One of the aims of this weblog is to help people become aware of philosophy and its benefits, especially the benefits of having a philosophy of living, especially a religious philosophy, especially one centered on truth, beauty, and goodness. But there are dangers of philosophy, too. Here are some of them.
Bad philosophy can lead people into serious blunders. In my own case, I have seen this during my infatuation with Nietzsche. I lost my religion, then my moral compass, then my sanity. And I have seen others come to grief by embracing philosophies lacking any sturdy moral and spiritual anchor. Hard lessons.
Philosophy leads beyond itself—to wisdom, and wisdom is (as Socrates understood) a quality of God. The qualities of divinity lead to Deity. Truth, beauty, and goodness are not Deity, and when pursued abstractly they can fail to maintain their life.
Philosophy can encourage a tendency to think, talk, and write too much. That this was true in my own case came as a huge insight the first time I visited the Toronto Zen Center and sat zazen. The realization came with a touch of humor: “I am a windbag.” I have recently faced some personal growth challenges that cannot be resolved by the philosophy I have built up over the years: they can only be dissolved by following.
One danger is to expect too much of philosophy. Within the realm of discourse, philosophy has remarkable power; but in life, religion is more powerful by far. One day decades ago when our family were privileged to spend two years in Toronto, my beloved wife told me that she was pregnant. I was in my forties, out of work, with a wife and young son to support, spending a lot of our savings in order to study at the University of Toronto in hopes of a successful return to the academic job market. What should we do? Obviously that was a question that Hagiko and I needed to discuss and decide together, but I needed to prepare my contribution to that conversation. For three days I spun around, lost in confusion. I had previously taught a brief unit on the abortion debate a couple of times in applied ethics courses, and I had clarified my own policy on the matter, a policy that was not identical to that of the Pope, but pretty close. My present situation was nowhere near any of the extreme cases in which I thought abortion might responsibly be considered. But all of a sudden, my theory did not hold me; it was flapping around in tatters in the wind of the existential situation in which I found myself. On the third day I made my decision. I knew what I wanted my life to count for: the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man—the family of God. And it was intuitively inconsistent with that supreme commitment to propose an abortion. As it turned out, no pregnancy materialized, but I had learned an important truth. Intellectual philosophy was comparatively powerless compared to spiritual religion.
I will mention one more danger of philosophy. In my studies I have seen the tendency of philosophers to formulate intellectual systems that take the life out of truth. Here are seven features of this emerging philosophy of living that reduce that danger.
Truth itself is alive, and so are beauty and goodness. The most elusive goal to be met in a philosophy of living is the need for life. Religion recognizes the human need for abundant life; but what can a text do? Insofar as it is a formulation of an intellectual system, it is a dying artifact. Philosophy and theology have indeed tended to formulate systems whose animating insights get encrusted in static concepts interesting only to specialists. Nevertheless, the greatest systems are still studied because the authors embraced tensions, kept reformulating their positions, cared more for fidelity to the real than for easy consistency, and, in some cases, wrote dialogues instead of expositions. To be sure, life is not found in a human product, but it is found in persons. In several ways a philosophy of living may hope to be more true to life.
First, a philosophy supports life by featuring concepts in the fullest and richest sense of the term, including spiritual value as well as intellectual meaning. One can acquire ideas as fast as one can read a page with understanding, but to acquire a concept may take years of struggle. Concepts are formed through experience, and persons with different experiences will form different concepts. Ingredient in a concept are also the virtues acquired in coping with the challenges along the path to forming that concept. And concepts have a spiritual dimension as well as an intellectual dimension.
Second, a philosophy retains vitality by honoring the mystery of personality. For all that we may ever comprehend of truth and beauty and goodness, personality remains beyond our grasp. Personality is unique. It is recognizable, but it exceeds our ability to wrap our mind around it. Who could define a friend, let alone a stranger? Uniqueness cannot be subjected to a formula. The body can be known, the mind can be understood, but the personality transcends these.
Third, a philosophy keeps vital by recalling that experience does not arrive in neat packages, for life is not systematic. Our basic distinctions—truth, beauty, goodness—indicate themes that are interrelated. Life blends what the intellect distinguishes.
Fourth, there is something to learn from the history of applied ethics beginning in the 1960s. Initially it seemed to be a subdiscipline of ethics that would take ethical theories, such as Kantian or utilitarian theory, and apply them to cases in business, medicine, and the like. Given confidence in the theory to be applied, the work should have been straightforward. However, the tangles of particular problems prompted further refinement of theory. Thus theory and practice were seen to inform each other, which kept theory alive and prepared a revival of Aristotelian virtue ethics. A cardinal virtue is practical wisdom. In Aristotle’s ethics, practical wisdom encompasses all manner of fine discrimination pertaining to a host of matters. To feel the right emotion at the right time to the right degree, to execute a decision with cleverness and a sense of timing, to exercise a seasoned sense of when enough is enough—all these come within the legitimate realm of the practical, how-to-do-things side of wisdom. Thus, what Kant called counsels of skill have a place here. In short, philosophy of living stays alive by being faithful to its nature, reflecting on the experience of life itself.
Fifth, the new philosophy stays vital by engagement with emerging developments in other fields. Science, theology, the arts, progressive reform projects—and the many branches of philosophy itself! Who can keep up with all these developments? The very impossibility of doing systematic philosophy in an ideal way makes the need for an integrated philosophy more urgent, makes teamwork more important, and obliges those of us to play this game to retain a good-humored humility about our ignorance of helpful developments going on all around us.
Sixth, the new philosophy serves life by being forward-looking. Although philosophy draws on ideas from the past, its quest can become real only in the future. Conferences of Chinese philosophy have recognized the tendency to focus too much on the classics, and have called for the reconstruction of Chinese philosophy. And what tradition does not need reconstruction, does not reconstruct itself, especially in a world which brings traditions so readily into interaction? The cultural examples used here can be replaced by others, or the thoughts can be stated without referring to monuments of culture. The better world to be exemplified by our lives may not be evident in a few decades or centuries, but looking forward helps one avoid the mistake of nailing loyalty to outmoded aspects of tradition.
Seventh, the new philosophy stays vital by honoring God, whom we can increasingly discover as the way, the truth, and the life.
These structural features of this new philosophy do not protect individuals from falling into dead theories; but they help us recognize when we do and where to turn for help.