Saturday, April 05, 2008

Philosophy and Happiness

This article was prompted by a reading of the following eulogy of Jacques Derrida.

Noam Chomsky has also written about this, though from another angle. His article is available here.

Philosophy has become incredibly arcane and out of reach of a reasonably intelligent individual. Like modern Law and its practice, there are expert practitioners of philosophy not because they are lawful or philosophical or wise or clear, but because only they know what the terms mean, the terms whose obscurity keeps them in-demand and well-paid in their professions.

In the 20th century, and even more so in the 21st century, philosophy has become a discipline with its own highly specialized terms, theories, texts and testaments.

Academic philosophers, e.g. the French crop of post-x and post-y intellectuals and their American counterparts, have an astonishing degree of influence in the current debates on philosophy.

Philosophy is no longer a personal passion, it is just another subject, another specialization for one's arts degree. No doubt, one can find passionate academic philosophers, who become red in the face while arguing for or against a certain position. But that passion has nothing to do with their real lives. When they have won an argument, nobody has gained an insight which will enable them to be freer or happier. It probably will result in a published paper, at best.

The word Philosophy literally means "the love of wisdom". And the acid test of wisdom is how happily one can live in the world as it is. The wisdom that is inapplicable to real life is not worth the time spent upon expounding it.

Unfortunately, philosophy has become divorced from real life. It is a remarkable state of affairs that one can study philosophy and even teach it while all one does study and does teach is the history of western philosophical thought. Philosophy is now but another department in colleges and universities where dons and donnas debate whether the writings of philosopher x are convergent or divergent with the writings of philosopher y, whether one fashionable nonsense can be considered compatible with another fashionable nonsense.

The major philosophers of the day are professors in various universities around the world. They expound meaningful-sounding tomes on highly abstract positions, and nobody but qualified practitioners can make any sense out of them. I daresay I find Bailey and Love's Short Practice of Surgery a much better read than Sartre's Being and Nothingness.

In this age, examples of philosophers to practice what they preach have been conspicuous by their rarity. Is it because there is nothing to practice perchance, because it is all drivel anyway?

And when one does come across some acts of philosophers, they have been mostly symbolic events (e.g. returning a prize, making a statement, being a signatory to a petition, etc.) The question is not whether a philosopher should start fighting wars or start harvesting crops. Without a doubt, the philosopher's skill and expertise is mental and intellectual. The question is whether that skill remains engaged with the issues of one's own life and of the world at large, whether it brings clarity to a tangible problem beguiling oneself or others; or does that skill become a way to invent imaginary problems and then to solve them?

Wittgenstein was probably the last great western philosopher. His seminal works were not to create imaginary problems or to give opinionated and cross-referenced answers to abstract ones. In fact just the opposite. His whole life was a clarification of the various issues in philosophy as preventable confusions in the mind. In his very words:

"Philosophy aims at the logical clarification of thoughts. Philosophy is not a body of doctrine but an activity. A philosophical work consists essentially of elucidations. Philosophy does not result in 'philosophical propositions', but rather in the clarification of propositions. Without philosophy thoughts are, as it were, cloudy and indistinct: its task is to make them clear and to give them sharp boundaries."

In the eastern regions of the world, philosophy was always subsumed by spirituality and the pursuit of mystical salvation, since that was the only way to permanent peace and happiness (or so the sages thought). Since this pursuit was so subjective, and reason and language were condemned as limited tools (or even evil), it never became a mutual activity. It remained deeply personal and incommunicable.

This also was unfortunate. If the west has gone into the rarefied echelons of institutionalized philosophy, the east has also not bothered to rise from the mystical subjectivity or spirituality. And both have become marginalized. Today, there are as few remarkable philosophers in the west (from whom one can learn anything of value), as there are remarkable sages in the east (from whom one can learn anything of value). The sages are repeating the same adages as those prevailing 3000 years ago, and the western philosophers are not making much sense anyway.

The marginalization is not of their influence, in fact spirituality and institutional philosophy are having a field time as far as attracting people is concerned. The marginalization relates to the complete absence of a meaningful or original contribution from the experts in both of them.

The uninitiated westerners as well as the easterners are still enchanted by their promises. Someone born in the west gets tired of the rat race and starts exploring eastern spirituality. And someone born in the east gets discontented, sheds off the yoke of "society" and organized religion and starts on a study of western thought or the practice of a particular meditation. Both spend many years scouring the field, and either reach a stage of delusion and denial where the original goal has been all but lost, or a state of bitterness where no solution is deemed possible or practical.

In my opinion, philosophy departments and the academic discipline of philosophy have become a self-perpetuating silliness. The teachers teach philosophy, and the students then start teaching other students philosophy without there being any meaningful contribution to human existence or without anyone being the wiser or happier or clearer due to their work. They can be replaced by the excellent postmodern essay generator and I don't think anybody will miss them.

