In our modern times of academic disciplines that count it a virtue to be value neutral and clinically distant from their subject matter, philosophy has tended to become an abstract and abstruse intellectual game which the ordinary person has great difficulty understanding and, even when he does, often even more difficulty in seeing the relevance of.
Philosophy Should Be About Real Concerns
It was not always so. In Ancient Greece philosophy was concerned with the issues that are of most fundamental concern such as how to live a good life, fear of death, how the state should be governed, the meaning of courage, justice, compassion and so on. There was no difficulty in seeing relevance. Skeptics, Epicureans, Stoics, Platonists and Aristotelians, not to mention the pre-socratic philosophers, all had things of importance to say about their contemporary societies and citizens.
Philosophy Gives Us Important Intellectual Tools
Here, therefore, I want to reassert something of this tradition. Philosophy has both content and method. A well educated person ought to know some of that content and ought to have some basic ability in those methods. He or she ought to be able to think clearly about an argument, to distinguish logic from rhetoric, to appreciate different degrees of proof and certainty, to see through common fallacies, and to be able to separate out the elements of a philosophical position, see how they are or are not consistent one with another, how they do or do not naturally cohere, and to identify tensions within a system of thought.
The Suppression of Intelligence is Dangerous
It has become popular in some quarters to deride intellect, to assert that wisdom does not require thinking, and to discourage the kind of analysis that I am here advocating. i think this is unfortunate and is an attitude that does not serve us well. Ideas such as non-duality should not be used to suppress argument, debate or intelligent thought. The loss of such thought leaves one open to all kinds of abuse and exploitation. The intellectuals are generally among the first to be shot when a dictator comes to power.
Love Wisdom and Do Good
So my wish here is to support the reinstatement of the original meaning of the term philosophy which is that it indicates love of wisdom. Wisdom here is a practical matter and the kind of love indicated by the term philo is good friendship. The philosopher is a good friend of wisdom. And what is wisdom? Wisdom must surely have some direct relationship to goodness. We may debate the meaning of these terms, of course, but it is surely fundamental that wisdom indicates the way of goodness.
Philosophy Transcends Self-interest
Now it is a characteristic of a good friend that he or she is not primarily self-interested. If, in my relationship with you, I am primarily preoccupied with my own profit, then I am not really your good friend. A good friend has the welfare of the other at heart. In this case it means that there is greater loyalty to truth and wisdom than to personal self-interest. This means that to be philosophical is to be disinterested in the best sense of the term, to be able to examine evidence and argument even when it seems to go against what one would prefer to think.
Philosophy Cuts Through Factionalism
A very common way in which people fail to be philosophical is in their gut reactions to particular words. Most people like some words and react against other words and tend to judge an argument more on the basis of the vocabulary used then upon the actual substance of the argument. This is really a kind of tribalism rather than objectivity. This means that to be genuinely philosophical one has to rise above such tribalism.
Philosophy Is Not Taken In By Rhetoric
Of course, the manipulation of public opinion by selective use of terminology goes on all the time in the popular media. I remember once, while travelling, seeing news reports in three different countries of the same incident in the Middle East where there had been a conflict between two factions. Referring to the anti-government faction, one Western countriy's TV used the term “the terrorists”, another “the insurgents” and a third “the resistance”. One can readily see that such choices of terms are highly suggestive. A truly philosophical person should not be seduced, but should be able to consider the evidence in a more dispassionate way. This means that one needs to have some understanding of the art of rhetoric in order not to be too readily taken in by it.
Philosophy Leads to Appropriate Commitment
The ability to be dispassionate as a skill, however, does not mean that one should necessarily be uncommitted. Whatever ability I have to weigh the evidence objectively may lead me to the conclusion that something seriously needs to be done and so may lead me to a commitment to action. The philosophers of the ancient world argued strongly for their points of view and saw them as having social relevance. It is true that a good philosopher should be able to understand both sides of an argument, but that does not mean automatically concluding that the sides have equal merit. Careful discernment leads to wise judgement.
A philosopher for whom I have great respect is Mary Midgley. Her books all deal with serious contemporary problems, sometimes personal, sometimes global. She is concerned about ecology, about the relations between the human animal and other species, problems of life and death, key factors in our culture such as the relationship between science and poetry or science and religion, and our moral responsibility toward people that we do not know who live a long way away. None of these questions is easy. Mary is very conscious that it is much more difficult to defend a moderate position than an extreme one, yet persists in doing so just the same.
Philosophy Is A Good Friend
When we say that philosophy means being friendly to wisdom, we can also acknowledge that friendship is a two way street. For the philosopher, just as he or she is a friend to wisdom, so wisdom is a friend in return. Boëthius famously talked of the consolation that philosophy brings and when, in common speech, we talk about taking something philosophically we mean enduring hardship without being overly dismayed or defeated in spirit. Being philosophical should bring such comfort, patience and endurance. Philosophy is able to do this because it encourages us to look both in detail and also in the widest possible perspective, to have, as Boëthius did, loyalty to a higher truth that transcends the local difficutles of life in this world, even in the case where - as in his own situation - such difficulties prove fatal. Looking in detail we can see how things work. Viewing them in a large perspective we can see how they fit in. This latter imparts meaning. Meaning does not derive from the components (reductionism) but from situatedness in a context. One needs a broad mind to appreciate context. Such breadth gives one stability.