Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘School of Life’

24 OCTOBER, 2014

What Is Philosophy For? A Beautiful Animated Manifesto for Undoing Our Unwisdom, Cultivating Our Character, and Gaining Perspective

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“The points at which our unwisdom bites and messes up our lives are multiple and urgently need attention, right now.”

“Philosophy’s main task is to respond to the soul’s cry,” Sharon Lebell wrote in her classical manual for the art of living. But what types of consolation does philosophy offer the soul, in more practical terms? Like science, it offers an essential tool of critical thinking, or what Carl Sagan memorably termed “baloney detection”; like art, it challenges us to challenge the status quo and it says to us, in the elegant words of Jeanette Winterson, “don’t accept things for their face value; you don’t have to go along with any of this; you can think for yourself.” It gives us a potent antidote to our spectacular shortcomings in predicting and ensuring our own happiness and invites the self-knowledge essential for creativity. Above all, as one of the greatest thinkers who ever lived perceptively put it, philosophy allows us to “ask all the answerable questions upon which every civilization is founded.”

This, and so much more, is what writer and philosopher Alain de Botton, author of The Consolations of Philosophy (public library), explores in this wonderful animated essay — a beautiful and urgent case for what we lose, as a culture and as individuals, when we banish philosophy to the academy rather than seeing it as a powerful and necessary tool of government, leadership, and personal growth in everyday life:

From a distance, philosophy seems weird, irrelevant, boring — and yet, also, a just a little intriguing. But what are philosophers really for?

The answer is, handily, already contained in the word philosophy itself.

In Ancient Greek, philo means “love” and sophia means “wisdom” — philosophers are people devoted to wisdom. Being wise means attempting to live and die well.

In their pursuit of wisdom, philosophers have developed a very specific skill set — they have, over the centuries, become experts at many of the things that made people not very wise. Five stand out.

  1. WE DON’T ASK BIG QUESTIONS
  2. There are lots of big questions: What’s the meaning of life? What’s a job for? How should society be arranged? Most of us entertain them every now and then, but we despair at trying to answer them. They are the status of almost a joke — we call them “pretentious” — but they matter deeply, because only with sound answers to them can we direct our energies meaningfully.

    They have, over the centuries, asked the very largest. They realize that these questions can always be broken down into more manageable chunks, and that the only really “pretentious” thing is to think one’s above raising naive-sounding inquiries.

  3. WE ARE VULNERABLE TO ERRORS OF COMMON SENSE
  4. Public opinion, or what gets called “common sense,” is sensible and reasonable in countless areas. It’s what you hear about from friends and neighbors — the stuff you take in without even thinking about it. But common sense is often also full of daftness and error. Philosophy gets us to admit all aspects of common sense to reason. It wants us to think for ourselves. Is it really true what people say about love, money, children, travel, work?

    Philosophers are interested in asking whether an idea is logical, rather than assuming it must be right because it’s popular and long established.

  5. WE ARE MENTALLY CONFUSED
  6. We are not very good at knowing what goes on in our own minds. Someone we meet is very annoying but we can’t pin down what the issue is; we lose our temper but we can’t readily tell what we’re so cross about — we lack insights into our own satisfactions and dislikes. That’s why we need to examine our own minds.

    Philosophy is committed to self-knowledge and its central precept, articulated by the earliest, greatest philosopher Socrates, is just two words long: “Know yourself.”

  7. WE HAVE MUDDLED IDEAS ABOUT WHAT MAKES US HAPPY
  8. We’re not very good at making ourselves happy. We overrate the power of some things to improve our lives and underrate others — we make the wrong choices because, guided by advertising and false glamor, we keep on imagining that a particular kind of holiday or car or computer will make a bigger difference than it can. At the same time, we underestimate the contribution of other things, like going for a walk, which may have little prestige but which can contribute deeply to the character of existence.

    Philosophers seek to be wise by getting more precise about the activities and attitudes that really can help our lives to go better.

  9. WE PANIC AND LOSE PERSPECTIVE
  10. Philosophers are good at keeping a sense of what really matters and what doesn’t. On hearing the news that he’d lost all his possessions to a shipwreck, the Stoic philosopher Zeno simple said, “fortune commands me to be a less encumbered philosopher.” It’s responses like these that have made the very term “philosophical” a byword for calm, long-term thinking and strength of mind. In short, for perspective.

The wisdom of philosophy is in modern times mostly delivered in the form of books. But, in the past, philosophers sat in market squares and discussed their ideas with shopkeepers or went into government offices and palaces to give advice. It wasn’t abnormal to have a philosopher on your payroll. Philosophy was thought of as a normal, basic activity, rather than as an esoteric, optional extra. Nowadays, it’s not so much that we overtly deny this thought, but we just don’t have the right institutions set up to promulgate wisdom coherently in the world.

In the future, though, when the value of philosophy is a little clearer, we can expect to meet more philosophers in daily life. They won’t be locked up, living mainly in university departments — because the points at which our unwisdom bites and messes up our lives are multiple and urgently need attention, right now.

This short film comes from The School of Life — makers of intelligent how-to guides to modern living, spanning everything from the art of being alone to the psychology of staying sane to cultivating a healthier relationship with sex to finding fulfilling work — and comes on the heels of another wonderful animated essay about what literature does for the soul.

Also see De Botton on the seven psychological functions of art and what Nietzsche teaches us about the value of suffering.

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09 OCTOBER, 2014

What Books Do for the Human Soul: The Four Psychological Functions of Great Literature

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“Writers open our hearts and minds, and give us maps to our own selves.”

