Two Ways To Learn: The Danger of Practical Philosophy

There is a link between feeling things — feeling them painfully — and knowledge.

On the one hand, we can learn something without being in pain — by reading a book, for instance.

On the other hand, we can learn something because we suffer and then think about it because we want to understand the painful experience (to discern its origins, interpret its dimensions and reconcile ourselves to its presence):

There are what might be called painless thoughts, sparked by no particular discomfort, inspired by nothing other a disinterested wish to find out how sleep works or why human beings forget, and painful thoughts, arising out of a distressing inability to sleep or to recall a name.” — Alain de Botton, How Proust Can Change Your Life

While we can of course use our minds without being in pain, our learning is profoundly different when it’s the result of something gone wrong — when we had ‘skin in the game’.

It follows that wisdom acquired without experiencing hardship misses an important element.

Reading practical philosophy is all about learning about life, without having to undergo the life-experiences themselves.

Can that be done?

Life is not like math

Practical philosophy concerns ‘how one should live’.

Its topic is separate from ‘how the world works’.

A metaphor for grasping the difference: if to have knowledge is to have a map of the world, then to be able to act well is (1) to be able to decide where to go and (2) to follow the map in going there.

For instance, one can become a good mathematician by studying math literature.

By contrast, it’s doubtful whether you can become a good person by devouring the self-improvement section of your local library.

There is a dissimilarity between having an accurate map and having the skills to decide where to go.

Hence, when the topic is practical, non-experience learning doesn’t cut it.

Knowledge arrived at through reading lacks an important aspect — the connection with pain — that knowledge arrived at through experience has and when the subject is ‘life’ this aspect is fundamental for acquiring wisdom.

After some point, updating your map of the world doesn’t help in deciding how to live in it.

The danger of practical philosophy arises trying to skip the experience in favor of its outcome: the danger is mistaking mastering the top-articles in Medium’s ‘Life Lessons’ section for being good at living.

The process of learning through living is not merely a means but is important in itself.

Reading practical philosophy is great, as long as you keep in mind that — as theoretical knowledge about a practical subject — it has its limits:

Life is sacrifice and risk taking, and nothing that doesn’t entail some moderate amount of the former, under the constraint of satisfying the latter, is close to what we can call life.” — Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Skin In The Game

Your personal journey

Okay, so we’ve seen that we cannot be taught wisdom merely by reading — we have to discover it for ourselves through a journey.

Not just because wisdom requires the journey.

Also because it’s a journey which no one else can undertake for us.

One reason for this is that something written by someone else can never replicate a person’s own unique framework of interpretation.

When we translate practical wisdom into words and transmit it through language, something is lost. Knowledge absorbed from someone else’s words can’t replace knowledge constructed out of your own experiences.

A second reason is that there can no more be a single best way of life than there can be an ideal house for all people, times, and places.

Each of us has his own deep-seated needs and each of us needs to decide what he values the most.

For instance, an intense life filled with accomplishments is not necessarily better than a relaxed life filled with savoring.

What you read in practical philosophy, you should treat as hypotheses about how to live that you must test in experience.


There’s more to that

If you’re interested in the intersection of real life and philosophy, you’ll like my personal blog. You’ll get a weekly dose of similarly mind-expanding ideas.