The Role of Philosophy in Daily Life

One might read the previous chapter and question whether philosophy is more than esoteric navel-gazing.  Admittedly, I didn’t do a very good job of presenting it in a manner that would appeal to “Plumber Joe”.  Why should one concern oneself with trying to figure out all the little details about how the universe operates and why?  Shouldn’t it be sufficient to figure out how these more concrete tools at my disposal can contribute to my quality of life?  I can make more money, get better employee benefits, and have more self-satisfaction if I simply tend my garden[1] and work on much more real things.  Besides: lifting weights, buying cars, and playing guitar are easier activities than questioning fundamental assumptions about reality and considerably increase my value in the sexual market by comparison.

I, myself, feed my growing family by way of more practical considerations than discussing the specific ontological status of contracts.  I’m a facilities manager by trade and a philosopher by vocation.  Given that practical considerations generally have more market value than philosophical ones, why would one choose to engage philosophy?  There are a number of answers that, cumulatively, make a compelling case for such activity.  For now, I will focus on the more practical aspects and save the more psychological and ephemeral ones for later in this book.

One of the key aspects of the philosophical exercise is epistemology.  What epistemology effectively boils down to is the study of knowledge: what it means to know something and by what mechanism one comes to know something.  At first, it may seem like a dumb line of inquiry.  One knows something if they believe something and it happens to be true; they know these things because experience leads them to believe such things with accuracy.

As anyone who has had experience with mind-altering substances, mental illness, or living with a pathological liar, will attest, sometimes knowing things isn’t as easy as people initially think.  This has been the case throughout history, as well.  If I see an omen or an angel comes down and tells me something will happen at an appointed time, could that belief rightly be called knowledge?  What if an authority figure tells me something?  Hell, even my senses are suspect; how many times has someone looked at an object and misjudged its size or distance, witnessed a mirage, heard or felt something that didn’t correspond to anyone else’s experience, or any number of other illusions?

Descartes[2] wondered if he was the only mind in existence and that there may be a spirit of some sort causing him to have a vision of all the other phenomena he experienced.  This line of reasoning is called solipsism[3].  This solipsistic reasoning has been extended to “Matrix”-like brain-in-a-vat thought experiments and universe-simulation theories.  One doesn’t need to get as involved as Descartes, though, a quick trip on drugs or mental instability will give one sufficient experience of “seeing things that aren’t really there” to begin doubting one’s senses.

Epistemic problems don’t even need to be that far-reaching, either.  For example, inexplicably, there are a growing number of people that believe the Earth is flat, that crystals have magic healing powers, that children should be encouraged to undergo irreversible unhealthy and life-altering plastic surgery, and so many more absurdities.  Just yesterday, I was led to believe that I had to be somewhere at a certain time… and both the time and location were incorrect.

Understanding the nature of knowledge in a deeper and more reflective manner has, however, been quite useful in preventing situations such as the one that occurred yesterday.  For example, exploring common occurrences of human fallibility in theory helps to identify instances in reality and navigate people through them.  When attempting to coordinate multiple contractors, administrators, and customers, heightened awareness of epistemic difficulties and solutions has been invaluable.

Something related to epistemology and equal in utility is the study of ontology.  Ontology is the study of existence, things that exist, and in what manner.  Again, this may seem to be as obviously superfluous as epistemology at first, and one could just as easily be surprised.  The earlier epistemic examples of “experiencing things that aren’t really there apply to ontology as well, of course.  But what if I told you that a great many things we take for granted as existants[4] are of dubious ontological status?

There’s the obvious things like God, space aliens, astrological energies, political authority, true love… and some less obvious things like consciousness, free will, fundamental particles, or that fortune that Nigerian prince still owes you[5].  One can’t be certain of the existence (or non-existence) of these things if one doesn’t have a firm grasp on one’s methods of knowing things but, even then, it can be difficult to prove or disprove the existence such things.

