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  • Rick Repetti

ASK A PHILOSOPHICAL COUNSELOR Should everyone have a conscious philosophy of life? Is that e

Dear Professor Repetti:

You've said that everyone should have a conscious philosophy of life. I am not sure I have one. I've been too busy to sit around thinking consciously about what my philosophy is, or if I even have one. I've been doing fine with my life, but I tend to just deal with issues as they arise. I've certainly had my ups and downs, but overall I'm content with the way my life is turning out. Why do you think I should have a conscious philosophy of life, or that everyone should? Is that some sort of elitism?

Charles D

New Jersey


Why should everyone have a philosophy? Is that an elitist idea? Excellent questions! First, I'll give the short answer to both questions, then, because the first question is crucial to the very notion of philosophical counseling, I will give a very long answer to the first question, which will implicitly answer the second question in the process.

The short answer:

Everyone can benefit from the empowering consequences of consciously sorting out their beliefs, desires, values, goals, principles, and so forth, in which case it is not elitist but more of an attempt at equalizing the inequalities between those who are more or less in conscious control of their lives, a kind of antidote to elitism. Having a philosophy of life, as you walk the path between birth and death, is like having certain essential items in your (life-skills) backpack, such as a compass, flashlight, Swiss Army Knife, map, and GPS.* Being able to know where you are, where you are going, how to get there, and how to function well along the way—these are the sorts of philosophical tools it is wise to have easy access to along life's journey. Sure, you might have some of these already, but having a well-worked-out philosophy of life helps to ensure you have all the tools you need to live well, as well as easy access to them.

The very long answer:

This is a complicated question, which requires a complicated answer, for a number of reasons. I will list these reasons shortly, but as a preface to almost anything that I will say, it is important to hedge against objections and counterexamples which my statements will naturally invite because in what follows it will be necessary for me to use simplifications in order to introduce highly complex ideas, each of which is problematic. Even the simplest concepts are problematic in this regard. Almost every claim, from a philosophical point of view, is or may be problematic in one sense or another.

Philosophers use a metaphor for this problem, the problem of even introducing philosophical language philosophically, because we need to start somewhere, but no matter where we start, the starting points will be problematic. Thus, the metaphor is about a fellow named Neurath who is on a raft at sea. There are leaks in the raft and he must try to patch them while simultaneously paddling and bucketing water out of the raft. As he prepares one leak, another happens. From a philosophical point of you, life is like that. We have a set of concepts, and we must use them along with our imperfect language in order to even analyze our concepts and our language. This is necessary in order to cross the philosophical ocean of existence, while reconstructing our vehicle as we go. Keep that in mind, then, as I proceed to give my reasons why I think it is difficult to even define philosophy, and also difficult to explain why I think everyone should have a philosophy. Here are my reasons.

First, in order to even understand the question, it is important to understand what philosophy is, and then what it means to have a philosophy. Western philosophers also distinguish between identifying something as philosophical, defining philosophy, having a philosophy, and actually doing philosophy or engaging in philosophical activity. All of these presuppose some understanding of what philosophy is. It is nearly impossible to define philosophy, however, because the different kinds of things that count as philosophical do not, in the view of most philosophers, constitute necessary and sufficient conditions for what might be called a classical definition of philosophy.

A classical definition or a classical concept or category is contrasted with a fuzzy one. This distinction goes back to Ludwig Wittgenstein, who famously illustrated the idea of a fuzzy concept with the example of that of the concept of a game, since not all games share the same identifying characteristics. Some games are board games, some are competitive, some involve winners and losers, some are purely for fun, some involve at least two players, and some have some of these characteristics but not others, among many other characteristics involving various other kinds of games.

Wittgenstein argued that these characteristics are more like family resemblances than they are like specific criteria for inclusion in a set. The idea of a family resemblance might be illustrated by siblings, some of which have some features resembling the parent or each other, but none of them having all identical features. The metaphor that he used was that of strands of a rope, not all of which run throughout the entire rope.

