Today I won’t really cover a philosophy, but rather an approach to philosophy. This approach treats philosophy not as something to be studied, but something to be done. But how does one do philosophy? What does it even mean to do philosophy?
Well, there are actually multiple answers to that question. For philosophies that claim to be ways of life, the answer is obvious and they present it. But what about other types of philosophies?
A very clear, elegant answer is given by Bertrand Russell.
Bertrand Russell was a mathematician who wrote on a wide variety of subjects, including philosophy. The last chapter of his Problems of Philosophy provides a perspective on why and how to study philosophy.
Russell treats Philosophy as a set of questions to contemplate and not a set of propositions to believe or memorize. The questions are not a means to an end, but an end in themselves. It isn’t about finding answers (if any can be found), but the growth that comes from approaching these questions in the right frame of mind.
His is a very readable chapter, and I can add little to it. Therefore, most of this article consists of excerpts from that chapter, which are italicized, like this. My additions are minor and are mostly structural. They consist of:
- Section headings in bold
- In-text summaries, cuts and “sics” [in italic brackets]
- The occasional comment underlined
The links above point to his text in its entirety, and I recommend you read his original, unabridged work in case I introduce any distortions or over-zealous interpretations by ommission.
His essay was written quite a while ago, so he doesn’t use gender neutral terms. I hope you can look past this; naturally, this essay applies to women and men!
Before studying philosophy, we must…
[…] first free our minds from the prejudices of what are wrongly called ‘practical’ men. The ‘practical’ man, as this word is often used, is one who recognizes only material needs, who realizes that men must have food for the body, but is oblivious of the necessity of providing food for the mind. […] in the existing world the goods of the mind are at least as important as the goods of the body. It is exclusively among the goods of the mind that the value of philosophy is to be found; and only those who are not indifferent to these goods can be persuaded that the study of philosophy is not a waste of time.
What’s Philosophy’s Value?
[…] philosophy has a value—perhaps its chief value—through the greatness of the objects which it contemplates, and the freedom from narrow and personal aims resulting from this contemplation. […] The private world of instinctive interests is a small one, set in the midst of a great and powerful world which must, sooner or later, lay our private world in ruins. Unless we can so enlarge our interests as to include the whole outer world, we remain like a garrison in a beleagured [sic] fortress, knowing that the enemy prevents escape and that ultimate surrender is inevitable. In such a life there is no peace, but a constant strife between the insistence of desire and the powerlessness of will. In one way or another, if our life is to be great and free, we must escape this prison and this strife. One way of escape is by philosophic contemplation.
How do we Contemplate Philosophy?
Philosophic contemplation does not, in its widest survey, divide the universe into two hostile camps—friends and foes, helpful and hostile, good and bad—it views the whole impartially.
Philosophic contemplation, when it is unalloyed, does not aim at proving that the rest of the universe is akin to man. All acquisition of knowledge is an enlargement of the Self, but this enlargement is best attained when it is not directly sought. It is obtained when the desire for knowledge is alone operative, by a study which does not wish in advance that its objects should have this or that character, but adapts the Self to the characters which it finds in its objects.
COMMENT: Many schools of thought hold that reducing one’s self(-image) increases happiness, and I have stated that a Universal Self-image is equivalent to no Self-image. Therefore, I think Russell’s Self-enlargement is compatible with these views. The key here is conflict. As long as one’s enlargement takes in opposites, all is well. It’s when one enlarges the self by only taking in part of an area that one’s self-image can come into conflict with the other parts that were not identified with, and this can lead to trouble. Put another way, it’s not self, but self-boundaries that are the problem.
The desire to prove [a priori claims] is a form of self-assertion and, like all self-assertion, it is an obstacle to the growth of Self […]. Self-assertion, in philosophic speculation as elsewhere, views the world as a means to its own ends […]. In contemplation, on the contrary, we start from the not-Self, and through its greatness the boundaries of Self are enlarged; through the infinity of the universe the mind which contemplates it achieves some share in infinity.
The true philosophic contemplation, on the contrary, finds its satisfaction in every enlargement of the not-Self, in everything that magnifies the objects contemplated, and thereby the subject contemplating. Everything, in contemplation, that is personal or private, everything that depends upon habit, self-interest, or desire, distorts the object, and hence impairs the union which the intellect seeks. By thus making a barrier between subject and object, such personal and private things become a prison to the intellect. The free intellect will see as God might see, without a here and now, without hopes and fears, without the trammels of customary beliefs and traditional prejudices, calmly, dispassionately, in the sole and exclusive desire of knowledge—knowledge as impersonal, as purely contemplative, as it is possible for man to attain. […]
The Benefits Do Not End There
The mind which has become accustomed to the freedom and impartiality of philosophic contemplation will preserve something of the same freedom and impartiality in the world of action and emotion. It will view its purposes and desires as parts of the whole, with the absence of insistence that results from seeing them as infinitesimal fragments in a world of which all the rest is unaffected by any one man’s deeds. The impartiality which, in contemplation, is the unalloyed desire for truth, is the very same quality of mind which, in action, is justice, and in emotion is that universal love which can be given to all, and not only to those who are judged useful or admirable. Thus contemplation enlarges not only the objects of our thoughts, but also the objects of our actions and our affections: it makes us citizens of the universe, not only of one walled city at war with all the rest. In this citizenship of the universe consists man’s true freedom, and his liberation from the thraldom [sic] of narrow hopes and fears.
This approach to philosophy is fascinating, and turns philosophy into a practice. Russell was not alone in advocating Philosophy as practice — and some argue this was Philosophy’s original aim — but his presentation is the clearest and most concise I’ve read.
If you’re interested in exploring this further, you may find the following useful:
Pierre Hadot’s Philosophy as a Way of Life. Hadot goes in a slightly different direction, exploring specific philosophies as ways of life, but the general approach is similar enough to warrant inclusion here.
There is also an exploration of Hadot’s theme with case studies here.