What on earth is practical philosophy?

Figs In Winter
Nov 7 · 6 min read
The Philosopher at Delphi, photo by the Author

Since the beginning of this year I have shifted focus significantly in my public writings, moving further away from general philosophy (and even my own specialty, philosophy of science) and toward what I consider practical philosophy. I have been blogging since 2005, first at a site called Rationally Speaking (which actually started as an “syndicated internet column” back in 2000, before there were blogs), then at Scientia Salon, and finally at Footnotes to Plato. When I moved to Patreon (and now also Medium), the site’s name was still Footnotes to Plato, but somewhat awkwardly combined general philosophy, philosophy of science, and material from my concurrent blog (now archived), How to Be a Stoic.

Yes, I know, it gets confusing, which is why I just gave curious readers the temporal sequence with pertinent links. What I want to explore in this post, however, is the underlying reason for these shifts, and the more general concepts of public philosophy and practical philosophy. Of course, in a sense the long and the short of it is that I blog (or write books) about whatever interests me, and as my interests shift in the course of my life, so does my written output. But these changes aren’t random, and their rationales may be of more general interest. So here we go.

Rationally Speaking, Scientia Salon, and Footnotes to Plato (original version) were all examples of public philosophy. There are different conceptions of what public philosophy is, or ought to be. According to Sharon Meagher, co-founder of the Public Philosophy Network, “Public philosophy is not simply a matter of doing philosophy in public. A truly public philosophy is one that demands that the philosopher both become a student of community knowledge and reflect on his or her public engagement, recognizing that philosophy can benefit as much from public contact as can the public benefit from contact with philosophy. The publicly engaged philosopher does not assume that he or she knows the questions in advance, but draws on his or her experiences in the community to develop and frame questions. Further, publicly engaged philosophy demands accountability on the part of the philosopher to his or her publics — understanding that philosophers are themselves members of those publics.” (Here is the full report on the matter.)

I respectfully disagree. The philosopher, as a professional, knows a heck of a lot more than the general public, and the learning that takes place — while indeed reciprocal — is not on the same level at all. To see how questionable Meagher’s position makes, imagine substituting the word “scientist” for “philosopher” and see how the whole thing reads. I find this self-denial of expertise on the part of (some) philosophers, coupled with an attitude of egalitarianism at all costs, both puzzling and irritating. Call me elitist, if you will. If that means a professional who knows that he knows more than non-professionals, then I’m happy to be an elitist. That’s why I go to doctors who know more medicine than I do.

Not everyone agrees with the Public Philosophy Network, of course, and other colleagues take public philosophy to simply be philosophy undertaken in public venues, like the increasingly popular “Night of Philosophy,” or countless philosophy cafes around the planet. Public philosophy in this sense is pursued in order to educate the public about philosophy, often with a special focus on issues of public interest, like political or ethical ones. As one of my favorite public philosophers, Michael Sandel, puts it, the goals of public philosophy are: “[to] find in the political and legal controversies of our day an occasion for philosophy [and] to bring moral and political philosophy to bear on contemporary public discourse.” (see here, p. 5)

I’d actually go broader than Sandel. I think one can do good public philosophy not just by focusing on moral and political issues, but broadly using popular culture to talk about any aspect of philosophy, from metaphysics to epistemology, from aesthetics to philosophy of science to philosophy of mind. Which is exactly what I did during my first 18 years of blogging.

Then there is practical philosophy. Of course, public philosophy focused on moral and political issues is practical, but not all public philosophy is. There often is little direct practical value, for instance, in discussing metaphysics, philosophy of mind, and so forth, as fun or educational as it may be. By practical philosophy I mean something along the lines of this definition by Tim LeBon:

Practical Philosophy is a discipline that uses philosophical methods and insights to explore how people can lead wiser, more reflective lives. It is also the name for the activity that helps people lead such lives. Its topics include the nature and pursuit of wisdom relating to: the good life, reason and the emotions, decision-making, and the meaning of life. The activities of practical philosophy include philosophical counselling, the community of enquiry, Socratic dialogue, and workshops and courses on practical philosophy.

Tim adds that:

Practical philosophy covers much the same ground as religion and self-help books, but its methods are reason and rational argument rather than faith or dogmatic assertion.

Why is practical philosophy useful, indeed important? Tim again:

I’ll just mention one possible drawback in not doing practical philosophy. My favourite illustration of this is Tolstoy’s short story, The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Ivan, a conventionally successful family man, contracts a terminal illness in his early forties. Only when he is looking death in the eye does he realise that he hasn’t really been living at all. He’s been living artificially, for the so-called benefits society brings — honours, wealth and a modicum of pleasure. He married not for love but because it was the thing one was meant to do, he’d never really got to know his children, and he had completely lost touch with the fun person he himself had been when a child. He’d failed to realise that this was his life, and if he didn’t actively make an effort to decide how to live it, it would just pass him by. For poor Ivan, of course, it was too late to do much but gain some death-bed enlightenment — but for others it can be a timely wake-up call to action.

That is precisely the reason why, back in 2015, I started How to Be a Stoic (the blog, as distinct from the book). To help others explore the very same practical philosophy of life that has significantly helped me stave off poor Ivan’s fate (I think). During the past four years, however, the more I spent time writing both in the area of public philosophy (as defined above) and in that of practical philosophy, I couldn’t help feeling that I needed more focus, and to be more relevant. While people certainly enjoyed engaging in discussions with me on Footnotes to Plato about philosophical zombies, the ontology of mathematical objects, and the latest in philosophy of science, it became increasingly clear that How to Be a Stoic was actually changing people’s lives. Since my own time on earth is getting shorter and shorter (well, that goes for everyone, really!) I felt more and more the urgency to focus on topics that would be directly useful to others, not just entertaining or interesting.

This is also reflected in my book output. I have so far written or edited 13 books (here’s the list, save for one scheduled to appear late in the year and not yet advertised), and the breakdown speaks for itself.

Between 1998 and 2008:

academic books = 4
public philosophy books = 1
practical philosophy books = 0

Between 2009 and 2019:

academic books = 3
public philosophy books = 2
practical philosophy books = 3

That is how we got to the current version of my Patreon site, focused as it is entirely on Stoicism and other practical philosophies. As readers know, the title of the site, “Figs in Winter,” comes from a quote by Epictetus (in Discourses III.24.86), where he says that we should enjoy things in life when we have them, because to hope for them once they are gone is as foolish as to pretend figs in winter. It is just one nugget of precious and very practical wisdom we get from the Stoics, the Epicureans, the Buddhists, the Confucians, and a number of other practical philosophies. I hope you will agree that it is worth studying them in order to do better than Tolstoy’s Ivan.

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