- A friend recently asked me somewhat cynically what I’ve actually learned from studying Philosophy. Here’s why it’s been very valuable.
It’s true that Philosophy doesn’t give you any true practical skils, like studying Accounting would, but it did offer me a great basis in life as well as in my career. The biggest lesson that I learned from studying Philosophy has been that framing of any kind, mentally, socially or in society, goes way deeper than you would initially think. With “framing” I mean any, what I would like to call “added thoughts” that we add to events happening in the world around us. The first moment I noticed this, was in an introductory Ethics course about the case of Wilful Murder:
“Take any action allowed to be vicious: Wilful murder, for instance. Examine it in all lights, and see if you can find that matter of fact, or real existence, which you call vice. In which-ever way you take it, you find only certain passions, motives, volitions and thoughts. There is no other matter of fact in the case. The vice entirely escapes you, as long as you consider the object” (A Treatise of Human Nature, 3.1.i)
What David Hume says here is that if I see someone stabbing someone else in the street, there isn’t anything objectively wrong (or vice) with this act. Objectively, it is just a knife held by one hand, “disappearing” in someone else’s body. All these things we attach to “murdering” the other and how it is wrong to do so, is what we attach to this act. From the knife as a weapon to the act of stabbing someone else. Hume’s objectivism can leave you somewhat skeptical, but the biggest insight it gave me was; if you think about it, how much passions, motives, volitions, and thoughts do we actually add to the events that happen around us on a daily basis?
What I will say now might even sound more skeptical — or a little extreme. What if, instead of having a ceremony and cremate or bury someone, we instead chop someone up and throw them away when they die? Now I’ll ask you to pause for a moment and imagine this.
I’m assuming your immediate thought is: “that’s insane!”, “you can’t possibly do that.” or any thought similar. Which is, of course, a healthy thought. Now think about the ritual. What is there objectively that does not entail anything we as humans have added to the event of death? Everything from losing a person, to having a ceremony are “added thoughts”. This does not make these thoughts superfluous or less meaningful, but there are a lot of passions, motives, volitions, and thoughts to it, of which you might not be aware.
Being aware of added thoughts is one thing, but using it to your advantage is another thing. A few years ago I was struck by a book called The Path from Michael Puett which gives a broad and concise overview of Eastern Philosophy. The trolley problem — would you choose to put the unstoppable trolley on the trail of a family member or multiple strangers- is a well-known case in Philosophy. There are a lot of answers to this problem from different concepts in Philosophy. One could argue you should save the most, or you should save the ones that will achieve the most in life. The whole case was refuted in Puett’s book by stating that Eastern philosophers would say that when the situation occurs, you’ll make a choice anyway. Thinking about all the rational possibilities does not add anything to the actual situation when it would occur, you will probably handle them more on contemporary passions, motives, volitions, and thoughts. Our Western thought is dominated by these rationalities. When we, for instance, look for a house, we can write down all the pros and cons, whether it has enough bedrooms, if there is a school close for the kids, etc. But even if we choose a house after we’ve thought the whole thing through to every minor detail, we can still wake up there and feel strong discontent. This does not mean it’s not a good idea to write the pros and cons or the number of bedrooms or the distance to schools, just that there is a lot more to it than all these more rational features. And, that simply sleeping over a choice isn’t a bad idea once in a while.
How does this help, other than making you more skeptical or more uncertain in life? I notice that being more aware of my passions, motives, volitions, and thoughts, allows me to have a more objective, or at least a broader view, of what someone (or myself) says, thinks or does. Did he/she actually say or do this? Would someone else that saw or heard this think the same thing? What actually happened that gave me this thought or feeling? When I have to give feedback to colleagues or review reports of students this urges me to stay close to what I am actually reading and also to clearly state why and how this could be improved. Every Philosophy course had extensive reading or writing included which still pays off even while pursuing a career in a totally different field. “What is actually being said/done/inferred here?” or “What is the real issue or question here?” is one of the most heard questions over the course of my studies and I still hear these in the back of my head sometimes and can use these to my advantage. Being aware of added thoughts makes life simpler while taking into account its complexities.
Being aware of added thoughts makes life simpler while taking into account its complexities.