This is where the bottom-up approach of philosophy
I mentioned in the previous chapter becomes pertinent.  If one can secure knowledge of or, at least, confidence in the existence of some things, it becomes easier to bring other things into that sphere of knowledge by way of understanding the relationships between the two.  Since Descartes’s famous cogito[6], philosophers have largely attempted to prove their own existence or the existence of the phenomena experienced by themselves and used that as a starting place by which to prove the existence of the other furniture of the world that we all take for granted.

I’m sure that this doesn’t seem practical just yet.  “I know I’m hungry because I feel hungry and I know that this bacon cheeseburger I’m about to eat is real because I can see, smell, touch, and taste it.”  Fair enough.  But what if there is a God and he hates people who eat cheeseburgers?  Alternatively, what if that meat isn’t real meat but is some science experiment grown in a vat and happens to be riddled with prions[7]?  Knowing either of those circumstances may give one sufficient reason to modify one’s behavior.

The same goes for whether or not the cow and pig that were, ostensibly, butchered to produce one’s meal possess consciousness and are capable of experiencing meaningful mental events.  If one were convinced that were the case, one would likely become a vegetarian, posthaste.  Otherwise, why wouldn’t one eat baby-burgers with dolphin sauce?

That took a dark turn, but the question still stands.  There is a great deal of human suffering that one can witness and, assuming one believes that other humans exist and are capable of comparable mental faculties to oneself.  A good portion of this suffering is, directly or indirectly, a result of epistemic or ontological mistakes made by either those that are suffering or by others who have those unfortunate individuals within their sphere of influence.

This is why ethics is the oldest and most-engaged field of study throughout the history of philosophy.  The pre-Socratics[8] were primarily concerned with “how does one live the good life” and secondarily concerned with “how does the world work?”  Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle had similar priorities.  Medieval thinkers in Europe and the Middle East alike were also primarily concerned with “How does one be holy?” and secondarily concerned with “How does God work?”.  Enlightenment-era and modern thinkers have been primarily concerned with “what is justice?” and secondarily concerned with political institutions such as monarchy and various forms of socialism (such as democracy, republicanism, communism, etc.).  Only recently has postmodernism shifted the focus from “how does one live the good life?” to “how can we best undermine all of the institutions which were built by Europeans of bygone eras?” with living the good life becoming a secondary philosophical pursuit.

Of course, one can’t know how one ought to act without first knowing at least a little bit about the world one is trying to navigate, hence my initial focus on epistemology and ontology.  For example, one cannot determine that one ought to act to minimize the suffering of others if one does not first establish that there are others who can suffer and that suffering is undesirable.  The same dilemma applies when determining that one ought to live by the prescriptions of a book written thousands of years ago or refraining from eating a delicious and juicy steak.

A quick survey of ethical theories will present so many varieties of premises and conclusions that one is liable to despair at the outset of such an investigation.  Do not worry; I hope that, by the end of this book, you will have a firm enough grasp of philosophical methodology and (possibly) the reality of the matter which philosophy engages that you will be well on your way to making sense of ethics.

For now, I think it should suffice to say that ethics is the most practically applicable area of philosophy because its primary focus is influencing how one acts.  Ethics takes into account the various circumstances an actor finds himself in and applies a rubric by which he can or should act.  As the ancient Greeks phrased it, the problem is “how does one live the good life?”  Such an inquiry is obviously directed at happiness and, hey, who doesn’t like being genuinely happy?

Admittedly, this rubric must take into account objective facts about the world, such as what things exist and in what manner as well as subjective matters such as the objective of the individual actor, and that process is where things get hairy.  The methodology one uses to sort through the furniture of the world and the subjective goals of the individual actor is the source of the plethora of divergent ethical theories[9].

Ultimately, this introduction to the basics of philosophy is directed at establishing in your mind the plausibility of philosophy having practical utility in daily life.  I do not know you, the reader, personally but I am confident that it is a rare exception to find an individual completely lacking in ethical awareness.  How often does one encounter phrases like “that’s just wrong,” “people should just,” “such-and-such are as bad as Hitler,” “you really should go vegan/to church/vote/to college” or other variations of statements directed at modifying or justifying one’s behavior?  Whether those claims relate to a consistent and expansive network of ethical calculations and value judgements or not, those are ethical frameworks in action.

