In today’s blog post, I will talk about my unqualified opinion on what philosophy is and attempt to describe the influences that it has on our lives.
What is Philosophy?
The word ‘philosophy’ originates from the Greek word φιλοσοφία (filosofia), which combines the word ‘philo’ meaning ‘to love’ and ‘sophia’ meaning ‘wisdom’, thus meaning ‘love of wisdom’. As an academic discipline, it is concerned with the study of fundamental problems such as those connected to reality, knowledge, rationality, justice, art and governance. It puts to question our often naïve conceptions of things, from the most abstract such as ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’ to the most personal such as ‘what does it mean to be happy?’.
To describe very briefly, below are the main branches of philosophy in academia that I gathered from the internet:
- Metaphysics: the branch of philosophy that deals with the first principles of things, including abstract concepts such as being, knowing, identity, time, and space.
- Epistemology: the theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity, and scope, and the distinction between justified belief and opinion.
- Logic: the study of the laws of thought and correct reasoning to ascertain fundamental truths.
- Ethics: also called moral philosophy, the discipline concerned with what is morally good and bad and morally right and wrong.
- Aesthetics: the study concerning our appreciation of beauty and artistic taste.
- Politics: the study of government, addressing questions about the nature, scope, and legitimacy of public agents and institutions and the relationships between them.
As you can see, the academic study of philosophy spans a wide variety of area, in which each one of them contributes to our everyday life in one way or another. We can perceive ourselves as the most logical of people and yet we can appreciate a warm cup of tea on a cold night, when there is no reason at all to value comfort over discomfort—we’re not a purely rational being. Or we can perceive ourselves to be the most sheepish of people, yet we grow to embrace the harder feelings and learn from having been exploited by another—neither are we purely emotional beings. As such, the study of philosophy is never devoid of our individual concern for things: activities, relationships, artistic expressions, solitude, etc. and can benefit us in many different ways.
How Can Philosophy Benefit Us?
I suppose there are many ways in which the study of philosophy—be it formal or informal—can benefit us, but in order to fully grasp the full spectrum and nuances of what it brings into our lives, I reckon it is only appropriate to first understand what it means to philosophise. In my own definition of the term, ‘to philosophise’ means to see the thing we encounter from a broader perspective in a more systematic and coherent manner. What this means is that it requires us to first suspend the immediate concerns that may come under our noses and to then investigate the value of things—money, friendship, safety, comfort, freedom, happiness, etc.—, and our corresponding engagement with them. The first benefit of philosophy is thus that it empowers us to confront and question the things in life that we so often take for granted—our psychological biases: conception of truth and false, ‘good’ and ‘evil’, likes and dislikes.
From this, it follows only naturally that cultivating the habit of questioning is the beginning of our relationship with critical thinking. Critical thinking has informed judgement as its goal, through the development of coherent reasonings and informed judgement is intricately concerned with our most personal welfare and happiness. Thus, the main applications of philosophy, where critical thinking is but a feature, is never divorced from practicality.
Examples of critical thinking:
- A farmer evaluates the fertilisers that would best suit the soil.
- A baker reviews the ingredients available and decides the order by which they should go into the mixing bowl.
- A chess player analyses the chances of winning and uses this information to decide whether to continue playing or offer a draw.
- An office worker evaluates the dissatisfaction at work and plan on the changes to be made for it to improve.
- A citizen analyses the behaviours and gestures of politicians and considers who to vote for in an upcoming election.
The study of philosophy can bring about a further refinement to our pre-existing capabilities for critical thinking, in which the things that we read or hear from others can be filtered and qualified, whether they are true or not and where they are most relevant—if not quite applicable directly, whether they can be adapted to positively contribute to the area that we are interested in. Through this, we come to develop our capacity for subtle thinking, which we can apply to a pre-existing context of concern and more positively go a step further to broaden our horizon in life, through our questioning of our occupations and clarifying on whether they are truly worth doing.
Why Do Most of Us Consider Philosophy to Be Trivial?
In my opinion, most of us find philosophy to be trivial because it is so often presented in either the most abstract manner via academic studies or in the fluffiest get-wise quick schemes via contemporary self-help books. The former is relevant to people who are already interested because of its density and mysteriousness while the latter most often do not do philosophy justice. To analyse it more philosophically, I would say that the status-quo where philosophy has to be presented in either one or the other extreme already demonstrates the philosophical nature upon which our contemporary society is founded on: Materialism (which I will expand on in the next paragraph). Now, I am not out here to merely bash the materialistic nature of our society, but rather only to have this as an avenue for further contemplations on the deeper implications of what is simply in place today—and why materialism only brings about a paradox it cannot resolve.
In order to understand the nature of materialism, it pays to attend to the symptoms of today’s generation and their (i.e. our) livelihoods. Today, most of us commoners (sorry to assume if you’re not) live our day-to-day life surrounded by pleasures far more comfortable than royals of old—peep the emperor’s new clothes—, and it is quite implausible to claim otherwise—that is, other than the fact that our heads would’ve been potentially at risk of being under the guillotine for exercising ‘free speech’. One hallmark of modern materialism is that we seem to be ‘wired’ for instant gratification, and this brings about a generation filled with material envy and anxiety. This is not to say that the two phenomena are newly founded, but it is to state that they are undoubtedly heightened in the present context, though this is not always bad. The reason why I say it is not always bad is because, imagine a farmer and his son in the first common era, there would have been no anxiety for his son to deal with the uncertainty of how he would succeed in life—perhaps as long as the soil remains fertile. Therefore, this means that the present generation is one that is filled not only with greater uncertainty, but also with a bigger capacity for change—for better and worse.
The more serious downside of materialism, however, in my view pertains more closely to where the perceived source of happiness is—materials. In no way am I arguing against a basic level of material possessions that allows us for a sufficiently comfortable life, but instead I am encouraging you as my reader to ponder about your happiest moments. As you reflect upon the happiest moments that you have had in your life, what are the characteristics and features of such a moment? Do they truly revolve around materialistic gain? Even Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s answer of ‘Flow’ doesn’t cut it in my philosophical analysis of the phenomenon, not because it is wrong but because its significance remains to be unfolded (and understood) through an exact phenomenological description of what it is that we actually experience when we are “in the flow”. To describe a ‘Flow’ as an experience is to presume an external viewpoint of our situation where we see ourselves move from one ‘place’ to another, but this is impossible for we can never see (or even feel) the flow (of time), because we are the flow, and this means that our later (i.e. post-event) description of a flow is a purely reflective construct—Merleau-Ponty said that the passage of time can only be encountered as the unfolding of landscapes (i.e. phenomena) in the first-person experience and as Heidegger had said before him, as Beings we do not exist in time but that we are of time. Hence, my analysis of ‘Flow’ would be that it is a “succession of experiences” (i.e. change-while-persisting experience) where the phenomenon of desire (for the future, past or present) is absent1—no desire for more, for less, or for it to remain the same2. The ‘Flow’ is thus only a series of experiences where our mind is in a state of ‘contentment’. Therefore, while the philosophy of materialism that underlies our contemporary society has brought us an unprecedented level of comfort, it is most misleading as it nudges us to the direction of a forevermore material pursuit, rather than this subtler understanding of ‘how’ and ‘why’ nurturing a mind of contentment is the way to go for happiness.
- There can be intention without desire but the reverse is not true.
- The presence of desire disrupts the ‘Flow’.