Why do we need a philosophy of life, and how do we develop one?
If you take an academic course in philosophy these days, try asking your professor about the meaning of life, or what sort of philosophy should you pursue in order to make your life more satisfying and fulfilling. You will likely be stared at in embarrassed disbelief and be told that that really isn’t what philosophy is for.
Such a response would have surprised the hell out of Socrates (and Plato, and Aristotle, just to stick with the original dream team of philosophy). Indeed, for most ancient philosophers, and really until the advent of so-called analytic philosophy during the early part of the 20th century, answering that sort of question was if not the point of philosophical inquiry, at the least a major one.
(Socrates famously said that he had no interest in natural philosophy, that his focus was on wisdom and how to live one’s life. Aristotle was certainly interested in natural philosophy, in some respects becoming one of the earliest scientists in the history of the Western world, but even he was most definitely absorbed by questions of meaning and ethics.)
When I switched from my early academic career as an evolutionary biologist to my current one as a philosopher of science I wasn’t looking to develop a philosophy of life. At the least, that wasn’t why I moved from the sciences to the humanities. On second thought, however, maybe I have been engaged in precisely such endeavor ever since I left the Catholicism with which I grew up — a religion, after all, has a built-in philosophy of life, often served more or less implicitly to believers since, as the famous Monty Python song goes, before they are born.
The momentous decision of leaving Catholicism matured during my high school years, and not at all coincidentally for three of those years I was exposed to a (mandatory, in Italy) course in the history of Western philosophy. Moreover, one boring Sunday afternoon when I was 15 or thereabout I picked up Bertrand Russell’s autobiography, which quickly led me to his famous Why I am Not a Christian, and a few months after that religion had become history forever, as far as I was concerned.
But atheism was quite obviously not enough. Contra much discussion in the blogosphere recently, in itself atheism is simply the lack of a specific metaphysical belief, usually (but, trust me, not always) based on one’s understanding of the reasons and evidence for and against the existence of the supernatural. As such, atheism does not commit anyone to any positive belief about ethics, politics, or what makes life meaningful. To put it as Francis Bacon famously did (in his New Organon, a response to Aristotle), progress in philosophy is made by combining a pars destruens with a pars construens: atheism provides the negative argument that dispatches religious belief (if one is so inclined), but then one also needs some sort of positive argument to fill the gap left by the previously held religious belief. After all, what religions do is precisely to provide meaning as well as ethical guidance for people’s lives.
So I first explored the obvious alternative: secular humanism (with a glance at related approaches, like Unitarian Universalism and Ethical Culture). Here the writings of philosopher and secular activist Paul Kurtz were influential, books like In Defense of Secular Humanism and Affirmations: Joyful And Creative Exuberance. And yet, secular humanism has always felt to me as if it was lacking something. I liked the naturalistic perspective on things, the idea that our view of life ought to be informed by reason and (scientific) evidence, and the generally liberal progressive politics espoused by people like Kurtz. But the whole thing seemed a bit vague and ad hoc, despite a plethora of “Humanist Manifestos” being published over the decades.
It took me several years, and my renewed interest in philosophy — which came about initially for purely professional reasons — to lead me to explore more solid alternatives. My first course in graduate school as a philosophy student was in ethics, and as a result of it I published a paper entitled On the Relationship between Science and Ethics (in Zygon, 2003). In it, I sketched an approach of “quasi-continuity” between my old and my new disciplines, where ethics is seen as a type of reasoning about human affairs which cannot be reduced to, and yet ought to be informed by, the natural sciences.
But I was still constrained by the main modern philosophical frameworks of thinking about ethics: Kantian deontology and utilitarianism. Both of them clearly had serious flaws, in my mind, and moreover certainly did not amount to a philosophy of life along the lines of what secular humanists have been attempting (and Catholics and other religious people had successfully achieved for millennia).
That’s when I (re)discovered virtue ethics. And that’s were I’ll pick up the story in part II of this essay. Stay tuned.
MASSIMO PIGLIUCCI IS THE K.D. IRANI PROFESSOR OF PHILOSOPHY AT THE CITY COLLEGE OF NEW YORK. HIS BACKGROUND IS IN EVOLUTIONARY BIOLOGY AND THE PHILOSOPHY OF SCIENCE, THOUGH HE HAS RECENTLY DEVELOPED A KEEN INTEREST IN STOICISM. HIS MOST RECENT BOOK (CO-EDITED WITH MAARTEN BOUDRY) IS “PHILOSOPHY OF PSEUDOSCIENCE: RECONSIDERING THE DEMARCATION PROBLEM” (UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS, 2013). HIS OTHER WRITINGS CAN BE FOUND AT PLATOFOOTNOTE.ORG.