On the very idea of philosophy as a way of life

I have been corresponding with Michael McGhee via email. McGhee, an Honorary Research Fellow in philosophy at the University of Liverpool, said that the MA program in Philosophy as a Way of Life at the University of Liverpool folded a few years ago, not long after it began and around the time that he retired. Perhaps the modern research university, the kind dreamt up by Humboldt and copied by Johns Hopkins, the kind that would become the model for education in the twentieth century, is not the institution in which a pupil can learn how to lead a philosophical life.

Yesterday, I was speaking with Robert Kugelmann, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Dallas, about the fine book he had written on–and against–stress. I confessed that I had not read it through. He told me that his one line conclusion for the use of the word was to “stop using it!”

At the moment, Kugelmann is teaching an undergraduate course in the history of psychology. The students are reading the ancient philosopher and medical doctor Galen’s book, The Cures of the Soul’s Passions. Galen argues that the end of philosophy is to become a wise men. “And are they learning to become wise?” I asked him. “Good question,” he said. “I hope they are becoming more open about these questions.” One of the limitations of the field of psychology, he said, is that it fancies itself a science.

Over the past couple years and after countless conversations with a wide variety of intellectuals and laypersons, I have yet to disconfirm my theses (on the idea of testing a thesis in this fashion, I’m thinking of Karl Popper on falsifiability) that, first of all, philosophy as it is taught in school is grasped as a theoretical discourse chiefly (words about words, theories about something or other, etc.), not as a commitment to living philosophically and, second, that philosophy as a way of life cannot be taught in the educational institutions we have inherited. (Both mistakes have been carried over into ‘popularizing’ philosophical organizations like The School of Life and Idler’s Academy and, more dogmatically still, into the School of Practical Philosophy.) Philosophy, I have written sometimes, is analogous to rational chanting. Or: philosophy is like praying by other means.

McGhee pushed back somewhat, arguing:

I think the notion of philosophy as a way of life leaves room for a theoretical expression of what constitutes such a life, but it is certainly true that you don’t need to be an intellectual to be a member of a philosophical community in the sense we both embrace, I think.

I replied,

I agree with you that a philosophical life must make room for theoretical reflection on the nature of such a life, on how it hangs together. But–well–I think there’s theory and then there’s theory. (What is this–Groucho Marx?) Reflection on such a life within the confines of the practice of philosophy is good and, provided it comes at the right time, entirely needful. By contrast, professional meta-ethics, say, once and already severed from a basic commitment to leading a philosophical life with one’s fellows, seems to me woefully misguided. I remember attending conferences and writing words like “bloodless” and “wooden” in the margins of my notebook.

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