- Education and Science
What are we - using philosophy to find meaning to life
Philosophy and meaning
BILL MURRAY: "What did you study?"
SCARLETT JOHANSSON: "Philosophy."
BILL MURRAY: "Yeah, there's a good buck in that racket."
SCARLETT JOHANSSON: "Well, so far it's pro bono."
Lost in Translation, 2003, Focus Features
There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. - Albert Camus,The Myth of Sisyphus (Penguin, 1955)
The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it. - Karl Marx
So why should anyone be at all interested in philosophy, and what is philosophy anyway?
When my son Zak was very young and very inquisitive he had a constant question, “Why, daddy, why?” Whatever he saw, heard or otherwise experienced brought up that question, and since he was so young and almost everything was new to him, I heard that question almost all the time we were together, until it became quite an irritation. But there was a lesson to be learnt in it, of course. We all want to know why? And not only “Why?” but in addition, “What?” and “How?” Because these questions help us to create meaning in our lives, and without meaning, as Camus points out, life becomes pointless.
Since humans started to think, when their brains evolved to the stage where the capacity of the brain began to exceed the humans' immediate computation needs, that spare capacity has been used to look for answers to things, answers that maybe aren't even there, so the brain capacity started to be used to fantasize about “why” and “how” and “what”, and that was the beginning of the quest for knowledge, first about the world around them, and then about the world within them. This was most likely how the activity we now call “philosophising” came about.
The love of wisdom
The word “philosophy”, as any reasonable textbook on the subject will tell us, is a combination of two Greek words “philos” which means the love of, and “sophos” which means knowledge or wisdom. The study of the history of Western Philosophy usually starts with a bunch of Greek thinkers who started to ask these familiar questions in a fairly systematic way, and to answer the questions in a similarly systematic way. And so for Westerners the history of philosophy, indeed even the practice of philosophy, is often almost synonymous with ancient Greece. But of course it didn't start there, or at least not only there. There were philosophers on the other side of the world who were thinking just as deeply, just as cogently, and finding answers sometimes very similar to the answers the Greeks found, and sometimes very different from them. These philosophers were sages in India and China and Japan.
At the same time too, pre-literate people in other areas were also asking these questions and finding their own answers, which they handed down from generation to generation in the form of folk tales, myths and legends, some of which have, miraculously, survived right up to the present day. There is always a temptation to dismiss the stories and legends of pre-literate people as unsophisticated, but they frequently display high levels of sophistication, both in the kinds of questions asked, and in terms of the answers they found.
It would be a mistake, however, to romanticise these stories and the cultures from which they emanated, as Jean Jacques Rousseau tended to with his idealisation of the “noble savage,” or as the writer Boethius wrote in the Consolation of Philosophy:
trump of war was heard not yet,
Nor soiled the fields by bloodshed's stain;
For why should war's fierce madness arm
When strife brought wound, but brought not gain?
The opposite view, that of Hobbes, that in the state of nature the life of man is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short ” was perhaps equally an overstatement. But clearly life was not as comfortable as Boethius seemed to think it was. That stream probably carried a lot of e. coli or other nasties, and violence abounded, most likely.
So what is philosophy?
According to the website of the philosophy department of Sacramento State University (http://www.csus.edu/PHIL/ which I arrived at quite randomly after Googling “What is philosophy?”) “In philosophy, the concepts with which we approach the world themselves become the topic of enquiry such as reality, causation, belief, right and wrong, beauty, self, God, and law. The realm of philosophy encompasses the systematic inquiry of the fundamental questions concerning, among other things, the nature of reality (metaphysics), the nature of knowledge (epistemology), the conduct of life (ethics) and the structure of argument (logic).The study of philosophy involves forming one's own views about life's questions and their answers.”
As Edward Craig wrote in Philosophy – a Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2002) philosophy is difficult to escape even if you try to do so. Indeed, every time you express an opinion about politics, science, economics, sport, and even the weather, you are engaging in philosophy, in that your opinion is based on a set of values, things that you believe to be important, and these things are what philosophy is about.
Can philosophy help us discover and give meaning to life? Camus wrote in The Myth of Sisyphus, “Judging whether life is or in not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.:
British philosopher A.J. Ayer published the book The Central Questions of Philosophy in 1973, in which he wrote, “We have seen that our conception of the world cannot be prised away from our manner of conceiving it; and our conception of the world is something that philosophy can help us to change.”
Meaning in life
Meaning in life is always an area of contestation, and so the study of meaning in life, what is called “philosophy” is also always a locus, of contestation. That Alexander wrote the iniquitous verse below in the propaganda ditty for children “All Things Bright and Beautiful” about how God “ordered their estate” as rich man and poor man in the same year (1848 – the year of revolutions in Europe) as Marx wrote “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all” in the Communist Manifesto is a wonderful historical irony. Two men with diametrically opposed views of reality, equally dogmatic, perhaps equally wrong.
rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
He made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.” - “All Things Bright and Beautiful”, Cecil F. Alexander (1848)
“In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” - Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto (1848)
And that's philosophy for you – it has even gotten people killed, Socrates being one of the best known cases, but certainly neither the first nor the last.
What has happened in the history of philosophy, and all our histories, is sometimes not acknowledged, but is always there, always influencing how we seed the world, how we react to it, day by day. Even those of us who would claim not to be under the influence of tradition can not truly escape it. Tradition and the past from which we come is always present, whether we like it or not. That is the point of this quotation from Marx: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.” - Karl Marx
One way of trying to get out from the weight of that nightmare is to bring the past into consciousness so that we can deal with the issues there that we don't like. To some extent this is where psychoanalysis and philosophy meet.
Another way to try to overcome the influence of the nightmare is to consciously design a new future, to find ways of building something new, to be committed to social change. That is the point of John Lennon's great song “Imagine” which encourages us to imagine a future very different from the reality in which we are now. The implication is that this future is better than what we have now. This is the route of social activism, and has been a powerful way for generations.
“You may say that I'm a dreamer / But I'm not the only one” - “Imagine” John Lennon
Philosophy and art
We find it difficult to escape from philosophising, in any art that is real and not phoney – art that is good wholesome fare and not “comfort food.” One of the greatest paintings to stimulate philosophising is Paul Gauguin's famous, and enormous, work called “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” which he painted in 1898, and which he said was “a philosophical work on a theme comparable to that of the Gospel,” in a letter he wrote to his friend Daniel de Monfried in 1898.
Every time we think about our lives, aren't those the questions we ask? And a deep contemplation of such works, apart from being an exercise in art appreciation, is also a work of philosophy. The same applies to great music. All art reflects on the philosophical questions that excited the artist – think of Beethoven and his great themes of freedom and personal responsibility. Think of Shakespeare asking, through Hamlet, “To be, or not to be, that is the question”.
Art is more than decoration for our lives, and philosophy is more than crusty old guys in ivory towers poring over musty tomes – art and philosophy are sources and expressions of the deepest meaning in our lives, and, to the extent that we take notice of and respond to these things, we are all philosophers!
The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.
© Tony McGregor 2009