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                              The Uses of Philosophy – A C Grayling

                                                         From The Heart of Things [2005]


Modern times are a puzzle. Most people in Western countries are richer and healthier than they have ever been. Their lives are made easy by gadgets which cook their food, wash their clothes and warm their houses in winter. Their lives are made pleasant by other gadgets which entertain them, keep them in touch with their families, and transport them with swift convenience from home to work and back.

Yet according to many observers, people are less happy and fulfilled than their forebears. They feel discontented. There is a vacuum at the centre of their lives. A persistent frustration nags them, and they cannot identify its source. All they know is that the more gadgets and money they have, the more they feel the need for something to supply their lives with meaning or at least solace.

Some turn to the traditional resources of drugs (mainly in the form of alcohol or Prozac) or religion, both of which erect a safety barrier against discontent, although by different means -the first by obliterating consciousness of the vacuum, the latter by supplying a ready-made filling. Others hope to find the solution in love and family life, but find matters made worse by the failure of their expectations. Some turn to one of the many kinds of psychotherapy on offer, from Freudian psychoanalysis to behavioural therapy; or they seek relief in astrology, feng-shui, crystals, aromatherapy and tarot readings.

All these efforts have something in common. They are based on the belief that the problem of life’s meaning can be solved by one or another nostrum from a new-age shop or a doctor’s surgery, a counselor or a pub, a church or a seance. By handing over either their money or their credulity at one of these places, they hope, they will be relieved of the emptiness within.

But another thing these efforts have in common is how often they fail. They might seem to work for a time, but like most mere coverings they become worn or frayed, and the shape of the original problem starts to show through. And it frequently happens that the original problem is harder to bear after an intermission of hope, because disappointment at the failure of the nostrum, and despair of finding a better alternative, add themselves to it.

Yet the best resource for dealing with the problem of the inexplicable void at the heart of rich, healthy, safe, well-fed, well-entertained modern Western life lies very close to hand, either unnoticed or, when noticed, neglected. In fact, modern Westerners are like thirsty people drinking from a muddy puddle on the banks of a great river of clear water, as if they simply had not noticed the river’s existence, or did not know they could drink from it. The river in question is philosophy.

For two and a half thousand years Western civilization has produced a succession of great thinkers who dedicated themselves to enquiring into what matters most in human existence. They sought, and offered, answers to such questions as: What is truly valuable? How should one live? What is the nature of the good? How should we understand love, death, grief, hope, freedom, truth, justice, beauty - and how should we live according to that understanding? What must we do to live courageously and successfully? How should we treat others? What are our duties as an individual, a citizen, a member of the human community? What are the rights we humans have? How might we best respect the world we live in? These questions overlap; the answers to them jointly define the life truly worth living.

Astonishingly, although most people at one time or another ask themselves some of these questions, they almost never turn to the immensely rich tradition of philosophical debate to see what our culture’s greatest minds have said about them. There are many reasons for this, but chief among them are laziness and timidity. To seek out the writings of the philosophers, and to read them with attention, seems alarming because either it will be ‘too difficult’, or will involve too much hard work - the latter even more so when enquirers learn, as they early do, that central to the philosophical enterprise is the responsibility to think for oneself. All the great philosophers from Aristotle to Immanuel Kant have insisted on the fundamental importance of independent thought, because there is a world of difference between reaching a conclusion on your own, after considering the best that has been said on the matter, and simply accepting the say-so of someone else. The former sticks; it is your own; you worked for it. The latter (unless brainwashed into one early in life) is weakly attached, and soon falls away; it is second-hand. This is the difference between values and goals chosen by yourself on the basis of careful thought, and the nostrums sold in church or purchased at the new-age shop.

The key point here concerns the difference between autonomy, which in this connection means ‘independence and self-motivation’, and heteronymy, which means ‘yielding responsibility to someone or something outside oneself. Alcohol, Prozac, religion, feng-shui and the rest are all external solutions, easily taken off-the-shelf. People have become used to the idea that every problem can be dealt with in this way. Such solutions take the form of a ‘technological fix’: some practice or method will do the work for us. Thus we assume that science will solve environmental problems, that proper education will overcome social problems - and, in the case of personal difficulties, that a pill or a belief, a therapy or prayer, will do the trick. In all these cases we do not have to make any effort of our own. It is like dieting: we look for a fat-busting pill, or liposuction or stomach-stapling, something externally imposed, demanding from us no will power, no determination, no effort or labour. But unless we do the work needed for arriving at our choices, conclusions and aims, making them fully our own, and unless we use the best available materials for thinking about them, we will never truly attain any solutions worth having.

From its earliest flowering in Greek classical antiquity, philosophy has operated on the principle that the pursuit of truth and understanding must be free, open-minded, and autonomous. It therefore differs, in its very basis, from the usual way people come by their outlook, which is by submitting their intellects to the authority of pre-packaged, conventionally accepted beliefs. Philosophy examines the validity of every belief to see which is good and which is spurious. Only this way, say the philosophers, can humanity hope to attain enlightenment. And ‘enlightenment’, as the great eighteenth-century thinker Immanuel Kant wrote, ‘is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of under­standing, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another. Sapeie audel (Dare to know) - “Have courage to use your own understanding!” - that is the motto of enlightenment.’

In the rich and fascinating tradition of philosophy there are various schools of thought, and individual philosophers have often put forward views which conflict with those of other philosophers. The point is not that there are final answers in philosophy which one can accept, like buying a ready-made coat; to think this way is simply to repeat the mistake of hand-me-down nostrums. What the philosophers agree about is that we have to think things through for ourselves, taking the dif­ferent sides of every problem into account; and they offer wide-ranging, in-depth perspectives on how to do so.

When people raise their heads from the muddy puddles of conventional ‘solutions’ to the problems of life, and see the river flowing nearby, they might of course still not drink from it, prevented by the factors already mentioned, namely timidity or laziness. Is the river too deep? Isn’t swimming hard work? But if they accept the invitation of philosophy, they are usually delighted and surprised as a result. There are few worthwhile things that do not require us to make an effort to appreciate them, but the rewards always repay the effort. This is especially true of philosophy.

Here, by way of example, is what one of the most accessible of popular philosophers, Marcus Aurelius, has to say on the subject of something we all need at the core of our lives: tranquility. ‘Men seek retreats for themselves: houses in the country, at the seashore, in the mountains. Such is the desire of the most common sort of men. But it is in our power, whenever we choose, to retreat into ourselves. For nowhere either with more quiet or freedom do we retreat than into our own minds, particularly when we have within us such thoughts that by looking into them we are immediately perfectly tranquil.

                                                          From The Heart of Things [2005]


A C Grayling is a Philosophy professor at the University of London and Oxford -  and a first rate contemporary philosopher, writer and thinker. He has a personal web site at http://www.acgrayling.com


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