By James Anderson
In the beginning, philosophy was a way of life.
Dating back to the Zhou Dynasty in China, Confucianism encouraged the cultivation of virtues, which Dong Zhongshu expounded upon centuries later in the “Sangang Wuchan,” often translated as the, “Three Fundamental Bonds and Five Constant Virtues,” a text that speaks to the importance of a life lived with compassion, righteousness, wisdom and trustworthiness.
Socrates structured his life around dialogue. Plato’s Academy brought together an intellectually diverse community that, in addition to debating existential questions, also participated in gymnastic and spiritual exercises, as well as political activities.
The Aristotelian Lyceum carried forward that tradition with an emphasis on cooperative research, a penchant for more public-facing talks and a “peripatetic” practice of philosophizing while walking. In his “Nicomachean Ethics,” Aristotle also observed that philosophy untethered from engagement with the world fails to heal the soul, just as merely listening to the description of health care treatment fails to heal the body.
From its inception and throughout history, philosophy enacted as an art of living well and doing good also entailed critiquing the problems of civilization.
In the Daodejin, the early Daoist philosopher Laozi excoriated wars of expansion and the values embedded in elite society.
Confucius taught that caring for the society to which one belongs involves being critical when the prevailing form of social organization fails to live up to cherished values.
Socrates received an infamous death sentence for corrupting the youth of Athens with his irreverence after he called for a reevaluation of existing Athenian values and institutions in a society that demonstrated its drift toward spiritual decay by executing the citizen trying to help save the city-state’s soul, as PHIL 101 students might recall.
Over time, the lived orientation of philosophy started to change as academic institutions incorporated the discipline, leading to professionalization. The educational cannons formalized to a degree during the Hellenic period of Classical antiquity with the practice of reading thinkers in prescribed order to learn how to live the ways of life described in texts. A tradition of commentary within Hellenism, extending into the Roman imperial period, started to displace the traditions rooted in embodied exercises, contributing to this shift toward greater scholasticism.
With the arrival of and development of Christianity, preparation for an afterlife suppressed erstwhile philosophies akin to guided arts of living.
Between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries, philosophy firmly centered itself in the medieval university. It ceased to be about realizing the good life. Instead, philosophers in the later Middle Ages studied the nature of reality in ways that tended to justify and reinforce religious dogma.
Hyper-professionalism gripped higher learning by the late 19th century.
But true to that two-millennium-old tradition of critical self-reflection and interrogation of the social order, there were those who bucked the emerging orthodoxy and repudiated the trend.
In 1903, William James summed up the mood in “The PhD Octopus,” lamenting the rapid drift “towards a state of things in which no man of science or letters will be accounted respectable unless some kind of badge or diploma is stamped upon him, and in which bare personality will be a mark of outcast estate.” James encouraged course correction away from that “decidedly grotesque tendency.”
In that vein, Eli Kramer, a US-educated associate professor in the Institute of Philosophy at the University of Wrocław, Poland, sees a current running through this history that treats wisdom as an experienced, engaged and at times dissident phenomenon.
“I see philosophy as a way of life – and I might be so bold to say this across cultures – as a sort of long standing perennial tension with higher learning institutions,” he said.
Admonition from scholars like James who carried that current notwithstanding, academia largely acquiesced to the stratification and the separation of teaching and research from a corporeal and communal search for and practice to realize the good, the true and the beautiful.
Analytic philosophy, with its focus on language and formal logic, emerged as hegemonic in the decades after James castigated the new “spirit of academic snobbery.” And too few within that subfield and in intellectual circles more broadly retained the ethical-political commitments of public intellectuals like Bertrand Russell, who endured censure and incarceration for his efforts to curb militarism and prevent nuclear catastrophe.
During the Cold War, highly technical philosophy unlikely to elicit knee-jerk political responses eschewed concerns about living well and did little to show how the field could assist in interrogating institutionalized injustice.
In the now-thoroughly professionalized field, academic philosophers prioritizing writing for and publishing journal articles only other experts will read hardly helps people appreciate the applicability of philosophy to everyday experience.