Classical concepts or definitions, on the other hand, involve both necessary and sufficient conditions for membership in a set, for example, the set of all things that are rectangular: it is necessary for something to be rectangular, that it have four straight sides, but that is not sufficient; it needs also to have four 90° angles. Anything which both has four straight sides and four 90° angles is a rectangle; that is the necessary and sufficient condition of being a rectangle. It follows that all squares are rectangles, because they satisfy the criteria; it does not follow that all rectangles are squares, because the sides of a square must also be equal in length.

Philosophy therefore is a fuzzy concept precisely because there are a variety of kinds of philosophy that do not all share conditions which would constitute necessary and sufficient conditions for being philosophical. For example, in western, Anglo-phone philosophy, a focus on arguments, on defining concepts, and on logic are predominant, whereas, by contrast, certain philosophical traditions in Zen highlight non-discursive meditative awareness in the present moment as the premier philosophical methodology. Arguably, within indigenous first world tribes, apprenticing oneself to the shaman constitutes philosophical activity. And so on.

Religion overlaps with philosophy in so far as both tend to address the perennial questions, such as: who am I, why am I here, where did we come from, did the world have a beginning, is there a creator, what is real, what matters, is there life after death, what does it all mean, how should I live, etc. The major difference is that philosophy is more about the questions and religion is more about the answers, the different answers significantly constituting the different religions. And yet, within certain religious traditions, philosophical activity is quite high.

And within almost every philosophical tradition, there are splits and divisions, and various attitudes of inclusion and exclusion regarding what counts and does not count as philosophy. Within our own western tradition, which significantly owes to the Greco-Roman era, there are many major splits between what may be called theoretical philosophy, practical philosophy, applied philosophy, empirical philosophy, empiricism versus rationalism, evidentialism versus pragmatism, Continental or phenomenological philosophy versus analytic philosophy, epicureanism versus stoicism, and so on.

Of course, one need not have a comprehensive understanding of all of these differences in order to have a philosophy. However, it is important to have at least a sketch of what philosophy is in this more general sense if one is to have a somewhat informed philosophy. An informal but I think effective way of explaining what philosophy is, without actually articulating each of the many concepts that I already mentioned, would be to simply list the variety of philosophical questions that can be asked about almost anything, be it an entity, process, event, phenomenon, or what have you.

It may not be universally true, but I think most philosophers would recognize philosophical curiosity in the majority of the questions that I will now give as samples of questions that can, and I think should, be asked of everything that may be found within our cognitive horizon, that is, anything about which we may become aware or even imagine. Many of these questions will look like common sense, or advanced common sense, or, a step further, scientific questions.

So, here are some philosophical questions:

  • What kind of thing is this?

  • How is it constructed?

  • Does it exist independently of other things?

  • Is it a part, a whole, a system, within a system, etc.?

  • Where did it come from?

  • Is it naturally occurring or is it an artifact of some sort of agent?

  • Is it an object or an agent?

  • Is it sentient?

  • Does it have moral standing, that is, does how I treat it matter morally?

  • Is it really as it appears to be?

  • Is it some sort of a decoy, illusion, trick?

  • Is it something I should study, pay attention to, research, explore?

  • Why is it the way that it is?

  • Could it have been or could it be otherwise, under different circumstances?

  • Is it real, and in what sense?

  • Does it exist objectively, that is, completely independently from anyone perceiving it or conceiving it?

  • Does it exist subjectively, that is, partly or completely dependent on some perceiver or conceiver?

  • Does it exist inter-subjectively, that is, subjectively, yet uniformly insofar as it is perceived by a particular population or species?

  • Can I even know the answers to these questions about it?

  • How can I know the answers to these questions about it?

  • Does it have meaning for me, or for us, and if so, what is that meaning, and how is it to be interpreted?

  • How should I relate to it, or interact with it, if at all?

  • What would other individuals, groups, cultures, traditions, species, and even hypothetical species think about it in terms of all of these questions?

  • What are the other possible ways, if any, of intelligently thinking about it, imagining it, or understanding it, or putting it to good use?

  • What have other philosophers thought about this?

  • How does it fit in with or contradict everything else that I know?

  • Is it possible I have it all backwards about this?

  • What might those who disagree with me think about this?

