Meditation 110 Philosophy, Thinking-Well and the Art of Living

Meditation 110: Philosophy, Thinking-Well, and the Art of Living

What good is philosophy? Does it contribute to the art of living? Yes, because it helps us to apply intelligent thought to the world of our own experience. In this sense, it is possible to be an ‘unschooled’ philosopher. Any person who thinks deeply, loves to discuss the large questions of life, and tries to think comprehensively is a philosopher.

Philosophizing is a matter of asking difficult questions, analyzing them clearly, and coming to reasoned conclusions. Thinking philosophically reveals that appearances are often deceptive and nothing can be taken at its face value. A person who sees this is less likely to be taken in by charlatans, advertisers and politicians. No one wants to play the part of a fool. Thus, thinking-well is part of the art of living.

One benefit of leaning to think-well is the ability to see the big picture and a long time frame. It is valuable to locate our thinking in a history that goes back to the beginnings of agriculture and settled communities. During these last 10,000 years, most of the significant evolution in our society has occurred.

Philosophy has a questioning spirit that does not take things for granted or believe something because someone says it is so. Among the ideas that philosophers explore are God, self, freedom, morality, beauty, justice, and metaphysics. Philosophy is free to go anywhere as long as it uses reason, logic and the evidence of our senses to back up its speculations.

Crucially, philosophy challenges us to be consistent in our own views and to ask others to be consistent, too. When we hit a contradiction in our beliefs or values, it is time to stop and think again. Whenever someone points out our contradictions, we ought to be grateful. Seeing our own inconsistencies gives us a chance to rethink our ideas and values and come up with something better.

The habit of thinking philosophically makes life reflective. Philosophy encourages us look for the reasons behind what we and others believe. Dealing with the differences and contradictions we find is the main reason philosophy began over two thousand years ago and why we need it now.

Another benefit of philosophy is the ability to think clearly and well about the practicalities of life. We all have to make our way in the world. The art of living enables us to act effectively, make true friends, pursue excellence in our lives and cultivate understanding. Aristotle, near the beginning of the Western tradition, calls this ‘practical wisdom.’ We need to learn about the general consequences of our actions, and to form plans most likely to avoid the pitfalls that await the unwary.

In addition, discussing philosophical questions can give us an exciting way of sharing ourselves with others in talk, engaging in significant conversation rather than idle talk. Through a process of give and take, good philosophical talk enables us to explore vital topics and disputes, ideally in friendly way, discovering where we agree and disagree. The art of philosophical conversation gives us reliable routes to excitement, joy and transcendence. Indeed, the conversation of philosophically inclined partners-in-discovery is one of the finest human experiences.

What I have said here about philosophy and thinking-well as part of the art of living is conditional upon certain fundamental values. These values are the freedom of thought and the desirability of possessing some measure of autonomy in our lives. Philosophy grew up over 2,500 years ago when life in Greece and the Middle East was becoming complicated. People disagreed, sometimes violently, over questions with no easy answers. A few people decided to begin thinking things through for themselves in discussion with others. Philosophy was born. Philosophical reflection frees us from unnecessary fears, the shackles of ideology, and the word of ‘authorities’. We learn from this development that incorporating a reflective and actively inquiring way of thinking into our lives is part of the art of living, part of what it is to be fully human, and a significant part of the good of philosophy.

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25 Comments.

  1. Mr. Mason, why do you hyphenate the phrases “to think well” and “thinking well”? Is there some ambiguity in them that is supposed to be thereby prevented? Is a think-well anything like an ink-well?

    I carp at this detail because I have a certain attachment to the phrase “thinking well”–I have long entertained the idea of using it in the title of a book–and it annoys and distresses me to see turned into a piece of jargon. To introduce a hyphen implies that you are not talking about the common human activity of thinking and what it is to engage in that activity well–a concept that is within the grasp of any human being–but rather about some activity whose nature is known only to philosophers.

    Typographical objections aside, I would contend that the relation of philosophy to good thinking is a highly ambiguous one. Philosophers are constantly identifying instances of bad thinking; but where do they chiefly find them? Nowhere else than in the work of other philosophers–often the greatest philosophers. Philosophy has concerns of its own, which are often very remote from those of everyday life, and those who pursue it professionally are notoriously given to walling themselves up in castles of abstruse ratiocination. Perhaps doing well in philosophy requires developing the ability to think well; but the historical record indicates that it presents little deterrent to thinking perversely.

    While I would be glad to see more people seek to make themselves “less likely to be taken in by charlatans, advertisers and politicians,” I doubt that the study of philosophy is the most effective means to that end. Surely the study of the theory of probability, informal logic (the art of identifying fallacies), and the psychology of error and other empirical sciences, both natural and behavioral, would serve that end more directly.

