Practical philosophy

In his excellent and reasonably well-known book, An Inquiry into the Good (1911), Nishida Kitarō states:

“Philosophical views of the world and of human life relate closely to the practical demands of morality and religion, which dictate how people should act and where they can find peace of mind.”

Nishida says this as a matter of fact, as though it’s an uncontroversial observation. But reading the Inquiry for the first time in several years I was struck by this claim. A need for insight into the practical concerns of how to live and “find peace of mind” is why I latched onto philosophy as a discipline in the first place, fifteen years ago. But what I’ve ultimately found so unsatisfying about philosophy in its modern Western incarnation is the way it has increasingly failed to speak to these issues.

To the extent that questions of meaning, existence, and the good life are still taken up by Western philosophers, they are treated in two different but ultimately unsatisfactory ways: either through works of pop philosophy (some of which are good, many of which are not), or through what is known by academic philosophers as ‘practical philosophy’ (usually the areas of applied and normative ethics).

The basic problem is that most (though not all!) authors belonging to both of these camps are trained in modern Western academic philosophy, and struggle to see beyond it.* Academic philosophy is just not cut out to satisfactorily treat matters of immediate existential import due to its fundamental orientation: it is careful, logical, and analytical, thus often dry, remote, and frequently plain dull. This actually has great advantages in terms of argumentative rigour, in particular when exploring highly abstract issues in epistemology, mind, and metaphysics. It is far less advantageous when trying to speak to matters of the heart, such as how to live and find peace or purpose in life. When academic philosophy does handle the latter, its often-desiccating touch saps these issues of the lived meaning that they have as questions pertaining to human existence. Characteristically it treats them as merely another set of intellectual problems to be solved through logical analysis. At most, through the force of argument and rhetoric, it can turn these concerns into policy objectives for government and other public institutions – as was indeed the case with Jonas’ philosophical work on responsibility for future generations.

Nishida, however, could speak of philosophy as closely pertaining to questions of how to live and find peace because of the other part of the claim he makes: that philosophy is closely related to the practical demands of religion and common morality. At the time Nishida was writing Japanese philosophy had not yet separated itself from religion. Indeed, to a great extent it still hasn’t. In the Buddhist tradition philosophy and religion are not really separate spheres of life at all, and it is only under Western influence that a strict distinction between them has been observed.

The great advantage of this Buddhist legacy is that philosophy as a way of life and part of life – as practiced in ancient Greece by the Pythagoreans, the Stoics, the Epicureans, the Cynics, and of course Socrates himself – has never really ceased to exist. Hence mainstream Japanese philosophy can speak directly to the questions of human existence in a way that, amongst recent Western academic philosophers, only Heidegger and the French existentialists could. Perhaps its greatest advantage is that, because it was always one with religion, Japanese philosophy is intimately connected to practice in the form of meditation, yoga, and arts such as calligraphy, and not only rational argumentation and reflection. In this it is superior even to Heidegger or the existentialists, and certainly deserves the name ‘practical philosophy’ in a way that what today goes by that name in the West does not.

* Two philosophers who I regard as very much capable of overlooking the limitations of modern Western academic philosophy are my old PhD supervisors: Michael Hauskeller and Ed Skidelsky. Their respective books The Meaning of Life and Death and How Much is Enough? are good examples.

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