  • What objections, if any, may I imagine that could be leveled against this way of understanding it?

  • How might I respond to those objections?

  • In light of all the pros and cons of understanding it this way, what is the best possible way of viewing it, all things considered, till now?

  • Is there any way of verifying or falsifying the answers to any of the above questions?

Importantly, philosophers, at least in theory if not in practice, go through or at least should go through some sort of natural, structured or spontaneous process involving a good number of the above questions whenever they encounter anything.

In light of the above observations, a sketchy, rough and loose definition of philosophy may be adopted from the definition of mindfulness meditation that one of my meditation teachers once gave at a retreat. Dhamma Dena, a teacher in the Burmese Theravada tradition, originally named Ruth Denison, defined mindfulness meditation as "extraordinary attention to ordinary experience". By "extraordinary" all she meant is more than ordinary. Everyone pays some attention to ordinary experience. But most of us have large swaths of our experience in which most of what we do is done in a relatively mindless or inattentive matter. For example, sometimes we really cannot recall our experience driving somewhere, once we arrive. Mindfulness meditation practice simply involves, simplifying greatly, a heightened attention to whatever is present in experience, and the disciplined practice of paying attention in that way.

By analogy, philosophy, in light of all that I have said above, may be described similarly, also simplifying greatly, as extraordinary attention to and analytic examination of ordinary experience, as well as all of the concepts, language, beliefs, values, and theories that arise therefrom, directly or indirectly. After all, when we are infants, we do not consciously possess concepts, although we may possess tacit innate categories for them. As experience arises, we notice patterns, which on my analysis constitute elements of sameness and difference in the information we are exposed to, we form concepts about their relationships based on sameness and difference, which, in my view, are at the root of all knowledge, we learn the names for those concepts, we unite them to form beliefs, and we unite the beliefs to form views and theories.

All of this together constitutes the manifold of all of our experience and knowledge, and all of it demands philosophical analysis for anyone who would be philosophically mature and rise to the level of engagement with knowledge in their own life, as opposed to being someone who simply swallows whole without chewing a narrative metaphysics constructed by others, and doesn't even realize that one is living according to someone else's model, thinking the whole time that it is one's own. That is, a model of what is real, what is knowledge, what matters, how to live, what to think, what to value, what to believe, what to want, what to devote one's entire life to, etc.

So, in saying that I think everyone should have a philosophy, I am trying to convey the idea that everyone should, as a matter of course, that is, in all of their dealings and all of their existence, be asking many if not most or all of the above types of questions. In particular, they should be asking those questions about themselves:

  • Why am I here?

  • What kind of being am I?

  • Where did I come from and where am I headed?

  • Is there life after death, are there other dimensions now, or is this all that there is?

  • Is there a God, or some sort of higher being, or some sort of spiritual energy or force or supernatural dimension?

  • What is reality?

  • What are the criteria which need to be satisfied in order for something to be real?

  • Are subjective things really real?

  • How do I know anything?

  • What are my own criteria that need to be satisfied in order for me to believe that something has been established as knowledge for me, and are my standards objectively acceptable, reliable, valid?

  • Am I biased in ways that I should uncover and address?

  • Is it possible that I am entirely wrong about all of my beliefs and values?

  • What are my strengths and weaknesses?

  • What is my modus operandi?

  • How did I acquire my beliefs and values, and should I revisit them?

  • What matters to me?

  • What do I value?

  • How should I live?

  • What operating principles should I adopt in my dealings with others, with myself, with my community and my society, and in terms of prioritizing my time, efforts, projects, life?

  • Are there important skills, methods, bodies of knowledge, value, or wisdom that I am ignoring and that I should look into more carefully?

  • How can I improve my life?

  • What is the meaning of my life?

  • Do I have a purpose?

  • What is my philosophy?

  • What is the best way that I can live my life, and what should I devote my short time here to?

  • What obligations do I have, to myself, my family and friends, my community, my society, to the world at large?