Now, these previous examples maybe say more about how we think about the outside world, but there is also a lot to say about the inside world. The best example of how these passions, motives, volitions, and thoughts work on in your mental state comes from one of my favorite books called Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s (I guess the author’s name is supposed to make it sound substantial already). Flow is the state in which we thrive, whether this is while playing an instrument, playing a challenging game of football or chess, being in a deep conversation or maybe writing, or (hopefully) while reading this article. In this state, you forget about your surroundings, who you are and why you are here. You will find yourself after a few hours thinking, “Wow! Is it this late already?!”. The flow state is the state in which my skills match my challenges to a certain level.
The biggest thing that stuck with me from this book was research among a big group of respondents, that had a beeper which rang randomly five times a day. Every time the beeper went off, they had to tell what they were doing and how they would rate their state of mind. It turned out that people felt most satisfied while working(!). Now I won’t go into details about the exact meaning of satisfied or happiness, for that, I would advise you to read the book. But being challenged at work can make people more satisfied than whilst watching TV. You might not realize that watching TV might actually leave you a little less fulfilled than working and to me, this has been a great insight.
Most people would unknowingly agree that “Time flies when you have fun” is often a time where you’re also actively participating in something.
Now you might be wondering, I can’t always be working, right? Or actively participating in something? I can’t always be in this state of flow? I must get tired at some point. And of course, you get tired at some point, or not able to engage in challenging endeavors, but there should be a healthy balance between working and relaxing that makes you like both and not hate one and love the other. Flow is not about attaining happiness, while it might help in the journey. If I have learned anything over the years it’s that happiness is not a state you should pursue as some main goal. It is also definitely not an ongoing state and therefore useless to pursue. There’s beauty in happiness but also in sadness, just as there is beauty in work. Puett in The Path describes how we in our Western thought can say “Well I really need to relax this weekend after work, I really have to take a time-out to get out of all this stress”, which will cause you to think that when I’m working, it is stressful, not fun, and afterward I really need to relax, do something fun. This causes you to feel a contrast between work being compulsory, and vacation or watching TV in the evening as fun and relaxing. Most people would unknowingly agree that “Time flies when you have fun” is often a time where you’re also actively participating in something.
Furthermore, being aware of all the added thoughtsalso helped me to create a more, what in psychology is called, internal locus of control. A lot of times, we have to handle events that we can’t possibly have an influence on. I can leave my home as early as I want, but there is a possibility I might not be able to make it to work due to a massive traffic jam or a flat tire. As much as I would like to control the world around me, there are inevitably unpredictable events in the world and a lot of passions, motives, volitions, and thoughts in our lives that we cannot have an immediate answer to. It is proven that people feel more sad when it’s raining than when it’s sunny. There’s a lot of things I can’t control, and this helps because this leaves me time to focus on the things I can control.
There’s a lot of things I can’t control, and this helps because this leaves me time to focus on the things I can control.
With these “unpredictable events”, I don’t only mean the weather or natural cause of death, but also other less manageable dynamics in life that are less apparent than you think. While every normal, rational human being would, of course, choose to not be racist over being racist, Professor in Economy Glenn Loury describes the case of taxi drivers in NYC (The anatomy of racial inequality). Assume 10 out of 100 are young black men and the other 90 are white and let’s say 1 out of 10 people is criminal. If 1 out of 10 of the young black man would rob a taxi driver, this has a way bigger impact on the group black men than on the other 90 out of 100. What will possibly happen is that taxi drivers will less easily take black men in their taxi, making the waiting time for them too long which will result in the non-criminal black man taking the metro or finding other ways of transportation. Now the 1 out of 10 criminals will wait for the taxi anyway because he wants to rob the taxi driver, and doesn’t need to go anywhere. For taxi drivers, these pessimistic expectations (passions, motives, volitions, and thoughts) will cause their added thoughts to become true.
Ultimately, what you could (or should) take from this is, is that even though you might feel like you completely understand yourself or the world around you and you feel aware of why you or others do and say things, keep in mind that there might just be a lot more to it. This shouldn’t make things more complicated, but it should leave you with a more open and broader view of the world around, and the world “within” you. Now, there’s much more I could go on about, but for this moment I’ll leave it at this. Feel free to comment on any of your own added thoughts in life, or even your (added) thoughts about this article.