Monday, February 2, 2009

Philosophy as a way of life

When, in our first class together, I asked the fifth grade students with whom I'm doing philosophy this winter what they imagined was the definition of philosophy, one student volunteered that he thought philosophy was "a way of life." Of course, I loved the sophistication of this answer, and there are philosophers who hold this view. I started wondering, thought, exactly what it means. I don't think that anyone would suggest that either sociology or anthropology is a way of life, so why does this claim seem at all plausible for philosophy? (Of course, there is far less controversy over the meaning of sociology or anthropology among sociologists and anthropologists!)

Many professional philosophers would argue that philosophy is a particular discipline practiced within academia, and some have told me that they don't think what I do (with pre-college students) is real philosophy. Certainly, philosophy is a discipline with a history, and knowledge about the philosophical tradition deepens and expands thinking about philosophical questions. What I do with pre-college students is to focus on the discussion of philosophical problems: What is truth? What are the elements of a good life? What can we know about the world? These are all ways of approaching the study of philosophy, but what about philosophy as a way of life?

Pierre Hadot, the French philosopher, talks about philosophy as a way of seeing, and being in, the world. It is "love of the good," developed through dialogue and maintained through self-examination and questioning. So philosophy as a way of life would be a life devoted to questioning and the search for understanding. That seems to me close to what this student meant when he referred to philosophy as a way of life. It's an appealing idea. I do think about my work with young people as a way of helping them become critical thinkers and people actively engaged in trying to understand the world. But are all people who seek understanding of the right way to live through questioning and self-examination, and who think about the fundamental questions of human existence in dialogue with others, philosophers?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I wonder if your student was using context clues from areas he has likely heard the word philosophy come from. I know I often here teachers say this is my philosophy, this is the classroom's philosophy, etc. In context with that, he may have concluded it to mean it is "their way of life."

I teach a class called Inquiry Skills, which is part of IB prep at my high school. The class requires students to learn writing skills and grammar skills, but I decided to teach them tolerance by using examples in history of intolerance.

I've always thought of myself as a person who questions, and, in my usually routine, realized how philosophy needs to play a major role in my classroom. At the very least, teaching them to question things, especially dealing with ethics.

I stumbled upon your blog while looking for resources of topics that would be appropriate for a public school (basically nonreligious topics) that we could discuss. I look forward to reading more of your entries...whether old or new!