As some heterodox philosophers have argued, the humanities are now awash in metrics for evaluating scholarly work – evaluative measures that ignore transformative pedagogy in the classroom. Robust efforts to practice paideia – to borrow the word for both formal instruction as well as informal education through enculturation used in antiquity – receive even less recognition.
The pressures to “publish or perish,” exacerbated by dwindling numbers of tenure-line opportunities and an ultra-competitive academic job market, do more to discipline scholars who might take Socratic questioning seriously than to support critical reflection that concerns a discipline at risk of being widely dismissed as irrelevant.
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But interest in revivifying philosophy traceable back to the 1970s makes it clear that not everyone in academia has been on board with a version of the field that fails to enrich the lives of students or with cloistered scholarly lives tacitly complicit in public problems.
Several decades ago, a cadre of pluralists working outside the confines of analytic philosophy spurred a revolt within the American Philosophy Association. They didn’t outright reject questions related to epistemology, logic and the like. Rather, they took exception to reducing their field to questions academics obsessed over at the expense of living philosophy in ways that contribute to the common good.
A handful of respected, if marginalized, scholars started organizations like the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy and the Society for Advancement of American Philosophy.
Kramer said many tried to build upon bedrocks of the American tradition, from the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson to Emma Goldman to Martin Luther King Jr. Space opened up in universities for more existentialist, Americanist, indigenous and Africana philosophy, which introduced a new crop of students and professors to previously neglected possibilities.
Then, two texts from the 1980s took things a step farther.
First, intellectuals across the political spectrum recognized that, despite the conceptual density of the text, in “After Virtue,” Alasdair MacIntyre’s leveled criticism of contemporary civilization they needed to contend with. The now 93-year-old professor emeritus at Notre Dame drew on Aristotle to criticize the rise of “emotivism,” the notion that moral judgments are mere expressions of preference, and rebuke the resulting “moral disorder” plaguing society.
Decades later, social and political developments have seemingly corroborated his diagnosis, but it appears a lesser-known French text could be the bigger catalyst in the transformation of how philosophy is understood and received, how it is taught in college classrooms, and how it is used to transform individuals as well as institutions, academia included.
In an essay typically translated as “Philosophy as a Way of Life,” Pierre Hadot argued philosophy demanded an “art of living” through “lived exercise exhibited in every aspect of one's existence,” and he famously encouraged meditative, “spiritual exercises” for personal development. He criticized the modern university as “an institution made up of professors who train other professors, of specialists who learn how to train other specialists,” and contrasted modern academic philosophy with antiquity, when the aim was an integrated life capable of engendering better human beings.
“Hadot, he's kind of an existentialist, kind of a virtue ethicist,” explains Meghan Sullivan, the Wilsey Family Collegiate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. “But that essay got a lot of attention because a lot of people read it, and they're just like, ‘Yeah, I do kind of miss this idea that I’d take a philosophy class and it would really help me figure out how to be a happier person.’”
Hadot’s work, which would be translated into English in 1995, has become virtually synonymous with ongoing efforts to recover philosophy as a way of life – PWoL, or PWL, as some academics abbreviate it – and with work by professional philosophers to create conditions conducive to living well on campus and beyond.
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Stephen Angle, a philosopher at Wesleyan University, first taught a freshman seminar in that vein more than 10 years ago. Students read texts by ancient Chinese and Greko-Roman authors as well as works by modern thinkers.
“The final project for that class was to choose one of the different philosophers whose works that we read over the course of the semester, and live in accordance with that philosopher’s teaching for five days,” Angle said.
Since then, he’s had the opportunity to co-teach a similarly-themed course, “Living a Good Life,” with Tushar Irani, a colleague who contributed to the collection of essays published in 2020 as “Philosophy as a Way of Life: Historical, Contemporary, and Pedagogical Perspectives,” and with Steven Horst, another Wesleyan philosopher who has experience teaching moral psychology and care of the soul. The collaborative course garnered attention from the New York Times a few months after COVID-19 started to spread.
As the pandemic punctuated intersecting crises of personal and public life, courses like the one at Wesleyan equipped undergraduates with tools for working through the inevitable human pain and suffering the novel coronavirus hastened and worsened.