I do not mean to give the impression that philosophers think that all that matters is a particular kind of intellectual activity. To the contrary, Plato and many others emphasized the importance of physical exercise, a general education, strong social bonds, political engagement, attention to beauty, and so on. But we are now talking about having a philosophy, and why I think it is important that everyone should have one. Of course, everyone who can should exercise, eat wisely, develop strong social bonds, engage in civic and political activities, and so on. But everyone needs to figure out for themselves how to navigate all of that, as well as how to navigate existence in the broadest sense in all of its domains. That is one of the main reasons why I think everyone should have a philosophy.

Another reason why I think everyone should have a philosophy has to do with ethics, and yet another reason has to do with pragmatics. These are related. Any decision that you make that has ethical implications will likely also have practical ramifications and consequences in one's own life and the lives of those affected by one's decision. Almost everything that we do, and some argue everything that we do, has ethical implications and therefore counts as an ethical decision. We vote with our wallets whenever we purchase anything, for example, whether we realize it or not, because we are supporting the practices and processes that led up to whatever it is we are purchasing.

Anything that we do implies that we accept the principle which states that that sort of action is appropriate, in which case we are constantly signaling each other with our endorsement of the principles that govern the activities that we engage in. We are a social species, and so we mostly learn by osmosis, watching each other behave. Therefore, everything that we do ripples out into society, impacting how everyone else thinks. Likewise, but more importantly, whenever we are faced with a conflict, it usually has ethical implications, however inchoate, opaque, or entangled within a gray zone they may be to us.

By reflecting on and becoming clear about what sorts of things we value, what sorts of principles we consider valid, what sorts of character traits we approve of and disapprove of, and what sorts of procedures, if any, or ways of sorting out priorities, which we can rely on when faced with an ethical dilemma, we will at least have available to us a host of tools that we can apply when facing an ethical choice, dilemma, conflict, or other important decision. We will therefore have guidelines, principles, methods, and, over time, character traits based on using them and applying them in practical experience, and thus we will more often than not be inclined to identify our highest good in every situation.

We will also be better able to detect whether or not any claim, statement, choice, action, or course of action, as well as any proposal, policy, or arrangement is consistent with our principles and values, simply because we will become intimately familiar with our principles and values as well as our ability to articulate them. This will also empower us to promote our agendas, to defend ourselves against predatory encroachments upon our autonomy, and other suboptimal situations and relationships with others.

Even the idea that everyone should have a philosophy, therefore, is insufficient to express what I think matters more here, and that is having a conscious, well-worked-out philosophy that is informed by philosophical thinking, critical analysis, self reflection, all of the available, relevant information and evidence, and attention to the majority of the questions I mentioned earlier. There is a sense in which, by contrast, even the least philosophical person--there must be one, just by process of elimination, if not many, just like the least skilled dentist, doctor or psychotherapist, since many may be tied for last place--must have a philosophy, however tacit, implicit, subconscious, or completely unreflective that philosophy is. By examining the underlying values, principles and beliefs that guide us and revising them, if necessary, we are more in control of ourselves and our destinies, as opposed to being tossed about by random circumstances, causes and conditions the source of which we remain unaware, uninformed, and thus relatively helpless to modify.

The unreflective person raised to have faith and just trust that the universe or God will take care of her, just to use one example, though she may have never had a single, consciously philosophical thought, lives her life according to a philosophy of faith. Thus, one need not know that one has a philosophy in order to have one. Even the person who says and acts as if they have no philosophy is implicitly endorsing the philosophy of acting unreflectively. I have a humorous anecdote to share which illustrates this idea.

I once had a student at Brooklyn College, let's say, named "Winnie," who professed to hate philosophy, logic, reason, rationality, and even the simplest of arguments. When pressed, by me, her Intro Philosophy instructor, for her reasons for this hatred, she listed a few, such as her belief that emotion and experience were more important and more revealing of what matters and what is real, and that's that reason and logic and argument are useless, as far as she's concerned. I then presented her with an argument to the effect that her statements could be understood to constitute and demonstrate a destructive dilemma, which is a case where the belief in question generates a dilemma or two-branched scenario in which either branch or option leads to an unacceptable conclusion:

  • Either she was implicitly making an argument for the superiority of emotion and experience over the alleged uselessness of reason, logic and argument, or she was not.

