Imagine that I'm being interviewed by Philosophy Talk's roving reporter* on the question "Is philosophy just a hobby?"
RR: Well, is it?
One might think so - for example, in the case of retired philosophy teachers like me, since I am no longer paid to teach and/or publish philosophy. Another example might be a person who just likes playing around with philosophical puzzles, much like a Sudoku or crossword puzzle enthusiast. A third might be the kind of person who posts to a philosophical website from time to time but with little interest in philosophy at other times in her life.
However, take a look at the kinds of questions the great philosophers in our tradition have always asked - questions about life's meaning, right and wrong behavior, what constitutes a good life, whether God exists, and so on. Do those look like hobby questions to you?
RR: Ok, but I think we need a definition of philosophy before we go further with this interview. What exactly is philosophy?
Philosophy in our culture is not a body of knowledge or opinion, but the project of inquiring into the Big Questions of life. Its aims are truth and wisdom. It relies on natural reason alone, taking nothing from religious or political authority for granted. Reason in philosophy performs two functions:
RR: So philosophy is a rational approach to life. But doesn't everyone consider themselves a rational person?
If you ask someone if they consider themselves to be a rational person, they will probably say yes. Who wants to be thought irrational, that is, 'nuts?' Of course, most adults are rational enough to function in a modern society. But look at the quality of their lives - widespread anxiety and stress, depression, high rates of addiction, ignorance, family dysfunction, religious and racial bigotry, celebrity worship, consumerism, vulgar entertainments. Hardly a rational utopia.
Part of the problem is that we do not live in a philosophical culture. People are not taught that philosophy has anything to do with their lives. Unlike Swedish students, they're not taught any philosophy at all. Philosophers themselves are like cloistered monks or cultists speaking in obscure tongues. There are some good ones around, but none of them sit on parliamentary committees or task forces, and they don't run for office or anchor a talk show. It's no wonder most people think philosophy is too abstract and impractical, obsessive about trivial linguistic and semantic issues, irrelevant to their lives. It may even be obsolete - Stephen Hawking says philosophy is dead.
RR: The critics have a point, don't they? Who really needs philosophy, especially since it looks like an abstract academic specialty practiced by pointy-headed professors in ivory tower universities?
It's true that academic philosophy is too often guilty as charged, but that's not the only place where it lives. Let's get out of academe and take a look at how philosophy is actually functioning on the street - in the lives of ordinary people who think it's important. Would it surprise you to learn that philosophy can actually save your life?
RR: It would. Are you serious? Has that actually happened?
Yes, probably many times, but let's look at a specific case. In his book Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations, Jules Evans tells how, as a teen-ager, he nearly ruined his life with drugs. In university, despite doing well in his studies, he felt lost, socially inadequate, and confused about how to get his life on track. He was afraid the drugs had permanently damaged his brain. With the aid of Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) Evans started to heal himself by exposing and changing the erroneous beliefs that were causing him such emotional dysfunction. When he discovered that CBT is heavily influenced by ancient philosophy, especially Stoicism, he began to study the stoics and to adopt their practices as an ongoing feature of his life. Philosophy saved his life, he says, and he now shares his story and his philosophy through books and lectures.**
RR: That's an inspirational story for sure. But most people are not that desperate. Most are probably like me, normal in most ways, making a decent living, raising a family, enjoying the usual entertainments. I don't need philosophical therapy. So what can philosophy do for a person like me?
Well, that depends on what kind of person you want to be. If you're satisfied with your belief system, your worldview, your values, and your assessment of yourself, then maybe philosophy can't do anything for you. Tell me, are you fully satisfied with your worldview and your way of life? I doubt it. By requesting this interview, you've shown that you are interested in philosophy to some degree, and - more than that - I suspect you know you're not as knowledgeable or as wise as you could be. Tiger Woods said some years ago, "My swing sucks." Then he went to work on it. Now be honest: your worldview sucks, doesn't it?
RR: Don't be crude.
The question is whether or not you want to do anything about it. If so, let's talk next time about how philosophy can be, not merely therapy, but an entire way of life.
RR: Hmm. Not very wise - that's one way to describe me .... By all means, let's do another interview. Next week?
Sure. It's been a pleasure.
* Philosophy Talk is a weekly radio broadcast hosted by two Stanford University philosophers and featuring guest thinkers and audience participation. Highly recommended.
** You can hear a Ted Talk by Jules Evans at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XuwYvFlNGns. His book is available online from Amazon.