"An unexamined life is not one worth living." ~Socrates
Philosophy is one of those topics that one can spend hours talking about. I suppose it makes sense how the ancient philosophy of fingers used to spend days sipping on wine, discussing all sorts of subjects that piqued their interests. Personally, two years of reading, listening and learning is merely a drop into what's an ocean of what this field entails. One core principle of any philosophical school of thought is the question of uncertainty, whether anything is known for certain. Many ancient philosophers believed that true wealth is knowledge, and that knowledge is never-ending. My experience with philosophy has been limited to what I've been exposed to. The books have come across, the podcasts I've listened to, and the people I've spoken with.
But what do students in universities learn when they enroll in courses of philosophy? A lot of philosophy on the internet is based off historical scripts, memoirs and books by philosophers, thinkers, and writers who have shared their way of looking at the world. Whether or not this holds similarities with the academic side of things is a matter of discussion.
So to expand more on this topic, I invited a special guest on the show: Gwendolyn Dolske. Gwen teaches philosophy at Cal State Polytechnic University in Pomona. A few of her courses include the Philosophy of Sex and Love, Moral Theory and Existentialism. Her podcast: Good Is In The Details is committed towards the art of dialogue and a passion for discovering ideas.
What is Philosophy?
Contrary to stereotypical notions that include stargazing and asking questions that are irrelevant to society, it's difficult to reduce philosophy down to a singular definition. Philosophy deals in a clear and precise manner with the real world, its complex social and material nature and more importantly, where we belong in it. Hence, it can be divided into 4 areas to get a brief overview:
Theoretical Philosophy: This includes Epistemology (what knowledge is and where it comes from); and Metaphysics (the nature of reality and the fundamental forces that shape it). Theoretical philosophy poses questions about certainty and our beliefs and allows thinkers to go deeper into each facet of the topic. For example, whether or not God is real, the validity of religion, superstitions, the existence of a soul, the afterlife, etc.
Practical Philosophy: This is about finding ways to live a better, fulfilled life. Practical philosophy entails questions such as what social, political and ethical arrangements are needed for us to live a better life altogether. Discussions about cultures and societies often play a role here.
Logic & Moral Theory: This distinguishes between good and bad reasoning, and so often requires a certain degree of critical thinking. Moral theory involves deep analyses of how we should act, how we justify our actions and whether certain behaviour can be classified into 'good' or 'bad' on the surface.
History of Philosophy: Here, we learn how the greatest thinkers in the history of humankind answered these and similar questions. Over many centuries, thinkers from different parts of the globe (East and West) have sought to find answers to questions that lead to living a better life. Their paths may start different but their way of thinking eventually converges in beautiful ways.
To study Philosophy is to see the connection between ideas, and to explicate that connection in a reasoned and logical way. An ethicist, for example, might draw upon behavioral psychology to argue that humans should lead a certain kind of life. This argument could have further implications about how government should legislate in order to ensure people can lead the lives they want to lead. A metaphysician or philosopher of science might help provide conceptual clarity and reason through the implications of competing quantum mechanical theories.
You get the idea.
It's not uncommon to see moments of someone trying to sell you something through Marketing in mainstream media. Books everywhere with titles such as '5 ways to make more money', or '3 ways to a better relationship' are engineered to hook you in. To entice you and sell you this one exclusive way to live your life. If you have a strong sense of what will actually make you happy, then you're going to be able to pay more attention to what business is doing. Your pocket and your checkbook will thank you as a bonus.
'I once asked a friend of mine during college: "Don't you ever wish you didn't know what you know, like life would be so much easier to just have belief instead of seeing the complications and confusions with that belief. He said yes, we were confused before but we're confused at a higher level...".
And I've always remembered that that's what philosophy does. It doesn't necessarily solve any problems, but sometimes you can appreciate the complexity in which you were grown and acknowledge when there's a problem. I think you can get more joy and get more surprise or realize there's more places to travel, more books, to read more people, to talk to more food, to eat. There's so much in that humility and curiosity, they go together. I don't think we pay enough attention to the significance of enjoying our lives because when we have that as the foundation, and we understand that as the core; then all of the other things fall into place. Similarly, none of the other things, business, relationships, what you're going to do on the weekend, none of that really works unless you are enjoying your life."
