Philosophy & Everyday Life:
Prologue to Discussion

by Ralph Dumain

I wish to begin by pointing out the central paradox of my paper, but first I must make a few remarks on our moderator’s excellent set of discussion questions.  As some of these questions push my buttons, and remind me of what I oppose, I must begin by challenging some assumptions.

I reject the dichotomizing of scientific knowledge and daily life, which reflects a split within philosophy itself over the past 150 years [positivism vs. lebensphilosophie, a split underlying many of our debates].  We need an understanding of the whole.

I reject the objection to philosophy as too technical and not readily comprehensible, opposed to the warm, fuzzy quality of everyday life.  The problem of technical philosophy is not that it is technical but that it is difficult to relate to the big picture: not difficult only for the average person, but for the professional philosopher himself, who also thrives on fragmentation.  Therefore I reject popularization that reflects these assumptions.

I reject the dichotomy of reason and emotion.  I reject the notion that philosophy is rational while life is irrational, ineffable, and not subject to critical reflection.

[Another time I will deal with the dishonesty of Heidegger.]

Now to the ironic position that I find myself in.  There is a paradox to my paper and its relation to its audience.

Paradoxically, a popular audience is not primed to be receptive to my paper; my paper is more attuned to the style and concerns of academics, if they would have me.  For these and the following reasons, my paper must be very frustrating to the average person.

My paper does not directly address the question of how to think philosophically in life.  Instead, I have posed the question of what it would mean to think philosophy in life, still obsessed with the status of “philosophy” as a distinct entity.

The natural question would be: OK, Ralph, can you show us how it is done?  But I am a tease; I say nothing about how to think, nor do I offer any examples of how philosophy provides insights that spontaneous cognition does not.  Instead, I have posed the question as an abstract concept.  Instead of explaining how to think philosophically in everyday life, I explain how to go about thinking about thinking philosophically in everyday life.  This must be very frustrating for my audience.

However, there is a rationale for my procedure.  The issues I raise directly concern us, we who participate in such public discussion groups as Café Philo and Socrates Café.  Secondly, we are all potential consumers of books of popular or popularizing philosophy.  Thirdly, we constitute a mixed audience.  What can and cannot be achieved in a forum such as ours?  How do we further systematize the results of our discussion?

The next logical step beyond my paper is to explore just how to think, and this entails an analysis of the relation between experience, intuition, and reason.  Perhaps you will come up with some insights.  Now let the discussion begin.

28 September 2002

(This is a reconstruction of my remarks introducing the discussion, for which I submitted my paper.)

The Discussion

Discussant A stressed the need for an integrated view of existence, which proceeds one way or another from birth.  The question is whether the integration is based as it usually is on a contradictory mélange of superstitions, unexamined beliefs, and haphazard experiences, or on conscious reasoning.  Discussant B, obtrusively hostile to A, stressed the need for spontaneity and openness to experience, as opposed to the mechanistic approach of control freaks.  Discussant C rejected the demand for intellectual integration, and suggested that my denigration of popular philosophy and self-help literature was too harsh and patronizing to the non-professional.  He also contrasted the notions of philosophy as a way of life with philosophy as an approach to problems.  While rejecting the viability of the former, he suggested that reflection on unanalyzed practices and beliefs does have an impact.

These three individuals represent three dominant ideological voices in our group, so it is not surprising that they, as well as I, would set the tone for the group discussion.

In response, I stressed that I myself am an amateur, and am motivated by the standards I’ve set for myself rather than any practical stake in academic philosophy.  I also denied being a control freak, and I see no contradiction between reason and openness to experience.  I deferred any further comments on self-help literature to another occasion.  Lastly, I brought up the philosophical question of theory and practice, integral to this debate.  I do not advocate the unity of theory and practice as is usually conceived.  We can know much more than we can directly act upon, and our actions have ramifications that go beyond our conscious awareness.

Another theme that surfaced in the discussion was the pleasure of thinking for its own sake, regardless of immediate pragmatic concerns, and the natural curiosity of human beings.  Yet another was the question of whether we can readily articulate the philosophy of life that we implicitly hold.  Reasons to philosophize include a sense of wonder, and anxiety.  One person questioned whether the average person could be philosophical in most affairs of ordinarily life (though this might be necessary in matters beyond daily commonsense); others suggested that it is impossible not to.

Discussant D claimed that everyday life cannot exist without philosophy.  We must make models of reality.  There are questions of objectivity and subjectivity, social distortions and one’s personal views.  D later said that he felt forced into philosophy, and that the information revolution pushes us into the need for greater consciousness, hence conscious philosophizing.

A number of side issues got dragged into the discussion.  One of the more interesting was the problem of skepticism (Hume).  My response to this issue was to point out the problem of the contradiction between the theoretical and the practical idea.  You are in some kind of mess when you theoretically hold to a position that you cannot possibly believe in.  Practically, nobody can live as if objective reality were unknowable.  What makes the stance of theoretical skepticism vs. practical realism even thinkable is specialization and the social division of labor.  There is one outstanding example in popular culture of the recognition of the split between professional and everyday life: the television sitcom Frasier. Frasier is a psychiatrist who has some professional ethics and sense of responsibility in his working life, but in his personal life he is totally subjective, narcissistic, and unaccountable.  Professional ideology allows you to be at least minimally responsible, in a narrowly defined way, from 9-5, and a clueless idiot in the rest of your life.

Another curious feature of the discussion, all too characteristic of the Washington mentality, was the obsession with political issues, with a characteristic lack of insight into same.  Some participants are clearly interested in political “philosophy”, with little or no interest in or understanding of metaphysical and epistemological questions.  In response, I challenged any such duality, asserting that if you can’t understand the metaphysics, you will never understand the politics. Philosophy’s role is to examine the underlying structure of concepts with which we organize our understanding of the empirical world.  Otherwise, all you have is the positive assertion of canned positions.  A recurring problem in our discussions is the inability to analyze examples from the real world with any depth or adequacy.  I have no intention now of discussing the specifics of anyone’s ignorance of Heraclitus, Marx, or anyone else, but I want to raise this problem to the level of an abstract question.

This is in actuality what philosophy proper is: to raise to abstract consideration the common underlying properties of empirical data.  Café Philo does not seem to grasp this, nor does it fulfill this requirement in practice.  For this we would need to have a discussion afterward to analyze the preceding discussion.  The discussion itself needs to be made an object of abstract reflection.  Perhaps this is something to be done at home.

I closed the discussion by reciting the quote from Hegel I used to introduce my paper:

Every educated consciousness has its metaphysics, an instinctive way of thinking, the absolute power within us of which we become master only when we make it in turn the object of our knowledge. Philosophy, in general, has, as philosophy, other categories than ordinary consciousness; all culture reduces itself to difference of categories. All revolutions, in the sciences, no less than in general history, originate only in this, that the spirit of man, for the understanding and comprehending of himself, for the possessing of himself, has now altered his categories, uniting himself in a truer, deeper, more inner and intimate relation with himself.

Discussion took place 28 September 2002.  This report, based on handwritten notes, was written 14 October 2002.  

Next installment: analysis of this experience and notes towards the next step.

© 2002 Ralph Dumain. All rights reserved.

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