TAKING STOCK – TWO YEARS OF PHILOSOPHICALGUIDANCE.COM

“I am writing for myself and strangers. This is the only way that I can do it.” – Gertrude Stein, The Making of Americans.

 

 

This week marks the second anniversary of the first post on this site. I thought it would be a good time to take stock of my progress. The attentive reader knows that for the most part the 309 blogs are not random essays, but an unfolding philosophy book intended to methodically examine the relevant elements of the field of philosophy for designing a meaningful life. Today I would like to outline the path I have been following to offer context for new and erstwhile readers.

After a few introductory posts on defining philosophy and the site’s mission, I jumped into the Big Picture – the reduction of practical philosophy into its two major divisions:

[1] The nature of reality (9 posts from 11/9/18-12/3/18), and

[2] Ethics (13 posts from 12/5/18-1/4/19).

In that analysis we found that reality and ethics are manifest at five levels or tiers, each of which requires reflection in fashioning a flourishing life. These are the foundation this project.

We next took on eight special topics essential to expanding our understanding of reality and ethics that form the brick and mortar of our construction:

[1] Good and evil (10 posts from 1/6/19 -2/6/19),

[2] The question of God (19 posts from 2/8/19- 3/27/19),

[3] Body and soul (15 posts from 4/3/19 – 5/6/19),

[4] Death and immortality (24 posts from 5/13/9- 7/5/19),

[5] Free will, fate, and human destiny (42 posts from 7/17/19 – 10/23/19),

[6] Teleology (40 posts from 11/11/19 – 1/31/20),

[7] Suffering (40 posts from 2/10/20 – 5/11/20; including 7 on the COVID-19 pandemic).

[8] Certainty (38 posts from 5/18/20 – 8/14/20), and

[9] Introduction to the Meaning of Life (18 posts from 9/2/20 -10/12/20 and ongoing).

Conclusions on the big picture and the eight special topics were included in 5 review posts (8/17/20 – 8/28/20) prior to the section in progress.

Along the way, I stopped to blog on some of my current reading:

[1] Fake News (12/12 and 12/14/19),

[2] The Philosopher’s Magazine (1/11/19),

[3] Before the Big Bang (2/27 and 3/1/19),

[4] We Are Not Alone (3/29 and 4/1/19),

[5] Is Life Worth Living? (5/8 and 5/10/19),

[6] God and Physics (7/8 and 7/10/19),

[7] Revolutionary Deism (7/12 and 7/14/19),

[8] Does God Exist? (10/28 and 10/30/19),

[9] African Philosophy (2/3, 2/5, and 2/7/20),

[10] Finding Wisdom (5/12 and 5/15/20), and

[11] Who is a meaning of life for? (8/31/20).

It was a pleasure in the last post to welcome my first guest blogger, Barry Zern, who presented an alternative view on God (10/14/20). I thank him for his contribution and would be happy to receive others from readers.

Over the last two years, the site had 2,454 visits by 1,990 different users from 102 different countries on six continents. The majority (64.9%) of users came from a search engine (94.3% Google; 3.3% Bing; 1.6% Yahoo, and 0.5% Ecosia ) while 31.1 % came directly to the site and 4% from a social media referral (91.3% Facebook). The most visited page was The Summum Bonum (post on 1/23/19 and Appendix Table 2 and Diagram 1). The most visited current reading was We Are Not Alone.

The book is currently about three quarters complete (although the posts are probably more accurately viewed as a second draft rather than final, and provide detail and length exceeding that permitted for a modern publication).

From here that I will finish the introductory section on The Meaning of Life and then discuss the four components and their integration. I hope to end on how various traditions and individuals encapsulate this format and try to synthesize the ideal approach, at least for myself: an ongoing, public, individual search for enlightenment.

I hope this quick review helps summarize the composition of the site and helps those who wish to return to past sections in their own journey. It remains my passionate goal to present a system of practical philosophical guidance that, to my knowledge, is unavailable in modern form.

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TAKING STOCK – ONE YEAR OF PHILOSOPHICALGUIDANCE.COM

“To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live, according to  its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity and trust” – Henry David Thoreau.

 

Last week was the one year anniversary of the first post on this site. I thought it would be a good time to take stock of our progress. The attentive reader knows that for the most part the 156 blogs have not been meandering essays, but rather the first half of a philosophy book whose mission is to methodically examine the relevant elements of the field of philosophy for assembling a meaningful life. Perhaps a review of the path I have been on will help readers determine which parts they missed or wish to review.