  • If she was making such an argument, she was indirectly invalidating her own case by using argument to support her point of view, thereby validating the usefulness of argument and reasoning.

  • If she was not making an argument, then she was not offering any reason to believe her conclusion, but merely stating a personal preference, such as the preference that one might have for broccoli instead of cauliflower.

  • Either way, her position was untenable.

If I recall correctly, her response was some sort of inchoate vocalization expressing unpleasant emotion, ironically. I did try after that to encourage her to think about another way of trying to formulate the claim that emotion and other alternatives to reason might actually be more important, and I acknowledged that it might be possible to do so, and that I would even try to help her to do so, but, given her belief, she was averse to trying to formulate a better version of the argument, perhaps suspecting that she would only be digging herself into a deeper hole.

Humor aside, the point is, there is no aspect of our existence that cannot be better understood or integrated into our lives by way of reflective, contemplative, philosophical examination. Of course, there is a time and a place for everything, and it might not be appropriate to engage in philosophical reflection while in a karate match, mountain climbing, making love or so many other activities that demand full engagement, but one can and certainly ought to engage in philosophical activity about these activities while not engaged in them, on one hand, and on the other hand, full engagement in anything itself can be philosophical activity in the Zen sense of being fully present in the moment, with whatever one is doing, including such otherwise mundane activities as washing dishes or brushing one's teeth.

From a certain Buddhist perspective, being grounded, centered, present, attentive, aware, reflective, and fully engaged in every moment is at the height of philosophical methodology. From the Buddhist perspective, most human beings are somewhat analogous to somnambulists, mindlessly sleepwalking through life with minimal awareness of any if not all of the above things about which it is useful and skillful to be mindful and reflective.

Without a conscious philosophy of the sort that I am describing, just having an implicit philosophy is no guarantee, remedy, or antidote against being that sort of somnambulist with one's possibly one-and-only-one lifetime, semi-consciously at best feeling one's way around in the dark, without a map, a goal, a vehicle, fuel, or, by analogy, gas pedal, brakes, steering wheel and gears attached to an engine. Our beliefs constitute our map of reality. Our values tell us where on the map we should be directing ourselves. Our motives are our fuel, and they ought ideally to be informed by correct beliefs and appropriate values. As should all of our choices, at the steering wheel with the gas pedal and the brakes, small and large, daily and long-term.

If our philosophical map is faulty, or is not updated and not in sync with the world, with reality, that is like having an old map or GPS program, in which case we are almost guaranteed to get lost. That's like having a compass that's broken. Another analogy I like to make is with a weathervane. A functioning weathervane is moved by the wind in such a way that it indicates the direction that the wind is blowing. It may be said to be wind-sensitive, and wind-indicating. Or wind-responsive. If you put a glass dome over a weathervane, it cannot be wind-responsive, although it might appear to be pointing in a certain direction, which is wherever the wind was last when it was working. Similarly, it can malfunction by freezing, or having some debris in its ball bearings or whatever other device normally enables it to move. Like a broken clock that is right at least twice a day, it will occasionally be correct, but only by accident.

Similarly, a belief is at least in some regards primarily a thought that indicates the way the world appears to the person who holds the belief. It points toward a reality represented by itself in the mind. It is a thought which one thinks is true, which one thinks reflects the way the world is. And in the ideal case, it is world-sensitive, world-indicating, or reality-responsive. What is analogous to the wind is evidence and logical reasoning about it. A functioning belief-generating mind is sensitive to the evidence, able to interpret and analyze it, and form beliefs that adequately and accurately represent the reality which contains the evidence or information.

In the same way that the frozen, broken, or enclosed weathervane is no longer indicating the direction of the wind, so, too, a mind that is not completely able to identify, take in, and process relevant information about the world is frozen, broken, enclosed, closed off from reality, or malfunctioning. Ironically, if not also sadly, many people in our era tend to think that it is a sign of mental strength when someone says something like: "I am firmly convinced of this, and nothing anyone says, nor any evidence that anyone can produce that goes against it, will convince me otherwise!" The reality in this case is that, unbeknownst to this person, they are actually bragging about being mentally broken, mentally malfunctioning, not in sync with reality, and incapable of being repaired.

