If you mention philosophy at a party you are
most likely to be greeted by rolling eyes, complacent
smiles or embarrassed silence. Philosophy just
isnt considered a good topic for conversation,
let alone for serious consideration in everyones
daily life. This wasnt always the case.
On the contrary: philosophy, as we understand
it today, was born in ancient Greece as a tool
to improve ones life, especially from an
ethical perspective, and to find meaning and purpose
in it. Today, so few people understand philosophy
that most use meaning and purpose as synonyms,
without realizing the difference.
Let me try to explain. Suppose you enter a restaurant
and are given a menu to pore over. The purpose
of that menu is to make it possible for you to
eat at the place. The meaning of the menu is to
present you with a series of choices to fulfill
that purpose. If you dont understand the
language in which the menu is written, the menu
has purpose but no meaning. If the menu is made
of pictures of the food items available and you
start to eat the menu, you are confusing purpose
with meaning! You get the point.
One of the complaints that pundits of all stripes
most often make about modern life is that it has
become meaningless and without purpose (though
they seldom make the distinction between the two),
that ethics has become a luxury, is based on outdated
and difficult to defend theologies, or has been
drowned by rampant relativism that makes Cole
Porters Anything Goes sound
like an ironic prophecy.
So, why not resort to philosophy? After all,
we have the accumulated thought of 2400 years
or more of cogitation about the deep questions
of life, explored by some of the sharpest minds
of the Western and Eastern traditions. Whats
stopping us from dipping into this treasure and
make philosophy work for us again?
Despite its general reputation for obscurity
or irrelevance, philosophy is making a comeback.
The American Philosophical Association has decided
to celebrate its first centenary this year by
promoting a series of activities geared toward
the general public, including a series of radio
shows featuring brief philosophical discussions.
Furthermore, the United States has recently imported
from Europe two potentially important new ways
to bring philosophy out of academia and back to
the people: philosophical cafés and philosophical
Philosophical cafés are open-ended discussions
based on the ancient Socratic idea that asking
questions is the best way to learn about a subject.
In the United States, there is a Society for Philosophical
Inquiry which helps people setting up cafés.
The presence of an actual philosopher is a plus
(you can get one on loan from the local University),
but it is not deemed necessary. What is required
is the willingness to openly question and discuss
just about anything. No sacred cows allowed.
Philosophical counseling has also been pioneered
in the old continent and is now slowly spreading
in the US. The idea is to offer an alternative
(which can be complementary) to traditional psychological
counseling. After all, some people have emotional
problems rooted in their past, but most of us
simply dont know how to tackle immediate
problems or crucial junctures in our lives, and
considering the broad picture, i.e. approaching
the problem philosophically, might help.
Philosophical counseling is currently controversial,
with professional philosophers as divided on the
topic as professional psychologists were at the
beginning of the psychological counseling phenomenon.
According to the American Philosophical Practitioners
Association, the role of a counselor is what Socrates
advocated in ancient Athens: to be a sort of philosophical
midwife, to help people understand that they do
have a philosophy, but that they usually dont
think about it and dont attempt to articulate
it so that they can examine it and decide if thats
the sort of perspective on life they really wish
to maintain. Critics accuse philosophical counselors
of being sophists ready to sell their services
for vile money (as if University professors dont
actually get paid, albeit little), but thats
a different discussion.
No matter how it is delivered, philosophy should
be relevant to everyone simply because we tend
not to do much thinking about problems small and
large, and thinking isallegedlywhat
distinguishes us from the rest of the animal world.
The problem can be a major ethical dilemma or
a relatively minor inconvenience. It may deal
with what to do if one of your parents is physically
incapacitated but mentally alert, or it may be
spurred by a coworkers complaint about your
taste in decorating your office (these are both
actual cases from the philosophical counseling
literature). Either way, it does help to discuss
your views with other people, and to learn what
thinkers from Socrates to Peter Singer have thought
about similar problems or situations. Really,
the choice is not to do without philosophy altogether,
only to carefully examine the philosophy you do
have or to be ignorant of your own perspective
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