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.
- WE DON’T ASK BIG QUESTIONS
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.
- WE ARE VULNERABLE TO ERRORS OF COMMON SENSE
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.
- WE ARE MENTALLY CONFUSED
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.”
- WE HAVE MUDDLED IDEAS ABOUT WHAT MAKES US HAPPY
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.
- WE PANIC AND LOSE PERSPECTIVE
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.