How To Philosophize: Part One



One of the tragedies of life is how seemingly few people are interested in philosophy as an active pursuit, as a way of being in the everyday world as opposed to academia where sweatered undergrads and bearded professors gather to drink coffee and say grand things about a bunch of 18th and 19th century Germans…who themselves sat around drinking coffee and saying things like weltanschauung, and Wir müssen die richtige Art und Weise kennen zu denken!! But philosophy is a grand adventure and just as relevant in Walmart as it is in Symbolic Logic classes.

So I have decided to use my blog to encourage you all to be philosophical, to see yourself and the world anew– no matter what race, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, age, or religion. You can even be a philosopher if you are Toronto Maple Leafs fan…especially if you are a Leafs fan (trying to explain to the world why we Leafs Nation members love them so much considering their annual win-loss ratio). But first… a (very) general summary of what happened in Western philosophy up to now.

Philosophy can be thought of as the consideration of three main lines of thought in Greek, Roman, and Western European history: (1) Metaphysics – what is the nature of our existence, (2) Epistemology – what is the nature of knowledge, and (3) Axiology – what is the nature of the values that we hold or aspire to. The way I see it, we have gone through Ten General Periods of philosophy so far. These have been:

  1. The Classical Mythologists(Hesiod and Homer) collected and wrote of the Greek myths.
  2. The philosophers after them and before Socrates (the Pre-Socratics) tried to figure how the world could be understood apart from the myths. What if the myths are indeed myths, how can we then explain how things are made and work…without referring to the gods?
  3. The Classical Philosophers(Plato, Socrates, Aristotle and others) wanted to know how we can define virtue, and become virtuous. What is the right way, or at least the bestway, to live?
  4. The Roman, Jewish, and Christian thinkers influenced by Greek culture (Hellenism) tried to analyze theology in terms of the Logos– the creative principle(s) organizing the Universe. Was God behind it, or part of the Logos itself? Also, how could one define virtue and be virtuous when the Roman state was in a constant state of war and trivial disputes?
  5. The Medieval philosophers in Europe and the Near East looked anew at the ideas of Plato in terms of the (possibly) mystical nature of the universe (NeoPLatonism). The rise of Catholic philosopher St. Augustine and Boethius, and Alcuin the Latinist brought scholarship to Europe through theological thinking and Latin study. Also, medieval Islamic philosophers (Al-Kindi, Al Farabi, Ibn Sina) contemplated Platonic thought and science in terms of their faith. The classic Greek works were saved from Christian and barbarian sacking though their translation into and transmission in Arabic and Persian by Islamic scholars – much of what we know of Plato would have been lost without it. When Petrarch (1304-1374) revived the study of the ancient Roman thinker Cicero, this is considered to be the start of the Renaissance.
  6. The Renaissance philosophers started developing scientific methods, principles, and ideas about human government. Rene Descartes became known as the “Father” of what would become Modern Philosophy by his study of morals as a science and what he saw as the separateness of the mind and one’s body (Cartesian Dualism). He thought the mind/body were separated by the pineal gland. He is known for saying “I think, therefore I am…”
  7. After Descartes, philosophers entered a so-called “Age of Reason” (the Enlightenment), and thinkers such as Baruch Spinoza and others saw truth as rational and deductive. Also the modern concepts of identity, the Self, and morality became important subjects, as well as the idea that Reality exists fundamentally in the mind. Mankind now attacked and questioned the authority of the Church (and Christianity in general), many rejecting the theological rationales for the existence of God.
  8. Late Enlightenment (and/or Pre-Modern) philosophers such as Immanuel Kant thought that truth had to be independent from experience, while Georg Hegel theorized that the properties we perceive in objects depend on how they appear, and are not inherent to the objects themselves – things have no properties independent of the mind. Hegel and others (after Kant) were considered to be part of a new German Idealism: a rejection of the aristocratic thinking and politics of the day. Later, Arthur Schopenhauer introduced a new sense of pessimism into philosophy, arguing in his essay On the Vanity of Existence that “Time is that by virtue of which everything becomes nothingness in our hands and loses all real value.” The nineteenth century saw the arrival of Charles Darwin (Evolution), Søren Kierkegaard (Existentialism), and Karl Marx’s writing on the economic status of the working class (Marxism). Kierkegaard’s ideas on how the individual and his experiences are the starting point of philosophy – and how moral/scientific thinking alone cannot explain human existence – were and are a huge influence on modern philosophy.
  9. Though it is hard to say exactly when one philosophical age ends and another begins, the late 19th and early 20th century marks what is generally known as the Modern Era, arguably beginning with Frederick Nietzsche and his view that Life is without intrinsic value. His book The Will to Power and other works argue that though Christianity is a backward, anti-human religion, science has no inherent moral value and meaning either. Modern philosophy saw the rise and ongoing development of psychoanalysis (Freud), the study of signs and symbols (Semiotics), sociology, psychology, anthropology, linguistics, and Logical Positivism – philosophy as the logical clarification of thought (there are no specifically philosophical truths).
  10. The late 20th century saw the rise of what is known as PostModernism– a complicated set of ideas revolving around questions of authorship, and the idea that there is no such things as objective knowledge. Postmodern philosophy is also highly critical of the effects of mass media, capitalism, and commodity fetishism. The decade we are currently in (the 2010s) is considered by some to be part of a Post-Postmodern Era, also called Metamodernism or (µ-Modernism, and some consider it vacuous and narcissistic (the supposed vacuity of Internet users is creating the meaning of the content within it).  Others call this new era PostConceptualism –  a time marked by a “New Sincerity” defined by a rejection of Postmodern cynicism or irony, and the return to sincerity, enthusiasm, and sentiment in music, art, literature, etc. 

