Philosophy and Life

By Jonathan Dolhenty, Ph.D.

One of the gravest and most unjustified prejudices which circulates, especially among those who for the first time delve into philosophy, is that of believing it to be wholly unrelated to life. For such superficial minds what is philosophy? Simply a mass of opinions which are contradictory to reality. And philosophers? People who waste their time in speaking an incomprehensible jargon and weaving a gossamer web which the first slight breeze breaks asunder. This prejudice is not new, since Plato himself saw fit to defend philosophy against similar accusations in the tenth book of his Republic.

Of course philosophy has its peculiar terminology, just as do all other branches of knowledge. Just as it is impossible to understand chemistry without a certain facility in or familiarity with the terms used in its study, so also in philosophy a knowledge of its terminology is necessary.

The consideration of philosophy as a mass of contradictory opinions results from the prejudice of treating philosophy as something separate from and foreign to life as man must live it. Separated thus from life, the solutions which philosophy attempts to give appear as useless and obscure data.

There is nothing more pernicious than this separation of philosophy from life. First of all, philosophy comes under that branch of study called humanism, since it tends to give a solution to the gravest problems of man. Moreover, it is impossible to live a life regulated by reason unless it be based either implicitly or explicitly upon the answers of philosophy.

There is no man who does not every now and then ask himself the following questions: “Who am I? What is the purpose of my life? What awaits me after this life?” These are questions which arise from the very nature of man’s being, and for this reason they cannot be suppressed; to deny their insistent recurrence is impossible. Skepticism, as the history of philosophy shows, is a temporary phenomenon, and no matter how considered it is contradictory. These insistent queries demand an answer, and the answer can be given only by philosophy. It is the philosopher who, taking flight from the wings of reflection, reaches the essence of the spiritual life, and in the supreme effort, which brings both anguish and joy, fixes his eye upon this being which is man — scrutinizes his nature, his exigencies, his activities, and his development. Arduous indeed is the problem which ancient wisdom caused to be carved upon the facade of the temple of Delphi: “Know thyself!”

Philosophers vary in the height of their speculations and their powers of genius, and we should not marvel if throughout the story of philosophy we see it constructed piece by piece, and at times watch it waver and slip behind rather than progress in its solution. Every age marks a development, but not every development indicates an advance, especially when this progress must be attained through the powers of reason alone. The moment philosophy investigates the roots of man’s spiritual life it is presented as the ultimate judge of the entire life of man, even in the solution of those practical problems which at first glance seem to have relation to philosophy.

The life of every man is made up of problems which present themselves from time to time and demand a solution. These may be problems which concern early education, the technical or artistic direction of one’s activity, or which perhaps involve economic, moral, and political matters. Technical, economic, artistic, and political matters, considered in themselves, are not the subject of philosophy. They are bound up with the acquisition of certain practical abilities, and practical abilities pertain to science and not to philosophy.

But if we examine the problem of practical activities a little more deeply and ask ourselves why a person gives this direction and not the opposite to his activity, we must realize that it depends on the solution which philosophy gives to the problem of life. Why, for example, do you try to acquire dexterity for work and not for robbery? It is because you have confidence in certain principles of morality. The belief that justice is to be followed and injustice is an evil to be shunned, is philosophy, whether we think of it as such or not.

The same may be said of another human activity, art. Art, objectively considered, is not philosophy but a practical ability. If, however, you should ask the artist why he wishes, through his ability, to attain this or that end, he will answer that he is directed by an idea which he wishes to portray in his work. The art critic will tell you that the artist, in his judgments, aspires to the concept of what is beautiful. And here we are no longer in the field of practical ability, but in that of philosophy, since to establish the idea of the beautiful is the object of philosophy and not of any technical ability.

Even the scientist has confidence in philosophy. We have already stated that science is distinguished from philosophy because the former studies the how of natural phenomena, while the latter asks the why of the same objects. The scientist, however, accepts nature and its laws as existing, trusts in the perpetuity and regularity of these laws, just as the philosopher gives them to him. Hence we stated that science is distinguished from but not opposed to philosophy. Thus it follows that the three great activities of man — the moral, artistic, and scientific — which, considered superficially, would seem to have no connection with philosophy, find in it their ultimate reason of being and their particular colorization.

Thus there is no need to consider philosophy as something torn away from life, as a mass of contradictory opinions. To separate philosophy from life is to condemn it to death. If philosophy should be considered apart from life, such abortive treatment would not be the fault of philosophy but of philosophers, just as the errors of students of mathematics are the errors of the mathematician and not of the science of mathematics. On the contrary, philosophy is a branch of knowledge which gives to man a precise and noble directive of life.

Nor are philosophers time-wasters, frittering away their life in subtle sophisms; rather, they are lovers of truth, and truth should be the foundation of every person’s life if he or she intends to live as a rational human being. The philosopher spends his entire life unveiling this truth; he is often not understood; he is often derided; but he is confident in his work. Why? Because philosophy has given humankind and civilization more service than any other human activity.