EVERYTHING I LEARNT ABOUT LIFE I LEARNT FROM OLD PHILOSOPHERS

Posted by Steven Parker / The School of Life Taipei Faculty

20th Feb 2017

我們很少質疑別人為什麼要唸商管會計,卻對於唸哲學心存疑慮。為什麼要唸哲學? 哲學有什麼用? 這個疑問,或許來自於對「哲學」的誤解和迷思,認為哲學是一門深奧、古典的學問,因而與現代社會、日常生活脫節。 

然而,哲學其實就是一種思考方式,能幫助我們重新審視既定的觀念,為事情找到更多元的可能;而學習哲學家的智慧,將使我們更加理解人生、理解周遭的人事物、理解思想的歷史脈絡。 

來看看The School of Life Taipei的種子導師、英國商會執行長Steven Parker,討論關於為什麼要唸哲學、以及哲學帶給我們的生活反思 — 例如在每日不耐煩地等待十字路口的紅綠燈時,想想其中的自利與公共利益。

WHAT'S THE USE OF PHILOSOPHY

I studied philosophy as part of my first degree. I have often been gently teased over the years about my choice of subject and asked “Why philosophy?”.  I do not work as a philosopher, people point out, as if the study of something is only for the vocation it may equip you for.  What people are really asking me is “of what possible use could philosophy be”

On the occasions when I have engaged people more deeply in this question I find a couple of common misconceptions about philosophy.  One of the responses people give me is that philosophy is somehow about the ancient world and is not connected to us here is the modern.  The second response – which is built on the first – is that philosophy is not connected to our regular lives.    

Both are untrue.  Here is why. 

Philosophy is about ideas and ways of thinking in general.  It has and always will be about challenging accepted ways and presenting a new possibility.  That these concepts could be considered as irrelevant to the modern world is a crazy one to me.  In fact, we live in an age rife with philosophies of different varieties – good and bad; an age of self-help books and business tomes teaching us how to achieve, get ahead, influence others.  When people study an MBA, no one questions why you would follow that particular discipline. It is the distilled wisdom of business leaders who have come before you and so one can, in a relatively short period of time, learn much about doing business that might otherwise take years of experience, trial, and error.  

But studying philosophy – the wisdom of life distilled through the ages – is often questioned and labelled irrelevant.  It is, apparently, understandable to study something in order to “become” something like a businessman, a manager, or an accountant; but studying in order to understand life, people, the history of thinking itself, is often-times placed in the bucket labelled “frivolous”.  I would argue the opposite is true; that understanding the philosophies of those that have come before us may be the most useful activity a person can undertake.  Learn not just what to do but also how and why you do it.   

Let me give you a very simple example of what I mean.  

CROSSING THE ROAD: SELF-INTEREST VS. THE GREATER GOOD

I live in Taipei.  I work in Hsinyi.  To get to work I need to cross the very busy Keelung and Song Gao Rd intersection – right next to the Taipei City Government Hall.  There is a sequence of right and left turn arrows, red and green lights, and pedestrian crossings.  It takes about 90 seconds for the whole thing to go through a cycle.  And, yes, it can be frustrating at times if you have arrived at your crossroads at the very beginning of a sequence, knowing that you will have to wait until it has gone through its entire programme before you will be able to make your crossing.  The sequence does not seem to understand just how important it is to you, right now, this morning, to get across the road.  Somehow it has failed to realize just how important this crossing is to you.  And every morning I witness hundreds of people and cars crossing that intersection in a multitude of different ways and with varying degrees of success.  

An understanding of philosophy has taught me that this traffic light represents the classic struggle between self-interest and the greater good.  It takes 13 seconds for me to cross the road.  An older person may require 20 or more depending on their speed.  And yet consistently I see people attempting to cross the road with 2 or 3 seconds remaining on the pedestrian arrow. These people are attempting, at varying levels of fitness, a feat that Usain Bolt at full flight could not achieve. Why do they do it?  I do not believe that these are bad people but they are, at this moment, putting their needs ahead of the needs of others and creating, in their ignorance, a road block that slows down traffic. 

The block grows significantly as each person or car, unable to begin their crossing at the appropriate time, prevent the proceeding groups from starting their journeys. 

THE IMPORTANCE OF KNOWING ‘WHY’

 Studying about thinking would let people understand that they are caught in a form of Utilitarian conflict; a competition of the happiness of the majority versus the happiness of one.  This thought may even make them stop and question whether they should actually be crossing the road right now.   Then again it may not.  But at the very least I sincerely believe that an understanding of philosophical thinking – and thinkers - would make them question their motives and help make decisions about their everyday lives in an informed way

Questioning our motives and looking at a situation from a number of angles – based on the study of the history of thought – will make us better decision makers in our everyday lives.  If a person still wants to cross the road against the lights, even after understanding all of the permutations of their actions, then so be it; there is nothing we can do.  But learning ‘why’, at the very least, would make a person hurrying across the road consciously selfish, if not preventing them altogether from becoming a traffic blocker. That is something, I guess.

 

The author of this post, Steven Parker, is the Executive Director of the British Chamber of Commerce in Taipei. He is a faculty member at The School of Life and will be delivering the upcoming class: How to find a job you love.

 

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