Philosophy’s Reflective Equilibrium

philosophy32frontIs the study of philosophy about truth seeking or therapy for the soul? This is the gist of a discussion between Nigel Warburton and Jules Evans on Aeon.

My thoughts are that philosophy is really about both. I was originally drawn to reading philosophers like Søren Kierkegaard because his writings were both about truth seeking and therapy for the soul. Not that what I read in Kierkegaard’s books always calmed my soul! To the contrary. In this case, the potential therapeutic cure was often on the other side of a journey through Fear and Trembling or Either/Or or The Concept of Dread or The Sickness unto Death. Yes, very inspiring titles I know. But philosophers like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche used a sort of philosophical shock treatment on the patient.

And then there are the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers. Many of the ancient writers were moralists and philosophical self-improvement specialists. Like Plato, they were in an active dialogue with the reader about the nature of man, his society and how to live the good life. For this reason, these ancient writers were my favorite over all philosophers. The writings of philosophers like Cicero, Plutarch and the Seneca, at least in translation, were easy to understand and aesthetically pleasing. Their insights still strike at the core of the human predicament. The basic human struggles have not changed over the centuries. Man is still the same pitiful clay.

I’ve always felt that reading Plutarch or Seneca or Marcus Aurelius improved me and helped me get a better perspective on life and its struggles. I still return to them periodically, especially the stoic musings of Marcus Aurelius, probably the closest thing we have in history to the Platonic ideal of the Philosopher King:

How to act: Never under compulsion, out of selfishness, without forethought, with misgivings . . . Let the spirit in you represent a man, an adult, a citizen, a Roman, a ruler. Taking up his post like a solider and patiently waiting his recall from life. Needing no oath or witness. Cheerfulness. Without requiring other people’s help. Or serenity supplied by others. To stand up straight–no straightened.   

In fact, the argument that Jules Evans makes is that stoics like Marcus Aurelius, Seneca and Epictetus developed successful psychological techniques for coping with emotional suffering. Some of these philosophical techniques have turned out to have scientific validity. Jules Evans actually wrote a book about what you can learn and internalize from these ancient teachings.

I remember giving my mom a copy of the Art of Living. She carried this gem of a book around with her for years and referred to the teachings of Epictetus regularly in conversation.

True happiness is a verb. It’s the ongoing dynamic performance of worthy deeds. The flourishing life, whose foundation is virtuous intention, is something we continually improvise, and in doing so our souls mature. Our life has usefulness to ourselves and to the people we touch.

There’s little doubt stoicism helped my mother cope with some of the deeply saddening things in her life at that time. I’m positive millions of readers over the centuries have found solace in the writings of these ancient philosophical psychologists.

On the other side of the Aeon discussion is Nigel Warburton, who sees philosophy as mostly just an exercise in critical thinking. This is demonstrably true in some sense. Philosophy is mental activity in clarification and elucidation. As Ludwig Wittgenstein might have said with an air of humor, “My aim is: to teach you to pass from a piece of disguised nonsense to something that is patent nonsense,” it’s to find out “where the shoe pinches.” But even Wittgenstein the great logician, in his letters and unpublished writings, was always offering philosophical advice about life and how to live it.

Philosophy began with Socrates and his attempts to educate the youth of Athens. But he wasn’t just attempting to educate them in how to think, he was also trying to teach them how to live. While Socrates used math and geometry–the linear and analytical side of philosophy–in many of his arguments, the larger point was always about improving the soul of the individual. In the Socratic view the city is like the man, the improving of the individual is also about improving the polis, the state, the collective body. Philosophy’s roots have always been about improving the individual through improving his soul. And so philosophy will always be about both the science of understanding and the art of living.

One of the best parts of the discussion between Warburton and Evans is an exchange over how Evans “sees philosophy.”:

I approach philosophy as a sort of pragmatism – I have a set of values and an idea of how the world is, and I try it out and see if I can live by it, if it fits reality, if it leads to an expanded sense of flourishing. And reality (including other people) feeds back to me, lets me know if I’m living wisely or foolishly. That two-way process is always changing, you’re always adapting and revisiting assumptions.

That nicely sums up how I’d like to think I approach philosophy: pragmatically. Philosophy is about putting ideas to the test and learning and adapting from the results. The ultimate goal is about flourishing. If we have the right mindset, and are open to learning, we can find that “reflective equilibrium between ideas and lived experience.”

2 thoughts on “Philosophy’s Reflective Equilibrium

  1. Terrific thoughts as always. I do wonder however how one applies these principles in a society that struggles with the work ethic necessary to apply them. In too many ways we’ve become a disposable society with an overwhelming sense of entitlement, lacking gratitude or empathy. In a world that perceives better living through chemistry we become quick to self medicate, drink until we are emptier than the bottle kind of thing then wake from our drunken stupor and blame others for all that ails us. Why do the work of studying ancient philosophers when we can simply grab the cliff notes from 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Those who founded any great society had a tremendous amount of work to do. The struggle begins generations later when dad tosses you the keys to the castle and says have fun with that. To find our way forward we are going to have to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and do the work as those who came before us have done. Sadly, I wonder how many today could comprehend the beautiful thoughts you’ve laid out before them?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Eric – Thank you for commenting. It is so true that Great Books, especially great books in philosophy, are rarely read by the vast majority of Americans. The truth is a good portion of those books are not easy to read. You have to exert real mental effort to get through some of them, and what you get from that effort may not be apparent at first. And it’s true that most people aren’t up to the task. I can understand that actually. I liked philosophy (and history) because I felt a hunger to understand things in a deeper, more meaningful way. But that’s a personal disposition and need. A lot of people just don’t feel that need. And that’s fine up to a point I guess.

      However, there is a price to pay, societally, for not challenging and stretching the minds of our young people beyond the narrow confines of their parochial, egocentric, worlds. The job of culture: education, family, religion, etc, etc, is to teach us how to feel. Because it’s in emotional development, in feeling and sentiment, that gratitude and empathy are developed. So these cultural “institutions,” especially education and family, become critical to long term health and cohesion of our society. When we’re not challenging minds, not treating people as if life is a challenge, and that each of us can expect LIFE to continually ask each of us: What will you do with your life? What purpose do you live for? What will your life have meant to others, to the one’s you love or will love? What contributions will you make? then we can expect this sense of entitlement and lack of empathy to be the norm.


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