Even if one isn’t aware of the genealogy of those ethical compunctions, I can guarantee that they are derived from some philosophical work or another.  It is important to be aware of that genealogy, though; without the ability to critically examine the consistency of ethical claims one can fall victim to con artists and well-meaning do-gooders alike.  How many political campaigns have stemmed from undeserved patriotism or lies generating outrage?  How many people donate money to charities that simply show a sad image and ask for money, only to line the pockets of fraudsters?  Philosophy can help prevent such things.

[1] This is a barely-veiled allusion to “Candide” by Voltaire.  It’s an exceptional work of scathing philosophical satire.  It’s not as much fun if one hasn’t familiarized oneself with Leibnitz’ optimism.

[2] Rene Descartes: French philosopher from the turn of the 17th century; began a series of inquiries in modern philosophy named “Cartesian” which center on mind-body dualism and problems of knowledge.

[3] Solipsism: The belief that one’s self is the only thing that can be known to exist as such.

[4] Existants (n): Things that exist.

[5] If you don’t get the reference, just look up “Nigerian Prince scam” on the internet.

[6] “Cogito ergo sum.” translated as “I think, therefore I am.”

[7] A prion is a unique vector of disease wherein mutated proteins migrate through a host organism and reproduce, much like a virus.

[8] Pre-Socratics (n): The philosophers who lived in the Mediterranean region before the time of Socrates (the end of the 5th century BC).

[9] This dilemma is made strikingly clear by the observation of David Hume in “A Treatise of Human Nature” wherein he indicates that moral obligation is a concept of a different category than facts about the world.  This is commonly called the is-ought divide.  I will address this particular issue in the chapter on human action.

The Nature of Philosophy

As is the case with most cultural pursuits which hearken back into the dark recesses of history, philosophy has no universally-agreed upon definition.  Even in academic circles, the definitions of the enterprise called “philosophy” is likely to be as numerous as the number of philosophy department chairs one asks.  This is a phenomenon[1] that vexes many analytic-minded[2] philosophers, given their obsession with necessary and sufficient conditions[3].

While I write and think very much like an analytic, I do not feel that it should be absolutely crucial to assign a definition to philosophy which outlines necessary and sufficient conditions.  At the same time, however, I am not inclined to do as postmodern[4] and continental[5] thinkers tend and simply hand-wave the issue and say “it’s a family of activities that generally resemble each other”.  The only remaining option, then, is to make an attempt at crafting a heuristic[6] for identifying philosophical activities as opposed to any other activities within the scope of human intellectual experience.

Looking at the historical context of philosophy, one may get a feel for the “family resemblance” of philosophical activities.  The helps one create a genealogy of philosophy.  This genealogy begins with ancient thinkers were predominantly concerned with “living the good life” as well as understanding how the world worked.  One of the tools that was of utmost importance to the ancient thinkers and has maintained its utility (at least, up until the point where the postmodernists have taken over) is logic.  In the middle ages of Europe and comparable periods of time in locales such as India and Japan, there was a burgeoning attempt to ascertain the fundamental qualities of existence; admittedly, this was universally in a religious or theistic context of some form or another, but that does not negate the contributions made.

In the more modern eras, from the enlightenment[7] to today, the philosophical enterprise has been a predominantly directed at understanding the manner in which man interacts with reality, from the nature of sense experience to the nature of knowledge and its acquisition.  Additionally, there has been a lot of emphasis on the manner in which the individual interacts with mankind at large and how that interaction ought to be conducted.