And again, in my opinion, spirituality and the associated claptrap has become a self-perpetuating sickness. The masters kidnap their disciples' brains, and the best disciples then proceed to leech on others (it is a Multi-level Marketing Scheme) for the rest of their lives. There is monstrous corruption and exploitation in the spiritual circles. I will not touch about organized religion because most people I have talked to do see the stupidity of that.

Nobody is willing to admit that both philosophy (as it is now practiced in academia) and spirituality, are deeply flawed responses to the human desire for peace and happiness.

The pursuit of wisdom and the pursuit of happiness are two of the deepest passions of a human being. One must never forget one's goal that one had when one started studying philosophy or started seeking happiness. It is as if one came into the kitchen to get a glass of water but forgot all about it as one became engrossed in appreciating the various dishes and recipes on show. After a while, one may oneself not remember what one had come for in the first place. It is good to remind oneself again and again that one reaches one's destination not when one can spout endless wisdom, but when one is happy, harmless, clear and content.

While serious seekers will sooner or later give up what doesn't work and what doesn't make sense, it is without a doubt that many millions will spend many years of their lives sorting through the garbage. This waste of one's time is perhaps an unfortunate necessity for people to realize the garbage-ness of garbage.

4 comments:

Martin said...

I think eastern philosophy still has some value. It emphasizes emphatically the amazing idea that one can become absolutely clear and balanced through inner investigation. This is a possibility that is not seen in western philosophy, which is more about analysis in an objective fashion.

Martin said...

Another difference is that eastern philosophy gives primacy to subjectivity and thus is essentially psychology. Whereas western philosophy is obsessed with objectivity, thus it more resembles science and maths where clever arguments and deductions and axioms are the order of the day. Emotions are not even acknowledged and a proper person should behave perfectly rationally. Thus it is not much applicable to happiness or the real world as humans are primarily driven by feeling/emotion/habits and only peripherally by logic.

Anonymous said...

I agree that philosophy, as we traditionally know it, does not have many followers today. I think ethics and logic are practiced more than metaphysics and epistemology today. People, in general, want to see a tangible outcome of a philosophical argument. They don't want to think whether the sun will rise tomorrow or not. Or if the chair they are sitting on really does exist. They want to know how they can alleviate the world hunger problem by giving away a part of their earning. Or how they can reduce suffering in animals by not eating meat. Or why pursuing stem cell research to find a cure for Parkinson's violates the sanctity of human life.
The popularity of utilitarian philosophers, like Peter Singer, R.M. Hare and John Stuart Mill, in the past century gives evidence to the fact that people want philosophy to be accessible and usable. Most people can understand and participate in the philosophical (ethical) arguments in support for animal rights; argue for or against abortion and euthanasia; discuss the causes of, and solutions for, famines in Africa and Asia.
This trend towards an acceptance of a more practical approach to philosophy could be attributed to the increase in the percentage of "young population" in the world (some also say that a lot of the world's problems today are also caused by this young population). Young people want (relatively) instant results. And searching for the meaning of life (or the pursuit of wisdom and happiness) following the traditional methods does not provide them quantifiable results in the short term. Seeing a statement at the end of the month detailing how the 10% of their monthly salary that they donate to an agency fighting famine was spent does give them a feeling that they contributed to increasing the overall happiness in the world. Also, the consequences of their actions validates their moral judgment resulting in a sense of getting wiser than they were before.
I believe philosophy is becoming a practical exercise than an academic one.

harmanjit said...

"People, in general, want to see a tangible outcome of a philosophical argument. They don't want to think whether the sun will rise tomorrow or not. Or if the chair they are sitting on really does exist. They want to know how they can alleviate the world hunger problem by giving away a part of their earning. Or how they can reduce suffering in animals by not eating meat. Or why pursuing stem cell research to find a cure for Parkinson's violates the sanctity of human life.
The popularity of utilitarian philosophers, like Peter Singer, R.M. Hare and John Stuart Mill, in the past century gives evidence to the fact that people want philosophy to be accessible and usable. Most people can understand and participate in the philosophical (ethical) arguments in support for animal rights; argue for or against abortion and euthanasia; discuss the causes of, and solutions for, famines in Africa and Asia."

# Strictly speaking, this is not philosophy but applied ethics. Philosophy deals rather with the principles of ethics, e.g. the utilitarian principle, or the golden rule, etc.

"Young people want (relatively) instant results. And searching for the meaning of life (or the pursuit of wisdom and happiness) following the traditional methods does not provide them quantifiable results in the short term."

# You will be surprised how many young people are passionate about life and its meaning, a passion which whittles away in the older population. Many youngsters do join the various charitable or activist struggles in their rejection of traditional structures, but that has nothing to do with philosophy.

The problem is that the western academic discipline of philosophy and the eastern mysticism are increasingly losing their originality, incisiveness and even the high standards of rigor and purity. There are people delving into them with a lot of passion, but with little result, except a certain dogma of say Marxist views or of Buddhist sunyata even after decades of study or practice.

"I believe philosophy is becoming a practical exercise than an academic one."

# But is it philosophy then, a love of wisdom or of happiness? Or a hasty way to "do good" or to "be good"?