Text of talk given at panel discussion on “Philosophy: The Greatest Journey of All”, organised on the occasion of World Philosophy Day by New Acropolis Cultural Organisation, Bangalore, 20th November 2015.
People tend to assume philosophy is something that is meant only for intellectuals. So if we go by the comedian Bill Cosby’s definition that “an intellectual is somebody who reads up a lot on what comes naturally to other people”, we wind up viewing the philosopher as someone who has an esoteric interest in things that regular people need not bother with. It is like not needing to know physics in order to live in a world that obeys the laws of physics. This assumption is understandable; sometimes even professional philosophers subscribe to it. But it is a misunderstanding of philosophy, for I would argue that philosophy is something that every person must engage with, and this has become even more important in today’s age (towards the end of my presentation I will come to why it has become more important today).
To redefine our relationship with philosophy, we need to revise our conventional definitions of both philosophy as well as its methods. To explain my argument, I will use an example of an experience almost everyone has been through: learning how to drive. The first few times you drove you were hyper-alert. Every other vehicle on the road, every person walking on the side, all impinged upon your consciousness. But as you got more experience, gradually you became more comfortable handling all this information. Now, think about driving once you have become a very experienced driver, along an extremely familiar route you traverse regularly – like the commute between your home and office. It is something so familiar that the information processing can move into the background of your consciousness (assuming nothing untoward like an accident or a traffic jam impede on your consciousness). You find that often, your journey is spent thinking about something else (perhaps your friends, your family, your work, a movie you just saw, or any other issue unconnected with driving), and you reach your destination with no real memory of the process of driving there. Think! Have you missed out on something in this process? Perhaps, on your journey, there was something or someone truly beautiful that you did not notice. This illustration of driving may seem a trivial example but it illustrates something significant about life: habit is an anaesthetic. When we get caught up by habit we stop observing life around us. And we start missing out on what life can offer to us. We become limited. To get of out this predicament it is necessary to engage with philosophy, and to do so we must demolish three myths about it.
Myth No. 1: Philosophy is an academic activity meant only for professional philosophers:
If we remain alert, and keep asking questions like “Where am I?”, “Where am I going?”, “Why am I going there?”, or even “Who am I?”, then you get out of the anaesthesia of habit. And you are practicing philosophy. Philosophy is nothing but the questioning of what you are doing, so you do not limit your life by getting lost in the routines of habit.
Myth No. 2: The only method of philosophy is intellectualism:
If that were the case, you would feel compelled toward an academic approach: study all the philosophers from ancient times till today, and be aware of all the major philosophical questions that have been asked through history. In which case, philosophy will appear an effort that is daunting, irrelevant, and not worthwhile. But philosophy is more about questioning your life than explaining your life. And to do that you have to step outside yourself, so you can look back at yourself to examine your life.
The primary method for doing this is conversation. Think of how you have built up close relationships of friendship through conversation. You listen carefully to your friend, and when you speak you know that your friend is also listening; so this gives the experience an aura of authenticity and connection. Through your conversation you discover that you want this person to be your friend because the same things make you laugh, and the same things make you cry. And those things, given that they encompass two separate beings, you and your friend, are clearly greater than either you or your friend. Through anchoring in a greater level of significance, your relationship, your lives, begin to acquire meaning, identity, and purpose.
When you read a book, you are stepping outside yourself. A different person returns, touched by the mind and world of the author, and the conversation between the old you and this new you remakes you as a person.
Philosophy is primarily this conversation between you and the world you inhabit, a world in which you seek the significance of your own life. To perceive this conversation only as intellectual would be to deprive your life of fullness, for that would cast the purpose of philosophy as a means of explaining your life, which would make life boring for it would be nothing but applied philosophy.
Theory is not something that informs practice, and this is something I face every day in my life as an architect. I find that theory and practice tackle the same field, but in different directions. Practice moves from the general to the specific. When I execute a project I start with something general such as a design challenge posed by the project’s requirements and context. Then I develop a set of possible concepts. I pick one of those concepts, and start developing it in greater detail. I get further into detail by resolving issues of structure, material, constructability, cost and so on. If I do nothing but this, the inexorable directional thrust of this process will push my centre of gravity as a person further and further to the pole of detail: I become a ‘nuts-and-bolts’ person, anaesthetised by habit, forever unable to see the forest for the trees. Theory, on the other hand, works in the opposite direction from the specific to the general. It starts with a very specific observation and then seeks to develop generalisable rules and principles from that observation. And if I do nothing but that, my centre of gravity as a person gets shifted further and further to the pole of generalisation: I become an ‘ivory tower’ intellectual, often distanced from the experiential richness of life. Theory and practice work best when the contradict each other. Theory becomes a way of critiquing practice, and practice a way of critiquing theory, so neither gets to dominate, yet each affirms and develops the other.
You need to affirm thought with experience and experience with thought, because you always know more than you can tell. This was pointed out by the philosopher Michael Polanyi, who coined the word ‘tacit knowledge’: knowledge that resides in your body, but is beyond your ability to put into words. For example, the ability to ride a bicycle can be explained through the laws of physics, but learning the laws of physics is of no use whatsoever in knowing how to ride a bicycle. You have to get on to a bicycle, and once you feel that knowledge in your body, you have learnt how to ride a bicycle. But you cannot put that knowledge into words, and because it lives in your body, it is a knowledge that you do not forget.