    In sum: While one cannot do philosophy well without doing some good thinking, eminence in philosophy does not exclude the perpetration of some very bad thinking. The study of philosophy can be useful to improving the quality of one’s thinking, but it is neither a guarantee of that result nor a sufficient nor even the most effective means to it.

  2. s. wallerstein (ex amos)

    I at least try to think deeply, enjoy discussing the big questions and do my best to think comprehensively.

    According to your criteria, Jeff, I’m a philosopher.

    Thanks. I’m genuinely proud to be admitted to the club.

  3. The importance of employing philosophy to find practical solutions to global problems like wars cannot be overemphasized .we cannot be a group of passive analysts who endlessly ponder without giving the world some form of direction.

  4. “Philosophers are constantly identifying instances of bad thinking; but where do they chiefly find them? Nowhere else than in the work of other philosophers”

    Indeed so MKR. That is, after all, where they look for them.

  5. Re Jeff Mason 5th April.
    I am printing this out and will retain it for future reference.I do not think I have seen a better explanation on this topic anywhere else.

  6. It is not possible to disagree with this beautiful presentation, though I have reservations about a phrase here or a phrase there. But I wish to offer a variant presentation:
    To philosophize is to raise questions about ultimate things and puzzle about them. The answers are all soap-bubbles that burst out instantly. But in the questioning and the puzzlement we add profundity and breadth to our life.

  7. A lovely explanation sir, however, I feel that I must object to a few minor misdemeanors.

    ‘Philosophy is free to go anywhere as long as it uses reason, logic and the evidence of our senses to back up its speculations.’ Why do we require the evidence of the senses – those things which are, after all, fallible? Considering that the brain could continue to operate without the influence of the senses, it seems that by limiting ourselves to them, we are limiting philosophy and perhaps limiting our horizons.

    ‘Philosophy grew up over 2,500 years ago when life in Greece and the Middle East was becoming complicated.’ Only a very small thing, I suppose, but considering that the crazy shapes and so on reputed to be first created/ analysed by the likes of Pythagoras, have been found to exist in Britain (I think) hundreds of years before Pythagoras was about – it seems to me that it is possible that Greece and the Middle East might have actually been latecomers in making philosophical developments and simply enterprising, in so far as they made more efforts to write things down [not using a crazy script like Oghm].

    Also, study of the law seems to develop faculties similar to those developed by philosophy.

  8. While I would be glad to see more people seek to make themselves “less likely to be taken in by charlatans, advertisers and politicians,” I doubt that the study of philosophy is the most effective means to that end. Surely the study of the theory of probability, informal logic (the art of identifying fallacies), and the psychology of error and other empirical sciences, both natural and behavioral, would serve that end more directly.Jesus can help them.

  9. The comment immediately above, by “Rummanout,” is plagiarism. It consists of a paragraph stolen from my comment (the first on this page) with the addition of an idiotically irrelevant four-word sentence.

  10. Indeed so MKR.

    “Rummanout” should have given you full credit for the suggestion that “the study of the theory of probability, informal logic… and the psychology of error” would be more effective than the study of philosophy in attaining the end of making people “less likely to be taken in by charlatans, advertisers and politicians.”

    And, the four-word sentence – “Jesus can help them” – does indeed appear “irrelevant” – just as you claim. Still, as Jeff put it: “appearances are often deceptive and nothing can be taken at its face value.”

    Indeed this is the very lesson Jeff suggests thinking philosophically – not simply the study of philosophy – can teach you. And it is seeing that “appearances are often deceptive and nothing can be taken at its face value” – not merely the study of philosophy – that Jeff suggests makes a person “less likely to be taken in by charlatans, advertisers and politicians.”

    As you have clearly demonstrated, the study of philosophy is no guarantee that you will not commit some very bad thinking. As for the advanced philosophy student who can conflate thinking philosophically (which can be unschooled) with the study of philosophy, I am inclined to conclude that Jesus – or “nobody” or “only the gods” – can help them.

  11. One very deep question we can ask is “Who am I?”. The answer to this is really experiential and each person has to find out for himself/herself. Curiosity about this basic question can drive us to find something very precious and deep. After all if we search then we may find.

  12. Re MKR April 4th and April 11th
    There are some thought provoking points made in these two submissions. I am wondering where or at what institution you received your philosophical training, which must have been pretty thoroughgoing. I am assuming that your Ph.D. did fully embrace the field of Philosophy. It would perhaps enhance your case and be more enlightening if you could briefly name some of the philosophical books and or papers or other sources of philosophical endeavour you have read, which corroborate what you say. On further reflection it occurs to me that your submission of April 4th is no less than a philosophical viewpoint, with which one may agree disagree or endeavour to develop, in some way. I am sure you will agree this is what Philosophy is about; a curious beast it pokes its nose into almost anything, there is no stopping it.

