Updated: Jul 21
"Look at the situation of the world; if your Philosophy has all the answers, why have we reached this point?" I was confronted with this question by a friend last week. I didn't have an answer. Despite the claims of searching the "truth" through years of contemplation and practice, our world is facing an existential threat from climate change, greed for unlimited growth, and an increase in mental health issues and suicides. Where have we gone wrong?
The word "Philosophy" literally means love for wisdom (philo - love, sophia – wisdom). A meaning-making study to answer the profound questions on the universe and human role in it. Throughout the history of the development of the idea, philosophy has played a vital role in challenging and defining society's structures.
However, the study with the noble aim of connecting us with the deeper meaning of the universe itself became "boring" and "useless" after centuries of intellectually complex debates. Rather than focusing on life's cultivation, it became an intellectually satisfying in-between game between the philosophers.
James Dewey said, "Philosophy recovers itself when it ceases to be a device for dealing with the problems of philosophers and becomes a method dealing with the problems of humanity." We need to re-enchant philosophy to activate the individual quest for the truth and provide a method to find meaning in our lives, society, and the wider world? This can be done by redefining philosophy to activate subjective individual experiences and situating it in the current time.
Activating subjective experiences
The inscription at Delphi's temples, "Know Thyself," reminds us to find all the answers in ourselves. Philosophy as a field has intellectualized and generalized the thoughts and created a pearl of wisdom ready to be consumed by the sharp minds. However, this also vandalized the primary purpose of philosophy: connecting with oneself and finding individual answers.
In the 5th century BCE, Socrates roamed the streets of Athens, questioning the people on seemingly simple issues at hand. Widely known as an "ugly looking annoying man," he poked people with more profound questions. Rather than giving answers, his focus was to cultivate the modality of self-inquiry where one question everything and find the answers within.
Philosophy has activated the subjective experiences but that of the philosophers. Immanuel Kant said, "Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me." When a person connects with the inner psyche, the outer cosmos, and the nature around us in an intimate sense, new experiences and ideas get activated. One challenges the deeper questions of one's existence, who are we? what are we doing here? What do we believe in?
Everyone is a philosopher, and it should be the task of philosophy to activate that intimate connection where the mind, emotions, and purpose work together in everyone. Just like a child, we are the wisdom we need. Our work is to deactivate the constraints like societal expectations which stop us from being ourselves. It is not about reading or writing books, but about taking a walk in school of life where we can connect to our deeper self and act from there.
Eastern traditions like Taoism, with its focus of balance between inside being (yin) and outer action (yang), Buddhism with the practice of achieving mindfulness through meditation, and Hinduism with the method of yoga to cultivate integral life, has long served provided tools to find personal meaning. On the other hand, the philosopher's search for truth has become an intellectual endeavor to generalize the findings and find the right answer.
The philosophy needs to reach people so that it triggers and supports each individual's personal search. It should activate our capacity to ask questions without the need to find instant answers. It should train us how to love, how to let-go, and how to die. It should tell us, "What is to be a human?" This way, the deep wisdom of philosophy can reenter our lives and train us to live more meaningfully.
Situating in the current period
We live in the 21st-century, the time where technological progress has extended the average human life span and helped us live a more comfortable and healthy life. We are living in a culture of mass personalization and instant gratification. We are surrounded by challenges like climate change, extreme inequalities, and technological risks.
Our philosophy also needs to be centered around the challenges of the times. Sri Aurobindo, an Indian philosopher, said, "every [wisdom] must necessarily contain two elements, one temporary, perishable, belonging to the ideas of the period and country in which it was produced, the other eternal and imperishable."
It is every generation's work to keep the eternal and imperishable component and replace the idea's temporariness with the relevancy of the age. If we don't do it, we risk forcing the past's irrelevant dogmatism into the future.
The 21st century CE world is different from the 5th century BCE in terms of, e.g., the role of women, globalization, technology, when philosophy took birth. The new generation of feminine perspectives enlightens our current systems where male thinkers have dominated the old philosophical world. With globalization, experiential modalities of Eastern traditions are offering a new view to be integrated. The myriad of technological connectivity options and desires for instant gratification are changing the way humans consume knowledge.
The applied philosophy should reach out to the masses and provide simple and accessible self-inquiry tools based on the depth of wisdom. In the current age, depression and suicide rates are increasing, and the faith in religions is dwindling. The area of philosophy has been gone through various trials by religions and science in the last 2500 years and has emerged stronger by encompassing the paradox of faith and reason.
If we can make philosophy simple, applicable, relevant, and accessible to our times, it can help people develop a new connection with themselves.
The art of silent contemplation has provided us with the profound words of philosophy. When becoming an intellectual burden rather than activating the subjective experiences, the words lose their relevance to the general population.
We have an inherent need for self-actualization of our fullest creative potential. If philosophy can activate our inner space by developing intimate knowing with nature, arts, music, or poetry, it can take us to the wisdom realms where even words are meaningless. The creative genius of philosophy needs to be awakened by every generation, according to the challenges of their times. We need to keep rejuvenating the philosophy to help it help us keep the fire of meaning kindled.
In the 21st-century, when robots are taking up human tasks, climate change is threatening our existence, and our mental health is under stress; we need to ask the question "What is being human?" individually again. The same question humankind has been asking for more than 2500 years. We can relook at their answers, develop our own experiences, and find the relevant solutions for ourselves and our times.
Philosophy is like our good old rusted tool in a garage. We can dust it off, recalibrate it, and modify it for our current necessities. It might be the next unicorn we are searching outside.