When you see a philosopher staring out a window, they’re not daydreaming. They’re working. A philosopher is always working. We don’t keep regular hours. We don’t clock in and clock out, and we don’t take vacations. Well, we might, but we’re working then too.
Philosophy understood not as a branch of the academic profession but as a way of life is done every day and more or less everywhere. We don’t do all our work at a desk or even in an armchair. Philosophy is thinking, about a thousand different aspects of human existence, and you can do it while walking down the street, driving your car, watching TV, talking to people, or just about anything else. As I write this, for example, I’m in a busy waiting room as my daughter has her guitar lesson. It’s not quiet here, but it doesn’t need to be. A philosopher, like anyone, is surrounded by things large and small that can attract your notice and that are worthy of being questioned in some way or other. Not all the things that attract our attention are large of scale. Most are probably not, but sometimes even the smallest matters attract our notice: what that person just said and whether it might have some larger significance, why this or that particular thing is the way it is and whether we might see it otherwise. Philosophers, like artists, are noticers and tend to be unsatisfied with how people commonly speak of certain matters. We tend to be suspicious when words like certainty and truth are used, when someone claims to know something with too much assurance, for we’ve learned that real certainty is an elusive commodity.
Remember Plato’s allegory of the ship of state. Every member of the crew imagines they know best how to navigate the ship, as they look straight ahead at the approaching waters. The true navigator, Plato pointed out, isn’t looking straight ahead. They’re looking at the stars. This person is dismissed by everyone on board as an idle dreamer. To be mistaken for a dreamer or an ignoramus, Plato thought, is the fate of the philosopher. His great exemplar, of course, was Socrates, and we don’t have a lot of those walking around today, but we do have our stargazers on a somewhat smaller and more specialized scale. The philosopher’s way of living is always to be looking up, from the particular to the universal, from what passes for knowledge to something that’s questionable. It is not merely to find fault with everything we see or read, but to look beneath surfaces, to reject the easy answer, and to be skeptical of ideas—or many of them—which most people take for granted.
Philosophy as I think of it isn’t a profession so much as a vocation and a way of life, and you don’t need do you have a Ph.D. to do it. You need to have a certain sense of wonder, a restlessness of mind, a broad curiosity, and a determination to keep your eyes wide open to whatever life throws your way, to look things in the eye and to call them by their name. If you’re a philosopher, you’re always looking for a different angle on things, some alternative way of perceiving some object, idea, value, or whatever it is. You’re always asking: what do people say about X? Why did they come to speak this way? What were their reasons? Do their reasons stand up, and if they did in the first place, do they still? What if we were to see it some other way? What would follow and what would be lost? What are the implications of X, the consequences of believing it for some of our other beliefs?
You can think philosophically about anything: even this chair in front of me as I sit here writing this. You can describe it phenomenologically, interpreting your own experience of the thing as it shows itself to you. Or you can ask some ontological or metaphysical question about its essence or mode of being, or you can think about the aesthetics of it, among other things. If everything is political, you could probably ask a political question about it too. The chair is a very mundane example, but that happens to be what’s sitting in front of me at the moment—a number of them, a few containing people staring at their phones. I wonder what they’re looking at and what they’re writing, using their thumbs like that. Could you write philosophy with your thumbs? I see no reason why not, although I can’t say I’ve ever tried it. I don’t own one of those things. What I do have is a pad, paper, and a pen; they go pretty much everywhere I do. You never know when a question is going to occur to you, or a phrase; sometimes just one word will come to mind. I’ve learnt to write it down immediately. It’ll be gone later.
You’ve heard that a philosophical way of life is an examined one, and this is surely true, although I think it involves more than that. It includes rather a lot of thinking and maybe writing too, but just as important is standing by your ideas, living by them, organizing your life around them. Values are only values if you act on them, and don’t believe someone who says they believe one thing if their actions say otherwise. If you don’t live them then those opinions and all the thinking you might have put into them aren’t worth much. A way of life is defined by actions and by thinking—these two things taken together. Ultimately, they are not really separable, and any way of life that we’d want to describe as philosophical must comprehend more than just what goes on in your head to include how we enact our thinking or embody ideas that we’ve thought about and can defend.
There are philosophies of the blackboard and philosophies that you can live by, and I’ve never really seen the point of the former. They present us with problems that are advertised as philosophical but that to me look like little puzzles and verbal games that don’t help us to understand much. A lot of what modern philosophers do has always struck me as pointless and self-indulgent. Many people get this impression of philosophy, and it can lead them to dismiss all of it on the basis of what some philosophers are doing. That’s a mistake. It’s comparable to dismissing all music because you don’t like a particular songwriter or genre of music. Find another one that you do like. People who dismiss philosophy—all of it?—with a wave of the hand never know what they’re talking about, so don’t believe them. Instead look for philosophical writers who have something to say about the human condition or our times that you haven’t heard before, who challenge you, who say things that you disagree with or that get you out of your own point of view and your complacency. Philosophy still has the power to grab people in much the way that art does, but only if it’s relevant to life and how we’re living, what we’re up against and what might still be possible. “Philosophy of life” should be a redundant phrase. Philosophy is an attempt to understand what’s happening, what’s real, what’s true, and what’s good, and any way of life that’s philosophical is an attempt to get our heads around all of that and to live by the results of our speculations. Life always throws difficult questions our way, and a way of life that’s philosophical takes these questions seriously and isn’t satisfied with the easy answers that our culture offers up.
A philosophical way of life, as I think of it, is one that’s organized around self-chosen ideas of various kinds, ideas that have been thought about—carefully and by you—and that are also carried over into your actions and life plans. It exhibits an organic connectedness between words and deeds and an integration, an integrity, of the various roles and parts that we enact in our lives. It may or may not be a virtuous life, but it will usually hold you back from the kind of stupidity that’s usually found at the extremes.