But visions of philosophical education that help people be good and live well antedate the COVID-19 outbreak by at least a decade or so.
“I think you've seen this kind of spark of optimism – cautious optimism – on the part of philosophy professors that the challenge Hadot and MacIntyre laid down could be met,” Sullivan said. “We can actually just do our jobs in this somewhat different way.”
Her friend and colleague, Stephen Grimm, a philosopher at Fordham University in the Bronx, developed his own seminar a few years back with similar themes, focusing on thinkers who have something to tell people about how to live happier, more fulfilling lives.
Grimm had students choose a wisdom tradition – the most popular being Buddhist and Stoic ways of life – and then implement some of the tradition’s modes of perceiving and techniques for addressing various challenges, conflicts and difficulties that arise over the course of a few days.
“You're supposed to get a deeper insight into Stoicism when you try to live it out, and you try to see its limits and its positives and negatives,” he said.
Having taught a “God and the Good Life” course, Sullivan wanted to popularize PWL courses and scholarship, and $806,000 worth of help from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation made possible the Philosophy as a Way of Life Network based at Notre Dame and illustrates the resources increasingly available for PWL work.
“Our pitch to Melon,” she said about the grant application, “was we believe that there is genuine hunger and interest on the part of students to take a philosophy course that introduces them to philosophy as one of multiple routes to thinking about how they want to craft their life, what it means to have a happy life, what kinds of goals are worth pursuing, how you convince other people about your goals – that is the essence of virtue ethics, for sure in the Greek tradition and in Confucian ethics, but it's also the essence of certain world religions. It's at the heart of existentialism in its own way. There are a lot of different traditions that think that philosophy should be playing this role.”
Inspired by some of those traditions, Sullivan co-wrote the 2022 book, “The Good Life Method: Reasoning Through the Big Questions of Happiness, Faith, and Meaning,” with Paul Blaschko. She estimates that she’s done 40 to 50 podcast interviews in the last year, talking to 21st century Stoics, philosophically-minded Christians, people interested in healthy lifestyles and others.
While public thirst for life-affirming philosophy accounts for some of the book’s popularity, the apparent influence of PWL on academic publishing perhaps accounts for a string of related releases.
Richard Shusterman, the Dorothy F. Schmidt Eminent Scholar in the Humanities and the director of the Center for Body, Mind, and Culture at Florida Atlantic University, has been authoring PWL-related books – the 1997 text, “Practicing Philosophy: Pragmatism and the Philosophical Life,” the 2008 treatise on mind-body awareness, “Body Consciousness: A Philosophy of Mindfulness and Somaesthetics,” and his recent, “Philosophy and the Art of Writing” – for readers inside and outside of academe, for example.
“I understand philosophy as a way of life more broadly than just being an academic philosopher who is in the philosophy as a way of life movement,” Shusterman underscored. “There are a lot of exemplars of people who live and think critically and shape their lives through philosophical questions and self-cultivation [who] have never had and never will have an appointment in a philosophy department.”
Oxford University Press also gave PWL a boost with its "Guides to the Good Life Series," edited by Grimm.
“[There are] a lot of things on the market about how to be a Stoic, for instance, that are more superficial, that just offer, like, life hacks for Stoicism, Stoic life hacks,” Grimm said, “and our goal in this series is, yes, to provide guidance, to think about the guidance these traditions offer for how to live well, but also to really think about the philosophical underpinnings of that guidance to make it richer and deeper. I hope that these books will actually be kind of evergreen [and] have a long shelf life because while there are a lot of books like Stoic life hacks, there aren't as many that really dig into the philosophical underpinnings of these worldviews. But the authors in our series really do.”
Popular fascination with Stoicism also suggests a new public role for the kind of philosophy capable of reasserting its relevance.
The Modern Stoicism organization, for example, publishes a Stoicism Today blog and hosts the annual "Stoicon" public event, along with "Stoic Week,” which invites folks to "live like a Stoic for a week" and engage with Stoic wisdom for free online every year. Nearly 40,000 people have participated since 2012.
