Doing Philosophy



A first step into philosophising is to start asking questions about things which, on the face of it, seem self-evident. This is not done with the intention of complicating an issue which is not actually complicated. It is done in order to find out what is the meaning of our assumptions, or the value of them, or if they are true or otherwise. Without reflective practice, it is unlikely that we will find out much more about ourselves, and if we do not, we inhibit any realisation about, or potential for, change in what we are. Asking questions about what it is to be alive challenges basic assumptions about being and prepares us for progress in changing ourselves. After all, how can we can something of which we do not know the present nature? Changing ourselves is the first step in realising our potential in a sequence: change, meaning, freedom to choose, action, and how we should act. This sequence is, I believe, the only process with meaning in our lives. We will see later how this can combine with a system of anxiety reduction which together form a plan for the acquisition of a philosophical life.

What is it to be alive?

Being alive is to experience the world. It is having knowledge of sensations. It is to perceive that which is perceivable, in the same way that the world which is perceived exists fully because of that perception. In this way, being alive is not only an opportunity to perceive the world, it is an opportunity for creation.

            Life is everything to each of us, sometimes a lot to another, but not much really. Life is just our experience of it—sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes reflective, sometimes unthinking, sometimes opportune, sometimes unfortunate. We make mistakes—on our own terms and on the terms of others. We do good things—noticed or unnoticed. We do bad things—sometimes uncovered, sometimes concealed. We deceive and we are honest. We keep secrets for the best of reasons and for the worst of reasons. We comply and we are humble. We react, and we are pompous and belligerent. We look for sources of meaning—in humanity, in god, in philosophy, in nature, in our own hearts. We seek the light of truth, hoping to find it in stillness and quietude. We find resolution or we are disappointed. We attain and we are satisfied, or we are let down and disappointed. We love. We find the fellowship of another. And we hate, and separate, and seek out and kill. And we become ill, or our body fails, and we die. And then it all finishes. We dream no more, we hope no more, the play continues—the show goes on—and we no longer know of it. We come, we go, we experience.

            And we may ask—What is the philosophical life? What is it to lead a life philosophically? Maybe there is no such thing. Perhaps anything we call a philosophical life is simply wondering about one of these aspects. The only way to find out is to philosophise.


What is it to be me?

The matter of personal identity is not as straightforward as at first it seems. The problems are great and unresolved and, like objects in the rear view mirror, seem small but are, in fact, large We have knowledge of our own identity as selfhood, and this knowledge gives us access to internal emotional states—loneliness, awe, loss, despair, happiness, hope. It is not, however, easy to work out who this selfhood is or what it contains. This problem, and its solutions, spread back to the origins of philosophy and religion. Two beliefs dominate: that we are a mind and a body, dualism, that we are only a body, physicalism.

            The first account has always attracted strong support—it has natural appeal. Plato saw the mind as the rational element which would guide to a finer place. St. Augustine believed our mental self was somehow ‘chained’ to our bodies during out mortal life. Descartes believed mental existence was indeed a substance, separate but somehow in contact with our body. Most religions propose the consoling promise for suffering on earth as the inheritance of immortal life by a personal soul. In many ways, it seems common sense to think of ourselves as something mental somehow ‘attached’ to something physical. And if this is tied to the idea of an everlasting life after death it is even more attractive. But this account leaves explanatory gaps which yawn wider with every questioning thought. Although we feel we ‘have’ or ‘are’ a mind, the nature of mind itself is elusive. Mind cannot be scientifically investigated—no one has ever held a mind in their hands. Also, it is difficult to fit mind into evolutionary theory—if primitive organisms did not have minds then where did they come from? It is difficult to understand where mind, as an entirely non-physical structure, emerged from a physical structure. In addition, the difficulty of how mind interacts with body is elusive. Although gravity and magnetic forces affect physical objects, it is hard to see how mind as something entirely non-physical affects something entirely physical or how it has a localisation to a physical form. Some have thought the interaction coincidental, because of the hand of God or a shadowy epiphenomenon. If dualism is true, then it remains the case that we have to accept that mind and body react.

            The second account, fed and sustained by the ever increasing dominance of scientific thinking, reduces what we do to the manifestation of brain-process and what we are to simple brain-states. This has little personal appeal, closes off much of our individuality, the prospect of an afterlife and many of the emotions we treasure are reduced to a rubble of sensations. We are left to choose between understanding ourselves as a Humean ‘bundle’ of perceptions, a functioning set of manipulating brain-processes or an organic product of our environment. On any of these it remains difficult to form an adequate picture of the ‘I’ that I consider myself to be.

            By analogy, ‘I’ seem to be a mind much like others I witness. I remember events which seem peculiarly mine and, with the vouch of bodily continuity, I reason that the ‘I’ who exists continues to exist as the same ‘I’ into ‘my’ own future.

            Whatever life is, and whatever it is to be me, it remains that it happens in time. Life is constantly moving from before to after—it is a process. Our life appears, it flows and it disappears. That we are aware of this adds to our sense of fear that one day it will be lost. But, because we know it will one day be lost, it adds to our sense of urgency to fulfil it, to make it worthwhile, of some value.


What is it to be ‘with’ me?

Being an individual means being alone with oneself. In part, describing ourselves as alone is the way we use language but, there is in that statement, the clue to what being what ‘self’ is. We are alone, yes, that is undeniable, but we are always alone with our self. There is something about our isolation which always implies a ‘companion’—another who accompanies us on our lonely journey. This ‘other’ is the one who we ask ‘what should I do now?’, ‘Is this the right way to act?’ and so on. There is something inherently dualistic about being a self. We always have the ability to view ourselves as if we are both our self and another. We have the ability to take a view of our self both from the point of view of ourself and from the point of view of somewhere else—from nowhere (Nagel, 1989). We are, in our loneliness always used to having a ‘companion’. And, as long as we like ourselves, and approve of our own actions, we like it. We enjoy the companionability of this other who we interrogate and look to for approval. It is a little like a god within. And this liking expresses itself in the way we deal with the world. This natural sense of inner companionship leads us to a partiality for the companionship of others. We take intimate partners, have special friends, treasure the closeness of family. We benefit from sharing information about ourselves, learning of others, asking questions of another, allowing another to be wise for us. We are, in short natural counsellees.

            This primitive urge which reflects the subjective/objective ‘relationship’ with oneself means that interaction with another appeals to this, our deepest rooted characteristic. This also means that the excitement of love for another, or being a beloved, or being in an intimate or engaging relationship with another is naturally appealing.


What is it to have a satisfactory life?

This sometimes conflicts with what our lives are, or have been (regrets). In order to lead a satisfactory life we need to tolerate change, find meaning, experience freedom, take action based on our volition, and decide how it is that we should act. Change in ourself is difficult, not only for ourselves but for others who know us. If we announce we have changed, we are often treated as though somehow we have let ourselves or others down, as though we are a traitor in some way. We need to be prepared to give notice that ‘I have changed’, and always looking positively on changes in others.

What it is to ‘be’?