Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Those Darn Philosophers! (2)

As I see it, philosophy ought to make you sane, not crazy. As the Greek-derived word suggests, it ought to bring wisdom (sophía) into your life. But who nowadays does philosophy in this old-fashioned way?

Modern academic philosophy, with its focus on hermeneutical exegesis and logical analysis, would have puzzled and perhaps saddened the ancient sages. As they would see it, philosophy is an aid to self-transformation and inner freedom. If it does not have this practical purpose, it is only an exercise in abstract conceptual thinking. With my apology to any professional philosopher who might have stumbled upon this blog, those sages have my vote of confidence. In them I see true philosophers deserving of the Greek name.

If you want to know philosophy, then, study the ancient Greek and Indian philosophers. Let a little of their wisdom rub off on you. By no means all of their ideas are convincing, or they would not contradict each other. But their wisdom will challenge your own jungle of loosely connected ideas. It’s best not to deny that you have a mostly subconscious system going. In the average person, these ideas consist principally of stereotypes, prejudices, preconceptions, and ad-hoc “theories.”

You “know” that there definitely is or definitely is not a God, and you “know” how evolution works, or doesn’t. You also “know” what men and women are like and how various ethnic groups behave. Matter rules. Mind doesn’t matter or, conversely, only mind matters. Philosophy is nonsense. Yoga is fantasy. Everybody is entitled to their opinion. And so on. It’s a useful exercise to jot down all the ideas that you entertain.

Then go ahead and read some books on philosophy—I double dare you—and see how the ideas that govern your life match up with the consciously formulated, properly inspected notions; to be sure, they might still be only half baked, but they were formulated in full consciousness. This comparison might rattle your conceptual cage a bit, but if you are into personal growth and self-transformation, this is the right sort of gorilla. The darn philosophers might spoil your comfortable life yet, which I would applaud.

The best course of action, however, is to study—and not merely read—the great masters of wisdom and open yourself up to a whole range of new ideas. Discover for yourself what makes sense and how you can apply this wisdom. That’s the beginning of a philosophical life. The rest is part of the consensus trance, otherwise called “the big snooze.”

If you are already one of the self-transcending, self-transforming minority, then congratulations. Now you can work on waking up as a fully compassionate Yoga sage! What are you waiting for?

Georg Feuerstein


  1. Georg,

    I am sure you have confronted this sad fact as well, and perhaps things are different in Europe, (from my experience with an English Grad program, English students seem much better prepared for critical thinking) but in the States and Canada, unless someone has specifically taken some philosophy classes, most folk are truly 'philosophically illiterate.' We aren't really taught how to think in our schools.

    And I agree that if philosophizing isn't about the investigation of what is (and what it takes to live) the 'good life,' than it's all too often little more than mental masturbation -- as is so much contemporary professional philosophy, unfortunately.

    Thankfully, there are exceptions and I don't know if you are aware of this book that I have been recommending to my students interested but unexperienced: "How Philosophy Can Save Your Life: 10 Ideas That Matter Most," by Marietta McCarty.

    Each chapter focuses on one theme (for example: Simplicity, Perspective, Individuality, Serenity, and Joy). In each Chapter she examines these topics, introduces two philosophers and there take on the subject (philosophers include: Epicurus, Socrates, Plato, Epicetus, Shunryu Suzuki, the Dalai Lama, Charlotte Joko Beck, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Albert Camus among them), followed by Discussion Questions she suggests sharing in the form of a book club/philosophical salon, so that engaged in this way, "clear thinking, quiet reflection and good conversation" may be encouraged.

    frank jude

  2. Thanks Frank. Yes, I had noticed the peculiar disadvantage of the Americans. But their loss is the advantage of the political elite.

    I've made a note of McCarty's book....

  3. Love this, Georg. I was one of those kids who had a natural bent toward the "big questions" starting with lying on the grass looking up at the star at 14, or realizing suddenly, at about the same age, that I couldn't buy all the stuff I had taught in my ultra-traditional Catholic altar boy upbringing, and how do I deal with that utter void in my life, etc.

    I'm looking forward to your future blogs.

    Bob Weisenberg