Can philosophy save us?

In our obsession with the economy and celebrity gossip, we are forgetting the deeper questions of human existence

Darragh McManusDarragh McManus
Saturday 6 February 2010

Our culture – the media and the broader populace – is obsessed with the economy. And since Lehman Brothers went kablooey in September 2008, our fascination has gone to a deeper level. Googling the word “business” gets a scarcely feasible 1.6 billion hits. “Economics” gets 92 million. (Weirdly, “Gordon Brown is a moron” returns almost 60 million. I don’t know what that signifies.)

And this is fine: money is important, we all need jobs; redundancy is awful. I wouldn’t dismiss that in any way. But should economic and attendant political matters be given so much weight? Is this the highest ambition of human beings, to attain or hold on to material wealth and power? Should we not have matured beyond that after four billion years of slow evolution from simple-celled prokaryotes to homo sapiens? Should we not have reached the point where higher matters concern us? Matters such as pondering the mysteries of life. The nature of the self. Dreams and consciousness. Language and thought. The search for a fundamental truth to it all.

Why is there virtually no mainstream news or debate about the deeper questions of existence? Will we ever see Anna Botting announcing that 72% of people suffer from an existential malaise? Jeremy Paxman aggressively asking a stuttering minister why, shockingly, three-quarters of us have never sought to attain enlightenment. A News at Ten report on new research suggesting life is a collective dream out of which we “wake” at the moment of death. The odd contemplative gem sparkles in the dull firmament of mass culture – Radio 4’s wonderful In Our Time and Moral Maze, Alain de Botton‘s lively, accessible primers – but they are few.

Surely there is more to the only self-aware creature in existence than jobs and money, and even other important matters such as healthcare, education and the social fabric. We need to reverse the Cartesian maxim and create a society defined by “I am, therefore I think.” Besides, most people say they’re sick of hearing about the recession/economy. So why not ease back on that (and lay off the vacuous celebrity rubbish while we’re at it) and discuss philosophical matters instead?

I’d even introduce it to schools. Perhaps not to exam level – indeed, part of the point of philosophy is that it makes exams somewhat redundant – but it should be taught to children each day, from an early age. I don’t mean religion, folklore, mythology or eastern esoterica, valid subjects of study though these are. I mean the western tradition of philosophical enquiry, defined as “the rational investigation of the truths and principles of being, knowledge or conduct”.

A good grounding in philosophy can impart an immeasurable gift: the ability to think clearly, rationally, precisely and imaginatively. More than that: it imbues you with a profound instinct to think. Contemplation becomes reflexive, like breathing. Philosophy makes you question everything, mull it over and come to your own conclusions. It cautions that those conclusions may not be valid, and to always be open to amendment. It provides the intellectual building blocks of reason, patience, divergence, dialectic and curiosity. And it instils a sense of wonder at just about everything: from great existential questions about the nature of reality and our place in it, to ethics and aesthetics, to something as simple but fundamental as: who am I?

For both adults and children, philosophy is a balm, a consolation, an instrument and an inspiration. And who knows, it may even give all our economic woes the perspective they sorely need.

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