Daily Archives: April 18, 2005

Thoughts on Practical Philosophy

Philosophy is considered one of the humanistic studies, which are studies intended to provide general knowledge and intellectual skills (rather than occupational or professional skills). That is not to say, however, that they have no “practical” value. I would argue quite the contrary.

The classic philosophic question is “what is the meaning of life?” Typically, that question is posed in a highly theoretical environment, with the querant never actually intending to apply that meaning to their own life, only to a “life” in general, or a laboratory “life” to see what happens. Plato’s Republic, I suppose, would be a case in point.

In contrast to this strictly idealistic goal, the practical philosopher asks instead “what can I do to make my life more meaningful?”

The former presupposes a meaning that is somehow divorced from action, that is fixed and for the purposes of growth requires only the action of seeking, which if the search is well-directed and not in vain, may culminate in the act of discovery. The latter, on the other hand, does not separate life from its meaning, or more precisely, requires that all actions, including the “seeking”, be incorporated into a permanent state, rather than an isolated act or instance, of epiphany. It does not say you do not need to seek for meaning, but refines and focuses that search to begin within, rather than in some applied external condition.

Practical philosophy is a classical example of removing the barrier, or glass, between the observer and the observed. It postulates that there can be no meaning without subjectivity. That there is no “objective” or primary Truth, no universal that is not at its core absolutely and irrefutably personal.

Practical philosophy, then, can have no universal dogma, nor tenets. The fact that multiple people find the same truths to be self-evident does not make them universal truths first, only secondarily.

The question then is this: is civilization as Julian Jaynes defined it “any group of people gathered together in sufficient number so that it is impossible to know each individual on a first name basis”? Or is civilization in fact the natural coalescence of those individuals whose personal philosophies are compatible with each other to a sufficient degree to enable cooperation, coordination and coexistence? Can any “civilization” whose boundaries and philosophical framework are externally imposed hope to survive or progress?

How do ethical systems of behavior (which can all, since the beginning of time, be reduced in principle to a simple statement – “Thou Before I”) and codes of morality (which are in essence guarantees of punishment from one’s peers or superiors [i.e., employers, homeowners’ associations, communities, representatives, rulers, divinities] for wrongdoing either immediately or on a future payment plan) fit into a frame of reference where the ultimate requirement is personal responsibility?

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