Contrary to the popular view that this is mental strength, it is possibly the worst form of intellectual weakness or philosophical illness. It is not merely dogmatic, but a kind of crystallized, permanent form of disconnect from reality, and anyone who admits this, despite doing so in a bragging way, thus implicitly is giving anyone else who might discuss any issues with them good reason not to waste their time. For trying to reason with such a person is like trying to reason with a rock.

For reasons far too complicated to go into here, it is unfortunate that some otherwise brilliant human beings seem to suffer from this kind of intellectual affliction in some but not other areas of their lives, such as, for example, when it comes to our extremely polarized political partisanship. That is all I will say about that, except that a bit of advice might be to simply be mindful of whether or not your conversations with people about politics tend to degenerate into what might appear to be a clash of broken weathervanes.

Without not only asking most of the above questions, but also spending serious time figuring out one's own answers to those questions and comparing them with the sorts of answers and the reasons for the sorts of answers offered by some of the world's greatest philosophers, ancient and modern and from all corners of the earth, including those philosophers that are presently known as scientists, one is walking around, in effect, like a pauper in a universe of philosophical riches.

If that is the worst of it, that is not so bad. What is worse is that, absent the sort of tool kit and skills based on those philosophical questions and considerations mentioned above, one is likely to fall prey to others who are more strategic at manipulating the unreflective into adopting beliefs, values, goals, and courses of action that do not really benefit one, but which are likely harmful to one and beneficial to others. For this reason alone, it pays to have a well-worked-out philosophy.

In his Meditations on First Philosophy, Rene Descartes stated in his first meditation, first of six, entitled "On what may be called into doubt", that he realized as a young adult that it was time for him to engage in a deep, sustained philosophical reflection on all of his beliefs, and that he should try, as much as possible, to eliminate those that were doubtful. While he seems to have had too strict or strong of a criterion for knowledge, namely, something cannot be known if it can be doubted, as well as some other questionable views, his method of doubt is a useful beginning for anyone who would try to dig down into themselves and excavate what are their own implicit philosophical beliefs and values and re-examine them with a watered-down version of his insight in mind.

A simplification of his method of doubt rests on the idea that the concept of doubt and knowledge are contradictory: knowledge should be certain, but doubt always involves some uncertainty about the thing which is in doubt. Something cannot be both certain and uncertain at the same time. Therefore, if something can be doubted, it is not knowledge. With this in mind, he reviewed and examined whole categories of his beliefs, such as those based on sense perception, or based on reason alone, to see if he could raise legitimate doubts about them, and, if so, then they were no longer qualified as knowledge. I would temper or modify and simplify his method as follows: rather than simply ask whether or not one can imagine a reason to doubt the issue in question, since we can just about doubt anything, is there any evidence which suggests that I should doubt this belief?

That is but one approach, owing to one philosopher, and my modification of his method. The history of philosophy is a rich history of a very large variety of alternative methods of uncovering philosophical insights and understanding, together with the actual findings from those philosophers who employed those different techniques and approaches. The better part of that history is a dialogue between one philosopher and the philosophers that preceded him or her, in which the new philosopher challenges the claims of the preceding philosophers.

Do you not already have a well-worked-out philosophy of your own? Why not expose oneself to what all the greatest philosophical minds in the history of the world have debated already? By mining the philosophical literature, it seems inevitable that a person who aspires to have a philosophically functioning weathervane, so to speak, will be at a great advantage over anyone who does not have that set of multiple perspectives and its associated comprehensive view.

I hope this helps!

Prof. Repetti

_________ * I borrow this backpack-items-for-life analogy from Mark Gleason and Jim Luisi, who have used it a number of times on Gleason’s “Level To Power” podcasts, where Luisi is a frequent guest and friend of the program, Luisi’s analysis of a spectrum of simple to complex perspectival levels, in his book on artificial intelligence, Sensitive by Nature: Understanding Intelligence and the Mind (1stBooks, 2002), inspired Gleason’s work on the podcast.

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