I am Jaco, the philosopher pilot. Welcome to the podcast of the show “My Views From 35,000 Feet” entitled: “How to Philosophize?”
During a television program, Frédéric Lenoir, a French sociologist and prolific writer1 mentioned this: “I think it was (the German philosopher Immanuel) Kant2 who said that metaphysics in philosophy is about adults trying to answer the questions of children. And children ask the essential questions. They will come to you at three years old and say: “Mom, who is God?” and “Dad, what is there after death?” These are essential questions! Later in life, we no longer dare ask ourselves these questions as we know the answers to be difficult.”3
So, Frédéric Lenoir states: “we no longer dare to ask them because we know the answers to be difficult.” And perhaps he is right. But could it also be that we prevent ourselves from asking them because we are afraid to do so, or better yet, because we don’t know how to go about it?
Is philosophizing a learning process or an exercise?
The way education in our modern societies is dispensed, a student is much more conditioned to learn by heart than to think for himself. The primary mandate of our educational systems is to impart knowledge, so it is normal that, even if in some respects school makes room for reflection, the majority of us live our lives looking for ready-made answers to our questions. And the danger that we are facing and that the generations to come will face is that if we do not develop the ability to think for ourselves, we can easily fall into the trap of misinformation that social media, for example, offer us, while we often only consult the sites that are in line with our already established thoughts. Not having been used to contesting the information provided to us and depending on the sources of information we consult, it can be difficult for any individual to sort things out. This is why it is more important than ever to think for ourselves. And to reflect implies to develop a critical mind where logic prevails, and where beliefs and emotions are left out. It is therefore necessary to reason without being influenced by our emotions or our beliefs and to seek reliable sources, that is what philosophizing is all about. In this context, here is how André Comte-Sponville defines a philosopher in his “Dictionnaire philosophique“: “It is someone who practises philosophy, in other words, who uses reason to reflect on the world and their own life…”4
And as I mentioned in a previous podcast entitled “Defining the act of philosophizing“, one cannot “learn to philosophize” since the term “learn” implies that one must acquire knowledge. One should rather say “practice philosophizing” which implies that one must practice thinking, practice reflecting. But how should we go about it?
Take time to reflect
No one needs to be educated in order to philosophize. And even if studies in philosophy can feed a reflection, they are not essential since the goal is not to teach the history of philosophy nor to teach philosophical movements. Instead, the first thing to do for anyone who wants to philosophize is to grant oneself time to reflect. Too often, we are busy with various things, some less important than others, without necessarily being aware of the time that passes. The crazy race which we all take part in, consisting of the usual “commute, work, sleep,” allows us very few moments where our brain is not solicited, bombarded or overstimulated. It becomes a routine habit to pass the time, to kill time. Therefore, we end up filling our free time rather than using it wisely. Perhaps we do so because, as Blaise Pascal said: “All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.”
Making an effort to reflect
At a time when the practice of religion in our modern societies was more common, at least in a more prevalent way than it is today, it regularly encouraged people to take part in religious ceremonies. The Sunday mass for those who practice the Catholic religion is a good example. Even if it was only to be like everyone else, the fact that one took part in it was a way of giving oneself an imposed moment, favourable to reflection. And so, the beauty of religions, if there is one, is that despite the hectic pace of our lives, participation in these religious gatherings causes those who take part to stop and reflect, if only for the duration of the sermon.5 Note that I mentioned “if there is one” when talking about the beauty of religions since I do not necessarily recognize the good of religions, but only the good that religions can do.
But when one considers today’s Western world, where religious practice is in decline, it becomes imperative to replace this weekly appointment that was the religious service by something else. However, we may need to go about it differently. Whether we wish to adopt a routine or not, a behavioural discipline is required where we come to respect commitments to ourselves as much if not more than those we make towards others. Essentially, it is necessary to devote ourselves to philosophizing with as much dedication and commitment as religions would have traditionally imposed upon us. Because ensuring we make time for moments that enable reflection is not enough, we must also make the actual effort to reflect.