After a few introductory posts on defining philosophy and the site’s mission, I jumped into the Big Picture – the reduction of practical philosophy into its two major divisions:

[1] the nature of reality (9 posts covering 11/9/18-12/3/18), and

[2] personal conduct (ethics; 13 posts from 12/5/18-1/4/19).

In that analysis we found that reality and ethics are manifest at five levels or tiers, each of which requires reflection in fashioning a flourishing life.

While those two main areas remain the chief focus of a personal philosophy, we next took on the first five of seven special subjects within those areas:

[1] Good and evil (10 posts from 1/6/19 -2/6/19),

[2] The question of God (19 posts from 2/8/19- 3/27/19),

[3] Body and soul (15 posts from 4/3/19 – 5/6/19),

[4] Death and immortality (24 posts from 5/13/9- 7/5/19), and

[5] Free will, fate, and human destiny (42 posts from 7/17/19 – 10/23/19).

Along the way, I stopped to blog on some of my current reading:

[1] Fake News (12/12 and 12/14/19),

[2] The Philosopher’s Magazine (1/11/19),

[3] Before the Big Bang (2/27 and 3/1/19),

[4] We Are Not Alone (3/29 and 4/1/19),

[5] Is Life Worth Living? (5/8 and 5/10/19),

[6] God and Physics (7/8 and 7/10/19)

[7] Revolutionary Deism (7/12 and 7/14/19)

The site has had 662 visits by 499 different users from 46 different countries on six continents since its inception. The majority (57.2%) of users came directly to the site while 34.8 % came from a search engine (86.7% Google; 9.2% Bing; and 4% Yahoo) and 8% from a social media referral (80% Facebook). The most visited page was The Summum Bonum (post on 1/23/19 and Appendix Table 2 and Diagram 1). The most visited current reading was We Are Not Alone.

The book is currently about halfway complete (although the posts are probably more accurately viewed as a second draft rather than final). The next two sections are Teleology and Suffering (Grief, Pain, and Illness).

After that I will get to the heart of our subject – the four components of the meaningful or flourishing life. If space allows, I will investigate how various traditions encapsulate these four components and try to synthesize the ideal approach, at least for myself – a virtual, public, individual search for enlightenment.

I hope this quick review is compelling enough to send you back to past sections and to draw you forward as I present targeted philosophical guidance that, to my knowledge, is absent from the treasury of  existing literature.

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PRACTICAL VS. ACADEMIC PHILOSOPHY

“In philosophy there is generally no accepted definitive knowledge” – Karl Jaspers, Way to Wisdom.

Now that we have at least an initial definition and justification for philosophy, it is time to decide on our approach. Academic philosophy typically looks for rigorous, arguments for or against a particular point of view that can be subject to critical debate. Professional philosophers often rely on rules of logic such as those presented by Aristotle in his Organon. A classic example is the syllogism, tying two premises to a conclusion: For instance: “All men are mortal and Socrates is a man; therefore Socrates is mortal.”

In the late 19th century a modern form of logic developed first by Gottlob Frege was taken up by some important 20th century analytic philosophers such as Bertrand Russell, and Alfred North Whitehead who attempted to derive a completely logical basis for mathematics. But logic ran into limits demonstrated by annoying linguistic paradoxes such as “This sentence is false.” or “What set does the barber belong to in a town where everyone who doesn’t shave himself is shaved by the barber?”. Kurt Godel proved in the 1930s that any set of rules would either be unsound or incomplete, thereby undermining the potential of logic to perfect human understanding.1,2

Speculative philosophy is more intuitive or derived from personal experience of the world. Examples includes the teachings of the Buddha or the thoughts of the existentialists. It is based on careful reasoning and reflection which seeks to be internally consistent, but rigorous arguments are generally not applicable to its development.

After this brief introduction, I believe it is best to candidly admit that I have limited proficiency in sophisticated logic. On this site I will use some of the basic logic developed by Aristotle and deployed in most undergraduate college philosophy classes (watch for example YaleCourses: Philosophy of Death by Shelly Kagan on YouTube for excellent rigorous, but understandable logical arguments).