So, now that we know where we are and what has happened…how do we actually become philosophers ourselves? 

First of all, we can start by considering ourselves philosophers. How is it that we can say this without having read Plato, or maybe taking a Philosophy 101 class? This is because what philosophy is, and always was, was something that starts from life – your life. The search for questions and answers starts within your life – within the situation of living, right now, where you sit. No need for a toga, or a fancy suit – your life is a rich vein of living no matter what it is. You are “in” your Life 24/7, and thus you don’t need to think thoughts irrelevant to your life and its relationship to other lives. But that raises the question of what are the relevant questions to your life?

In my case I looked into what I was passionate and curious about – jazz improvisation, Zen Buddhism, and so on and found the things that I really wanted to philosophize about: things that were really important to me, things that I really wanted to know. This is really important as it makes our life exciting and filled with passion. In fact, I was (and am) so passionate about it I travelled to monasteries in Western Japan and South Korea to study Zen meditation, as well as played freely improvised music in numerous clubs and halls throughout South Korea, Japan, China, and Vietnam, then wrote a book about free form jazz and Zen Buddhism (my doctoral dissertation).

My desire to philosophize led me to travel the world and enjoy amazing experiences. This something anyone can do if they plan and strategize their life around the pursuit of knowledge, you don’t even have to travel any further than your own local library. The world opens up in your mind and heart when you ‘seek to know.’ In fact there are so many fantastic, factual books about Zen and East Asian culture you don’t have to spend the thousands of dollars it takes or suffer through the negative aspects of world travel (disease, jet lag, cancelled flights, etc). The German psychiatrist and philosopher Karl Jaspers said in his book Way To Wisdom that:

“The ascent of philosophical life is the ascent of the individual man. He must accomplish it as an individual in communication and cannot shift responsibility to others. We achieve this ascent in the historically concrete elective acts of our life, not by electing any so-called world view (weltanschauung) laid down in propositions.”

“Let us not heap up philosophical possessions, but apprehend philosophical thought as movement and seek to deepen it…Let each of us as an individual immerse himself in his own historicity, in his origin, in what he has done; let him possess himself of what he was, of what he has become, and of what has been given to him.”

So why don’t we take him at his word and begin our philosophical journey? First we find somewhere to live, food, money, a good night’s sleep, love and so on. These questions of daily living may not be very philosophical, but we still must then carry on with logic and/or common sense – although sometimes what we think is common sense actually turns out to be illogical. So to begin we must know a few things about philosophical or analytical thinking.

