What are philosophers for?

It would be fair to say that Alain de Botton has been a big influence on me in recent years. I’ve read a lot of his books. He’s an atheist thinker, but happily not that interested in the tired old anti-religion arguments you can get from too many other atheists. Instead, he is much more interested in questions of how to live a fuller, richer, more satisfying, more meaningful sort of life without having to refer to deity, afterlife and so forth. With my heady mix of existential and maybeist tendencies, I’m deeply attracted to this approach.

I’ve read some ‘proper’ philosophy along the way. You know the sort of thing, that gets so bogged down in trying to define who ‘I’ is and what we mean by ‘being’ and ‘consciousness’ that your head is aching long before you’ve picked up any tips that might be meaningfully applied to life. I’ve read philosophy that seemed like a foreign language, full of unfamiliar jargon, references to things I hadn’t read… an impenetrable thicket that made the outpourings of Robert Graves look clear and easy. That kind of philosophy has taught me one thing and one thing only – that I do not have what it takes to be a reader of such work, much less a participant in the process.

What is philosophy for, if it is too difficult for some of us even to sit down with it? While I may not be the sharpest pencil in the box, I’m by no means the bluntest either, and am prepared to bet that what I couldn’t get to grips with would prove indigestible to a lot of other people as well. Which means philosophy is just for the highly educated, super clever elite and we lesser mortals should just knuckle down and do what our betters tell us. (That may in fact be the gist of Plato’s Republic).

Oddly enough, that doesn’t fill me with enthusiasm. Wilfully impenetrable writing on entirely abstract and irrelevant topics doesn’t do much for me, either. This is why the discovery of Alain du Botton has been so important to me. He’s incredibly readable, for a start, tending to assume that his audience doesn’t have a doctorate in philosophy. Plain English abounds, as do real life issues. You can read something of his and apply it to your own life. You can read it and dare to think that, given time and effort, you could put together a passable bit of philosophical insight on life yourself. You can aspire…

What really, is the point of philosophy if it does not put philosophy within the reach of everyone who has some interest? What is it for, if not to help us live this life in this world? And what are we here for, if not to reflect a bit on our experiences?

When I first added ‘philosophy’ to the topics list here, I half expected that the Philosophy Police would show up (complete with togas and long beards) to tell me I wasn’t allowed. Not having a doctorate in that subject, I had no entitlement to claim any insight at all. (For the record, I have no such problems or chips on my shoulder when poking about in other subjects for which I am equally unqualified, I think high level philosophy is inherently elitist and exclusive.) It hasn’t happened. Not least because *that* sort of philosopher may not exist, and if they do, they probably don’t get out much, or online. Philosophy is the art of thinking about stuff in a way that is useful. Being a philosopher is being a person who thinks about stuff in ways that are useful. Expressing that in ways other people might grasp is a gift to the world. So I’ll stick with Alain du Botton, and John Michael Greer, and with anyone else who turns up and makes sense, because I’ve come to the conclusion that if philosophy fails to make sense, the philosopher hasn’t done a very good job of it.

For further inspiration, can I direct you to http://www.thephilosophersmail.com


About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

9 responses to “What are philosophers for?

  • Éilis Niamh

    As a graduate student in philosophy, studying virtue ethics (quite similar to what can be found in the ethics section of the OBOD website, I have to say that I intend my education to help me write about important philosophical concepts in a way that everyone understands. Sure, sometimes there are specialized words that do a good job at describing a concept in a way another set of more familiar words cannot. In that case I believe it is always imperative to define the term before continuing to use it, and to run it by individuals from many professions and disciplines and walks of life to make sure you’ll be understood. I think generalizing frustration and disdain for all philosophers or even most of them is a mistake, though certainly it is true that quite a few modern academics in the field of philosophy are more concerned with platitudes and being the most clever hypocrit on the block to get published than truly live their lives as lovers of wisdom and the truth. I have met ethicists who are jerks for instance. I believe Socrates had the right idea, standing on street corners and engaging anyone interested in arguments about the most important subjects of his day. Nutty people have taken over the street corners, but books for the general public are still fair game to convey important ideas to everyone. I agree with you that philosophy should exist to help all people think more critically about their lives and in ethics ask the questions of how we ought to live, why are we here? It will be much more difficult for me as a non-status quo philosopher to go anywhere in my field, by the way, because of the closed-mindedness out there, and when it comes to the seeking of truth, defensiveness and closed-mindedness are downright dangerous.