  13. Replying to Don Bird: I tried to a blog post out of my comment, but adding the necessary qualifications and amplifications seemed like too much work! It may be that I was somewhat unfairly picking on a single remark in Jeff Mason’s argument to the neglect of the whole.

    Replying to Curious (April 5 and April 12): You show proficiency in a certain sort of innuendo, which allows you to be insulting without quite being rude. My congratulations, and fuck you.

  14. Dear MKR

    Many thanks for your response to my comments.

    I welcome your acknowledgment that, with regard to Jeff Mason’s argument, you ‘may’ have been neglectful of the whole.

    I trust you will get over your ‘distress’ about the hyphens, and would wish you every success should you choose to attempt to think (and speak) well in response to future blog postings.

    sincere best wishes

    James

  15. Dennis Sceviour

    “Value is one big thing. The truth about living well and being good and what is wonderful is not only coherent but mutually supporting: what we think about any one of these must stand up, eventually, to any argument we find compelling about the rest.”

    The quotation was taken from the opening pages of Ronald Dworkin’s new book “Justice for Hedgehogs”, and it seems appropriate for this article. Dworkin tries to achieve a unity between ideology and action in all things. Like Zen and the art of archery, it seems something worth aiming for.

  16. As a new philosophy grad student I once engaged in a discussion with another student, John, who insisted that philosophy had nothing to do with everyday problems, benefits in coping with the world, etc. Philosophy was a discipline like any other in the curriculum: chemistry, geology, and so on. It has its branches, one specializes, and hopefully becomes adept therein. At the time there was a lot of political turmoil on campus and, on my side, I insisted that philosophy was relevant to what stand one should, take. I think Jeff would’ve taken my side then. However, there is something to be said for John’s position. After all, how many people ponder in detail about the mind-body problem, the reality of the material world, the nature of language, and so on? Maybe we should distinguish between pure philosophy (characterized by its formal subject-matter) and practical philosophy.

    Then, later, some philosophy departments came up with the idea of starting “Critical Thinking” courses, i.e, “practical philosophy.” Basically what we called “Baby Logic,” with an emphasis on the informal fallacies, the evaluation of soundness in arguments as applied to everyday, usually controversial, issues, life goals, etc. Something to hopefully make students more analytic and discerning of the onslaught of fallacious arguments encountered in everyday life. All that without going into the mechanics of formal logic.

    The point is, philosophy as a whole encompasses both, and Jeff’s submission emphazises the practical, not the “pure.” It’s a matter of emphasis, although of course some can be cognizant of both.

  17. Joaquin,

    ‘Baby Logic’ is what Logicians call the introductory courses to propositional and predicate calculus forced upon Philosophy undergraduates. It seems interesting that Philosophy Grads – presumably not those pursuing studies in Pure Logic – would go on to use the term to refer to the study of informal fallacies and so on. In any case, the Critical Thinking courses that I gather are so popular in the States sound like a fine idea. If they introduce a wide audience of students to the key skill of philosophy – that of spotting bad arguments – and the core subject matter of practical philosophy – ethics, broadly construed – that seems a good thing.

    Anyway, does ‘pure’ or theoretical philosophy not ‘contribute to the art of living?’ Can we not say that ‘pure’ philosophy “helps us to apply intelligent thought to the world of our own experience”? Here are some of Jeff’s key claims about the value of Philosophy: “Philosophy has a questioning spirit that does not take things for granted or believe something because someone says it is so. Philosophy challenges us to be consistent in our own views and to ask others to be consistent. Philosophy encourages us look for the reasons behind what we and others believe. Another benefit of philosophy is the ability to think clearly and well about the practicalities of life. [place the emphasis on ‘the ability to think clearly and well’]. Discussing philosophical questions can give us an exciting way of sharing ourselves with others in talk, engaging in significant conversation rather than idle talk.”

    Do any of these only apply to practical philosophy – ethics, political philosophy or what have you, and not to ‘pure’ or theoretical philosophy, say Logic, Metaphysics, the Philosophy of language, and so on? I would suggest that “incorporating a reflective and actively inquiring way of thinking into our lives is part of the art of living, part of what it is to be fully human, and a significant part of the good of philosophy” whether it is ‘pure’ or practical in subject matter.

