The Power of Philosophy

I have spent the last twenty years reading, studying and doing philosophy. What has it gotten me?

Well, let me compare myself with Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump, with Michael Jordan and Bill Gates. As far as I am aware, none of these people read Plato or Kant, or spent years thinking about the Bible and the Gita, or about Wittgenstein and Aurobindo.

Clinton and Trump, Jordan and Gates – they are rich and famous, more than I will ever be. But if philosophy is worth anything, what is it I have that they don’t?

This: I am able to reflect on the conceptual structures of our society which they take entirely for granted. Clinton and Trump speak of democracy and are trying to implement democracy. And yet because they are focused only on implementation, they see every problem regarding democracy simply as an implementation problem. As if they already have the solution in theory, and they will guide us to realizing it.

But they don’t know the conceptual foundations of democracy, of pluralism, or secularism. They don’t know how these concepts came to exist, what conceptual problems past philosophers and intellectuals struggled with, and how those past philosophers introduced the concepts we now take for granted.

People who haven’t read philosophy – who aren’t familiar with our philosophical past – assume that the deepest concepts of our current society are somehow intrinsic to human life. They live within those concepts, but without ever actually reflecting on them. They assume therefore that those deep seated concepts are obvious, self-evidentpristine and without any inner tensions. So whatever difficulties our society has, they chalk up to more surface causes, the kinds which they can understand and readily see.

Those who study philosophy realize that even our deepest concepts are contingent. That they were born out of conceptual strife, and are still riddled with internal tensions and holes. That our deepest concepts still need mending, still need to be reworked for our current time.

Our world functions on concepts like justice, religion, faith, science, equality. People unacquainted with philosophy (no matter how rich or powerful they are, no matter how great they are as doctors or engineers or athletes) see the world through these concepts without being aware of the concepts themselves as things they can truly question. But philosophers see the deeper causes of our society because they reflect on the deepest concepts we normally take for granted.

Let me sit with this reality: I know things Clinton, Trump, Jordan or Gates don’t know. There are skills I have which the world needs. Which I have to cultivate and foster in myself, because they are important. Because they matter. For my own peace and for peace in the world, for surely the two are related.

This has nothing to do with the fact that I have a PhD. What matters is people doing, thinking and being with philosophy, whether they professionally studied it or not. Anyone can gain the philosophical perspective by doing philosophy themselves and reading Plato and Lao Tzu. One thereby starts to become aware of the deeper concepts guiding us and so gains the ability to transform oneself and the society at deeper levels.

That is the beauty of philosophy. One doesn’t need to be rich, or powerful, or famous in order to make a difference. My deepest concepts are the same as the deepest concepts of the society – they are the same concepts. So if I can reflect on my deepest concepts and assumptions, then that is the way of getting into the very heart of society. And if I can change my concepts and transform them, then they can become the concepts of the society as well. Changing my deepest concepts and changing the society at the deepest level are not two things, but the same thing. One enters the subterranean, deepest, darkest, most difficult to see parts of society through entering into the deepest, darkest, more difficult to see parts of one’s own self.

We are all connected like the Borg. Only unlike the Borg, we are a hive unit which also allows for individual self-reflection. And it is only through self-reflection, through the journey of one’s own mind that one can access and transform our shared mind.

In our daily lives we are so used to external modes of making a difference: discover a new medicine, write a new computer program, build a company, etc. And these are important. But these are not the only modes of making a difference. Nor are they – appearances notwithstanding – the deepest way of making a difference.

That belongs to living a life of philosophy, spirituality, wisdom. Of internal modes of making a difference. Through journeying into one’s own consciousness and becoming aware of the concepts we normally take for granted.

It doesn’t matter if people on TV are not doing this. If politicians or entertainers are not doing this. If our neighbors and family are not doing this. For the power to do it lies within each individual. And by tapping into that power, one can unleash the greater energies.

The philosopher raises his own consciousness, and thereby raises the consciousness of the society.

2 thoughts on “The Power of Philosophy

  1. Gautam

    I share your view that it is essential to examine and rework basic modes/concepts, and that through reflecting on these in oneself, one can effect a wider change.

    But this phrasing seems a bit odd: “Clinton and Trump, Jordan and Gates – they are rich and famous, more than I will ever be. But if philosophy is worth anything, what is it I have that they don’t?”

    The premise seems to be that, in being rich and famous, they have something (call it A), and also, they don’t have something else (call it B). Questions:
    * Does having A make it less likely for someone to have B?
    * If we were to find out that Gates reads Plato and Kant in his spare time, does that change your conception your activity?
    * Is B something that can be “had”? What if B is an activity, like meditating or running or painting?

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    1. Bharath Vallabha Post author

      I don’t mean that having A (being rich and famous) means they don’t have B (philosophical insight). Marcus Aurelius is an obvious counter-example, and there are many others. What I do mean is that being rich and famous makes people like Clinton, Trump et al very prominent, with their names, pictures, actions and words getting a lot of attention, as if these are the role models of how to succeed and live fully. Trump is making this connection between wealth and fame and a flourishing life very clearly, but much of society reenforces something similar. In this context, it is helpful to remember that, nonetheless, when it comes to self-reflection on our most basic concepts, even the rich and powerful have no special insight.

      It would make a difference to me if I found out Gates read Plato and Kant in his spare time. Of course, it would make me wonder why he then doesn’t speak out about what he is reading. And that is the point: Gates might be a computer whiz, but there is a certain skill which he clearly is not exercising in public. The skill of thinking through our deepest concepts. This is as much a skill as swimming or programming or cooking. What is more: not only is Gates not doing it publicaly, he isn’t talking about others who do exercise that skill publicaly, and talking about the general importance of philosophical reflection as a basic skill to cultivate.

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