There are definable standards for the foundation of both our daily and philosophical thinking. We can look at our thoughts and see if we are objectively thinking clearly. These standards are:

  1. CLARITY: What we say is clear and completely understandable. It always amazes me how undergrad philosophy students of all people fail on this first point so often. But most are young – victims of their own (commendable) enthusiasm – and are so excited about their first real analysis of the philosopher Frederick Nietzsche, for example, that they can’t wait to tell all their friends about what they know and spout it out for everyone to hear at parties. But complete clarity is the top priority and any philosopher worth the name can make a subject clear to anyone at any level through the use of the appropriate language level. Clarity means you could explain Immanuel Kant’s view(s) on morality to your 7-year-old niece and turn around and defend your understanding of it to a tenured philosopher professor at Harvard. This is the golden rule, but it is not that hard to live up to. Be clear and you will always be on the right track, even if you don’t use fancy words.
  2. ACCURACY: What you say should be correct. Thus make sure you know what you are saying, know it to be true. What you think and say should be free from error, and be changed the instant you discover an error. Philosophy means leaving your ego at the door and be ready to argue, contemplate and grow.  Philosophy is NOT finding the right answer to something or everything, Philosophy is a set of tools to help you think and understand the world. NO philosopher has ever found the one right answer that solves morality for all people at all times for every situation. This enters the realm of the religious, so make sure you are clear if you are speaking philosophically or theologically. Nothing wrong with either but there is often a fine line between stating what is good, and what your God says is good. Just be clear which is which, and why.
  3. PRECISION:What you say must be exact to the appropriate level of detail. You don’t have to solve the great questions of life every time you consider the nature of what is good behaviour in your life. Make the level of your argument clear and you won’t get sidetracked into defending a universal position on morality when you are just trying to get your kids to be quiet in the car!
  4. RELEVANCE:This too is another major problem in many philosophical discussions – the topic gets sidetracked into something else. This is usually how fights get started. Discussions about the legacy of the Montreal Canadiens vs. the Maple Leafs often de-evolve quickly in Toronto bars on a Saturday night and soon someone is questioning the marital fidelity of the other’s mother, and fists start flying. Thankfully this happens very rarely in philosophy, although I once attended a composer’s conference where one of the attendees was so incensed that my work was included in the proceedings that she vigorously insisted I was a “charlatan” whose graphic scoreswere a mockery to “serious” music and then proceeded to leave the room in a fuming rage! Strangely enough, word got out around Athens (Greece) about the happening and it almost tripled the expected attendance of my concert the following evening! No such thing as bad press…I was performing in Paris three days later and even had a couple of curious audience members ask me Êtes-vous le charlatan?!
  5. DEPTH:Your precise, accurate statements and ideas should also contain the appropriate amount of depth. Those big fancy words have their right place in philosophical discussions, so make sure you know exactly what they mean and use them to add the appropriate nuance and subtle meaning to your thinking. These big words are nuanced because they have interrelationships with other big words and knowing one means you will have considered the others that play into its overall meaning. Once again you don’t have to be fancy, just know what you are saying and know the exact meaning of what you say. Make sure you are clear if you are using a word like Communism, because what Karl Marx meant by ‘Communism’ and what Soviet Communismbecame were two very different things.
  6. BREADTH:This ties in with Depth, as you need to know what others before you thought about the things you are thinking about. You don’t have to memorize a long list of philosophers and read every single book on philosophy. But if you think about morality a lot, look up moral philosophy and find out who thought about it most often. You will find much to think about in the present, and in the past – including Aristotle’s ideas about ethics, medieval philosopher St. Anselm’s thoughts about how ‘just by thinking about God we can know he exists,’ and why Thomas Aquinas thought that “all that is good is God.” You don’t have to agree or disagree with any of it, but knowing as much as you can about other thinkers will always help you towards finding your own (unique) thoughts.
  7. FAIRNESS:This is one aspect of thinking that many media outlets and public “intellectuals” completely fail at.  What we think must never be self-serving, or contain a vested interest in thinking a certain thought for our own gain. IF we are wrong about something, and it can be proven we are wrong we mustadmit it, and re-think our position. It is the ONLY way we can have a true discussion about anything. Trying to be right about everything all the time is arrogant, narcissistic, and not philosophical. Having a philosophical position does not make “us” right, it makes what we hold to to be correct, no matter who we are. Facts are facts, so we must make sure we are humble in this regard. Also, it is not philosophical (or nice) to take a “I told you so” approach to philosophy. We are not philosophers to be better than others or to be “right.” We are philosophers to be philosophers. This ties in to how we use logic.
  8. LOGIC:What we think and say must make sense. Our ideas must begin correct and end correct as best we can manage. Thus we must avoid certain fallacies, or illogical ways of thinking. Many fallacies are common, and people use them in the false belief they are ‘right’ when in fact they are wrong about what they think. This is where what some see as common sense is actually closer to nonsense. But thankfully most fallacies are rather easily spotted if you know where to look. Once again, in philosophical fairness, the first place we look for fallacies should be in our own thoughts. As a very famous “theologian” once said, “First remove the plank from your own eye to more clearly see the speck in your brother’s eye…”

