Are All Philosophers Social Misfits?
Or: How to Make a Good Application of Philosophy in Everyday Life
The first thing that struck me when I started studying philosophy, was the very character of the people I would meet: my professors sometimes impressed me with their scholarly knowledge or the depth of their thinking, but their personalities and what I guessed of their lives often left me feeling cold or … perplex. They seemed to only know a world comprised of university offices and libraries, but for all their isolation they did not escape the most common of human passions (jealously, greed, anger, vanity, etc.). To be honest, many of them did not seem to really inhabit the world and they demonstrated a fragile emotional health.
One can understand my astonishment and my perplexity at the time: isn’t philosophy the love of wisdom, according to the very etymology of the term? Isn’t a philosopher someone who takes stock of the world and keeps a cool head when faced with its tumults? Isn’t it someone who takes things “with philosophy”?
I propose three reasons to help explain this paradox. These reasons each raise questions that will allow us to look at the place and role of philosophy in people’s lives today.
The first reason is factual: Nowadays, being a philosopher often involves teaching, but it consists mainly of writing. This was not always the case: let us remember that Descartes was a soldier before he started living off his mother’s inheritance; that Spinoza was a lens maker, which only allowed him to live modestly, and that Leibniz was a diplomat—and perhaps a spy.
One may celebrate the fact that today it is possible to get paid for writing philosophy, but this sociological reality often does little to foster a close contact with the world’s most common realities. I will not weigh in on whether we should praise or lament this situation… I prefer to point out, for now, that it is not necessary to be a professional philosopher to devote oneself to philosophy, be it temporarily or in a more radical way.
A second reason concerns the sense—i.e., the meaning and the direction—given to philosophical activity. Philosophy is generally conceived today as an art of thinking: thinking, not living! In this respect, a comparison with Ancient Philosophy can be instructive.
In Antiquity, being committed to philosophy did not imply producing a theory to purportedly explain the being or the world. It meant above all choosing a distinctive way of life, usually by entering a group or “school” that offered specific existential options. The theory that expressed an ideal of life could thus not be conceived without the application of this ideal, especially through a set of “spiritual exercises” that enabled the philosophers to work on what they called “passions” (fears, anger, envy, sadness, etc.). Nowadays, philosophers are above all “intellectuals,” albeit “committed” ones. For my part, I aspire to rekindle this antique inspiration of philosophy, which focuses as much on thinking as it does on living. Why do we not rediscover these “spiritual exercises” which would allow us to understand and temper our thoughts, beliefs and behaviors? We would all benefit from it…
A third reason has to do with time, and it leads me to question the philosophical approach more thoroughly. Philosophizing begins by taking a step backwards and suspending all judgment. It starts when, without giving in to the weight of our prejudices, we come to be surprised by everything that seems self-evident. It is therefore the essence of philosophical activity to give oneself time: time that is not directly “profitable”, but which allows us to pause our impressions, to delay our decisions, and lets us look at things differently. This explains why the philosopher, by nature, is always somewhat out of touch with the common world with its self-evident truths. The danger is that the philosopher would then be “out of line” with the rest of the world. To my fellow philosophers, I would say that this is a real risk, which should never be underestimated.
But let us leave professional philosophers on the side for now. I would rather insist on the fruitfulness that following a philosophical approach can have for everyone. Why not give ourselves some time away from productivity in order to find a new perspective on things? On our problems as well as on what we no longer even see in our lives: our automatisms, but also the beauty and the potential of everything and everyone around us.
In any case I know, having experienced myself and verified it with many of my clients, that this “out of world” space and time (out of everyday life, out of profitability, etc.) is the condition for true creativity to take place—that is, for real innovation to emerge.
What do you think?