I am Jaco, the philosopher pilot. Welcome to the podcast of the show “My Views From 35,000 Feet” entitled: “Why Philosophize?”
“… philosophy is an act of reflection, that at least in principle, leads to a more active, happier, more lucid, freer and wiser life.” — André Comte-Sponville1
Since the dawn of humanity, mankind has been looking for answers
It is likely that throughout history, mankind has pondered many questions of an existential nature. At the very least, individuals must have wondered about the meaning of their own life. Indeed, regardless of the era in which they lived, people have, in many ways, tried to make sense of their world. And when faced with the unknown or the inexplicable, they often turned to the gods that they created for themselves, in order to appease the uneasiness that the unknown and the inexplicable generated within them. Mankind’s nature being what it is, people could not help but rejoice in the answers and therefore in the comfort that their newly acquired beliefs in these gods offered them. This is precisely what gave strength to organized religions thereafter, all religions encompassed, as over the years, they have been able to provide answers to questions for which none existed at the time, even if these were, however, solely based on mere beliefs.
In this regard, here is what John Gray2 stated in his book “Feline Philosophy: Cats and the Meaning of Life”: “Religions are attempts to make an inhuman universe humanly habitable. Philosophers have often dismissed these faiths as being far beneath their own metaphysical speculations, but religion and philosophy serve the same need. Both try to fend off the abiding disquiet that goes with being human.”3
So, throughout the ages, individuals like Socrates, whom I mentioned in a previous podcast entitled “Defining the act of philosophizing”, wanted to use reasoned reflections and arguments to counter established beliefs, whether they were of a religious nature or otherwise. It is because of these reflections and arguments that Socrates was ultimately tried for impiety4 and sentenced to death. Without necessarily affirming that Socrates was the first to question commonly accepted beliefs by using reason, he certainly remains an emblematic figure. Many who succeeded him ventured out to assert their points of view in opposition to beliefs deemed unshakeable at the time, but often they did so at the expense of their freedom or, like Socrates, at the expense of their lives.
Thus, despite the fact that over time, reasoning came to be in opposition to simple beliefs, obviously, the environment of blind faith still persists today and is well anchored.
The discomfort of the philosopher
As we have just seen, the act of philosophizing can be risky, because philosophizing means risking being judged by those who represent established law and order. However, this is not the only reason that prevents someone from philosophizing, because, in addition to being subjected to the judgment of others, the act of philosophizing can, in itself, create discomfort and shake the foundation of our beliefs. Often passed on to us by our parents, the same parents who taught us everything and in whom we have blind trust, these beliefs form one of the pillars which our identity rests on. Given that we have little reason to doubt our parents’ convictions and even less reason to doubt their benevolence towards us, it is normal to not necessarily want to question the legitimacy of their teachings. In other words, our beliefs were often innately passed on to us by our parents and are central to our identity.
But more than that, our beliefs are also passed on to us through the societal conditioning instilled by the community in which we live. The feeling of belonging to a society, whatever it may be, with all its rules and conventions brings us comfort and stability after all. And so, for these two reasons, it is likely that many won’t dare to think differently, and therefore by extension what makes it difficult to philosophize.
As I mentioned earlier, the act of philosophizing can be both destabilizing and uncomfortable at times, which somewhat explains why too few people engage in it. Besides the judgment of others, most are also afraid of being left on their own to come up with answers. Instead, they prefer not to address these questions head on and even to bury their heads in the sand in many cases. In essence, they avoid any questioning that could jeopardize their belief system and prefer to bury them rather than address them. Yet, isn’t it precisely the ability to dare to think and reflect for and by oneself that has made humanity progress over time?
Why should we philosophize?
Despite the discomfort we may feel and despite the concerns we may have about the reactions of those around us to our desire to philosophize, it is important to remember that, just as I mentioned during my overall introductory podcast to the Philosopher Pilot website, the purpose of philosophizing for a person is to reflect “on the world and existence itself, in order to achieve wisdom or understand the meaning of life, in the hopes of being happier or freer.”5 So these aspirations of happiness and freedom that philosophy could provide, by themselves, should be enough to encourage us to philosophize, in spite of our discomfort and worries. It is Michel Onfray, a French philosopher and essayist who stated in his book “The Power to Exist” that “to philosophize is to make one’s own existence viable and livable, where nothing is given and everything remains to be built. »6 To philosophize thus makes it possible to give meaning to the world in which one evolves, but even more, to give meaning to one’s existence.
So, rather than wandering through life and surviving life as I often say, we get to live it fully. As far as I’m concerned, “surviving life” means living one’s daily life according to goals and objectives that we set for ourselves, certainly, but without necessarily for our life to have meaning. The reason for being is therefore what, for me, differentiates between living one’s life and surviving one’s life. Hence the importance, or rather the necessity, of philosophizing. Once the discomfort and apprehensions are overcome, serenity will ensue from the satisfaction of having taken control of your existence while, along the way, you will become increasingly wiser over time. For nothing can be more reassuring than knowing you are in control and wise to boot.
