My Journey to Define Philosophy

A few months ago, me and a friend were discussing a conversation we had had with another philosophically-inclined individual over the VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) service, Discord.

From my poor memory, I recall his argument to be something like: “Numbers cannot be infinite, because numbers must correspond to objects in reality, but reality contains only a finite number of objects.” My friend and I did not find this argument compelling, and argued that numbers were in fact infinite, and attempted to give reasons for why this is so. At the end, neither side was convinced by the other’s argument. But this was not what concerned me and my friend.

What concerned us was not the topic of conversation, nor the ultimate disagreement, but rather the attitude of our interlocutor. During our analysis, we settled on a term for what our interlocutor was engaging in: dead philosophy.

Curiously, neither of us could say exactly what this “dead philosophy” was, but we remained confident as to its accuracy.

Over the next few days, I explored this idea of dead philosophy, and its natural counterpart, living philosophy. Examples seemed easy enough to find for each, but what did it mean?

I first explored what dead philosophy is not. The distinction between living and dead philosophy is not simply one of new versus old philosophy. As far as I am concerned, you can open a copy of many of Plato’s works, written more than two thousand years ago, and find a philosophy which is very much alive. I don’t think that the same can necessarily be said of contemporary philosophical works.

It also seemed clear to me that living versus dead philosophy was not a distinction of subject matter. I believe that someone else, with the right attitude, could have delivered the same thesis on the finitude of numbers, and it would instead be an example of living philosophy, not dead philosophy.

So then in what does living and dead philosophy consist? What makes living philosophy alive? The answer introduced itself to me very politely one day: Living philosophy is lived. It is acted out. It means something. You live your life differently because of it. Those who engage in dead philosophy, were they to discover some day that they were wrong, would simply shrug their shoulders and go about their day, as if nothing had changed, because for them, nothing has changed! Living philosophy is embodied, precisely because it is imbued with life through our own living actions.

I presented my findings to my friend, and he agreed with my account, and went on to expand on it himself. Just like that, the matter was settled.

But this question of living versus dead philosophy had a bigger part to play in my continuing quest to explore myself, and to explore philosophy as my chosen discipline. It’s a rather short jump, I think, from living philosophy versus dead philosophy (as described here) to proper philosophy versus improper philosophy. Certainly, I don’t think any true philosopher would take pride in being told that their work is meaningless, empty, and detached.

I think the jump is only slightly longer to go from proper philosophy versus improper philosophy to real philosophy versus fake philosophy. To do philosophy properly is to truly be doing philosophy, and to do it improperly is to not truly be doing philosophy. Therefore, the question of “What is living philosophy?” is not one that simply identifies a mode of
philosophy amongst other modes, but strikes right to the heart of what philosophy itself is: Philosophy is not a topic, or a method, it is an attitude. A behaviour. A motivation.

And this shouldn’t be surprising. The etymology of the term “philosophy” seems so well known it borders on cliché. It’s “the love of wisdom.” And what does being in love consist of? Simply that! Love requires no particular subject or action, but simply that the lover feels love.

Once this is accepted, several things follow clearly. Attempts to define philosophy through a shared topic or method are fundamentally misguided. Likewise with attempts to explain what a philosopher does. Philosophy isn’t about what you do, it’s about what you care about.

Philosophy isn’t a tool for us to use for our own ends. It isn’t something that we get to pick up or throw away as it suits us. It is an end to itself. Charges that philosophy doesn’t progress would seem as absurd as informing someone of the negative utility of their spouse. It misses the point. And perhaps most important is how philosophy should be taught. With this understanding, we can see that the true core of philosophical teaching is not the development of particular skills, or the memorization of certain texts. The core of philosophical teaching is the cultivation of the true love of wisdom.

Philosophy is the most beautiful and mysterious creature to ever pass my way. She is the love of my life, and I would not trade that for the world.

Published by Daniel Stanton

I am a philosopher whose interests include the good life, narrative, and metaphysics.

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