Part of my mission as a counselling philosopher is the desire to encourage the revival of philosophy as it was originally practiced, as a way of life. To encourage people to think more deeply about what matters to them. Philosophy is not just an academic endeavour of the very few, engaged in arcane arguments about matters nobody in their right mind would ever care about (although it has its moments). Our own lives provide plenty of material for philosophical examination, and this examination can in turn enrich our lives.
Philosophical practice simply means that we engage with our world, with attention and care and presence. We are all philosophers already. We all have points of view and beliefs and values that guide our judgements and our actions. And as Amilcar Cabral, leader of Guinea-Bissau’s anti-colonial forces, wrote: “We have been capable, and must constantly be more so, of thinking deeply about our problems so as to be able to act correctly, to act strongly so as to be able to think more correctly.”
Perhaps it used to be – when we lived in communities of common values – that “our” way of living appeared as simply natural, obvious and good. But now we are faced with diverse beliefs and values, and our unquestioned, indiscernible foundations are suddenly open to question. It’s a tough situation, one that slides easily into violence.
We might be tempted to close our eyes, either to withdraw from the field or to strike out against perceived enemies. Or, we can step up and accept the challenge of these uncertain times. Philosophy is nothing but the art of questions, those questions that come upon us and worry our nights, that stir us up or make us itch. But, wonderfully, it turns out that this is a good thing for the sort of beings we are: meaning-making creatures who are (more or less) reasonable, and who care about our own lives and the lives of others.
The thing that kills philosophy dead is certainty. The one who has all the answers has nothing to learn. It was because he knew his own ignorance that the Delphic oracle called Socrates the wisest man of all.
Philosophical practice, then, is to cultivate humility, admit ignorance, and to be patient with ourselves and others when we just don’t know. Philosophical practice is to look around with all the sincere wonder we can muster. The poet Mary Oliver says:
Let me keep my mind on
which is my work
which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished.
Philosophy works through language, through writing and discourse. Which is to say: in relationship and community. Which is to say: in love (philo) and wisdom (sophia).