The process matters more than the result
While finding answers to our questions may be of interest, what matters most is not the result, but the process of reflection itself. As I mentioned in my introductory podcast to the show “These Lesser-Know Greats“, “The mere fact of initiating a process of reflection can be beneficial, because what matters is not necessarily to find answers to our questions, but at the very least, to ask them!” The simple act of philosophizing can, therefore, by itself, remedy existentialist discomfort if there is any.
To this end, in the introduction to an episode of the French radio program “La conversation scientifique” efn_note]«La conversation scientifique» is a French radio show on the France Culture radio station[/efn_note] entitled “And the question is: what is a question? “,7 the host Étienne Klein mentions this: “In (his book) L’entretien infini, Maurice Blanchot (French philosopher) explained that “the answer is the misfortune of the question”: the answer always closes some of the doors that the question had the virtue of opening; as soon as the answer comes, we are obliged to renounce the richness of the possibility, the freedom to imagine an answer other than the one that has been said.»8 This illustrates the primacy of the exercise of reflection over its result. We then must philosophize whether we get answers to our questions or not.
Sooner or later, we all have to philosophize
In my podcast entitled “Defining the act of philosophizing”, I mentioned that ” …to philosophize is to question ourselves about ourselves, even to the point of reconsidering who we currently are or who we are to become if necessary.” And as I mentioned earlier, ultimately, to philosophize is to aspire to be happier or freer. Sooner or later, most of us will be confronted with questions that will challenge us and for which there are no prefabricated answers.
Indeed, very few people manage to avoid such questions all their lives. There comes a time in everyone’s life where we are brought to question ourselves. We realize how far we’ve come, almost blindly, on autopilot (no pun intended), without having asked ourselves any meaningful questions. We take stock of what we have accomplished and we ponder about what we want to do with the time we have left, not knowing of course how much time is left. When we are young, it is normal not to wonder too much because we have our whole lives ahead of us. We are aware that we are mortal, but we are fortunately not yet confronted by this reality at that stage. However, there comes a time when many people, including myself, start to reflect about existential questions. And so, on a small scale, we wonder about the meaning of our existence, while on a larger scale, we wonder about the state of the world and the legacy that our generation will leave to the generations to come, for example.
In any case, some people will legitimize their inaction following this questioning due to the frantic pace at which they are called to live their lives. Some will avoid it altogether, even going so far as to abuse drugs or alcohol for example. Others will engage in what I call mind-numbing entertainment as they spend most of their free time on social media or binge-watching endless TV shows. But the fact remains that most of us will be challenged by them sooner or later. In putting them off indefinitely, by the time we decide to finally focus on them, we may be of the impression that it’s too little too late. But I say better late than never.
Philosophizing, an endless exercise
In the end, even if I have convinced you of the necessity of philosophizing and of the fact that the process is more important than the result, some might be discouraged by the fact that, as André Comte-Sponville stated in his Dictionnaire philosophique, which I referred to earlier, “philosophy (and therefore the act of philosophizing) is for mankind an effort towards wisdom, which remains forever unaccomplished.” We who have been accustomed to reaching goals, accustomed to having an end to everything we do, to obtaining conclusive results, how could we take part in an exercise knowing it to be endless? Let me share with you two relevant quotes that I hope will help you look at things differently.
The first one, which is most often attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson910, goes like this: “Life is a journey, not a destination. » Quite a brief quote, but it says it all. What is important is not to reach a precise goal, but to make sure that our journey, in this case, our philosophical journey, is beneficial to us and to others, so that through it, we all grow in wisdom.
The second quote comes from a speech by John Fitzgerald Kennedy11 where he mentioned this: “The great French Marshal Lyautey once asked his gardener to plant a tree. The gardener objected that the tree was slow-growing and would not reach maturity for 100 years. The marshal replied: In that case, there is no time to lose, plant it this afternoon.”
So, it does not matter if the exercise of philosophizing is one that is considered endless, for just as the tree will take 100 years to reach maturity, every person that philosophizes will contribute to the beautification of the environment in which they evolve throughout this process. And just as the gardener will not be able to admire the tree once it has reached maturity, the philosopher’s influence will remain long after they have passed away. Even if you don’t witness the results of your undertakings, let alone the impact you may have on others, it doesn’t matter, because at the risk of repeating myself, it is the process that counts, not the result.