It is not necessary to be a professional philosopher nor to have studied philosophy in order to philosophize, all we need is to practice. As we’ve discussed, not everything can be learned from books. Indeed, Aristotle, considered by some as the father of moral philosophy6, developed it by devoting himself to it. So, it is not by recalling the statements of the philosophers who preceded us that we learn to philosophize, but rather from the reflections that we can derive from them. We do not learn to philosophize the same way we learn mathematics, we learn from philosophers by examining their philosophical thoughts. I remind you that, as I mentioned earlier, we do not learn to philosophize, but rather, we practice as best we can or at the very least, we try. This is what André Comte-Sponville mentions in his “Dictionnaire philosophique” while referring to Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Alain, Camus and Russell: “The philosopher, for all these people, is not someone more learned or more erudite than the others, nor necessarily the author of a system; it is someone who lives better because he thinks better, or at the very least who tries”7. So that’s what’s essential, “to try” as simple as that, no more and no less.
Give yourself time and space
In the same way that believers grant themselves time to take part assiduously in religious ceremonies, the same should apply to all those who wish to philosophize. For, in order to philosophize, we must first and foremost embrace moments that enable reflection, which implies giving ourselves time and space. Because it is during these moments that one can best practise philosophizing.
Making time for yourself can take many forms. Here are three examples:
- Listening to my podcast is the first way to do so that I will advocate for, whether you listen to this episode specifically or any of my other podcasts. Whether you stumbled upon it by accident or voluntarily went looking for it, in either case, listening to me or reading me so far is a first step in getting you to think for and by yourself. And that’s what matters.
- Making time for reading, where you can discover the opinion of others, on various subjects of interest, whether they diverge from your own opinion or not. It is important to consult all types of works, even works that express divergent opinions, especially those, since there can be no reflection, without somewhat challenging ourselves. In any case, this exercise will allow you to develop a so-called reasonable opinion. Like I mentioned in a blog post entitled “I always think I’m right…don’t you?”, I consider that “thinking we are right” is a resulting logic for anyone who has made the effort to think and reflect upon any given subject. This is why I often say that “in order to think we are right, we must first think.
- Insofar as we can give them some credibility, listen to those who dare assert themselves. Listen to what they have to say and when possible, engage in discussions with these enlightening and enlightened individuals, because where there is discussion, there is also reflection. Here, however, I will draw a fine line between motivational speakers and inspirational speakers. In an era when personal development speakers are proliferating, it is clear that motivational speakers are more populist and therefore more focused on the packaging than on the content; they are more about form than substance. Hence the importance of choosing the right role models to trust and to give preference to inspirational speakers.
And when it comes to giving yourself space, here are three practical ways to do so:
- The first and simplest way is to create your own sanctuary, a space where it is good to reflect and meditate, within your own home. It’s a matter of choosing a fell-good space, where you can be comfortable without any distractions. Personally, having the possibility to put on background music, instrumental piano pieces for example, inspires me and relaxes me. I would like to take this opportunity to give a nod to a Montreal pianist that I am very fond of, Jean-Michel Blais, whom I invite you to discover.
- The second way is to simply engage in physical activity during which it is possible to reflect about everything and nothing. For me, walking is the activity of choice. Several studies, including some performed by Marily Oppezzo, a behavioral and learning scientist at Stanford University, show that walking promotes creativity. For example, a 2014 study she contributed to showed that walking promoted creative brainstorming. So, I take it that, given the type of thinking I advocate, walking must inevitably promote it. I can assure you that this is indeed the case, as I have often come up with ideas for articles or podcasts, or have even found simple sentence formulations for texts which I struggled with while walking.8
- The third way is to get in touch or reconnect with nature by spending time in the forest, for example. There is nothing more soothing than contemplating nature, or better yet, becoming immersed in it. Because we don’t exist outside of nature, rather along with it and everything else, we are part of a whole that is in the realm of the living. This can remind us of our vitality and our interconnectedness with everyone. It puts into perspective the beauty of life and the fact that we must appreciate every moment. Being surrounded by so much beauty cannot help but bring you inner peace and therefore moments favorable to reflection.
Clear your mind in order to fill it better
In the end, in order to see things clearly and to be able to reflect adequately, we must create winning conditions. We must allow ourselves moments of reflection, but more importantly, during these moments, we must “Clear our mind in order to fill it better.” To illustrate my point, let me make an analogy between the kind of reflection that is required to philosophize properly and meditation itself. The Tibetan monk Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche in a video entitled “Meditation & Monkey Mind” which is available on YouTube9 mentioned that meditation is not rocket science. All you have to do is stop your monkey mind. According to him, it is not a question of not thinking about anything, but rather of focusing our thoughts. After all, no one can grasp or assimilate what they are reading, or what they are thinking about, unless they are fully engaged in it. We must therefore be able to read or think, without any distraction or if nothing else with the least possible amount of distraction.
