Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Why Practical Philosophy? (number 1 in a series on Practical Philosophy)

It's little exaggeration to say that I first studied philosophy by accident. As an A Level student my favourite subjects were economics and history.
Out of the blue, my history teacher (God bless him) asked  me  "Why dont you try for PPE at Oxford? That's Philosophy, Politics  and Economics. Don't worry about the philosophy, you can always drop it after a year."
Little did he know that he was igniting  a life-long passion for philosophy. As soon as I started doing philosophy, I was hooked.   It just hadn't occured to me before that there was a subject where people thought about  such things as the meaning of life, the good life, whether we have free will and what makes an action right or wrong..
One of the attractions, despite philosophy's reputation, was that these questions were so very practical.  Take the "good life" question, for instance.
It's quite possible to go though life without the thought "What is the good life?" going through one's head. But once the question has been asked, it demands an answer.
If there is some way to make my life go best, then  surely one ought to devote a little time and  energy to attempting to  find the answer.
So my short response to the question  "Why Practical Philosophy" would mention  both the enjoyment in exploring its questions, and the benefit of discovering some answers.
A longer reply would involve me defining practical philosophy, saying more  about how one does practical philosophy and naming some of the most useful philosophers and their ideas.
But those are topics for another occasion. For now, I'll just mention one possible drawback in not doing practical philosophy. My favourite illustration of this is Tolstoy's short story, The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Ivan, a conventionally successful family man, contracts a terminal illness in his early forties. Only when he is looking death in the eye does he realise that he hasn't really been living at all. He's been living artificially, for the so-called benefits society brings - honours, wealth and a modicum of pleasure. He married  not for love but because it was the thing one was meant to do, he'd never really got to know  his children, and  he had completely lost touch with the fun person  he himelf had been when a child. He'd failed to  realise that this was his life, and if he didnt actively make an effort to decide how to live it, it would just pass him by. For poor Ivan, of course, it was too late to do much but gain some death-bed enlightenment - but for others it can be a timely wake-up call to action. It can be of some help to start thinking about these questions
        When and where were you happiest? 
        What legacy would you like to leave?
        What would you do if you had only 6 months to live?
        What, in your rocking chair aged 80, would you be pleased about having done or experienced in your life?
        Are you living for  external "glories" that left Ivan feeling so empty, or for less material but more meaningful values?
Of course, you may already be leading  your life in accordance with your answers to these questions. If not, a little bit of practical philosophy might just pay off...


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