To conclude, allow me to share with you two quotes from the back-covers of two books by French authors that I recently discovered which summarize my notion that philosophizing is accessible to all and that one can only learn to philosophize by practicing:
Excerpts from the back-cover of the book “Tous philosophent” edited by Jean Birnbaum
“At first, one could believe in a passing fashion. And then the vogue became a groundswell: today, the love of philosophy constitutes a shared passion. It is as if our society was reviving a promise of the Enlightenment, which Diderot12 summarized as follows: “Let us hasten to make philosophy popular!”
A pedagogical and paradoxical reflection: if philosophizing is “thinking for oneself”, can this autonomous undertaking rely on pedagogical teachings? A historical and cultural reflection is required, since we must also ask ourselves what the situation of philosophy is elsewhere, as in other parts of the world, outside of the Western world that is. The practice of philosophy leads us to discard our certainties and to cobble together an ethic based on actions, which allows us to hold up, to hold on: learning to philosophize is learning to be free. This is a collective emergency and an imperative for all.”
Excerpts from the back cover of the book ” Pour que la philosophie descende du ciel ” by Alexandre Lacroix
“Twenty-four centuries after the death of Socrates, it is time to stop taking ideas for celestial deities, intimidating and haughty. To put an end to the preconceived idea that the great notions of philosophy would float above our heads, that they would belong to a separate, inaccessible reality.
Philosophy is not simply a matter for specialists and scholars. It is not necessarily learned from textbooks, quite the contrary: it is first and foremost an act of thought accessible to everyone, as long as one trusts one’s judgment and makes the effort to reflect on one’s own condition.
Starting each time from a personal experience, an important dream, a conversation between friends, the memory of a missing person or the contemplation of landscapes, he (Alexandre Lacroix) shows that far from being abstract constructions, ideas are most often born from having a concrete relationship to the world. And that before being a school discipline, philosophy is indeed an emanation of life. »
So, now that you are able to better appreciate the fact that the act of philosophizing can be beneficial to you, I invite you to philosophize. But, knowing that philosophizing cannot be taught, nor that it can be learned from books, but rather that it must be practised, how do we go about it? I invite you to listen to my next podcast entitled “How to philosophize” to discover some practical solutions that I plan to share.
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!
- Free translation of «… la philosophie est une activité dans la pensée, qui débouche, du moins en principe, sur une vie plus active, plus heureuse, plus lucide, plus libre — plus sage.» Comte-Sponville, André. Dictionnaire philosophique (Quadrige) (French Edition). Presses Universitaires de France. Kindle Edition.
- John Nicholas Gray (born 17 April 1948) is an English political philosopher and author with interests in analytic philosophy and the history of ideas. He retired in 2008 as School Professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Gray contributes regularly to The Guardian, The Times Literary Supplement and the New Statesman, where he is the lead book reviewer. He is an atheist. Gray has written several influential books, including False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism (1998), which argues that free market globalization is an unstable Enlightenment project currently in the process of disintegration; Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (2002), which attacks philosophical humanism, a worldview which Gray sees as originating in religions; and Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia (2007), a critique of utopian thinking in the modern world. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Gray_(philosopher)
- Gray, John. Feline Philosophy (p. 2). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.
- Impiety is a perceived lack of proper respect for something considered sacred
- Free translation of an excerpt taken from a French Wikipédia page : https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philosophe]
- Free translations of «Philosopher, c’est rendre viable et vivable sa propre existence, là où rien n’est donné et tout reste à construire.» Michel Onfray, La Puissance d’exister : Manifeste hédoniste, éd. Grasset & Fasquelle
- Free translation of “Et la question est: qu’est-ce qu’une question”
- Free translation of “la réponse vient toujours fermer certaines des portes que la question avait justement la vertu d’ouvrir ; dès que la réponse advient, nous sommes obligés de renoncer à la richesse de la possibilité, à la liberté d’imaginer une réponse autre que celle qui a été dite.”https://citations.ouest-france.fr/citation-maurice-blanchot/reponse-malheur-question-2597.html
- Note: some uncertainty seems to exist as to the actual author of this quote
- Ralph Waldo Emerson (May 25, 1803 – April 27, 1882), who went by his middle name Waldo, was an American essayist, lecturer, philosopher, abolitionist and poet who led the transcendentalist movement of the mid-19th century. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ralph_Waldo_Emerson
- John Fitzgerald Kennedy (May 29, 1917 – November 22, 1963), often referred to by his initials JFK, was an American politician who served as the 35th president of the United States from 1961 until his assassination near the end of his third year in office. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_F._Kennedy
- Denis Diderot (5 October 1713 – 31 July 1784) was a French philosopher, art critic, and writer, best known for serving as co-founder, chief editor, and contributor to the Encyclopédie along with Jean le Rond d’Alembert. He was a prominent figure during the Age of Enlightenment. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Denis_Diderot