Why Philosophical Inquiry Should be a Regular Habit

Lennox Johnson Blog Leave a Comment

The self-help industry is obsessed with habits. There are thousands of books and online articles telling you how you can create regular exercise habits, diet habits, habits to be successful, habits to become rich, habits to become popular. And yet, as far as I can tell, there are no articles about forming a habit of philosophical inquiry. We might ask, as Socrates does of the Athenian jury that sentenced him to death:

“Good Sir, you are an Athenian, a citizen of the greatest city with the greatest reputation for both wisdom and power; are you not ashamed of your eagerness to possess as much wealth, reputation and honors as possible, while you do not care for nor give thought to wisdom or truth, or the best possible state of your soul?”

It seems that, in some ways, little has changed since the death of Socrates. If these kinds of articles are any indication, we are still very concerned about wealth and reputation, and seldom think carefully about truth, wisdom, and what it means to live a good life. Philosophy gives us the tools to think carefully about these things, and so I think that anyone who values truth or wisdom should consider making philosophy a regular habit.

To understand why philosophical inquiry should be a regular habit, it may be helpful to compare it to another activity that is widely regarded to be a good habit: exercise. Many people aim to make exercise a habit because they value the health benefits that regular exercise provides. The first question we might then ask is: what is the value of studying philosophy? This is an age-old question, so to keep things short, I will focus on just a few key points:

If you are a naturally curious person and want to understand the world you live in, particularly if you want to understand what it means to live a good life, what a just society would look like, or what it means for your beliefs about the world to be justified, then these are issues that philosophers have been discussing for centuries. Sheer curiosity is as good a reason as any to want to study philosophy. As Plato puts it: “Philosophy begins in wonder.”

Philosophy also helps to challenge unquestioned assumptions that we accept in our day to day lives. To quote Bertrand Russell:

“The man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the cooperation or consent of his deliberate reason.”

I think that any reasonable person would have to admit that some of their deeply held ethical, political, or philosophical assumptions are unjustified. Philosophical inquiry can help us to understand and to challenge these assumptions. Some philosophers, particularly the Epicurean and Stoic schools, also believe that challenging these assumptions can help to directly improve people’s lives by freeing us from false beliefs, unnatural desires, and irrational fears. As Cicero puts it:

“It is the effect of philosophy, which is the medicine of our souls; it banishes all groundless apprehensions, frees us from desires, and drives away fears.”

Unfortunately, whatever the benefits of studying philosophy are, they usually take time to develop. Just as it takes a long time to see the benefits of exercise, it can take a long time to understand difficult philosophical problems. This is partly because difficult philosophical problems need to be examined from all sides to be properly understood. As John Stuart Mill said:

“He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion.”

It may be tempting to unquestioningly accept the arguments of say Aristotle or of the Stoics, but dogmatically accepting the views of one school of philosophy is little better than dogmatically accepting the beliefs of the culture you happened to be raised in. Philosophy is a process that one must go through, not a set of answers that can be swallowed whole. As Kierkegaard puts it:

“There are many people who reach their conclusions about life like schoolboys; they cheat their master by copying the answer out of a book without having worked out the sum for themselves.”

Not only do the benefits of philosophy take time to be achieve but, just as exercise can be an uncomfortable and unpleasant activity, philosophical inquiry can also be an uncomfortable and unsettling experience. As Peter Singer has said:

“Philosophy ought to question the basic assumptions of the age. Thinking through, critically and carefully, what most of us take for granted is, I believe, the chief task of philosophy, and the task that makes philosophy a worthwhile activity.”

But this process of challenging deeply held ethical, political, or religious beliefs is an uncomfortable experience for many people. After all, what will you do if the ethical or religious principles that you’ve based your life on turn out to be unjustified? Plato, in his Allegory of the Cave, claimed that the journey out of the cave and towards truth was a painful experience, like the pain you’d experience if your eyes were struck by the dazzling light of the sun after years of living in darkness. But just because something is painful or uncomfortable doesn’t mean we should avoid it. Many people think that, even if it is painful, it is ultimately worthwhile to challenge yourself and push the boundaries of what your body is physically capable of. I think we ought to challenge ourselves intellectually as well as physically.

Finally, just as some people seem to naturally enjoy exercise (while others can learn to enjoy it), some people just naturally enjoy thinking about philosophical topics. Aristotle seems to have been one of these people when he claimed that “the life according to reason is best and pleasantest”. John Stuart Mill seems to agree when he said that it is “better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.” One reason to make philosophy a regular habit is simply that you enjoy philosophy and want to make more time in your life for it.

I first became interested in philosophy when I was 17 and stumbled across an article by Peter Singer about the ethics of eating meat. I had grown up in a meat-eating household, in a small town in New Zealand (a country that is economically dependent on exporting meat and dairy products) and had never given much thought about the ethics of the food I was eating. After reading Singer’s article, I was dumbfounded. Singer’s argument was so simple and persuasive but accepting his conclusion would mean that I had been acting in a morally unjustifiable way every time I sat down for dinner. It was an unsettling experience, and for weeks afterwards I kept thinking about how, if one of my ethical assumptions could be so easily challenged, then the rest of my beliefs might be on equally shaky ground.

Partly motivated by this feeling of uncertainty, I started to read more philosophy. But I found it difficult to make it a regular part of my life. In particular, I found it hard to decide which books to read, and hard to find time each day to read them. Progress was slow. Looking back on that experience, I decided that I wanted to create the website that I wish had existed when I was 17 and first becoming interested in philosophy. So, I created this website, The Daily Idea. If you sign up below, you’ll get a daily email containing a quote or passage from a classic work of philosophy. They include key passages from Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, and many more. Each passage is paired with a link to a beginner friendly article, video, or podcast, so you can easily learn more about that day’s idea. The goal is to make it easier for everyone to get a little bit more philosophy into their life.

Socrates famously declared that “the unexamined life was not worth living”. What he meant by this enigmatic statement is up for debate, but at the very least it challenges us to think carefully about the kind of life that is worthwhile and the role that reason and reflection should play in that life.

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