I think it [philosophy] used to be an enquiry into what’s true and how people should live; it’s distantly related to that still, but I’d say the distance is growing rather than narrowing.”
~ John Dunn
Today, the mention of philosophy elicits more groans than wonder. Convoluted pontifications and obese books on abstract topics garner an understandably niche audience. But this wasn’t always the case. Before we ostracized philosophy to University departments and bookworms, it connoted the shared, universal venture of exploring how to live.
Some 2000 years ago, Seneca wrote:
Philosophy … molds and constructs the soul; it orders our life, guides our conduct, shows us what we should do and what we should leave undone; it sits at the helm and directs our course as we waver amid uncertainties.”
Roughly a century later, Marcus Aurelius situated the role of philosophy more cozily within the absurdity of the human position:
In the life of a man, his time is but a moment, his being an incessant flux, his senses a dim rushlight, his body a prey of worms, his soul an unquiet eddy, his fortune dark, and his fame doubtful. In short, all that is of the body is as coursing waters, all that is of the soul as dreams and vapours; like a warfare, a brief sojourning in an alien land; and after repute, oblivion. Where, then, can man find the power to guide and guard his steps? In one thing and one alone: Philosophy.”
~ Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Philosophy was considered the essential guiding force in one’s existence. Its work was to translate one’s grappling’s with the largest questions, one’s relationship with life’s most primal perplexities, into an embodied way of life.
It follows, then, that anyone interested in living a thoughtful life, or being grounded in some glimmer of truth or reality, would dive into philosophy. Today, this isn’t so. The evolution of philosophy’s public perception is, in a way, subject to the same survival pressures we are. It adapted and diversified, traveling far from its roots. So much so that definitions as vague as these often pass for capturing its main substance:
Philosophy is 99 percent about critical reflection on anything you care to be interested in.”
~ Richard Bradley
While certainly true, popularizing definitions in this vein and reducing philosophy to rational, yet aimless thinking mischaracterizes and endangers its value. This is like defining a tree by one of its branches, or calling both a twig and an oak “pieces of wood”. While technically correct, something essential is lost in translation.
To return philosophy from its languishing reputation to its seat at the helm of our lives, reinvigorating the enquiry into how to live offers promise; engaging in a first-principles approach to charting life’s ever-present uncertainties, informed by today’s unprecedented repository of knowledge.
Philosophy of Mind: Consciousness, the Architect
Beginning to ask “how to live?” requires, or perhaps presupposes, knowledge of the subject that is enquiring. Who or what exactly is it that’s asking how to live? If your answer is, quite simply, “me”, you must be equipped with a good answer as to who, or what, you are.
This may initially sound trivial, but I assure you it isn’t.
We tend to think of ourselves, loosely, as the consciousness that experiences our lives, wrapped in a fleshy body. “I” am this bundle of flesh & bones & brains and so on, one of many similar mammalian products of evolutionary forces. How we live — the qualitative experience of our lives — is fundamentally governed by the consciousness that mediates this experience. Nothing in our awareness escapes this middleman. Thus when I ask how to live, it’s not a body part asking, nor my genes, but my consciousness.
The issue is that our mammalian consciousness, the experience on which we usually pin our identity, or the ego, is not the only form, or subject, of consciousness out there. Recent advents in neuroscience corroborate what contemplative wisdom has claimed for thousands of years: our experience of “self” is contrived, a neurally crafted phenomenon that does not have absolute claim over consciousness. There are alternatives to the conventional ‘self’, as philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris writes:
…what contemplatives throughout history have discovered is that there is an alternative to being continuously spellbound by the conversation we are having with ourselves…And glimpsing this alternative dispels the conventional illusion of the self.”
The feeling that we call ‘I’ is an illusion. There is no discrete self or ego living like a Minotaur in the labyrinth of the brain. And the feeling that there is — the sense of being perched somewhere behind your eyes, looking out at a world that is separate from yourself — can be altered or entirely extinguished. Although such experiences of ‘self-transcendence’ are generally thought about in religious terms, there is nothing, in principle, irrational about them. From both a scientific and a philosophical point of view, they represent a clearer understanding of the way things are…”
~ Sam Harris, Waking Up
With slightly different packaging from German philosopher & neuroscience junkie Thomas Metzinger:
The mathematical theory of neural networks has revealed the enormous number of possible neuronal configurations in our brains and the vastness of different types of subjective experience. Most of us are completely unaware of the potential and depth of our experiential space…your individuality, the uniqueness of your mental life, has much to do with which trajectory through phenomenal-state space you choose.”
