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From Vol. 2, Issue 10, October 2020

Reap the benefits of philolosphy


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How to be with the world we live in

You’ve probably heard of VUCA before, to describe the kind of world we are living in - Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous. Considering what we’re going through now with the pandemic, these words are taking on new meaning and it is becoming increasingly difficult to see clearly, clarify our thoughts and decisionmaking. This is why we urgently need philosophy.

Why? Because philosophy helps us renew our outlook on the world. First by leaving our old preconceptions behind, second by fighting initial impressions.

As Stoic philosopher Epictetus reminds us :

The first thing a pretender to philosophy must do is get rid of their presuppositions; a person is not going to undertake to learn anything that they think they already know. (Epictetus, Discourses 2.17)

How to adapt preconceptions to everyday instances

We all have ideas about how the world works, about relationships, about what it is good to think, desire, and do. But in times of crisis, we find that these are not always helpful. Take an example: I run training programmes in philosophy for business and I have always done this face-to-face. I was convinced that we couldn’t do this by digital means, because when learning, nothing replaces the real life relationship we have with a teacher. This was the preconception I had to get rid of. And it’s only when I did try to imagine that great digital courses could be set up, that new possibilities emerged.

Getting rid of our preconceptions means allowing ourselves to overturn our usual ideas and questioning the assumptions that make our convictions. If there is one preconception we should be particularly weary of: the idea that certainty is more comfortable than uncertainty.

How to fight against impressions

Philosophy also helps us fight against impressions. Impressions are the ways in which the world appears to us, through our sensitivity, before we reflect on it; so in a given situation, this may be the fear or anger we feel before having analyzed the situation. Times of crisis are times when fear, feelings of injustice, and anger are exacerbated. So it appears to me even more important to fight initial impressions by having a clear guideline as to how we want to behave - there is nothing else really we can control.

How do we do that? The first thing is to actually recognize, identify that there is such a thing at an impression. Stoics were good at advising internal dialogue to help us remind ourselves of how we want to be and act.

Don’t let the force of the impression when first it hits you knock you off your feet; just say to it ‘hold on a moment; let me see who you are and what you represent. Let me put you to the test.’ (Epictetus, Discourses 2.17)

Putting impressions to the test first means picturing the actions that would result in giving in to that impression (eg. hitting someone following the first impression of anger) and refraining from being pulled into that; second, opposing the impression with an opposite thought (eg., making a conscious effort to think that the person who triggered our anger is someone we love.)

Philosophy is not only a discipline to be read, thought are discussed. It is a discipline to be practiced.

Epictetus again:

Every habit and faculty is formed or strengthened by the corresponding act - walking makes you walk better, running makes you a better runner. If you want to be literate, read.”(Epictetus, Discourses 2.18).

We could add: if you want to be a philosopher - in the sense of someone who can cultivate wisdom in the face of adversity - philosophize.

Questioning our assumptions and our initial impressions is a good way to start.

Flora Bernard co-founded the Paris-based philosophy agency, Thae, in 2013. Flora now works to help organisations give meaning to what they do.