However most of my constructions will be more subjective and thus less amenable to formal verification. My method will be to start with some historical positions on an issue and then argue the reasonableness rather than the certainty of those positions. Support for a position may include a logical argument, but other defense may be based on intuition, experience, history, science, philosophers’ texts, common sense, and even general consensus. As we will discuss later, truth is at last subjective especially in speculative philosophy. My goal is not logical proof of hypotheses, rather the development of internally consistent practical positions on those matters which cannot wait for certainty or ever be known for certain. Formal logic may be vital in mathematical modeling, but is only one tool of many in thinking through life’s meanings. However as in all things on this site, I am open to any arguments that follow strict rules of logic that contribute to clarification of our discussion.

1 The Modern Intellectual Tradition: From Descartes to Derrida, Lawrence Cahoone. The Teaching Company, 2010.
2 Redefining Reality: The Intellectual Implications of Modern Science, Steven Gimbel, The Teaching Company, 2015

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WHY DO PHILOSOPHY (continued)

Now it is possible that you think science and religion can fill those roles and are better choices as they have more defined processes to follow. But further deliberation undermines those alternatives. Starting with science, it is difficult to imagine anyone in today’s world not considering science in thinking about philosophical issues. I want to make clear that I believe that science offers the most definitive answers to questions about the nature of physical reality and science-driven technology clearly is the best means to solve most everyday problems and enhance our daily life. Science is also incredibly useful in arguing many points in philosophy, such as the nature of the mind.

However it seems to me science breaks down when trying to answer larger questions such as those posed by ethics (right versus wrong actions) and metaphysics (e.g. free will). Science struggles with being molded to answer a question such as whether there is a God. It cannot easily answer questions about happiness, justice, beauty, or even love and friendship. It is best at telling us how the material world works, but is often not designed to answer many questions about why things are as they are. Psychology, to suggest a specific scientific field, can give us fascinating insights into human behavior, but is less well equipped to show us the means to contentment, self-worth, and human meaning.

On the other hand religion appears to be useful to many people, and I do not wish to detract or even argue against personal beliefs. However religion is based on faith which appears to be unevenly distributed among people and is of variable intensity even among its proponents. Religious experiences are so individualized that they appear unreliable or illusory. Religious dogma is strongly dependent on revelation which may be inaccurately or even untruthfully recorded throughout history. Spiritual texts are frequently enigmatic, metaphorical, and open to varying interpretations. Philosophy is useful within religion as a tool to analyze sacred documents. Moreover faith can be further strengthened by reason. At a minimum, philosophy is a tool that allows religious practitioners to develop an internally consistent understanding of their religion and faith, perhaps avoiding harms like those done in the name of religion in the past.

At the end of the day, the greatest scientists and theologians (for example Einstein and St. Augustine) have fallen back on philosophy as vital to understanding their beliefs about life, mankind, and the universe. I’ll take their word for it that philosophy has much to offer the thoughtful scientist and person of faith.

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WHY DO PHILOSOPHY ?

“Life is the gift of the immortal God; living well is the gift of philosophy.” – Seneca.

The next logical question is why worry about philosophy? After all most people never study the field and live out their lives in relative satisfaction. I have two responses to this. First it is unlikely any but the most simple-minded can really live a normal life span without questioning the nature of the world and the meaning of their life. More likely, they choose a casual or superficial approach to such questions. The danger here is confusion and missteps, mainly in the form of erroneous thinking. That approach forces one to develop effective reasoning through trial and error and to repeat the long process of developing philosophy from scratch including reformulating arguments that have been thoroughly vetted throughout history. That legacy belongs to all of us and should not be cast aside or ignored.

Second one of the most certain things in life is that we all want to be happy and make a good life for ourselves, but that is unlikely to happen without some reflection. Any reflection will or should lead one to questions on the nature of the world, of happiness, of the purpose of life, and probably about the existence of God. A life without reflection is likely to lead to avoidable regrets, discontentment, and perhaps feelings of failure.

Philosophy, especially practical philosophy, can provide a pathway to optimizing life’s opportunities and potential while reducing the likelihood of flawed choices. Its demand for discipline in thinking improves the ability to think clearly about other matters such as work, relationships, and current events. It also adds another layer to your understanding of the world we live in. (to be continued next post)

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WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY?

 

“Philosophy begins in wonder.” – Plato, Theaetetus.