~ Metzinger, The Ego Tunnel (2009)
Consider the irony of philosophy asking how to live well, without inspecting the very matrix that mediates our conscious experience of life itself. It’s like researching the best item to purchase to fulfill a particular need, without first checking if there’s a better alternative to purchasing something in the first place.
This was less of a blunder when there was really only one predominant, sensible notion of self, the ego. “I” am my experience of myself. One could safely cast aside the claims of contemplatives and mystics without being considered irrational. But with science joining the chorus of those doubting the experienced self’s unanimity, doubting this self as the sole potential experiencer, or subject, of consciousness, things get trickier.
The possibility that must be taken seriously is that the ego’s varietal of life in which we pursue things it desires such as survival prospects, recognition, relationships, and meaning, is not the only route. With a configuration of consciousness apart from the ego, an entirely different blueprint for the experience of life would emerge.
Is it not philosophy’s duty, if it truly seeks to best answer its question of how to live, to study, experience, and grapple with “the potential and depth of our experiential space”? To explore whether or not these alternatives offer any valuable insights into its timeless question?
Consciousness could be the core mission of philosophy. For a little while, at least, it should be. Put simply: how can we hope to learn what something should do, without first knowing what it is, or can be?
As soon as we concern ourselves with what a human being is as well as with what a human being ought to become, the central issue can be expressed in a single question: What is a good state of consciousness?”
~ Metzinger, The Ego Tunnel (2009)
Taboos & Misconceptions of Philosophy
To question and explore the consciousness we espouse — self-enquiry — is not a culturally supported practice in the industrialized West. Psychedelics are irresponsibly categorized as Schedule I drugs, meditation is only trusted so long as it boosts productivity or some other quantifiable metric, and the contemplative habit of mind characterizing more ‘secular’ gateways to self-enquiry requires a degree of stillness antithetical to the industrial pace of life. This vein of philosophy is thus reserved for either those insane enough to pursue it in lieu of conventional success & financial security, or the fortunate few who’re taken care of in this department, and the very, very few of them who then choose to study their own consciousness.
This is what I take as the first task of philosophy in earnest: enabling, even urging, us to invert our consciousness upon itself. To begin the enquiry of how to live at its source.
Aside from the above obstacles to embarking upon this “first task”, the public perception of philosophy does itself no favors. Dry, wordy, and abstract, many justifiably do their best to avoid it altogether. Often, these unattractive strands of philosophy are the ones who’ve become too far removed from that original purpose of grappling with how to live.
Moreover, whether or not one explicitly reads or studies philosophy, anybody who thinks about how to live is a philosopher. And this is one of the primary misconceptions to dispel, that philosophy is only relevant to those explicitly interested in it. Philosophy is relevant to every single human alive. It lives not in books or complex ideas, but in the subjective experience of simply existing, and all of its subsequent curiosities, wonders, and perplexities.
Writer & musician Sharon Lebell characterizes philosophy as a distillation process aimed at creating a life worthy of humanity:
Philosophy’s purpose is to illuminate the ways our soul has been infected by unsound beliefs, untrained tumultuous desires, and dubious life choices and preferences that are unworthy of us. Self-scrutiny applied with kindness is the main antidote.”
~ Sharon Lebell, The Art of Living (2013)
These infections threaten all of us, not just those mixed up in academic philosophy. They taint our enquiries into how to live, populate our consciousness’ with artificial floors below which we do not inspect. This leaves vital questions untouched, such as “is the ego’s appropriation of consciousness the only varietal?”
And this is what defines a philosopher: not her eloquence nor her ability to quote Plato, but her willingness to stare these infectious illusions directly in the eyes, dismantle their floors, and gracefully wade through the subsequent uncertainties.
A second misconception worth addressing is that philosophy is a branch of knowledge akin to other sciences. Philosophical ‘progress’ in its primal sense of self-enquiry is not accumulative, but experiential. And we have no means of communicating experience across individuals. Thus it’s not a chronological journey where each successive person to pick up the task furthers progress. It’s an empirical insight that begins anew with each person, each iteration of subjectivity. As Emerson remarks in his Harvard Divinity School address:
It cannot be received at second hand. Truly speaking, it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul.”
