THE BLOG
05/19/2010 09:32 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

What is Philosophy? It's Not About Beards and Togas

This week, The New York Times launched a new online commentary called "The Stone," where academic philosophers, professors at our colleges and universities, will offer analysis and opinion on contemporary issues. This is a novel development. Since the time of Emerson, most philosophers have been locked away on campuses of higher learning and kept safely distant from the general public. They've published their ideas in journals that only they read, and they've talked about their work almost exclusively with each other, and of course the undergraduates who happen to need a three-hour credit at 10 AM, MWF.

But occasionally, like groundhogs, philosophers poke their heads up out of the subterranean tunnels where they do their conceptual spelunking. And to hear them talk on these rare appearances, it can sound like intellectual Ground-Hog Day over and over.

Yet, at various times over the years, something unusual has happened. Journalists have called me to tell me that, suddenly, philosophy is hot. It often seems to cool off very quickly, but then it heats back up again. Some of the issues it grapples with just won't go away. It's not science. It's not exactly literature. Most people are not quite sure what it is. And to crack open the door of many philosophy classrooms around the nation and listen for a few minutes, you might come away convinced that it's merely a complex intellectual game, played almost as blood-sport, that involves creating apparently endless arguments for possible answers to unsolvable problems. But this would be massively misleading.

The word "philosophy" - from its Greek roots - simply means "the love of wisdom." And wisdom, in turn, is just insight about living.

Traditionally, there have been two sides to philosophy: a theoretical side and a practical side. In the twentieth century, emulating the sciences, most philosophers became entranced with the theoretical and nearly ignored the practical. But that's not the history or the core of the enterprise. Classically, theoretical philosophy is an attempt to understand the basic structure of the world and life in it in a general way, as knowledge for its own sake, and as insight to be applied. In other words, one major purpose of theoretical philosophy is to serve practical philosophy, our search for guidance in living well. When we rediscover this connection, and catch a glimpse of the more practical stream of philosophical thought, we suddenly see its importance.

Maybe it's not so strange after all that philosophy keeps popping up on the cultural radar, despite what sometimes seem like the best attempts of contemporary philosophers to keep their whole endeavor secret. Philosophers at their best have always been cartographers of the spirit, mapmakers for the human journey. Here at the dawn of a new millennium, life is more complex and unpredictable than ever. We face more challenges and opportunities than at any other point in history. We all need to get our bearings. We could use a good dose of wisdom for moving forward. We need perspective. We need understanding. And that's what philosophy is fundamentally all about.

Philosophy is not just an ancient activity engaged in by old bearded guys in togas. I've never had a beard. I'm not old. And I promise that it's been quite some time since I was seen in a toga - although, at the beach where I do my best pondering, that might help me catch a good breeze now and then.

Three hundred years ago, the French scientist and mathematician, Blaise Pascal, wrote "We always picture Plato and Aristotle wearing long academic gowns, but they were ordinary decent people like anyone else, who enjoyed having a laugh with their friends." Philosophy is in many ways a serious enterprise, but it's not a somber one. It's just the attempt to get a big picture for our lives, to discover what's really important, and to make sure that we're living day to day in the best possible way. We can do it in a toga, in a business suit, in shorts and flip-flops, or in pajamas. We can pursue this ancient activity in meditative silence, or laughing out loud - which is most often my personal preference.

In the ancient world, Epicurus (c. 342 - 270 B.C.E.) once said: "Let no young man delay the study of philosophy, and let no old man become weary of it; for it is never too early or too late to care for the well-being of the soul." In our own time, men and women of almost every age are waking up to the importance of the well-being of our souls, as the crucial foundation for any of our enterprises, as well as for the sense of fulfillment we all want to experience in our lives.

The ancient philosophers joined together in giving us a great piece of advice that we ignore to our peril, when they said: "Know Thyself." That may be the core quest and purpose of philosophy.

So: now and then, why not do some philosophy yourself? Take some time out from the busy activities that so often seem to steal your day away from you and ask yourself a few basic questions about life. What is the meaning of my life? What are my deepest values? What would bring me joy? What is the proper role of work in a happy and fulfilling existence? And what's the role of friendship and family? How can my days be full of good things, and how can I make my best difference for others?

What's really worth my time and energy? What's not so important? How can I act in small ways to make the world a better place? These are some of the questions philosophy urges us to ask.

Now maybe it's almost a trend again. So perhaps you can finally feel free to talk to friends and family members about such things. You certainly have the permission of the ancient philosophers. And now you have the encouragement of the zeitgeist, the spirit of our day - thanks, in part to The New York Times. I personally want to urge you on to it, too.

Do a little philosophy today. Catch the wave. And enjoy the results. No toga required.