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What to think

OK. Been an odd week. Exhaustion, existential crisis (work with me here, I'm exaggerating, but only for effect) and, starting last night, my first serious head cold in I don't know how long (two years?). And this afternoon I got an actual unique reply to a resume — something that hasn't happened in 12+ months. (You can't imagine the thrill I got when reading, "Our hiring manager is out of the office; we'll let you know — in no less than three weeks! — if we'd like to set up an interview." I'm glad they bothered to reply, though.)

So, what should I make of all this? Well, there isn't much to it, really; these things happen. But I thought I should ask because I just read this book review, in the New York Times, of Pierre Hadot's What Is Ancient Philosophy?

Hadot, a French historian of ancient philosophy (the Times tells us), looks to ancient philosophy for insight into how philosophy should be done. The gist of it is that philosophy should be about living, not thinking; and a philosopher should be defined not by what he or she thinks, but how he lives his life. (The review, which is well written, explains Hadot's views quite well (assuming it's accurate). (Also, I quite enjoyed the quip about Hadot's "surprising — for a French intellectual — clarity."))

Now, I have plenty of distaste for the way academia approaches Philosophy, but I don't think you can fault people for engaging in a pursuit they somehow find satisfying, especially if they can get other people to pay them for it. (That's part of my own personal, um, philosophy, I guess....) There are two separate questions here, I think: One, should academics study what's currently called "Philosophy"; and, two, should people think about how they live their lives?

I'm not touching the first one, but it's the second that matters. If Hadot means to say (or does say; I haven't read the book, natch) that it — thinking about how to live — should even be taught in school, I think he's right, even if I don't think it's appropriate to suggest it as a substitute for an existing field of study (and even if that field of study happens to have the same name).

Life decisions are driven by countless factors — peer pressure, fear, doubt, advertising, insecurity, MTV, and what have you — and learning to make rational choices isn't much different from learning to solve word problems — it mostly just takes confidence and practice — but for one thing: No one ever really tells you it's something you can, and should, do, or helps you figure out how. Instead, it gets lumped in with that whole "maturity" thing we're all supposed to magically achieve when we "grow up." And I can tell you how it came to be seen that way, too: No one ever really thought about it.

August 21, 2002 9:45 PM

Comments (and TrackBacks)

Teaching how to make life decisisons...
In Judaism we have a whole set of books devoted to just this, replete with real-life examples and other detailed case studies: talmud.


Posted by rob adams on August 22, 2002 12:06 PM

Yes. And it's worthy of a whole set of books, and more. But need they be religious texts? Aren't there approaches we can agree on regardless of faith?

Posted by M on August 22, 2002 3:50 PM

I should add -- to better respond -- I don't mean to suggest that such philosophies don't already exist, or aren't already taught within certain contexts. What I do mean to say is that I think there's something to Hadot's emphasis on thinking about how to live. It's something that should be taught more than it is.

Posted by M on August 22, 2002 8:59 PM

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