisdom” project being a characteristic example, who have spent their entire lives admirably trying to put wisdom, and thus philosophy as originally conceived, right back at the center stage of academic inquiry. But their message seems to have fallen on deaf ears.
Callipolis is the name Socrates uses for his utopia in Plato’s Republic. Here I am not exhorting philosophers build Plato’s ideal city—anyone reading Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies should have very serious reservations to do so—but to envision and attempt to build their own ideal city-state, perhaps as an act of political entrepreneurship as explained in a recent speech of mine at the 2018 BIL Conference in Los Angeles.
A number of key ideas from Kant’s essay An answer to the question: “What is Enlightenment?” supplemented by Foucault’s considerations can serve as a starting point.