The Return of Practical Philosophy
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January 12th, 2022
Clicking on the first link in the main text of an English Wikipedia article, and then repeating the process for subsequent articles, used to usually lead to the Philosophy article. In February 2016, this was true for 97% of all articles in Wikipedia, an increase from 94.52% in 2011.
I have not verified if this is true, but I do sense everyone’s life leads to philosophy eventually, especially now, when nobody really knows how to live their life. How did my life lead to philosophy? It happened in university. I went to university because my mother insisted on me going. She did not care what I took, she just wanted me to have a degree. The line she often repeated: a degree is a degree. I went without really knowing why I was going.
I also fast-tracked high school, mainly because I did not like being there. This made me enter university naïve, not having a good sense of the workings of the world. I was intellectually curious though, taking all these interesting courses, eventually gravitating to philosophy, probably because I intuited all roads lead there. I liked taking philosophy at first, but something did feel missing. The subject matter spoke to me, but I did not like how it was presented.
I was not impressed with my professors either. I did not have the words to describe it at the time, but I knew they were what Pierre Hadot called artists of reason, not artists of life. I eventually became disappointed, skipping class, only coming to hand in essays that were written the night before, or taking exams that I did not study for. I somehow passed with decent enough grades.
The philosophy bug caught me though, and while I hardly did any course readings, I was actively engaging in philosophy outside of the academy. I was drawn to read philosophy that felt more relevant to my life, like existentialism, Integral theory, and of course, Stoicism; this led me to books with words I could put to practice, like the ones found in the spirituality, psychotherapy, and self-help sections of the book store.
I simply followed my curiosity, or what I now codename the daemon. I read what I was called to read, thought what I was called to think, and talked with people who wanted to talk about the same things as me, which is probably the reason I hardly had any friends back then. There was a time I regretted going down the undisciplined philosophical path, as it seemed to lead to only bad things - I became disabused of my previous beliefs, becoming massively disorientated, without any solid replacement beliefs. This led to depression and suicidal ideation that lasted for years.
Of course, other stuff was going on in my life that could have caused that, but I had a decent enough childhood, with no major trauma, so philosophy did feel like the main culprit towards the dark state I was in. As I joked to Camille, who did not know me during that time of my life: Nietzsche caused my depression. I managed to climb my way out of the darkness, feeling scarred by philosophy. I started focusing on improving practical things, like my social skills, which were terrible at the time.
I eventually “smartened up,” getting a “real job,” meaning I got a series of bullshit jobs that gave me a decent enough living. I eventually felt a deep existential stuckness. My 9-to-5 career felt like a prison for my potential, with no sense of escape possible. I saw therapists and coaches, but I got annoyed at them. Given my voracious readings, I not only knew all the techniques they were using, but I was pained at how philosophically unconsidered they were. Little did I know, philosophy was calling me back.
It was when I started to see Jordan Peterson, a real therapist with gravitas, and Andrew Taggert, a “practical philosopher” deeply oriented to wisdom, that things started to become existentially unstuck for me. It is dawning on me how important it was for me to have these two extremely high-quality guides. I had so many bad guides before them, who charged ridiculous amounts of money, abruptly ending the session five minutes before the hour. A stark contrast to my time (or timelessness) with Jordan and Andrew, whose sessions with me averaged 90 mins, often going longer.
Reflecting on how many bad guides there are out there, using broken models and incomplete methodologies, while force-fitting their practice into the confines of the market economy, saddens me. People need good guides. This is why I am called to bring back my philosophical practice. Andrew was especially a big influence, inspiring me to become a practical philosopher. He was influenced by Hadot, who influenced what is known as the “practical philosophy movement.”
There are many philosophically-minded movements right now, such as the rationalists, postrationalists, Game B, metamodernism, solar punk, doomer optimism, etc. The Liminal Web, with The Stoa hovering in its center, is the nidus for these movements - all of which have a sense of aliveness - to cross-pollinate with one another. The practical philosophy movement has not gotten much exposure in The Liminal Web though. Why is this?
The movement started in the early 1980s, by academic philosophers who wanted to make philosophy practical again. The main challenge of this movement was bringing the theoretical into the practical. Attempts at this have been philosophical counseling, philosophy cafes, and Socratic dialogue groups. There have been organizations, like Lou Marinoff’s American Philosophical Practitioners Association, along with different modalities, such as Lahav’s Deep Philosophy and Pierre Grimes Philosophical Midwifing. The practical philosophy movement does not have the sense of aliveness that other philosophical-minded movements have though. This is probably the reason The Liminal Web has not noticed them.
You can argue that my friend John Vervaeke, who is also greatly influenced by Hadot, is attempting to breathe life into this movement, via engaging in dialogos and advocating for philosophical fellowships. There are also people like Pamela Hobart, who has a “philosophical life coaching” practice, with some great frameworks. And of course, there is Andrew, who I would say is the best in the game at philosophical inquiry. His short ebook, The Art of Inquiry, is essential reading for understanding what philosophical inquiry is. It is also the crux of the praxis of my personal practice.
I am going to return to my practice soon. I am putting it under the label of “philosophical coaching” for now. This does not feel like the right phrase, but it seems like a wise enough phrase, as I sense the “coaching” part can help ease people into something normally dismissed as impractical. Like Andrew, I have situated my practice in the gift economy; by doing so, my practice does not feel instrumentalized, therefore bastardized, by the market economy. Given this, I am not called to engage in gaudy marketing tactics to attract people to it. I am called to explain what I do though, for those who are drawn to my work and looking for a guide during these complex times.
My spiritual hype man, Ari Delashmutt, has been inspired by my practice, now also getting into the philosophical coaching game. When talking to him about the “how” of philosophical coaching, he joked that schools will start popping up, like the Taggartian or Limbergian schools. That joke got me thinking, in the current form, what does the Limbergian school of philosophical coaching look like? This is something I’ll unpack in tomorrow’s entry.
Unpacking this excites me, because bringing practical philosophy back excites me. We need to collectively refurbish what it means to be a philosopher. The role should not be held captive by career academics, professionalizing philosophy into unreadable journals, nor should it be sold by self-help hustlers, making coin off wisdom signaling in the spectacle. It is time to take philosophy back, blow life into it, making it embodied again.
I want people to desire to be a philosopher as people today desire to be an entrepreneur. I want the role of the philosopher to be as ubiquitous as the role of the employee. I want people to be employed towards doing philosophy as a way of life, becoming what Hadot views real philosophers as - artists of life, who beautify life, by treating life as their art.
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