And so, whether it’s listening to my podcast, for instance, or even just going for a walk in the woods, what matters is clearing our minds in order to fill them better.
Better late than never
Finally, it is essential to recognize that anyone who has the capacity for reflection and introspection is capable of philosophizing. In his “Dictionnaire philosophique” André Comte-Sponville mentions Epicurus as having said something like: “it is never too early or too late to philosophize since it is never too early or too late to be happy. Let us say that it is only too late when one can no longer think at all. That time may actually come. All the more reason to philosophize without further delay.”10.
So, now that you have a better idea of how to philosophize and now that you know it’s not rocket science, why not start today? It will be my pleasure to accompany you on this journey. So come on, let’s philosophize together, shall we?
In closing, I would like to mention that, for those who are interested, this podcast is also produced in French. To access it, simply go to the website https://lepilotephilosophe.com. Otherwise, I invite you to visit the philosopher pilot site at https://thephilosopherpilot.com and discover the three distinct podcast shows as well as the blog section there. You may also want to subscribe to my newsletter to be informed about new podcasts or publications. Finally, if you like my writing and my podcasts, let those around you know by sharing them. It would be greatly appreciated. Till next time for another Philosopher Pilot podcast!
- Frédéric Lenoir is a French sociologist and prolific writer. His website is https://www.fredericlenoir.com/. Unfortunately,only a few of his books have been translated to English
- Immanuel Kant was a German philosopher and one of the central Enlightenment thinkers. Kant’s comprehensive and systematic works in epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, and aesthetics have made him one of the most influential figures in modern Western philosophy. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Immanuel_Kant
- Free translation of : « Je crois que c’est Kant qui dit que la métaphysique en philosophie ce sont des adultes qui cherchent à répondre aux questions des enfants. Et les enfants posent les questions essentielles. Ils vont vous voir à trois ans et vont vous dire : “maman, c’est qui Dieu ?” et “papa, qu’est-ce qu’il y a après la mort ?”. C’est des questions essentielles ! Puis après on n’ose plus se les poser parce qu’on sait que la réponse est difficile. » Beaudoin, France (animatrice). (2018). Frédéric Lenoir. Pour Emporter Saison 1 Épisode 4. Société Radio-Canada. https://ici.tou.tv/pour-emporter/S01E04.
- Free translation of « c’est quelqu’un qui pratique la philosophie autrement dit qui se sert de la raison pour essayer de penser le monde et sa propre vie… » Comte-Sponville, André. Dictionnaire philosophique (Quadrige) (French Edition). Presses Universitaires de France. Kindle Edition.
- A sermon is an oration or lecture by a preacher (who is usually a member of clergy) as defined at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sermon]
- As defined in his French biography at https://www.linternaute.fr/biographie/litterature/1775230-socrate-biographie-courte-dates-citations/
- Free translation of « Le philosophe, pour tous ceux-là, ce n’est pas quelqu’un de plus savant ou de plus érudit que les autres, ni forcément l’auteur d’un système ; c’est quelqu’un qui vit mieux parce qu’il pense mieux, en tout cas qui essaie » Comte-Sponville, André. Dictionnaire philosophique (Quadrige) (French Edition). Presses Universitaires de France. Kindle Edition.
- While the 2014 study showed that walking benefited creative brainstorming, it did not have a positive effect on the kind of focused thinking required for single, correct answers.
- “Meditation & Monkey Mind” ~ Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ksp3iSUDqfo
- Free translation of «il n’est jamais ni trop tôt ni trop tard pour philosopher, disait à peu près Épicure, puisqu’il n’est jamais ni trop tôt ni trop tard pour être heureux. Disons qu’il n’est trop tard que lorsqu’on ne peut plus penser du tout. Cela peut venir. Raison de plus pour philosopher sans attendre.» Comte-Sponville, André. Dictionnaire philosophique (Quadrige) (French Edition). Presses Universitaires de France. Kindle Edition.