A Short Introduction to Philosophical Practice

A Short Introduction to Philosophical Practice
by Andrew Keltner, PhD Researcher

The philosophical practice shows itself in several forms.[1] There is philosophical counselling, a form of therapy, which is different from psychology, psychiatry, and psychoanalysis, but it is not in direct opposition to them and in fact uses these fields as sources of inspiration for further philosophical dialogue. Then there is philosophical consultancy, this work that can be with any type of organization or individual and is in general an alternative to being an expert in a field, but rather a diagnostician of thinking. There is philosophy for children, or P4C, which is critical thinking through arts and crafts, games, and educational exercises, and is becoming popular mostly in schools, community centers, and workshops. It is also starting to show itself to be a potential game changer in the traditional scene of education that most of the developed world has known for the last 80 or so years. Finally, at least for now, there is a philosophical practice for the self, this is merely being a philosophically inclined person, towards your actions and thinking, in a reflective and rational manner.

Each of these sub-fields of the philosophical practice is its own world of new questions, methods, and aims, but what they all have in common is critical thinking, as an art and science. That is, to learn more, make things better, and in general explore curiosity with a goal that works in favor of our (at times) need to create something better. It is with this that I will write some more on philosophical practice, so that those who are interested can think of new ways to incorporate the attitudes for the philosophical practice into their life. There will then be a short history of philosophy demonstrating areas of philosophical practice. Following this, we will end with a brief overview of the process(es) of the philosophical practice. And finally, ending with a conclusion.


How to Philosophize Practically

The attitudes for this way of living, or ‘philosophy as a way of life’, is driven primarily by one question: ‘what is the good life?’ and two attitudes: ‘know thyself’ and ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’. Now, these are starting points, but it is important to know that there is almost no ending point, one does not examine once and it’s done, one does not say the first thing that comes to mind that they know about themselves and it’s done. No, rather it is a lifelong practice of asking questions, challenging assertions, finding problems in thinking. If there were a goal, it might be: to master your ability to think about how you think, or your meta-cognition. To clarify this is not a one step and done deal. So, to elaborate more on this, here are some questions to think about: What myths do you follow? What narratives do you give yourself? What presuppositions do you make before you speak? What biases do you have when you analyze something? From there you can start with your who, what, when, where, how, and why questions for further examination.

            The philosophical practice is critical thinking, but it is critical thinking on a high level. For example, it is not merely analytics, but why analytics might function the way it does. It is not just interpretation, but why and how we interpret what we do. It is not just a method, but also why that method is the way it is, and then what that all means, and so, and so forth. Ultimately, it is the science and art of asking questions, hypothesizing answers, rationalizing the probabilities of those answers, and forming new questions to further seek the truth. It is a dialogue, through questions. For the philosophical practice is the practice of being in love with wisdom. As a form of love in practice, there is not an end point.


Short History of Philosophy and its Practice

The origins of philosophical practice are arguably uncertain. The origins of certain fields in philosophical practice are more so. For example, Gerd B. Achenbach, a German philosopher, was the first person to have a philosophical practice in 1981, which led to new practices being formed and which we will discuss further in the next section. As well, in 1981, Pierre Hadot wrote his Philosophy as a Way of Life, a righteous piece of work detailing the act of living philosophically. So, while 1981 is a foundational year in philosophical practice, there were even earlier contemporary works being done. Some examples include the works of Victor Frankl’s work in the philosophically derived logotherapy and existential therapy, Pierre Grimes and philosophical midwifery, and Jacques Ellul who wrote of ways to live philosophically and escape the technological milieu of the 20th century. There are more examples, but in reality, these are all seemingly very misleading dates.

When we see these dates we think that perhaps there was no philosophical consultancy, or counseling, or philosophical way to approach life before. However, we know this simply cannot be true. We can look back in the history of philosophy and see an overwhelming amount. Some examples include Seneca as a stoic and an imperial advisor of Rome, or Hippocrates - ‘the father of medicine’, or Epicurus and the founding of the stoic communes. The fact is, is that to a degree, from ancient times to present there have always been people engaging in philosophical practice. It is too common to think of philosophy as solely an academic position in an ivory tower, only considering theoretical problems that are not for the layman. Rather, those theoretical issues are all derivative of simple everyday questions we ask ourselves about our conduct. If we take this as the starting point, the investigation of conduct, the examination of self, we see that it is from those ancient foundations that we start to see the beginnings of philosophical practice. Some may say it is from Aristotle and his defining the difference between natural and moral philosophies. Some might say it was from the action of Socrates using the elenchic and maieutic methods, which sought to understand behavior, belief, and find contradictions. That all created a whole new branch of philosophy different from the pre-Socratics, the precursors to modern day physics and mathematics.