Matthew Sharpe, a philosophy professor at Deakin University in Australia, said he finds the cognitive, meditative and contemplative practices within the Stoicism immensely valuable in life and as a parent.
“It certainly has helped me with dealing with the way that academic life is organized according to competition, according to scarcity,” said Sharpe, who’s included readings and exercises in the Stoic tradition on course syllabi.
The philosophy affords a change in perspective that proponents contend can be salvific, if also revivifying, at the individual and, perhaps, at the socio-cultural level. Similarly, philosophers keen to demonstrate the underappreciated, far-reaching relevance of their discipline hope to do so with various other PWL interventions that build bridges between the broader public and academia – pathways for the edification of self and society.
The Partially Examined Life crew continues to make philosophy accessible and entertaining in podcast form. For more than a decade, PEL has been paving the way for public-facing scholarshipwhile demonstrating how educated individuals can do philosophy and educate others without necessarily doing that for a living in an academic context.
The Philosophy Institute offers classes for people who want to wrestle with problems of meaning. Kyoto University graduate students in Japan, as well as students in the Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness graduate studies department at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, have been drawing on philosophy to think through best practices to address individual and social problems like climate change. In the Netherlands, the University of Humanistic Studies now offers degrees in humanistic pastoral care and facilitates therapeutic dialogue through an interdisciplinary framework to help people work through crises of quotidian life.
As Sullivan is wont to point out, people constantly pose philosophical questions, especially in times of crisis, but we don’t necessarily realize we’re doing philosophy – or that we could learn how to better address philosophical questions in theory and in practice.
“One thing that philosophy as a way of life can do by doing more public outreach is help people to realize they don't have to guess about these questions,” Sullivan said. “There’s this whole vibrant, amazing tradition that can help them come up with better answers.”
Granted, there are holdouts holding the purse strings still skeptical about PWL, as Marta Faustino, a research fellow with the NOVA Institute of Philosophy at the New University of Lisbon in Portugal, discovered when she applied for a grant.
An application review comment she received informed her it’s not evident why the way philosophy is currently taught, researched and disseminated needs to change. One reviewer indicated “a little more self-critique of the idea of philosophy as a way of life would have been advisable.”
Since ancient approaches to philosophy started to make a comeback, criticism of the revival has also come from within the eclectic network of professors with different ideas about how best to do the revivifying.
Roger Ames, a philosophy professor now at Peking University, claimed in an interview circa 2010 for the journal Paideusis that although Hadot put forward a useful criticism of Western philosophy, the exercises he endorsed reflect a specialized life of the sort William James rejected.
Somewhat controversially, Ames distinguished the tradition Hadot hoped to resuscitate from the Confucian and Daoist views that relationships constitute us as human beings and that we become better people “by living in those relationships in the most meaningful way.”
To clarify ambiguities like those Ames identified, Faustino applied for and received a grant from the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology (FCT) to seed an active project, “Mapping Philosophy as a Way of Life: An Ancient Model, A Contemporary Approach.”
The project involves outreach events, like a series of international seminars available online.
For a recent talk in the series, Kramer and his colleague, Leonard Waks, professor emeritus of educational leadership at Temple University, acknowledged an apropos criticism of PWL regarding a tendency to tend to the individual at the expense of actively creating individuals-in-community and without considering the social conditions that shape the self.
They drew on the work of John Dewey to argue for a rapprochement between the use of spiritual exercises to enhance personal life and the role philosophy ought to play in informing reconstruction of institutional cultures so as to broaden participation in communities characterized by the good life.
If only an elite group partakes in PWL spiritual exercises and co-learning initiatives in ever detached ways from islands of affluence isolated from what Dewey called the “problems of men,” their priorities will become increasingly insular and their philosophy will fail to effectively address the problems of life, Kramer explained after the talk.
“Eventually, they will become the rotten privileges of a class no longer in dialogue with anyone, and not even of service to themselves,” he cautioned. “PWL will devolve into the very sophistry and professional scholasticism it rejects. On the other end those increasingly excluded from
PWL will suffer from disparagement and disempowerment, easily coerced by sophists and worst authoritarians.”