It’s Not True That Philosophy Is Impractical

The rap on philosophy is that it’s impractical. But as in Hitchcock’s film North by Northwest, so too here: you’ve got the wrong man.


  • Philosophy starts from one’s actual experience. In a Big Think interview, I state, “I think that philosophy begins with a convulsive experience, an experience that shakes you out of your own certainties, out of your way of being in the world. Philosophy comes on the scene to illuminate that convulsive experience.” In this respect, “it is not a merely intellectual affair.”
  • Any genuine philosophical question implicates the questioner. Every philosophical question, then, reaches beyond the questioner just as it turns back toward him. To ask about the nature of death is also to be concerned, ultimately so, with one’s own death. To ask about the power of courage is to be concerned with becoming more courageous. And so on.
  • At the very least, philosophy helps us to avoid disaster. Whatever is unthought is for this reason likely to be a matter of conditioning. When we neglect, overlook, or pass by something, we increase our risks of facing disaster. Philosophy is, apart from other things, the art of looking around the next corner to see what is there and to discern what it means for us. Philosophy’s companion is courage.
  • Philosophy is gripped by the pursuit of wisdom. And if wisdom means anything, it means that one’s right conduct is based on one’s right understanding. I define philosophy as (a) the activity that is fundamentally concerned with asking and seeking to answer the most basic questions of human existence; (b) the ultimate test of philosophy is that, through understanding, our lives become the best answer we’ve come to so far. The first part–that is, (a)–is about a right understanding of oneself and the cosmos, of oneself in the cosmos. The second part, (b), is where the rubber hits the road: all answers reach their genuine fulfillment in embodiment. Therefore, I say that wisdom is right conduct based on right understanding.

Hence, philosophy, insofar as it’s nailed to the question of how best to live, is as practical as it gets.

Let’s turn the tables around on my skeptical interlocutor: What, I ask you, could be more impractical than dodging the earnest, systematic, ongoing engagement with how you should live?