So, we see that there have been through times of antiquity to the present day many people interested in the application of wisdom to everyday life. For example, ‘know thyself’ while often ascribed to Socrates and the inscription atop the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, is, by some, considered, as a potentiality, to back even further to possibly reaching Egypt where Greek statesmen would sometimes be educated. More recently, we have the existential movement, which led the way to understanding the humanist movement, by Jean Paul Sartre, and even possibly led to Simone de Beauvoir’s work in feminism. In the 19th century we have Nietzche whose work sought to empower mankind and left us with such practical ideas as ‘eternal recurrence’, or love of fate, which he advised should be a position one takes to live in life. A position that declares that you should only do what you would want to do if you were to do it over and over again, repeated through eternity. The practice also reaches the highest of high positions in power and the lowest of lows. For example, we have Marcus Aurelius to use as an example. The Emperor of Rome wrote his book Meditations and in it gives us an exercise in gratitude by showing his appreciation for all those in his life, from immediate family, extended family, friends, acquaintances, strangers, even adversaries. It is an exercise that anyone can do and one which is known to have a powerful effect if done honestly. On the lowest of lows we can look to ascetic movements, who gain enlightenment by restricting material and physical satisfactions, focusing solely on thought, meditation, and spirit. Of course, extremisms are not entirely necessary for the practice, but what is necessary is to know the length and variety in which the act of thinking can be carried out.

With that understanding of the variety to which one can engage with the philosophical practice from a historical point of view. Whether it be for influence, study into the history of ideas and philosophy, and any other curious reason, we can see that there is quite a bounty of sources to choose from. As well, there is still much to be discovered, studied, and looked into when considering the history of ideas and philosophy with this perspective in mind. However, to do this is it is also to have a basic understanding of how the practice itself works, which leads us to our next section. 


Brief Overview of a Practical Process(es)

So, let us imagine we have a question, or a concept, or an idea that you want to work on . We can call it ‘X’. From the question, concept, or idea we look for problems, clarification, or the deeper meaning. These can be understood better with a small introduction to the philosophical styles of inquiry called the elenchic, maieutic, and endoxic methods.

With the elenchic methods, we seek problems through negation. We actively seek to work with other people, or ourself to break down the foundations of thought and shed new light on them. We do this by finding contradictions, biases, fallacies, etc. Basically, it is an act of negation, a logical refutation. For example, someone asks the question: ‘why do I always suffer?’. The person themself, or their interlocutor, can ask: ‘do you suffer when you are laughing?’.

  With the maieutic method, we seek clarification in thought. We ask for rationality. We trust the other person, or ourself in our judgement until something new is found, something like a revelation. For example, the person answers the question: ‘no, I am not suffering when I laugh’ To which a proper response might be: ‘so if you are not suffering when you laugh, then when do you start suffering?’. Which might give insight into what conditions are making the person suffer.

From there we can use the endoxic method to find the common ground, the common relations of two ideas towards each other. We shave of the fat of each, and find the essential combinations and differences that relate to the two pieces of information with each other. For example, the person says: ‘I am suffering mostly when I under these conditions [...] and not under these conditions [...]’. We can ask further about the conditions, or phenomena, and what we can learn from them further. Then finding the differences and similarities of the phenomena we have a more unified version of reality to think with.

          These three methods work in unison with each other. There is no true method of which goes first, or which goes later. The method is the act of knowing when, how, and why you are using these and then continuing the process of examination. It is both an art and a science. An art in the fact that it is a practice, a performance of thinking, it will never be perfect. But also a science in that we need examples, evidence, and logic, among other things. And much like the scientific method, we start with a question and we seek to answer it. We can form hypotheses and test them. The art is how one constructs their method, but the method is based on science. What art and science are is up for discussion as well. Thus, we can see, the very foundation of the philosophical practice is to never stop questioning, but also the wisdom to know what questions to ask.


So, here I hope that it has been understood the place philosophical practice has throughout history. Whether it is concerned with thinking to fix a goal, thinking to reflect, thinking to find meaning, or whatever your reason is. It certainly should be more clear, rather than unclear, how big the potential is for thinking about thinking. That is how many opportunities there are to engage with life through philosophy. For, we have to remember sometimes that philosophy does not mean that thing that happens in universities and where if you have never read certain works then your position in life is relegated as a plebe. No, what matters here is one's ability to think as a wise person. For that is what truly philosophy is, ‘love of wisdom’. Wisdom being defined by knowledge, experience, and good judgement. Things that are not necessarily theoretical matters and things that can be said to be as much a part of things to be inquired upon as those things that knowledge, experience, and good judgement seek to understand.

[1] Using philosophical practice as an umbrella term for applied philosophy, experimental philosophy, philosophical counseling, consultancy, etc. is not universally agreed upon. However, there is a general consensus that it is suitable as a general term.

MagazineErica Kitzman