In this sense, philosophy is more closely related to that over-trafficked and demeaned terrain, spirituality, than anything else. The process of returning philosophy to its helm echoes the imperative of lifting spirituality from its platitudes; both bring issues of identity and selfhood to the forefront. Both ask us to deeply consider who we are, and how to live.
Still, “How to live?” is a question that seems to operate on a grander scale than our day-to-day continuum. This ostensible disconnect between our daily, micro-choices and our macro responses to that looming question perhaps fuels the divide between philosophy and our actual lives. But this disconnect is a mistake, and rectifying it is crucial to reinvigorating philosophy’s return from the few to the many.
While philosophy does grapple with questions that dwell in eternity, its fruits are realized and manifested in the minutes, the small and seemingly insignificant fractals of time that comprise our lives. As Annie Dillard reminds us:
How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.”
~ Annie Dillard, The Writing Life (1989)
But reconciling these ideas born of eternity with our daily decisions — when to wake up, what to eat, what to do today — is exceedingly difficult. Nevertheless, the quality of our philosophy hinges upon this very connection between eternal questions and practical actions.
All For Consciousness
These practical actions that comprise our visible lives — work, school, art, play, eating, hobbies — whether or not we’re interested in philosophy or consciousness, are still acting on their behalf.
Our actions, large and small, largely carry the subliminal telos that they will somehow improve upon where we are now. They will contribute value to our experience of life. And that experience of life, as previously noted, is entirely mediated via our consciousness. Therefore, we’re always implicitly seeking to add value to our consciousness. Our lives are a process of cultivating consciousness — what Metzinger calls our “experiential space” — into a more habitable domain. Sam Harris puts it succinctly:
Everything we do is for the purpose of altering consciousness…we struggle to direct the flow of sensation, emotion, and cognition towards states of consciousness that we value.”
~ Sam Harris, Waking Up (2014)
Bizarrely, we do this without first taking Metzinger’s prior question seriously: “what is a good state of consciousness?” Without studying consciousness — both the varietal we espouse and the potentialities it holds — we’re placed on a treadmill of pursuing an end, a purpose, that we don’t even acknowledge, and therefore cannot truly own. The question of how to live cannot be furthered if we do not broaden its scope to include these implicit and central forces.
As conventional notions of self come further unhinged with the oncoming advents of neuroscience, informed by the troves of philosophy and spirituality, determining states of consciousness that we value should emerge as a global discussion.
Looking forward, philosophy may receive new life as more and more people turn to it when confronted with the task of reconsidering who they are, and who they’d like to be. When the culturally engrained answers to that question, how to live, are uprooted by the dismantling of their premise, that the ego’s experience of consciousness is all there is, many may, fascinatingly, find support in words written some 2000 years ago.
In the end, looking back upon a life spent immersed in philosophy, I don’t imagine there’s any one thing discovered that finally redeems the whole process. No philosopher’s stone or single state of consciousness that resolves everything. Rather, I imagine that bit by bit, year by year, a lifetime spent thoughtfully engaged with life’s deepest currents ultimately forges, or transplants, in varying degrees, an eternal quality into the experienced present moment.
Even an entire lifetime spent probing those ineffable currents that pass through each of us — should we be still enough to find them — will not result in giving them communicable form. At best, as if this is not what it’s all about, we may cultivate a consciousness that embodies them. As Carl Jung sternly writes:
In the final analysis, we count for something only because of the essential we embody, and if we do not embody that, life is wasted.”
~ Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections
From another angle, Bertrand Russell portrays ‘embodying the essential’ as a contemplatively achieved attunement of the individual mind with the Universe:
Philosophy is to be studied…above all because, through the greatness of the universe which philosophy contemplates, the mind also is rendered great, and becomes capable of that union with the universe which constitutes its highest good.”
~ Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy
Perhaps, in the end, philosophy is to spend a life searching for, and reifying to the best of our ability, this essentiality, or “highest good”. The search must strive to impossibly span the infinite terrain of consciousness, stretching our experiential space, rendering it as porous as can be to the surrounding potentialities.
Most importantly: Philosophy is not about talking, but living.