Love and Morality
What constitutes right or wrong? Who do we believe and who do we question? Can there by a universal right and wrong for everything and everyone? Moral Theory examines this concept deeply and even talks about love and its role in determining morality. Often when we come across the idea of 'Love', we think of love in intimate relationships. Love in the case of marriage, or a romantic relationship. The truth is that every individual's understanding of love differs, and greatly depends on said individual's experiences throughout the course of their life. Growing up, as kids we had a certain idea of love. Love that constituted what we experienced from our parents. As teenagers, we experienced adolescent love as we matured and went through puberty. Our notion of love became more....romanticised. As we enter adulthood and encounter more meaningful, long lasting friendships and relationships, our idea of love evolves, and keeps changing if we get married, have kids or even grandkids of our own.
Then there's love for one's own country, one's own people, pets and even materialistic objects to an extent. Love for food, travel, music, entertainment, hobbies, sports, the list goes on. What we think of love greatly determines what we consider to be 'right' and 'wrong' behaviour. This can be applied to superhero films as they're a great example of right and wrong behaviour. The best superhero films are typically those ones where the antagonist has a driving purpose that's leading him/her to behave in a particular manner. In their view, they're doing what's justified to accomplish a certain goal for the betterment of people, their loves ones, etc. A third person view of these movies can help identify the presence of good and evil, absent of any context whatsover. It's hard to tell.
One way to think of the concept of morality, is in terms of well-being. The well-being of living organisms around us. Morally 'good' behaviour can be classified as anything that improves the well-being of living creatures, mentally, physically, emotionally or spiritually without compromising the well-being of another living creature in any form whatsoever. Although, even this behaviour and belief largely stems for our understanding of people and our society; and thus can differ from person to person, culture to culture. Our experiences make up for a majority of what makes us behave a certain way. Everything we've been through, the knowledge we've accumulated, the people we've met, all shape us into who we are and what we believe. This in turn, helps determine our sense of good and evil too.
Different people have a different sense of what's important as well, because of their experiences. Cancer and Racism are two very different topics, but each is detrimental to our society in its own way. Is curing cancer more important than ending racism? Depends on who you ask. A cancer survivor or an individual who has lost a loved one due to cancer might say yes. A victim of racism who's been discriminated against for years might say the opposite.
And what about a cancer patient who has been a victim of racism for years?
Intentions and Authenticity
Anyone who believes that social media is a good indicator of societal relationships and livelihood of humans, simply hasn't gone deep into questioning what social media provides. Social media provides a front, a front to portray a form of ourselves that we can choose. We can choose the perfect photo, the perfect editing tools, the perfect caption, the perfect location, the perfect company, etc. Then, we get to enjoy a barrage of ego-boosting compliments in the form of likes and comments from people who we probably don't even talk to much.
How genuine is it all? How different is complimenting someone over text or a comment versus in real life? How different is it to talk to a stranger over a text via Tinder or Instagram versus in real life somewhere out in public? It's a totally different ball game, one that's significantly easier online than it is in real life. A cycle of sorts, one that's made us so accustomed to digital relationships that we fumble at the sound of fostering a real life one.
"I have a 15 minute break between my classes if I have two classes in a row. Before smartphones, it used to be students must walk from one building to the other, getting lost on campus, waving to people, talking to them, and so on. Now, everybody is using the phone is a time filler, which I don't think feels good all the time. Since lockdown when I have a break between classes, I try not go get on my phone, and instead practice a yoga pose so that I am fresh for the next round. And I think the biggest thing is awareness of how you're feeling."
A few days ago I was chatting with a colleague of mine about immortality. What would it be like to 'live forever'? He relished the idea, which is where we found some ground to disagree upon. Imagine if we stopped ageing at 25 and were to live forever. We wouldn't have to rely on physical needs like food, water, sleep and shelter, all being optional. What would we do with our lives? Would we have any purpose whatsoever in our activities? How would we foster meaningful relationships with anyone? Because anyone we love will pass away eventually, leaving us behind.
Part of what makes life as it is, is that we know deep down that we won't live forever. And so, everything we do today and tomorrow and afterwards is to make this life count. Nothing would be needed if we lived forever. Removing the element of time would cause a disparity in how we look at the world and people around us. That's what motivates us to live better and better today. Philosophy doesn't have to be an ivory tower. It's not rocket science and it's certainly not a waste of time if you give it a chance. By giving it a chance, you're giving yourself a chance to ask, question and act accordingly.
Because if not, what else will you do?