When, in our first class together, I asked the fifth grade students with whom I’m doing philosophy this winter what they imagined was the definition of philosophy, one student volunteered that he thought philosophy was “a way of life.” Of course, I loved the sophistication of this answer, and there are philosophers who hold this view. I started wondering, thought, exactly what it means. I don’t think that anyone would suggest that either sociology or anthropology is a way of life, so why does this claim seem at all plausible for philosophy? (Of course, there is far less controversy over the meaning of sociology or anthropology among sociologists and anthropologists!)
Many professional philosophers would argue that philosophy is a particular discipline practiced within academia, and some have told me that they don’t think what I do (with pre-college students) is real philosophy. Certainly, philosophy is a discipline with a history, and knowledge about the philosophical tradition deepens and expands thinking about philosophical questions. What I do with pre-college students is to focus on the discussion of philosophical problems: What is truth? What are the elements of a good life? What can we know about the world? These are all ways of approaching the study of philosophy, but what about philosophy as a way of life?
Pierre Hadot, the French philosopher, talks about philosophy as a way of seeing, and being in, the world. It is “love of the good,” developed through dialogue and maintained through self-examination and questioning. So philosophy as a way of life would be a life devoted to questioning and the search for understanding. That seems to me close to what this student meant when he referred to philosophy as a way of life. It’s an appealing idea. I do think about my work with young people as a way of helping them become critical thinkers and people actively engaged in trying to understand the world. But are all people who seek understanding of the right way to live through questioning and self-examination, and who think about the fundamental questions of human existence in dialogue with others, philosophers?