The question of what reading does for the human soul is an eternal one and its answer largely ineffable, but this hasn’t stopped minds big and small from tussling with it — we have Kafka’s exquisite letter to his childhood friend, Maurice Sendak’s visual manifestos for the joy of reading, and even my own answer to a nine-year-old girl’s question about why we have books today.

Now comes a four-point perspective on the rewards of reading by writer and philosopher Alain de Botton and his team at The School of Life — creators of those intelligent how-to guides to modern living, spanning everything from the art of being alone to the psychology of staying sane to cultivating a healthier relationship with sex to finding fulfilling work. In this wonderful animated essay, they extol the value of books in expanding our circle of empathy, validating and ennobling our inner life, and fortifying us against the paralyzing fear of failure.

  1. IT SAVES YOU TIME
  2. It looks like it’s wasting time, but literature is actually the ultimate time-saver — because it gives us access to a range of emotions and events that it would take you years, decades, millennia to try to experience directly. Literature is the greatest reality simulator — a machine that puts you through infinitely more situations than you can ever directly witness.

  3. IT MAKES YOU NICER
  4. Literature performs the basic magic of what things look like though someone else’s point of view; it allows us to consider the consequences of our actions on others in a way we otherwise wouldn’t; and it shows us examples of kindly, generous, sympathetic people.

    Literature deeply stands opposed to the dominant value system — the one that rewards money and power. Writers are on the other side — they make us sympathetic to ideas and feelings that are of deep importance but can’t afford airtime in a commercialized, status-conscious, and cynical world.

  5. IT’S A CURE FOR LONELINESS
  6. We’re weirder than we like to admit. We often can’t say what’s really on our minds. But in books we find descriptions of who we genuinely are and what events, described with an honesty quite different from what ordinary conversation allows for. In the best books, it’s as if the writer knows us better than we know ourselves — they find the words to describe the fragile, weird, special experiences of our inner lives… Writers open our hearts and minds, and give us maps to our own selves, so that we can travel in them more reliably and with less of a feeling of paranoia or persecution…

  7. IT PREPARES YOU FOR FAILURE
  8. All of our lives, one of our greatest fears is of failure, of messing up, of becoming, as the tabloids put it, “a loser.” Every day, the media takes us into stories of failure. Interestingly, a lot of literature is also about failure — in one way or another, a great many novels, plays, poems are about people who messed up… Great books don’t judge as harshly or as one-dimensionally as the media…

Literature deserves its prestige for one reason above all others — because it’s a tool to help us live and die with a little bit more wisdom, goodness, and sanity.

Complement with the greatest books of all time, according to 125 celebrated contemporary authors, then revisit The School of Life’s imaginative exploration of Heidegger’s philosophy via a shrimp and Alain de Botton on how art can save your soul.

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02 OCTOBER, 2014

Heidegger in the Kitchen: What a Shrimp Can Teach Us About the Meaning of Life

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How to break free from the chatter that muffles the essence of Being.

German philosopher Martin Heidegger (September 26, 1889–May 26, 1976) is among the most influential minds in modern history. His ideas on the central problems of existence, best articulated in his seminal 1927 book Being and Time (public library), are lodged so deeply in the intellectual lineage of our culture that their echoes can be sensed in everything from the works of such celebrated subsequent thinkers as Hannah Arendt and Jean-Paul Sartre to a wealth of postmodernist art and criticism.

In this imaginative video essay, The School of Life — maker of wonderful field guides to modern living covering everything from how to be alone to staying sane to how to finding fulfilling work — enlists the magic of metaphor in shedding light on Heidegger’s work and its enduring legacy.

Existence, or Being, is finite, fragile, and very temporary — but we rarely appreciate our temporary existences. Much of Heidegger’s philosophy is devoted to trying to wake us up to the fragility of our life and the strangeness of existing on this delicate, exhaustible planet, spinning in an otherwise seemingly silent, alien, and entirely uninhabited universe.

At certain moments of insight — and Heidegger wants us to have lots of these — we may think, “I am so small, so temporary. I am a nothing in the cosmos of lifeless otherness.” It is at moments like this that we feel what Heidegger called “the mystery of existence” — it can be beautiful, it can be intense; most of all, it can be terrifying. We live wisely and philosophically, and by always acknowledging our precariousness against the Nothing.

It isn’t just us who are so temporary — it is all living beings, all living things — the animals, the trees, the clouds. They, too, exist briefly against the background of nothingness. Once we are aware that we, and all living beings, share this fragile state, we might learn to identify more with them, to recognize our kinship with all living things and with the Earth itself. They are like us, briefly alive against the backdrop of nothingness.

The feeling of the unity of all things might come to you when you see, for example, how much connects us with the quail, the shrimp, the snail, the lamb, the pig, the dinosaur. Normally, we separate ourselves from these others, but Heidegger urges us to see the interconnections.

However, Heidegger is very aware of the way in which we hide from confrontation with Being, escaping into the warm folds of daily life, of society, and of what he termed its endless chatter, Das Gerede. We can imagine Das Gerede as an enormous pancake-like dough layer that smothers our connection with Being. Chatter is everywhere — it comes in via the airwaves, the media, our social circle — and it seeks to reassure us that trivia actually matters, that our jobs count, that what we are doing and thinking has importance. It hides us from the nature of Being in a world of death. So the task of philosophy is to remove us from the doughy comfort of chatter and introduce us, systematically, to the bracing concept of Nothingness.

Heidegger wants to free us from the pull of chatter, so as to focus on the intensity of existence.

Complement with Hannah Arendt on the life of the mind and Seneca on the shortness of life.

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