Depending on one’s definitions and motivations for constructing a narrative, philosophy can be seen as the progenitor of, handmaid to, or companion of nearly other activity in human intellectual life.  Modern scientific methods are the product of ancient natural studies and enlightenment-era epistemology[8].  Computer science is predicated on mathematical principles and linguistic theories which have been formed through philosophical discourse.  Theology is, by and large, the application of philosophical tools to puzzles related to spiritual revelations and religious doctrines.  Economics[9] is the result of a-priori[10] reasoning in conjunction with philosophical tools of introspection and observation.  These relationships cannot be ignored, but the exact nature of these relationships is at the heart of many lively debates.

I can (and have) gone on a much more rigorous exploration of the necessary and sufficient conditions for something to be considered philosophy, but that sort of exercise is better suited for a longer, more exhaustive, procedural work.  For now, I think it would be most prudent to do a quick breakdown of the etymology[11] of the word “philosophy”.  The word, itself, hails from ancient Greek and effectively means “love of wisdom”.

Of course, nothing in Greek translates so directly into English.  For example, ancient Greek has at least four words for love (arguably, there are a few more).  This particular root, “-philia”, would be most appropriately used in the context of a dispassionate desire for (non-sexual) intimacy, such as that of close friends.  Additionally, “sophos” is a Greek word the denotes a wide array of practical and virtuous skills and habits regarding wisdom, rather than just the sterile modern English concept of knowing a lot or having advanced experience.

The best I can do to describe the Greek root of the term is to say that it is “an actionable desire to develop intellectual virtue and put it into practice in the world at large”.  This takes many different forms, as demonstrated by Socrates and Diogenes relentlessly badgering their neighbors concerning how wrong their ideas of how the world worked really were, while Aristotle, Pythagoras, Epicurus and Zeno started schools and lectured ad-nauseam.  Later in history, the general attitude of a philosopher had largely homogenized into academic bookishness and the writing of essays and long-form treatises.  The exact nature of each essay and treatise may be radically divergent with regards to content, method, and end, though.

Ultimately, taking into account all these diverse enterprises and the influence of postmodern thought, I believe that any human enterprise directed at creating an internally consistent, logically sound, empirically viable, and universal worldview which possesses ethical actionability, utility, and (ultimately) Truth can be rightly considered to be “philosophy”.[12]

In order to attempt to construct a worldview that correlates to reality, there are a great many prerequisites that must first be met.  For example, there is the assumption that there is a reality to which a worldview can correlate.  Another example would be establishing the fundamentals of logic in such a way so as to be certain of their utility[13].  Yet another assumption would be that one is capable of constructing a worldview at all.

Rather than dragging my readers through the most meticulous and technical aspects of post-enlightenment thought, I’d like to discuss the general methodology of philosophy and, if my readers are so inclined so as to investigate these problems in their fullness, I can recommend some starting places.[14]  These problems of philosophy are quite significant, and I believe that these issues ought to be examined, but they are not issues for beginners or the faint of heart.

Instead, I recommend familiarizing oneself with the fundamentals of philosophical methodology and begin exploring this new way of perceiving reality, first.  Even though it has taken many different forms throughout history and our contemporary academic landscape, the fundamental methodology of philosophy has found no better expression than that of the trivium and quadrivium of the middle-ages in Europe.  Although these fields of study were crafted in a theistic environment and are, therefore, often ignored or denigrated by modern (leftist) scholars, the methodology they present are still quite valid, even if they may have been used to reach illicit conclusions.

The trivium consists of three stages of thought: the logic, the grammar, and the rhetoric.  Initially, these stages of thought were applied exclusively to language (hence their names).  The logic was the basis of linguistic thought; it contained the a priori principles such as the law of identity[15], the principle of non-contradiction[16], and the resultant laws of induction.  The grammar demonstrated the rules of language which reflected the logical principles outlined earlier; subject-object relations and other syntax relationships are important to maintaining fidelity to the logical principles underlying that communication[17].  The rhetoric refined the above skill sets so as to aid a thinker[18] in convincing others of the facts which he had uncovered through the application of logic and grammar.

