A Practical Philosophy
On 19 November 2021, I took part in a panel discussion, on the occasion of World Philosophy Day, on the theme “Walking the Talk: Practical Philosophy.” The intent, in these pandemic times, was to present philosophy as an activity that is neither academic nor abstract, but one with direct practical benefits. The event was organised jointly by New Acropolis India and Bangalore International Centre.
The evening was structured by three questions posed, with each panellist offering a short response to each question. This was followed by an open session that fielded questions from the audience. A video of the full discussion can be seen here.
I share below, the three questions and the responses I offered.
Question 1: In these times is it relevant to talk of philosophy?
It is extremely relevant to talk of philosophy at all times, and I will offer two key reasons, one personal, and the other social.
The personal reason is that if we do not philosophise, we will become habitual creatures, and our lives are poorer for it. Take an everyday example of driving a regular route from home to office. If you are an experienced driver and have traversed this route daily over a period of time, the odds are you can do this on auto-pilot, navigating traffic while your mind is elsewhere. You can leave home and arrive safely at work with little conscious memory of the journey, immersed in your preoccupations while driving. You may be making this journey on a Monday morning and over the weekend a tree has flowered to be a spectacular sight laden with colourful blooms. But absorbed in your distractions, you did not see it. Habit becomes an anaesthetic that blinds us to much of the richness and potential of life. Philosophy is not an academic pursuit, it is first and foremost a critical examination of one’s own life; a critique whose concomitant alertness offers a resistance to the anaesthesia of habit.
The social reason is that if we want to form a healthy society that is not wracked by division, we need to understand what the key issues are, what the evidence related to these issues is, and from that evidence, we need to draw a consensus on what reality is. If we do not have that ability, the odds are that we will draw different conclusions on reality, and will wind up being an unhealthy, divided society, and when those divisions become extreme, the odds are greater that we will be violent towards each other. This is what we see today in contemporary society.
You may ask, “How can we see different realities?” To illustrate this, let me offer an example that is a straightforward calculation. There is a breast cancer screening programme, and 10,000 women undergo mammograms. The women are told that the mammogram, as a test, is 95% accurate — its error rate is only 5%. A woman gets a positive result, and hearing the test is 95% accurate, concludes the reality is a 95% certainty she has breast cancer. Is she assessing reality correctly (just going by the statistical data)?
Now the incidence of breast cancer is 1%. So if 10,000 women are screened, it is likely that 1% of them, that is 100 women, have breast cancer. Since the test is 95% accurate, 95 of those 100 women will be accurately diagnosed by the mammogram, and 5% will be false negatives. But remember, 9,900 women do not have breast cancer, and if the test is 95% accurate, 5% of those tests will yield false positives — so 5% of 9,900, that is 495 women, will get a positive result despite not having cancer.
If you get a positive result, the odds of actually having cancer is the number of true positives divided by the total number of positives: that is 95/(95+495), or 95/590, or 16.1%. So if you get a positive result from your mammogram, the odds are 83.9% you do not have cancer. Which is why any doctor, worth her or his salt, will never take a mammogram result by itself and will read it in conjunction with a host of other clinical and laboratory data. But without an expert pointing this out, the lay person, lacking either training or inclination to systematically examine all evidence, is very likely to jump to the erroneous conclusion of a 95% certainty of having cancer.
If we do not have an ability to evaluate an issue with all its implicated evidence, we are likely to draw false conclusions to construct a reality that is an illusion. Now this is an example that lends itself to quantification, and many issues in life do not. But the underlying point is the same: we have to be able to examine what we encounter in life, consider what evidence is necessary to truly understand it, and fully understand it in the light of that evidence. And that understanding must be shareable with others if we are to live a shared existence. In other words, we, as a society, must practice philosophy.
We must have the collective capacity to examine our shared fears, hopes, desires, dreams, to assess the evidence related to them to know what is real and what is illusory, in order to chart a shared path forward that fulfils all of us. Philosophy is not only relevant, it is essential.
Socrates is quoted by Plato as saying “The unexamined life is not worth living.” We need to practice philosophy, not as an activity of academic abstraction, but as a concrete tool for examining our lives. And we need to be able to do it both individually and collectively. If we do not, the cost to our society, to our democracy, to ourselves, will be very high.
Question 2: How then can philosophy become a potential tool to transform ourselves?
The first thing we must realise is that philosophy is not purely an activity of intellectual abstraction. In her book “The Extended Mind”, science writer Annie Murphy Paul draws from a wide range of scientific research to point out that our thinking mind is not limited to our brain. We think beyond our brains. We think with our bodies — we have gut feelings, muscle memory, and the way we move our bodies and gesture is related to how we think. If my body chooses to dance, or instead chooses to bow down in submission or depression, will that not affect how I think?
We also think with our surroundings. For example, in repeated inhabitation of a space, such as one’s home or workplace, one deposits memories of that inhabitation within it. If you want to recall your childhood, more than the family photo album, it is more powerful to examine the house in which you grew up. The photo album tends to capture group memories and visible body gesture, whereas the house will also capture memories of solitude and reflection and what is not directly visible. All this aids in thinking about ourselves and getting to know who we truly are.
We think with our relationships. In the resonances we find with friends, families, members of our community, and even with strangers, we are able to assess who we are. We can never know ourselves properly without taking into account how we are called upon by others: self and otherness are inextricably intertwined.
There is a minority tradition, found in both religion and philosophy, called ‘mysticism’. It says that we do not need to look far to learn, our own body is a wonderful site of discovery. Mysticism revels in the fact that this bundle of blood, bone, gut, skin, cells, and so many other entities bound by physical law, through a divine gift we cannot explain, can dream, ideate, dance, wonder, compose music, love, sing, empathise and do so many amazing things.
