September 7, 2011

What Philosophy Has Taught Me about Life. ~ Jade Doherty

Photo: Vegard Ryan

Let me start by saying that I love philosophy. I’d go so far as saying that philosophy was my first love. I started studying it when I was 16, and thanks to a former chain-smoking, French existentialist teacher, I became hooked.

To continue this love affair with wisdom, I studied philosophy at university. I got put off. With the extra-curricular activities like drinking and being hung-over, I didn’t spend as much time with philosophy as I could have. It got too “opinioney” for my liking. There was too much about getting published, and not enough about truth. Philosophy, also defined as “a love of wisdom,” felt more like a love of one’s own opinion. I turned to spirituality, hoping that this would meet my heart’s yearning for truth.

But underneath it all, I’m still a chain-smoking, coffee-drinking, discussion-having philosopher at heart, and I would like to share with you some of the philosophers who have changed the way I see the world.

Photo: kladcat

So with no further ado, I present Socrates and his method for self-inquiry…

Socrates, the Byron Katie of his day, was an ancient Greek philosopher, who lived, taught and thought in a time full of sophists, who he saw as skilled people in the art of rhetoric, but didn’t care much for truth.

A large part of his philosophy was about finding out if our beliefs were consistent and true. To do this, he used the Socratic Method, or the Elenchus. He would ask someone, the interlocutor, questions on a topic. At some point, they would agree to a premise, and Socrates would later show them that this premise was inconsistent, forcing them to reassess their entire belief system.

 It went a little like this:

Interlocutor: Yiasou Socrates. I’ve been thinking. Everyone should pay taxes. It’s right, it’s legal, and we all should do it.

Socrates: Really? Everyone should pay taxes? In all situations? No exceptions?

I: Yup, that’s what I said. Everyone, in all situations, should pay taxes.

S: Right. Did you hear that Sparta is getting stronger? Much stronger, I hear they might be launching an attack on Athens.

I: Eugh! I hate the Spartans. They’re not cultured like us. They don’t even read. If they were in power, I’d rebel.

S: How?

I: Grr! I’d show them! I’d…I’d…

S: …Not pay your taxes?

I: Yes, exactly. There’s no way I’d give them a percentage of my hard earned money!

S: So it’s ok to not pay your taxes if you disagree with the Government, or if the Government is unjust?

I: Yes, absolutely.

S: But you said that it’s never acceptable to not pay your taxes, that one must always do it. So, one of your premises is wrong. It seems that it is sometimes acceptable to not pay your taxes, don’t you think?

Granted I made that example up, you get the picture. By finding situations in which that premise would not hold, Socrates proves an inconsistency in the Interlocutor’s reasoning.

I think we could most definitely apply this line of questioning to our own self-inquiry. It won’t tell you if your beliefs are true, but it will show you if they are consistent.

Photo: Tilemahos Efthimiadis

Moving on to Aristotle, and the point of life…

Aristotle says that all things have a unique function. For example, the unique function of a knife is to cut; a chair is to be sat on and a TV is to be watched.

According to Aristotle, the unique function of man is his ability to reason; no other animal or object can do this. But not just any old reasoning, oh no! Man’s unique function is to use reason in accordance with his spirit. Doing this will cause one to reach eudaimonia, a state of human flourishing that can only be achieved by perfecting the union of reason and spirit.

To me, eudaimonia sounds a lot like enlightenment. Perhaps this could be the function of life.

Reasoning, for Aristotle, wasn’t just about justifying things or making sense. Aristotle was also a big fan of the Golden Mean, which is the mid-point between deficiency and excess. Take courage for example – courage is the mid-point between cowardice and rashness. We must employ spirited reason to help us find the Golden Mean and to flourish. Dharma by any other name…

Photo: lisby1

 Moving on a few thousand years, to John Locke and his theory of perception…

Locke spent a lot of time thinking about how we see and experience the world. Why are some things objective, and some things subjective? He decided that objects had primary and secondary qualities. A primary quality is inherent to the object itself. It just is. A ball for example is spherical, that’s just the way it is.  Secondary qualities exist in the mind of the beholder. For example, I might see something as blue while you see it as green.

Another example: it’s raining. The primary quality of the situation is that evaporated water is condensing in the form of rain. However, if I’m late, have flip flops on and have just straightened my hair, the rain is annoying; it’s a pain in the arse; it’s ruining my day! My perception of the rain is stopping me for seeing it just for what it is.

Clichéd as it sounds, we don’t perceive life as it is — we perceive it as we are. In my opinion, Locke was getting at the ways in which we cloud our vision of the world. We rarely see something for its primary qualities or how it actually is, and instead see it for the secondary qualities that we impose on it.

Photo: ThomasThomas

Moving over to Germany, we have Friedrich Nietzsche on the self the betwixtment of language…

I’m a tad biased as Nietzsche is one of my all time faves, but he’s got some interesting things to say.

Nietzsche has major beef with language. He says language tricks us into thinking that there exists a solid, unified “I.” We have a thought, and think it came from us. Thoughts just arise and make up the “I” that we think created them. This “I” is the source of our thoughts and wills.

From a spiritual point of view, I think Nietzsche is talking about the way in which thoughts/wants/etc just arise and how we attribute an author to them. We think that this author is real and solid, and creates this activity. In meditation, I can really see that thoughts just arise, unauthored, and unless you grab them, make them solid and official, they will just pass through and unarise at some point too.

 And finally, another fave, Jean-Paul Sartre on destruction and expectations…

Ah J-P, je t’adore. You were the highlight of my uni career in philosophy.

Sartre says that destruction only exists for humans, without humans there is no destruction. This is because of man’s ability to compare situations. If there was an earthquake and all the trees in a forest were knocked down, man might say the forest was destroyed. The forest is no longer as good as it was. Actually, nothing has been destroyed. All the same particles are there, perhaps in a different order, but no destruction has taken place.

Sartre goes on to talk about meeting his friend, Pierre in a smoky Parisian café. Sartre is late and he wonders if Pierre will have waited for him (this is in the days before texts, tweets, facebook and BBM). Sartre goes to the café and looks for Pierre, but can’t find him. He says that the café is haunted by Pierre’s absence; Pierre isn’t there and yet, his absence is palpable. There are countless other people who aren’t there, Wellington for example also is not there, and yet Sartre doesn’t feel his absence.

Reading this, I think Sartre could be talking about placing conditions on the moment. We have an idea of how it was, or how it should be, and we get upset or annoyed if the moment doesn’t conform to our expectations. If Sartre hadn’t expected Pierre to be at the café, he wouldn’t have felt let down. He wouldn’t have felt like something was missing or that the situation should be different from how it was.

If we let go of our expectations about how something should be, it’s fine. It just is. It’s our desire to control the moment that leads to disappointment or suffering.

So there you have it kids, question all your beliefs, live according to your function and attain eudaimonia, try to see life for how it is rather than how you perceive it, know that language is a tricky mistress and that you are not the author of your thoughts, and don’t place expectations on the moment.



Jade is pretty clueless about life, but seems to have gotten away with it so far. She’s worked as a football coach and an English teacher, but feels that her calling lies in drinking tea and laughing at herself. Having dipped her toe in the world of new age philosophy and yoga, she got scared and scurried back to her cave/bedroom. She can be found on Facebook and Twitter, though she mainly uses it to pretend that celebrities are her friends.




Read 1 Comment and Reply

Read 1 comment and reply

Top Contributors Latest

Elephant journal  |  Contribution: 1,375,490