Since its inception as a linguistic methodology, the trivium quickly expanded into a philosophical methodology.  This is partly due to the close relationship that language and philosophy has always held and partly due to the axiomatic nature of the trivium lending itself to the inquiries of philosophy.  In essence, a thinker must first establish the furniture of the world (the fundamental principles and objects of those principles), then explore the relationships between those objects, and then must find a means by which to express those relationships.  For example, the “Socrates is a man” syllogism I referenced in the footnote on this page contains material that isn’t merely linguistic.  For example, the categories “Socrates”, “man”, and “being” are assumed to correlate to realities in the observable world.  Additionally, the grammar of the statement establishes a relationship to those categories which are assumed to correlate to the observable world.  This trend is maintained through the rest of the syllogism:

Socrates is a man,

All men are mortal,

∴ Socrates is a mortal.

At each level of the syllogism, new categories and relationships are assumed or established.  On a linguistic level, logic serves as the structural framework for the grammar to populate with the symbols for Socrates, man, etc. and the rhetoric is the manner in which one would express this syllogism to others and defend the validity of the syllogism.  On a philosophical level, the logic serves as the source for the objects Socrates, man, etc. the grammar denotes the relationships between those symbols, and the rhetoric serves as the means by which these ideas move from my mind to the page for your mind to reassemble[19].

This quick introduction into the methodology of philosophy will be expounded upon in the next chapter, as we explore the role of philosophy in daily life or, as the ancient Greeks put it, “how does one live the good life?”

[1] Phenomenon (n): The object of a person’s perception or discussion; an event of which the senses or the mind are aware.

[2] Analytic Philosophy (n): A school or tradition of philosophical thought predominantly populated by English-speaking philosophers which emphasizes procedural methodology and strict definitions and application of logic.

[3] Necessary and Sufficient Conditions (n):  The requirements of any given subject to meet a definition; necessary qualities are qualities which, if absent, preclude subjects from being defined as such and sufficient qualities are qualities that, if present, allow a subject to be defined as such.

[4] Postmodern (adj): Relating to a school of thought which maintains certain attitudes such as indefinability, plurality of reality, and subjective narrative ontologically trumping objective reality.

[5] Continental (adj): Relating to a school or tradition of philosophical thought predominantly populated by thinkers from mainland Europe which emphasizes meta-philosophical influences on philosophy such as culture and economics.

[6] Heuristic (n): A method or system of interpreting ideas as they are presented.

[7] Enlightenment Era (n): A period in European philosophical history, commonly accepted to be from as early as the 16th century to the end of the 18th century; the era is marked by a sudden surge in scientific advance, political upheaval, and sheer number of philosophical schools of thought.

[8] Epistemology (n): The study of knowledge, the manner and mechanisms by which one knows.

[9] Austrian Economics.  This will be discussed in Chapter 4: Political Philosophy and its Discontents.

[10] A priori (adj): A logical justification for a claim based on syllogisms, moving from given premises to their necessary conclusions.  This is often set in opposition to a posteriori or “empirical” reasoning.

[11] Etymology (n): The study of the meaning of words and the changes of those meanings throughout history.

[12] There is a good amount of jargon in this proposed definition; as these terms appear later in this book, they will be defined in more detail.

[13] Utility (n): The capacity for a thing to provide or contribute to accomplishing one’s end, usually in the context of alleviating discomfort.

[14] “The problems of Philosophy” by Bertrand Russell, “Cartesian Meditations” by (((Edmund Husserl))), and (for the preeminent masochist) “Critique of Pure Reason” by Immanuel Kant

[15] Law of Identity (logic): A=A (A equals A), A≠¬A (A does not equal not-A)

[16] Principle of Non-Contradiction (logic): The logical principle that something cannot both be and not be in the same mode at the same time. (Abbreviated as PNC)

[17] For example, in the over-used case of the “Socrates is a man” syllogism, if you were to mistake the subject-object relationship, you can end up with things like “Man is a Socrates” which is not only incorrect, but it is nonsensical.

[18] i.e. The philosopher

[19] There are deeper epistemic realities hidden in this discussion of the trivium method, but those will be addressed in the coming chapters of this book.