In this day and age the idea of philosophy as something useful is considered laughable or far fetched. It is something we don’t talk about because we believe it is antiquated, irrelevant and boring. In other words useless. But if we understand philosophy as the attempt to understand how to live a good life it regains its relevance. From its Latin origin the word philosophy means ‘love of wisdom’. How interesting that in all our efforts to educate ourselves and our children we focus on specific skills such as literacy, mathematics and science but do not concern ourselves with the underlying reason to learn those. The question we don’t ask in any depth is how we will use those to live a good life once we’ve mastered them. Will they, when mixed together, add up to the ability to recognize what a good life looks like and give us the skills to live one? Are they sufficient?
In fact philosophy does show up in day-to-day life disguised as self-help books. The aim of them is to invite us to look at our way of understanding an aspect of life and changing it if we choose. We each live with beliefs about the universe, life, experiences, actions, learning, knowing…in other words all the things in the background that guide our thoughts and actions. Understanding the lens we are unknowingly looking through gives us the opportunity to choose a different lens or confirm that the lens we’ve adopted is the one we want to continue using.
What would one of those lenses be and what difference would it make? A very basic one is the belief you have about how you know things to be true. There is a belief advocated by Rene Descartes’ writing 400 years ago that the only way to be sure something is true is through reason. This is where we societally seriously began to think of ourselves as rational beings. And we have elevated the importance of reason to the point it is now considered the only valid way of knowing. In essence we dismissed all other forms of knowing – intuition, emotions, ethics – as inferior. As a result we’ve promoted cognitive and intellectual learning and ignored the other domains. As a practical matter it means that we are comfortable with intellect and uncomfortable with emotions. This reality shows up every time a leader invites us to work with his or her organization and concludes by saying “but no touchy feely stuff”. Because we’ve ignored or dismissed emotions as a valid domain of learning and knowing we have not grown in our understanding of it and see it only as unimportant or in the way of real learning and knowledge (and sometimes a little yucky). Such a statement by a leader is much more a reflection of society’s way of thinking than that particular person’s.
The difference this makes in your daily life is that you tend to make plans or resolve problems using only the tools available intellectually and are not aware of the emotional tools available. An example is the pros and cons list when trying to make a decision. The human brain is wired to be able to counter its own thinking, in essence to take both sides of an issue. As a result what a pros and cons list will do is organize information but the decision it helps you make won’t be made rationally. It will be the emotions provoked by that exercise that drive your decision. If we only stay in the realm of reason there will be no decision possible because reason does not value. That is the role of emotions. Emotions move us. Coming to understand how and trusting them is a tremendous area of learning. We can, when we choose, befriend emotions and make them our ally rather than fighting them forever as unwanted intruders.