This is not the way most of us are schooled. We are taught to distrust this inherent creativity of the body, and to place all our faith in externalities: a scientific explanation, a prescriptive text, a custom on the ‘proper’ way to be, a predefined philosophy, and so on. And because these predetermined externalities offer the instant gratification of a readymade comfort, we cling to them, and we begin to, as the philosopher John O’Donohue put it, “fear the wonder of our own presence.”
We must begin with that wonder, but must learn to use it rigorously. And tradition offers us a mode for doing so, what we in India call ‘sadhana’ or ‘riyaaz’. Established in training in performing arts like music or dance, but applicable to all of life, sadhana is a daily, rigorous, repetitive, and ego-transcending practice, one where we surrender in order to immerse our inherent energy in what is around us; where we unify the wonder within and the wonder without.
We commune with the inherent creativity and potential of the divine gift of our own presence. We gaze with the alertness of wonder at our surroundings, drawing all we can from them to enrich and know ourselves. We revel in the resonances we feel with our fellow beings. Do all of this daily, with rigour and dedication, and there is a new universe to be discovered every day.
To conclude, I offer these words from the dancer and choreographer, Martha Graham, “I believe that we learn by practice. Whether it means to learn to dance by practicing dancing, or to learn to live by practicing living, the principles are the same. In each, it is the performance of a dedicated, precise set of acts, physical or intellectual, from which come shape of achievement, the sense of one’s being, the satisfaction of spirit. One becomes in some area an athlete of God. Practice means to perform over and over again, in the face of all obstacles, some act of vision, of faith, of desire. Practice is a means of inviting the perfection desired.”
Question 3: How do you live the philosophy in your personal experience?
The question “How do you live the philosophy?” is the wrong question. There is a slim, very readable book which, if you have not read, is a must-read. It is called “Letters to a Young Poet” and is a collection of ten letters written by the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, offering advice to a young and aspiring poet. One of the letters is a response to a question posed by the poet, “How do I write?”. Rilke responds saying you are asking the wrong question. The correct question to ask is “Must I write?” And if the spontaneous and open-hearted response to this question is “I must!”, the how will resolve itself.
So the true question is “Must I philosophise?”, aware that a failure to answer positively is to condemn oneself to a life of habit, a life where much potential is excised from it, a life where control is handed over to others, a life probably characterised by discord with others, a life constrained by fear of the strange and unfamiliar (and you must ask if a guarantee is possible that you will never have to encounter the strange and unfamiliar). Accept that you must philosophise, and the how will resolve itself.
Having said that, let me conclude by offering three tips and tricks.
1) Some years ago, I was teaching at Srishti, a design school here in Bangalore. In one of the courses, I would push the students to take an explicit philosophical position on who they were, what their work meant to them, and the value their work offered to the world. The typical pushback I would get is, “I accept the need for what you say, but I am too young and not ready to take that position. I will one day, but not yet.”
My response would be to change the subject and request them to recollect their teenage years, and whether in those years they had an argument with their parents saying, “Don’t keep telling me what to do, I am old enough to decide.” Almost all of them admitted to having had such an argument. Then I pointed out that in having that argument they took explicit positions on complex issues such as personal identity and the sociology of families — issues that experts with PhD’s spend a lifetime in researching. They may look back on those teenage arguments and realise their positions were naïve and foolish, but in taking those positions, they learned and grew as people. So it is not a matter of knowing enough, it is a matter of stretching what you know today, and doing that every day. There is no qualifying standard of how much more — a little more is enough.
Do this every day with dedication and rigour. Don’t discard what you learn each day, keep a notebook, diary or scrapbook, so it can build into subsequent days of learning. Do it every day, and it is amazing how much you are able to accumulate and grow over time.
2) Be fully aware of your extended mind, how your surroundings are inextricably implicated in your discovery. The environmental writer, Michael McCarthy, draws an interesting difference between happiness and joy. Happiness can be internally focused, can be self-absorbed, and therefore dissipates very quickly. You may feel happy because you were able to eat a well-made pizza, but eventually the pizza gets eaten, hunger returns, and you are back to where you started. Joy has an outward gaze, it finds resonance in another person, a beautiful place, a wider purpose. It constantly drops anchors in something that is greater than yourself, and an ongoing alertness to such anchors is both sustaining and renewing. Always philosophise with joy.
3) Do not fall into the trap that you must first work out a philosophy and then live it. Trust the wonder of your own presence, its inherent wisdom, to realise that so much that makes life worthwhile — love, joy, wonder, beauty, and so much more — are all qualities you would be hard pressed to define in words, but you know them as unquestionable tangible reality when you experience them. Use that to validate what you encounter. But remember a totally internal validation can descend into narcissism. So use what you encounter, what you philosophise, to challenge and critique what you tacitly know internally through experience.
We do not intuitively live by first reflecting and then acting. We live by a reflection contained within action, a mode that is conversational in nature. We do not sustain friendships by defining a charter or philosophy of friendships, and would probably lose all our friends if we tried that. We sustain friendships by conversation, where one side speaks and then pauses to listen with attention and affection to what the other speaks, and is affected by that listening before speaking again.
Philosophy is a conversational activity that never ends: a dialogue between the inherent and spontaneous wisdom of one’s presence on one hand, and on the other, the ability to reflect on and extend that wisdom. It is a set of conversations between inner and outer presence, between heartfelt action and reflective examination, with each constructively critiquing the other.
The topic of this evening’s discussion is incomplete if we just make it just about walking the talk. True philosophy is an energetic, rigorous, confrontational, joyful and continuous conversation between walking the talk and talking the walk.