THE BLOG
05/02/2011 02:37 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Life Need of Philosophy

We know what a hammer is used for: it is used to pound in nails. When we need to
pound in nails, we open the drawer, pull out the hammer, and use it for its intended
purpose. In building our lives, hammers nicely serve our purpose, and the act of
hammering -- learned, repeated, and undertaken unself-consciously -- has become
second nature.

Now suppose the scenario we're envisioning were to describe most of the objects that
populate our common-sense world: I'm thinking of cell phones and watches, cars and
faucets, desks and computers. And suppose also that our habits and routines were very
much like hammers in that they've become second nature and insofar as they help us
almost instinctively make sense of our everyday experiences. But what if the hammer's
head comes off and the thing stops working?

"Then we'd make art," said one of my conversation partners.

"Yes, we'd make art, or we'd do philosophy."

For philosophy makes an appearance only when the things that used to make sense
have stopped making sense, only when our habits and routines have worn thin, only
when our previous forms of life have collapsed. For then we begin asking questions akin
to, "What is the use of a hammer anyway? What is a hammer? Can it be used for ends
other than those we previously imagined?" Philosophy's highest end is to satisfy this life
need to understand something once it's gone.

Naturally, we may seek quick solutions for our mental unease, on the look-out for "quick
fixes," panaceas, replacement parts, or easy cures. Yet, unlike the nature of hammers
or that of skinned knees, the end of love, the onset of grief, the collision of work life and
home life, the hammer-and-tongs conflict of ultimate values, and, not least, the overall
purpose of our lives: these questions are not so easily carted off and tucked away nor
are they so readily drugged up or hammered into submission. Unexplored and holed up,
they don't go away; instead, they only get uglier.

And so, in moments like these we either embody the courage to ask serious questions
and think clearly about our lives or else we succumb to the temptation to turn away and
hide from ourselves. Will we listen to the poet Horace when -- Sapere aude! -- he enjoins
us to think for ourselves? And if we do, where might we end up?

The modern world is like a hardware store filled with shimmering hammers whose

heads and handles have come apart: it's a grand achievement but also a challenging
puzzle. For as the freedom to do as we want has become more and more a lived reality,
our reasons for wanting this object rather than that one, let alone those for living this
way rather than that way, have become more and more fuzzy. Oddly, maximizing
our choices has unwittingly clouded our judgment concerning what's choiceworthy.
If, in principle, we can choose everything, then why bother choosing anything? The
psychologist Barry Schwarz calls this the "paradox of choice."

In addition to the paradox of choice, we're also confused about the shape of social life
more generally, having lost our faith in the authority of traditional institutions. What,
after all, is the form of good government, the nature of family life, the structure of the
work place and the value of work, the place of religion, and the aim of education? What
should these look like in order to serve us well in the 21st C.? These questions have
only become more acute as well as more visceral after the collapse of the economy in
2009.

Traditionally, philosophy has brought clarity during times of great uncertainty: with the
rise of the Greek city-state, during the fall of the Roman Empire, after the loss of the
medieval worldview. But clarity in what sense? Philosophy has enabled us to see our
lives from a broader perspective, a view Plato likened to ascending from the cave of
ignorance into the light of truth. What's more, as our lives have become torn between
different commitments, values, and desires, philosophy has sought out wholeness, a
sense of being at home again in our own skin. Finally, philosophy has attempted to
put us in touch with meaning, guiding us toward a better understanding of how our
actions could be undertaken for the sake of something beautiful, good, or true. To do
philosophy, then, was to learn how to console ourselves.

Without question, it's a hard time in which to live. And yet, however strange this may
sound, it's also a beautiful time to philosophize in hopes of living better.

Andrew Taggart is a writer and philosophical counselor living in New York. His career
columns, "Models for Post-University Life" and "Our Failure of Imagination," appeared
recently in Inside Higher Ed. You can read more of his work or learn more about him
at andrewjtaggart.com.