Sense of Life vs. Philosophy

Posted by CircuitGuy 1 month ago to Philosophy
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I've always thought that through most of human history non-philosophers didn't have philosophy. Their governments weren't based on bad philosophy. They were based on no philosophy. Selective pressures gave rise to behaviors that have some similarities to bad philosophy, but are really just no philosophy.

I'm reading The Romantic Manifesto and thinking that this "no philosophy" is a sense of life without philosophy. My reading of it is most people who ever lived are in this group. We are fortunate that people tried to build a state based on Enlightenment philosophy, but I suspect most citizens did not understand the philosophy. I am educated in my technical field and went to a high school program that required an epistemology class at age 15, and I think I have a tenuous grasp of the basics of philosophy. I have a sense that my fellow educated citizens have a general sense that liberty is intrinsically good and delivers prosperity, but don't actually understand philosophy more than I do.

All this makes me think that most of the world operates mostly on a sense of life with more understanding of philosophy than pre-Enlightenment peoples but not by all that much.

To make liberty last, to avoid reverting back to something like what we had through most of human history, does everyone need to learn philosophy? Is this practical? Are they any shortcuts where people learn enough to be free citizens and support individual liberty but without actually digging into the details of philosophy?

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  • Posted by ewv 3 weeks, 4 days ago
    There is no sense of life without philosophy. Philosophy is inescapable in human life because man cannot operate moment by moment. He requires a comprehensive view of reality in order to live. But that may not be systematically articulated and often is not. Philosophical premises are implicit in a sense of life as a general outlook, even when not systematically articulated and integrated. You see the role this plays in "Philosophy and Sense of Life" in the Romantic Manifesto.

    Isolated forms of philosophical premises, often bad, are routinely accepted explicitly but uncritically, which we constantly hear in the form of informal isolated bromides, but whose source was intellectual formulations by past philosophers many have never heard of..

    What you call the "no philosophy" is not a lack of any philosophy at all, but a lack of conceptual understanding: the emotionally ingrained, pre-conceptual form of philosophy implicit in the general outlook of a person who has picked it up from those around him, beginning with his parents, and partially expressed in isolated generalities, but who has not critically examined it in explicit form. He may even have tried to examine it, but with no source of explanation and better formulations gives up in despair, believing it isn't possible -- perhaps encouraged in that by a bad philosophy course.

    Ayn Rand gave prominent examples in the first part of "Philosophy: Who Needs It?", the title essay of the book by that name, and which you can hear in the recording of the original lecture at West Point

    "You might claim—as most people do—that you have never been influenced by philosophy. I will ask you to check that claim. Have you ever thought or said the following? 'Don't be so sure—nobody can be certain of anything.' You got that notion from David Hume (and many, many others), even though you might never have heard of him. Or: 'This may be good in theory, but it doesn't work in practice.' You got that from Plato. Or: 'That was a rotten thing to do, but it's only human, nobody is perfect in this world.' You got it from Augustine. Or: 'It may be true for you, but it's not true for me.' You got it from William James. Or: 'I couldn't help it! Nobody can help anything he does.' You got it from Hegel. Or: 'I can't prove it, but I feel that it's true.' You got it from Kant. Or: 'It's logical, but logic has nothing to do with reality.' You got it from Kant. Or: 'It's evil, because it's selfish.' You got it from Kant. Have you heard the modern activists say: 'Act first, think afterward'? They got it from John Dewey.

    "Some people might answer: 'Sure, I've said those things at different times, but I don't have to believe that stuff all of the time. It may have been true yesterday, but it's not true today.' They got it from Hegel. They might say: 'Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.' They got it from a very little mind, Emerson. They might say: 'But can't one compromise and borrow different ideas from different philosophies according to the expediency of the moment?

    "They got it from Richard Nixon—who got it from William James...

    "You have no choice about the necessity to integrate your observations, your experiences, your knowledge into abstract ideas, i.e., into principles. Your only choice is whether these principles are true or false, whether they represent your conscious, rational convictions—or a grab-bag of notions snatched at random, whose sources, validity, context and consequences you do not know, notions which, more often than not, you would drop like a hot potato if you knew.

    "But the principles you accept (consciously or subconsciously) may clash with or contradict one another; they, too, have to be integrated. What integrates them? Philosophy. A philosophic system is an integrated view of existence. As a human being, you have no choice about the fact that you need a philosophy. Your only choice is whether you define your philosophy by a conscious, rational, disciplined process of thought and scrupulously logical deliberation—or let our subconscious accumulate a junk heap of unwarranted conclusions, false generalizations, undefined contradictions, undigested slogans, unidentified wishes, doubts and fears, thrown together by chance, but integrated by your subconscious into a kind of mongrel philosophy and fused into a single, solid weight: self-doubt, like a ball and chain in the place where your mind's wings should have grown.

    "You might say, as many people do, that it is not easy always to act on abstract principles. No, it is not easy. But how much harder is it, to have to act on them without knowing what they are?"
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    • Posted by ewv 3 weeks, 4 days ago
      To answer your concluding questions: "To make liberty last, to avoid reverting back to something like what we had through most of human history, does everyone need to learn philosophy? Is this practical? Are they any shortcuts where people learn enough to be free citizens and support individual liberty but without actually digging into the details of philosophy?"

      Yes, understanding philosophical premises is necessary for normal human life because objective, systematic thinking and principles are required to live. It is not practical to avoid that. Life requires education to know how to think and act in all realms.

      But there are differences in degree. Not everyone, needs to "dig into" all the details of every philosophical system. And not everyone needs to understand the technical aspects of epistemology. But civilized life does require a general knowledge of the history of philosophy, what went wrong, and what progress was made. Everyone does require knowledge of correct basic principles and their validation, especially the basic methods of reason, the principles of ethics, and the consequences for politics.

      But "to make liberty last" is a consequence, not the starting point. Philosophy is required for life as an individual, with political freedom necessary to make that possible. Political philosophy is only the last stage in a hierarchy of principles, and cannot be formulated, let alone put into practice, without metaphysics, epistemology and ethics. You have to first know what is, how to think, and what to live for. There is no shortcut. Every politics presupposes a view of reality and how man relates to it, how one thinks, and what man should do as an individual.

      To see what has happened in politics because that is not done -- because the American sense of life beginning with the Enlightenment was not intellectually defended against its opposite -- why there are no shortcuts, and what is required now, read "Don't Let it Go" and "What Can One Do?", also in Philosophy: Who Needs It?.
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