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.