The examined life: why philosophy needs to engage with the world, but hasn’t

Raphael’s School of Athens - Philosophers engaging in the world. Raphael/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

“What do you do for a crust?” is usually one of the more predictable questions you’ll be asked at a social gathering. It’s classic small talk – we define ourselves, and others, by what we sell our labour for. It’s an innocuous question that is usually answered in a few words, by naming the company one works for, or the profession. When you’re a philosopher, it’s usually a slightly harder question.

For one thing, describing yourself as a philosopher still retains an air of pretension. It’s fine to say you study philosophy, or teach it, but to say that you are a philosopher is, in the eyes of many, to claim access to some esoteric truth, or to be enlightened above one’s fellows.

Of course, this is hogwash, philosophers are no more washed than the masses (of which they are part), so it’s worth asking why this mistaken belief has pervaded for so long. I think there are probably a few reasons for this belief, and thinking about them not only allows us to debunk them, but allows us to understand why an enterprise like Cogito is so important.

The first reason I believe the belief that being a philosopher means being a little bit pretentious pervades is because philosophers have established themselves as people who judge the activities of others, and who celebrate the intellectual life. Aristotle, whose work on morality and the flourishing life is still widely referenced today, argued that the life lived in contemplation – that is, the philosophical life – was the most virtuous life of all. Few philosophers today would agree with his conclusion, but there is still a cultural aura around philosophy that associates it (rightly) with the life of the mind, and with the belief that the life of the mind is superior to other modes of living.

Do philosophers belief the life of the mind to be superior to other modes of living? Yes and no. Socrates remarked that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” by which he meant that a life that simply accepted prevailing cultural narratives about, for instance, who one should marry, which forms of belief were acceptable, how to educate the young, the right way to structure the political life, or the role of art in the civil community (all matters that Socratic dialogues explore at different points), would be deficient. It is partly our ability to reflect upon the world and our interior experience that allows us to act with agency over our own lives, and therefore to make decisions that are genuinely our own.

In this sense, philosophers do afford some special privilege to the life of the mind. But the examined life does not require a person to be widely-read on the philosophical classics; nor does it demand that a person dedicate his or her life to intellectual reflection. Rather, it simply means looking more closely at the everyday experiences that define our lives to ensure that these phenomenon deserve the central role they play in our lived experiences. This makes philosophy – one of the best tools we’ve developed for conducting this examination – a crucial element in a life that is “worth living.”

The examined life does not need to be the life of the sage, removed from society in order to evaluate it impartially. In fact, in order for it to serve in guiding the lived experience of individuals, it is actually a deeply practical enterprise. Another Greek philosopher, Epicurus, believed that a philosophy that did not assist a person in living a flourishing life was akin to medicine that did not heal the body: it was pointless. This is a little extreme: in some fields such as metaphysics the practical implications may not be immediately evident and it would be foolish to expect them to be, but even in these cases, the knowledge obtained by such reflections can be, and should be, shared because knowledge itself can be a constitutive element of the good life.

This brings me to the second reason why those who self-describe as philosophers might be received with raised eyebrows: in becoming a profession, academic philosophy has grown increasingly removed from lived experience, especially the experiences of those without formal training in the discipline. This is not entirely the fault of philosophers: university funding, performance evaluations and esteem are tied to increasingly expensive and inaccessible academic journals, and the sheer volume of publications now mean that research takes longer than it ever has. Still, the result has been that philosophers have no time to explain their study of 16th century transcendental idealism to anyone other than the minute group of experts who populate that specific field of study. For the lay observer, the discipline can often appear so far removed from reality that it could never bear reasonably upon it.

If the bulk of philosophers once challenged this assumption, it seems to me that many have stopped. Although the university system may have initiated the ivory tower’s construction, academics have certainly begun to buttress it. As thinking in some areas has grown increasingly concerned with very specific, nuanced, and technical debates, the process of translating them to philosophers outside the specific subfield can be laborious – letalone to an untrained mind. From nagging curious minds in the Agora, philosophy – in some circles – has withdrawn from society altogether.

Pat Stokes has already eloquently explained why philosophy mustn’t be the privileged task of philosophers, but shared with everyone; fortunately, there is discussion from groups within academic philosophy to open philosophy up to those with interest, but who aren’t professionally engaged in the field, and this blog is an excellent step in this direction. I’m thrilled and humbled to be a part of it.

Perhaps in time, and with thanks to initiatives like this one, I’ll feel slightly less wanky describing myself as a philosopher at parties. In the meantime, I’ll probably continue to use the term “ethicist” in those contexts. This is because most of my work is in ethics: the field of philosophy concerned with evaluating human activity. More recently, though, I’ve begun to feel that the title “ethicist” is insufficient to capture my area of inquiry. This is because ethics is commonly asserted as being connected to formal “Codes of Ethics”, institutional values, and law.

This represents quite a new and largely unconsidered development in philosophical thinking: the field of “ethics” has colloquially come to refer to applied ethics – a subfield that explores the justice of particular social practices: abortion, war, organ donation, physician-assisted suicide. The task of the ethicist, under this modern way of thinking, is to determine whether a certain activity is “ethical” and therefore acceptable, or “unethical”, and therefore ought to be prohibited.

These are really important questions, and ones that I do engage in regularly: in particular in my own particular field of expertise, war and the military life. However, there is so much more to philosophical explorations of human behaviour than determining whether or not a particular act is ethical or not. For instance, we want to understand how these ideas connect to our attitudes toward human flourishing, happiness, and the common good - questions that I also tend to address in my work. For this reason, I’ve recently starting describing myself as a “moral philosopher and ethicist,” using moral philosophy to refer to these broader notions.

At the moment, my working distinction isn’t watertight. I don’t yet have a clear distinction between these two terms, except that moral philosophy tends to be much broader in its discussions, and tries to understand the various dimensions of our attitudes, beliefs, and thoughts about action rather than exploring the specific ethical elements of any particular action. What I hope to do though, through my postings on this blog, is to figure out this distinction more clearly.

I’ll do this by choosing particular topics within ethics, culture, and public affairs and explore their ethical dimensions (i.e. whether the particular topic represented “ethical” or “unethical” behaviour), and then look at some of the broader, moral philosophical concerns that surround the issue. For example, a discussion might begin by exploring whether pirating Game of Thrones is unethical or not (it is), before moving to a discussion of the ways that we think about responsibility, our attitudes toward art, and the influence of market consumerism in shaping our opinions.

In this way, I hope to help people to look a little bit closer at the practices and behaviours that define our lives. Sometimes this might reveal to us, in a little more detail, something we already knew; at other times we might discover, like the Emperor with his new clothes, that there’s little substance behind our beliefs. Either way, by examining these concepts together, we’ll be doing something for the benefit of us all.