Tacit knowledge is not just about prosaic acts like riding bicycles. Our sense of beauty is also tacit. Imagine experiencing an exceptionally scenic view: you spontaneously find it beautiful, and the people with you will also spontaneously agree that it is truly beautiful. Yet none of you will be able to articulate a convincing rational explanation of why you find it beautiful.
If you do not internalise this continuous conversational and philosophical critique between your experience and your imagination, you will wind up like an unthinking robot blinkered by habit. Even worse, you may spend your life living someone else’s habits. For there will always be insecure people, who are wary of stepping into the unknown, who will, because of that fear, tell you that a predetermined code is the proper and only way to live your life. And if you stay confined to a predetermined code, you cut off your own authenticity as a living being uniquely sentient with imagination, wonder, and creativity. I am not claiming you must never listen to advice offered to you. But you must temper that advice with the conversations of philosophy between your own unique and authentic self, the world you inhabit, and the new possibilities you can envision.
Myth No. 3: Philosophy is only about cold rationality, and does not connect with the emotional richness of life.
Once you identify philosophy as this dialogue between critique and experience, it is more than about rationality. Because you keep stepping outside yourself, you are continuously extending your experience beyond your potentially selfish body to the world around you. Your consciousness begins to participate in the world. And if you continue to critique your participation, you continue to enrich it, and the wider world becomes a part of your consciousness. You get anchored in a realm that is greater than you, and this anchoring is what can give meaning and purpose in your life. Think of all the fulfilling things that you connect with that are greater than you are: love, laughter, joy, beauty, and the sacred.
Philosophy is about bringing rigour into that connection, for rigour takes the connection into a higher realm. This method of rigour is what Indian tradition calls “sadhana” – an immersive, critically alert, experiential and ego-transcending practice.
This is best illustrated in incident narrated in an interview of Pushkar Lele, a young vocalist in the classical Hindustani tradition <http://tinyurl.com/zwsv59a>, who speaks of a time when he hit a plateau after having trained in music for fifteen years. To break out of this, he started training under a new guru, Vijay Sardeshmukh. Expecting that Sardeshmukh would grant him the key to the new realm he sought to enter, he was surprisingly pushed back to the very basics, and asked to sing a single note ‘sa’ (‘do’ in Western scale). Lele said, “When I started learning from him, he made me sing just ‘sa’ for six long months! It was utterly frustrating after having learnt for 15 years. But one day, when I hit the ‘sa’ he wanted, he smiled and I realised that I had, till then, never hit the centre of a note before!”
Lele’s story shows that once we follow sadhana, the rigour facilitates a level of discernment that allows us to see life with a fine grain that one could not see earlier. Philosophy is a form of sadhana that facilitates our continuously seeing life with the fresh eyes of increasing discernment. The point is not some final state of ultimate knowledge, but a continuous process of dispelling inertia to truly see what is in front of you. As T.S. Eliot said in his poem Little Gidding,
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
In conclusion, let me return to the point I raised in the beginning: the fact that our need for philosophy has never been greater than in today’s age. In an essay titled The Ecstasy of Communiction, the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard points out the the nature of psychological alienation has changed. Earlier alienation was characterised by distance, a feeling of being pushed away and isolated from the fundamentals of life. But today, alienation is characterised by an overwhelming proximity to everything. Reflection requires the construction of distance, stepping back to gain a better perspective. At one time the spaces that sheltered reflection by allowing this distance came as a way of life. But now, where we inhabit a globalised world where distant corners are coordinated with us in real time, we have to make a deliberate and concerted effort to create spaces for reflection. For this, we need philosophy, as both an individual and a collaborative practice. Without reflection, we shall (to use Baudrillard’s words) be reduced to “pure screen, a switching centre for the networks of influence”.
Socrates is quoted as saying, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” If you do not want to just be the vehicle for someone’s life, if you wish to live and enrich your own authentic existence, you must be a philosopher and examine your life. You need to step outside it, wander, get lost, and wonder. You need what Rebecca Solnit calls “A Field Guide to Getting Lost”, for to wander into unknown territory requires a specific skill, like that of the explorer who has learnt to read the sun, stars, wind, and other signs of nature to know how to return from the unfamiliar back to the familiar. The American woodsman, Daniel Boone, is reputed to have remarked that he has never been lost in the woods, although he was once slightly confused for a couple of days. Like the explorer’s ability to read the signs of nature, philosophy is your field guide in getting lost, necessary to explore the potential of your own authenticity.
Philosophy is first, and foremost, personal. Then you scale that conversation up to the community around you, the world you inhabit, and that is how you discover meaning and beauty, and the reason why you live. In the words of Gernot Bohme: “Because we ourselves are transient beings, we encounter beauty in the lighting-up of appearances which assure us of our existence. Beauty is that which mediates to us the joy of being here.” Philosophy is one of the key necessities to truly discover the joy of being here.