Practical philosophies

Sisella asked:

Existentialism and Stoicism are two well known philosophies of life. Are there any others you can think of? What makes a philosophy ‘practical’?

Answer by Massimo Pigliucci

Philosophy, as much as it is hard to believe nowadays, very much started out as a practical endeavor. For many of the ancient Greek philosophers — Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, Zeno, and a number of others — it simply would not have made much sense to think of philosophy as detached from everyday life. The very word ‘philosophy,’ after all, means love of wisdom, not love of academic discussions that nobody else cares about.

So, aside from Stoicism (which originated in Greece during the Hellenistic period and flourished during the Roman Empire) and Existentialism (a 20th century approach developed especially by French writers like J.P. Sartre, S. de Beauvoir, and A. Camus) a number of practical philosophies have been proposed in both the Western and Eastern traditions. Just to name a few: Cynicism (in the ancient Greek sense, not meaning a club of nasty naysayer), Epicureanism (which, contra popular opinion, it’s not all about seeking carnal pleasures), Buddhism, and Confucianism.

Moreover, these days there is a healthy (I think) blurring of the line separating philosophy and psychology, particularly so-called positive psychology, i.e. the psychology of life’s meaning and affirmation. Consider two well established approaches to psychotherapy: logotherapy and cognitive behavioral therapy.

Logotherapy was established by neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor who tried to learn from his terrible experience and make it the foundation of a general method of coping with life’s difficulties. Similarly, the related cognitive behavioral therapy focuses on practical ways to analyze one’s faulty thinking about difficult situations in life, attempting to redirect thoughts and emotions through repeated practice. Interestingly, cognitive behavioral and similar type of approaches have been found empirically to be the most effective therapies for actually changing human behavior for the better.

Your question mentions Stoicism, and it is crucial to note that both logotherapy, and especially cognitive behavioral therapy, have been greatly influenced by that ancient practical philosophy. Stoics were concerned with three general areas of inquiry: logic, physics, and ethics. By logic they meant not just the kind of formal logic we study today, but more generally anything to do with reasoned discourse and epistemology (theories of knowledge). Physics for the Stoics included the natural sciences broadly construed, as well as metaphysics. Finally, ethics was concerned with knowledge of what it takes to pursue the good life, what the Greek called eudaimonia.

The important thing to appreciate is that the Stoics saw both physics and logic as directly related to ethics, that is they conceived a coherent philosophical system that made their ethical precepts consistent with what we know about the world (science, metaphysics) and about reason (logic, epistemology). This may explain a recent resurgent interest in Stoicism, with the University of Exeter actually organizing an annual ‘Stoic Week’ at the end of November every year (try it out: it encourages people to live like a Stoic for a few days, logging their experiences on the initiative’s web site, essentially conducting an ongoing social experiment in practical philosophy).

The other thing to note is that for a number of years now some philosophers have taken to develop a practical application usually known as philosophical counseling, often nicknamed ‘therapy for the sane.’ This can be done in a number of ways, and you can find out more through popular books like my colleague Lou Marinoff’s Plato, Not Prozac! Philosophical counselors draw from the vast variety of practical philosophical traditions (including the above mentioned Stoicism, Epicureanism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Existentialism) to help people cope more rationally with life’s everyday challenges.


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