So that means we must know (what I call) the Big Eleven: the eleven most common fallacies (mistaken beliefs based on faulty arguments) people use. We are all guilty at one point or another of accidentally allowing one or two to slip in to our everyday thinking, especially when we are passionate about an opinion. But an opinion is not an argument, thus we must keep fallacies out of our best thinking. We must be dedicated to the avoidance of fallacies, especially the following eleven.

The first is the Hasty Generalization. We all use this occasionally. A young heavy metal drummer might say: “Jazz is stupid!” Clearly, it is not a universal truth that jazz is (or is not) stupid, or based on stupidity. It is a difficult art to perform properly and takes years of intensive study to improvise in a profound manner. Clearly our young drummer is making a hasty generalization based on his love of what he thinks is not stupid: heavy metal. Jazz, by comparison, is stupid to him. The Hasty Generalization is often preceded or followed by a Weak Analogy: for example, both saxophones and fully automatic assault rifles are made of metal so we should ban both! So does this mean my AK-47 and my vintage Selmer Mark VI tenor saxophone should go in the garbage? Very weak analogy! Clearly I am using a very silly example, but often Weak Analogies are at least a little silly.

Both fallacies are often part of an Argument Ad Ignorantium, arguing from ‘ignorance’ of what is actually true.  Theists will often argue that since God has not been proven to not exist, their beliefs are justified. Alternately one might argue that since it has yet to be proven true, God doesn’t exist. No matter which “side” you are on though, both arguments are fallacies. This is why true atheism is actually not “a-theism” at all. True atheism is a rejection of the evidence presented by theists as proof of their god(s) existence. Thus everyone is an atheist when it comes to not believing another’s supposed evidence. Christians for example accept Christ, and reject Hinduism, as it is a “false” religion with what they consider to be imaginary gods. They reject the Bhagavad Gita, the Brahma Sutra, and other books as sources of truth. To use a rather awkward term, they are “Hindu a-theists.” Thus, there are no true atheists who reject the idea that there could be a god or gods of some sort in some form in this Reality, or Universe, or in another. There is no proof to the contrary, so it remains a possibility. But this also is not “agnosticism” either, as science has proved so many facts about physical reality that negate a significant number of the claims of various religious texts (a kind of literary atheism). Either way, to claim theism or atheism on the basis of this fallacy is an error in thought.

I will continue this subject in Part Two of this series.



9 thoughts on “How To Philosophize: Part One

  1. You made me wait e-bloody-nough time for your return you charlatan haha. True Daniel Schnee entrance back into blogging, with cogent poignancy.
    As a largely autodidactic person from a working class background, I think it is more than reasonable to make the case for people to philosophize more & take pains to think better & though this takes effort, small steps over extended periods of time yield distance, perhaps even immense distances.

    1. I just want people to see that one does not have to put on some kind of fake and grandiose air to play with ideas and expand their own (and maybe others’) minds. Objective, analytical thinking saves one from being duped in all aspects of life.

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