    If you’re interested, Happiness for Humans by Daniel Russell, The Other Side of Virtue, by Brendan Myers, and On Virtue by Julia Annas are books of genuine philosophy on the subjects it seems you are interested in which are accessible to everyone. Someday I hope to add my work on interdependence to that list. 🙂 And white beards? LOL, some of us are female!

  • Christopher Blackwell

    Always remember that the favorite gift to give a philosopher is Hemlock. After all they ask strange questions and give even stranger answers they tend to rock the boat making them very unpopular with the ruling powers of the time. They question most everything.

    Yet I find myself acting in the mode of a philosopher wondering if what we are doing is the best way, or could there be a better way to get things done with perhaps less stress and perhaps eliminating strange idea that one size can fit everyone.

    I feel the attempt to make us all uniform is perhaps the greatest reason we have some much unhappiness, instead of allowing each to be their own unique person.

    I am sure my free gift of Hemlock may be on its way.

  • angharadlois

    As a Philosophy in Pubs regular, I’m a big believer in philosophy for all. Your fifth paragraph is basically the whole raison d’etre of the movement (http://philosophyinpubs.co.uk/ for anyone who is interested!) and, although the Tuesday night gatherings in our local usually include some kind of presentation or stimulus, they do not assume any prior knowledge or reading. Having said that, it is always interesting to hear from people who do know a bit more about the philosophy of certain concepts; they can often focus the discussion in really helpful ways.

    Planning for some more study in the not-too-distant future has caused me to the near-impenetrable thicket of cultural theory around my MA in Myth. I always had a vague, uncomfortable feeling that academic theory was elitist and exclusive, but now – having been away from it for long enough to gain perspective, I suppose – I can really see the value in it, too. This may sound controversial, but I think elitism does have a place; it provides a dedicated space for us to attempt to go beyond the boundaries of what we are already capable of thinking and discussing. I would offer the same defence of jargon, up to a point: I am no fan of obfuscation for its own sake (far too often used to disguise the weakness of an idea or argument; as you say, if an idea doesn’t make sense it is often because the thinker hasn’t done a very good job) but, often, being able to summarise a whole theory in one word makes it easier to explore beyond that theory in great depth. The more vocabulary we have, the more we are capable of saying. I suppose the important thing, ultimately, is that we find a way to link those esoteric and exclusive academic flights of fancy with the everyday lives of ordinary people (I’m essentially just agreeing with you in a very long-winded way, because your blog post – as always! – sparked off all kinds of ideas); ultimately, all perspectives on philosophical ideas add something to our overall understanding, which is surely the point.

  • Blodeuwedd

    I have to say that this has not been my experience of philosophy, which has had quite a profound effect on me and sent me barking up a few new paths. There is, undoubtedly, some which is quite hard work and some, I have no doubt, people being what they are, that is wilfully so. Much of it though, is not. Plato is not only eminently readable (in translation!) but also frequently very funny. Peter Singer and John Hick are modern philosophers who write for people rather than academics. I taught A level philosophy and Ethics for many years and came to the conclusion that some sort of qualification for all pupils would result in people who are more questioning and better adept at critical thinking. In short, a Good Thing. There are always people who will try to blind others with science (or philosophy) to make themselves appear clever than you. Philosophy, endowed as it is with a particularly fine set of Big Words may have more than others, but intrinsically I think it is a noble and useful pursuit.

    • Nimue Brown

      Accessible philosophy would be an excellent thing. It occurs to me that the issue of translation may be critical here – I’ve recently become aware of how English translations of Freud have been deeply counterproductive, I expect that’s true of others, too.

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