Monday, January 29, 2007

What is Practical Philosophy? (number 2 in series on Practical Philosophy)

If Socrates had read my last article (Why Practical Philosophy?) then I hope he would have nodded sagely at my advocacy of the examined life (even if he would have thought he could have put it so much better himself).
But, being Socrates, I'm sure he wouldn't have left it at that. He believed that you shouldn't really be discussing anything - be it the nature of love, success or practical philosophy - unless you know what it is. The beginning of wisdom may lie in the definition of terms. It makes sense, if you think about it.
So what do I mean by practical philosophy?
Here's my definition:-
Practical Philosophy is a discipline that uses philosophical methods and insights to explore how people can lead wiser, more reflective lives.
It is also the name for the activity that helps people lead such lives.
Its topics include the nature and pursuit of wisdom relating to:- the good life, reason and the emotions, decision-making and the meaning of life. The activities of practical philosophy include philosophical counselling (usually with individuals), the community of enquiry (mainly used in Philosophy with Children) , Socratic Dialogue (used in management) and workshops and courses on practical philosophy.
Practical Philosophy covers much the same ground as religion and self-help books, but its methods are reason and rational argument rather than faith or dogmatic assertion. I'm currently giving a course on Practical Philosophy and the titles of each week's seminars gives a better flavour of the sort of thing it covers.

1 Socrates: Philosophy and the Good Life

2 Well-Being – Bentham versus Mill versus Aristotle

3 Human Excellence – Aristotle versus the Stoics

4 Wisdom – the most important virtue?

5. Existential Wisdom – Being true to yourself and the human condition

6 Love and personal relationships

7 Ethics – Doing the right thing – Kant versus Mill

8 The Meaning of Life - is it really 42?

9 How to develop even more enlightened values

10 Philosophical Counselling and Conclusions
An aspect of this course that Socrates would have approved of is that at the start of the course, each student is asked what they think the good life is. Then they are asked to 'play Socrates' and refute it. Each week, more philosophers are brought into the discussion, and further refutations and refinements are encouraged.
It being practical philosophy, students are also encouraged to take steps towards realising their vision of the good life, which again provides feedback into whether it really is the good life.

I hope that gives some inkling into what I mean by "practical philosophy". In my next article , I'll talk some more about how to do it

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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...

Saturday, January 06, 2007

New Year's Resolutions? You must be nuts ..

It was the first day back in the office after the Xmas break and two young men were earnestly discussing their New Year's Resolutions.

"I'm going to give up drinking", proclaimed the first confidently. "I was completely wrecked after New Year. I think my body may be trying to tell me something..."

"I'm going to go jogging every day" chimed in the second. "I went for a short run last night and felt so much better for it. From now on I'll do that every evening."

This solemn exchange of pledges was interrupted by a booming Irish voice.

"I'll give both your resolutions about a week at most". His voice trailed off into a gentle laugh. This elder statesman spoke not with malice but from the wisdom of bitter (and lager) experience.

Of course he was right. And friends, I know, because (many years ago) I was that (would-be) jogger. The three of us went out drinking that very night, putting paid to 2 resolutions in one fell swoop.

I don't imagine my experience is all that unusual. In general, New Year's Resolutions don't last very long. Although I'm a great believer in personal growth, I'm a sceptic when it comes to the value of making New Year's resolutions.

I don't want to cause offence, but I'd go further and say that New Year's Resolutions are not at all smart but are, quite literally, NUTS.

Let me explain ...

Why I think New Year's Resolutions are nuts …

More often that not, New Year's Resolutions are about what you are going to stop doing. "I will stop drinking/smoking/over-eating/gambling ... (- fill in your own personal bad habit)" Why is saying what you are going to stop doing something a problem? Do you remember that old yarn about the little boy who was told he would get a present so long as he didn't think of a pink elephant in the next minute? Its a bit like that. Having a resolution not to do something makes you more, not less, likely to think of it. And if this something tempting - like eating a biscuit , or going for a drink - then having it brought to mind is not such a good idea. It's much better to frame a resolution in terms of something positive (what you want to do instead or what benefits it will bring). For example, don't resolve to stop eating cream cakes – resolve to be able to fit into those trousers again.

In this one respect my resolution to go jogging was better than my friends resolution to stop drinking. The trouble with my resolution though -and most other New Year's resolutions - was that it was totally UNREALISTIC. How likely is it that someone who has not jogged 364 days out of the last 365 is suddenly going to jog every night? Just as old habits die hard, new one's take a lot of effort to cultivate. Moreover there is sound psychological evidence to back up the claim that making a one-off resolution, however sincere, is on its own unlikely to succeed. The gold standard here is
Prochaska, Norcross & DiClemente's "stages of change " model In their book, Changing for Good, which applies to addicts trying to overcome drinking or smoking addictions as much New Year's resolution, they says that typically you have to pass through 6 stages to make a successful change. If you are interested in their model, then I strongly recommend buying their book or visiting this web page where I describe the stages of change, how to recognise them, and how to move on to the next stage. The point that's relevant here is that a New Year's resolution squashes the whole change process into one resolution - omitting stage 2, contemplation, when you weigh up all the pros and cons, stage 3, preparation , when you where you break up the change into small, manageable steps and make an action plan and stage 5, maintenance, when, for example, you avoid places and people that can compromise the change. Trying to short-cut the change process into one annual resolution is an unrealistic as thinking you can win an Olympic medal by doing one day's training.

T stands for TIMELESS. Most effective goals are timebound. It's much better to resolve not to eat a cream cake today, than to not eat one all year. It makes the resolution more urgent and at the same time more achievable. It's not for nothing that Alcoholics Anonymous famously recommends that you proceed one day at a time. Another problem with timeless resolutions is the consequence of a relapse. Relapse is common in any change, but if your resolution is to quit forever, or to go jogging everyday then if you miss a day , it's easy to see that as failure and give in for another year . "Bang goes that New years resolution."

My final reason for arguing that New Year's Resolutions are NUTS is because they are too SAINTLY. When we make New Year's Resolutions we are often speaking on behalf of some imaginary, more saintly version of ourselves. Thats why resolutions are often so extreme. For example, I didn't really need to go jogging every day - once a week would have been a good start. My friend (who was by no means an alcoholic) did not need to give up drinking altogether – a regime of 2 nights going out with friends a week would have been fine. Misguided saintliness doesn't just make resolutions unrealistic, it can also increase resistance to them. We subconsciously realise that resolutions are too extreme, so we take pleasure in breaking them. Go on – admit it – last time you broke a (too saintly) resolution, I bet you took some pride in breaking it.

So should I just resolve not to make any New Year's Resolutions?

The last thing I want to be is a personal development grinch. I certainly don't want to discourage you from making improvements to your life But my hunch is that on the whole New Years Resolutions contribute to the cynicism one finds in our culture

about personal development, and we would be better off without them.

So what's my advice? If you want to make a big change, then read about the stages of change model and begin to put it into practice. But there are often better ways to effective personal development than revolutionary changes. In my next article, I will share with you my own method of personal growth which I apply every New Year. It seems to work.