Invariably every philosophy textbook and many philosophers’ main works begin with the surprisingly difficult problem of defining philosophy. I reluctantly join them…The Greek root is easy enough philo means love and sophia means wisdom; hence ‘love of wisdom.’ While this is strictly true till this day, it seems too vague to serve as a practical definition. Webster’s dictionary* offers 6 meanings:

1. The rational investigation of the truths and principles of being, knowledge, or conduct.
2. Any of three branches, namely natural philosophy, moral philosophy, and metaphysics.
3. A system of philosophical doctrine.
4. The critical study of the basic principles and concepts of a particular branch of knowledge.
5. A system of principles for guidance in practical affairs.
6. A philosophical attitude, as in composure and calm in the presence of troubles or annoyances.

Most general use of the word by philosophers probably refers to the first definition, and it remains the most important for me. However, for the purpose of this site, a combination of definitions 1, 3, and 5 will generally reflect my use of the word, philosophy.

The Oxford Guide to Philosophy** spends nearly 4 pages of small print to define and explicate the word, philosophy. I like the simplified ‘thinking about thinking’ as deep reflections on questions that defy easy answers is the crux of the philosopher’s work. It further divides philosophy into three parts: (1) Metaphysics – the theory of existence; (2) Epistemology – theory of knowledge; and (3) Ethics – theory of conduct and value. These will encapsulate the areas that dominate this site. However others might add additional fields that do not easily fit into these three categories such as: Aesthetics – the theory of beauty; and Politics – the theory of governance.

The Encyclopedia of Philosophy*** spends ten pages defining and explaining philosophy. Most instructive here is perhaps its dissection of philosophy as ‘critical’ versus ‘speculative’. The author concludes that philosophy is neither pure speculation nor pure criticism, rather it is ‘speculation controlled by criticism.’ This very nicely fulfills the needs of this site.

It is also worth mentioning that the word, philosophy, in its earliest usage effectively included all areas of knowledge. Natural philosophy eventually was subsumed into science, although there is still the field of philosophy of science. When reading early works it is important to keep this archaic use of the term in mind. Also history may not have ever been a recognized part of ancient philosophy, but there is the field of the philosophy of history more recently.

Philosophy remains difficult to define, but most readers’ notions of it should be satisfactory if the information above is unclear. Perhaps a few simplified definitions of philosophy as given by the philosophers themselves will also help.

“The art of life” – Cicero

“The scientific knowledge of man” – J. S. Mill

“The collective name for questions which have not been answered to the satisfaction of all that have asked them” – William James

“Total perspective, as mind overspreading life, and forging chaos into unity…all questions that vitally effect the worth and significance of human life.” – Will Durant.

“That primordial activity whereby self-respecting men seek to come to terms, not only with the ends of science or of art or of government, but with their own individual destinies.” – Henry D. Aiken.

“The aim of philosophy, abstractly formulated is to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense to the term.” – Wilfrid Sellars.

*Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, 1996.
**The Oxford Guide to Philosophy, edited by Ted Honderich, 2005.
***The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Paul Edwards, 1967

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Welcome

“Wisdom differs from knowledge being the application of what is known to the intelligent conduct of the affairs of human life.” – John Dewey

Welcome to philosophicalgudiance.com. This website and blog series is intended for anyone curious about philosophy, especially as a guide to enrich life and solve problems. Life it turns out is perplexing for many of us. Perhaps it is not surprising that this has been true throughout human history. For over 2500 years, a group of master thinkers has been trying to make sense of the universe, humanity, and the individual self in an ongoing dialogue, much of which is retained in little-read books. This is unfortunate as the problems of life are similar across time, and the texts they left us address, sometimes in a systematic way, the very problems that puzzle us today. Why are we here? Is there a God? What makes for a happy life?

To be sure, there are current writers addressing these issues, but predominantly from a modern vantage point (such as psychology, humanism, or the strict materialism of physics) or a single perspective (such as Buddhism or Christianity). Of course these authors have been of great assistance to many people, but for many of us, traditional philosophical approaches and literature expand the spectrum and flavor of thought that can be distilled into an individual philosophy of life. Conversely, typical philosophical textbooks offer historical and didactic information, while popular philosophy books simplify philosophical thought rather than lead readers to the writers themselves or prepare the reader for a step-wise or practical system for employing it. Popular psychology and self-help books are oriented to mental health and relationship issues with just a sprinkling of philosophy. This site represents one man’s attempt to bring together a variety of philosophical systems into a practical approach to understanding the world and life, with the goal of outlining a path one can individualize to discover a meaningful and flourishing existence.

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