  18. (Hmm, having said that I now wonder if we cannot say the same for natural philosophy, and also attribute the key claims about the value of Philosophy to the hard sciences and other intellectually rigorous subjects, including, as Sleuth suggests, law)

  19. Curious,
    Sorry, I wasn’t specific enough about curricular matters in my neck of the woods (don’t know about all the States). The Critical Thinking courses are designed for non-philosophy majors at the undergrad level. They get that Baby Logic, or “Baby Baby”, if, as you say, the calculus, etc., is the Baby one for Logicians.

    Your second posting, wondering what you wonder, I think bears much truth, in which case we can just add theoretical philosophy to the list of disciplines that makes us sharp thinkers. However, it is also true that philosophy is the only one among them addresses exclusively the question of what reason is, how it works, and how it doesn’t.

  20. Joaquin,

    “What reason is, how it works, and how it doesn’t” – In saying that Philosophy is the only discipline that exclusively addresses this question you hit, I think, at least one nail on the head.

    And with regard to “practical philosophy” – primarily ethics broadly construed – I think you were right to draw attention to the special value of that to those who of us who wish to “pursue excellence in our lives”. ‘Ethics’ is the only discipline that addresses (without recourse to authority) how we should live, what is the good life, what is justice, virtue, beauty and so on. Practical philosophy has a privileged position – it encourages us to “think-well” not merely clearly. And this does indeed seem central to the ‘Art of living’.

  21. As a student of philosophy (http://andreasmoser.wordpress.com/2010/10/25/ma-philosophy/) I find it immensely rewarding. And if students of law or medicine ask me with a dubious look in theior eyes “What will you do with philosophy?”, I just reply “I will enjoy it.”

  22. GEORGE MATIANIS

    The aim of art is to project an inner vision into the world, to state in aesthetic creation the deepest psychic and personal experiences of a human being. It is to enable those experiences to be intelligible and generally recognized within the total framework of an ideal world.

    Art is an expression of life and transcends both time and space. We must employ our own souls through art to give a new form and a new meaning to nature or the world. “Artless art” is the artistic process within the artist; its meaning is “art of the soul”.

    Art reaches its greatest peak when devoid of self-consciousness. Freedom discovers man the moment he loses concern over what impression he is making or about to make.

    Art reveals itself in psychic understanding of the inner essence of things and gives form to the relation of man with nothing, with the nature of the absolute.

    An artist’s expression is his soul made apparent, his schooling, as well as his “cool” being exhibited. Behind every motion, the music of his soul is made visible. Otherwise, his motion is empty and empty motion is like an empty word; no meaning.

    Art is never decoration or embellishment; instead, it is work of enlightenment. Art, in other words, is a technique for acquiring liberty.

    Art calls for complete mastery of techniques, developed by reflection within the soul.

    The artless art is the art of the soul at peace, like moonlight mirrored in a deep lake. The ultimate aim of the artist is to use his daily activity to become a past master of life, and so lay hold of the art of living. Masters in all branches of art must first be masters of living, for the soul creates everything.

    Art is the way to the absolute and to the essence of human life. The aim of art is not the one-sided promotion of spirit, soul and senses, but the opening of all human capacities – thought, feeling, will – to the life rhythm of the world of nature. So will the voiceless voice be heard and the self be brought into harmony with it.

    Artistic skill, therefore, does not mean artistic perfection. It remains rather a continuing medium or reflection of some step in psychic development, the perfection of which is not to be found in shape and form, but must radiate from the human soul.

    The artistic activity does not lie in art itself as such. It penetrates into a deeper world in which all art forms (of things inwardly experienced) flow together, and in which the harmony of soul and cosmos in the nothing has its outcome in reality.

    It is the artistic process, therefore, that is reality and reality is truth.

    BRUCE LEE

  23. I attended your outstanding lecture at the CSUF Osher Lifelong Learning Institute on the subject of this blog. While I concurred with almost everything I heard, I came away with a nagging feeling that something was missing in the discussion of being happy and choosing various paths to achieve that end. I decided that the missing discussion relates to discomfort or dissatisfaction with the “big picture” that contains a global perspective of the human as a species.

    As you mentioned , there is much “fear” or angst in our country (and most others) probably due to a feeling of ineffectiveness by the individual and a knowledge that the problems are real and mostly selfinflicted. I would cite environmental change, financial issues, social pathologies, etc. So I would ask, “How can any person that is aware of these problems (ignorance is bliss?) be “happy”?” I have given myself an answer but I would be interested in your perspective.

  24. I think a lot of philosophers or people who contemplate in such a manner stop when it comes deducing reasoned conclusions that’s why they are more prone to dogmatic theories and “charlatans” but isn’t the whole point of this contemplative thinking supposed to bring you to an enlightening or disappointing conclusion? If not dwelling in pure thought for the sake of it is a massive waste of time.

  25. Re Sanjaya Aug 19th:-
    That is interesting. May I ask where you studied Philosophy?

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