“To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.”
—Henry David Thoreau.
Where does a practical philosopher begin? What is her/his toolkit of bases and beginnings, approaches and techniques?
Philosophy is generally considered to use “deductive” thinking to reach its conclusions: a “top-down” approach that begins with a larger concept which is then shown to be true in concrete instances. This “tool” of philosophy works from the general to the specific, using these steps:
But especially as philosophy and science mingle in our modern world, the opposite thinking tool is also prevalent and useful to a practical philosopher. That is “induction”: beginning at the bottom with specific observations about life and climbing the ladder back up to theory:
Then identifying a Pattern
Proposing a tentative Hypothesis
And finally a Theory.
A creative, agile thinker will employ both methods at various points in working on a philosophical (or any other kind of) problem. According to the great poet Goethe, “The beautiful is a manifestation of hidden laws of nature which would otherwise remain forever concealed.” And pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “If we do not expect the unexpected, we will never find it.”
What will we choose to seek out in this world of infinite possibility, armed with our philosophical tools of detection? Poet Mary Oliver wrote in her book Long Life: “The universe is full of radiant suggestion. For whatever reason, the heart cannot separate the world’s appearance and actions from morality and valor, and the power of every idea is intensified, if not actually created, by its expression in substance. Over and over in the butterfly we see the idea of transcendence. In the forest we see not the inert but the aspiring. In water that departs forever and forever returns, we experience eternity.”
Perhaps our own stakes are simpler, smaller. We can all still be practical philosophers if we approach our world mindfully, intelligently, thoughtfully—armed with a philosopher’s toolkit.
Albert Einstein captures the spirit of this adventure when he points out that “Man seeks for himself, in whatever manner is suitable for him, a simplified and lucid image of the world, and so to overcome the world of experience by striving to replace it to some extent by this image. … This is what the painter does, and the poet, the speculative philosopher, the natural scientist, each in his own way. Into this image and its formation, he places the center of gravity of his emotional life, in order to attain the peace and serenity that he cannot find within the narrow confines of swirling, personal experience.”
Where will we begin?
—Isabel Anders (www.IsabelAnders.com) is the author of Becoming Flame: Uncommon Mother-Daughter Wisdom and Soul Moments: Times When Heaven Touches Earth among other books.
More from living