Open Thinkering

Menu

Tag: philosophy

Our better natures

We’re at a moment in history where everything that went before seems somewhat… quaint. Both 2019 and the years that preceded it seem to me like a quieter, more innocent age. It was certainly a time when I was unaware of how quickly situations can change for the worse at both a macro and micro level.

Like many people, I’m sure, this year is definitely a candidate for The Worst Year of My Life. It has been difficult on the professional front, with attempts to stick to my moral compass bringing me into conflict on a number of occasions. And on a personal level, I feel like I’ve been hampered by those closest to me in their unwillingness for me to change and grow.

The two things that keep me going through all of this, other than the sustaining love of my family, are the words of the Stoic philosophers and the help I’ve received from my therapist. They work in tandem.

For example, in my most recent therapy session, I was challenged to reflect on the places from where I get reassurance. Having read a lot of Stoic philosophy, I already knew the ‘right answer’ to this: the only place you can get reassurance from is yourself. However, this was head knowledge; I didn’t feel it.


In The Joys of Being a Stoic, Massimo Pigliucci quotes the opening of Epictetus’ Enchiridion. In my opinion, it’s one of the most succinct, powerful, and practical philosophical statements ever made:

Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing. (Enchiridion 1.1)

This is sometimes called the Stoic Fork, as it forces you to realise that there are some things you can control (not much) and some things you can’t (everything else).


I turn 40 at the end of next month, meaning that I’m looking at the start of 2021 as marking the beginning of the second half of my life. When I look back at the first half, there are many things to be grateful for; many achievements and good decisions. But there are also things that make me almost bite my fist in their cringeworthiness; I have been at times naive, arrogant, and quick to anger.

There is no point in making resolutions or grand statements about how things are going to be different in the future. All I can do is to try and make each day better than the one before it. This includes acting increasingly in line with my moral compass, values, and the better parts of my nature. But it also includes, perhaps painfully, cutting out of my life things that do not add value and which stop me from being the best version of myself.


This post is Day 58 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com 

What’s the purpose of Philosophy?

When I was 18 years of age, I left my home in an ex-mining town, and went to university. This in and of itself was nothing unusual, especially given that my parents are both graduates, and my father has a postgraduate degree.

What was unusual was that, having been to, let’s say, not the best school, I felt that this would be a good use of the next three years of my life. After all, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do afterwards.

Even more unusual, especially given the patriarchal culture of the north east of England at the time, was that my father fully supported me in this. Even now, he says it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

Perhaps it was the influence of my mother, a graduate in Theology, but I’ve always been interested in life’s big questions. We’re here on Earth for too short a time not to wonder about everything and everyone around us.

Still, some people look at my CV and wonder how my academic history has led to my job history. They wonder about the value and purpose of Philosophy. What’s it for, they ask?

To ask what philosophy is for is to ask, implicitly or otherwise, about its value. The anxious parents asking what their child could ‘do’ with a philosophy degree are really asking what value that degree will bring to their child’s life and career. But as soon as you ask about value, you’re only one or two well-placed questions away from falling into philosophical inquiry. If philosophy is useless or a waste of time, what things are useful, or a good use of time? What makes those things preferable to philosophy? What measure of value are we using to compare these things? Are there other types of value? Which is the right one, and why? Don’t look now, but we’re doing philosophy.

Patrick Stokes, ‘What’s philosophy for?’, New Philosopher #29

The latest issue of New Philosopher, a magazine to which I subscribe and eagerly anticipate every quarter, focuses on ‘the purpose of life’. For me, philosophy, or at least a philosophical approach to life, helps me figure out that purpose.

One common, incomplete definition of philosophy is that it deals with certain types of problems that other disciplines generate but do not solve themselves. Mathematicians or doctors might run into questions like ‘Do numbers exist independently of human thought?’ or ‘Do people have a moral right to refuse medical treatment?’, but these are not, strictly speaking, mathematical or medical science questions. They’re problems for philosophers of mathematics and medical ethicists, respectively.

Patrick Stokes, ‘What’s philosophy for?’, New Philosopher #29

I’d agree with my father in saying that my Philosophy degree was a great decision. It comes with lots of upsides, including a resistance to the hedonic treadmill, and clarity of thought.

There are downsides, though. The main one is that you can’t just switch all of this off. The questions and analysis keep on coming no matter where you are or what situation you’re in. That’s more useful in my professional than my personal life, I’d say.

But for anyone thinking about studying Philosophy, in any form, I’d strongly endorse the idea. Anything which gets us question why we do the things we do is alright by me.

Where to start? I’d point you to the work.of Alain de Botton, and in particular The School of Life. Many of their books are excellent. It’s far too easy to get stuck in the ‘history of ideas’ approach to Philosophy, which, while interesting, isn’t always immediately applicable to your own life.


This post is Day 41 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

Letting go of my pre-pandemic self

Around 20 years ago, as part of my undergraduate degree in Philosophy, I took a module entitled Mind, Brain, and Personal Identity. The lecturer, George Botterill, a certified chess genius and extremely thoughtful guy, blew my mind by demonstrating via thought experiments that we can’t really be the same ‘person’ over a human lifetime.

We contain multitudes.

Ever since then, I’ve found this idea very liberating. I don’t have to be the same person I was when I was younger, I can choose to be different.

At the end of this year I turn 40. The worst of the pandemic will (hopefully) be over by then and I’ll also have finished most of my therapy sessions. As a result, it makes sense to think about how my pre-pandemic and post-pandemic life will differ.

For me, it’s worth remembering that Aristotle, perhaps one of the greatest thinkers ever to have lived, remained in Plato’s academy until he was almost 40 years of age. After this, he was tutor to Alexander the Great, and then wrote most of what he remembered for in the next 12 years.

I’m reminding myself of this, as there’s a tendency in our culture to think of people in their forties and later as being past their prime. That’s may be true in terms of physical prowess, but not in terms of things of lasting importance such as writing and thinking. Of course, I’m not putting myself in the same league as Aristotle(!) it’s just an illustrative example.

So I’m considering this time as a gestation period, as a time when I’m still in the chrysalis, waiting to emerge. I’m not sure what that’s going to look like in practice, but instead of looking back to being a caterpillar, I’m instead going to focus on turning into a butterfly.

Unlike the physical transformation that the caterpillar undergoes, my metamorphosis might be less obvious to those around me. Shifts in worldview and outlook sometimes are. But it’s an important thing to note for me: to give myself permission to let go of my pre-pandemic self.


This post is Day 37 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

Musonius Rufus on meat

Further to yesterday’s post, I’ve continued reading the Roman Stoic philosopher Musonius Rufus. It seems like he was a cool guy.

On the subject of food he used to speak frequently and very emphatically too, as a question of no small significance, nor leading to unimportant consequences, indeed he believed that the beginning and foundation of temperance lay in self-control in eating and drinking.

Musonius Rufus, ‘That One Should Disdain Hardships’

It would appear that he didn’t eat meat.

On the other hand he showed that meat was a less civilized kind of food and more appropriate for wild animals. He held that it was a heavy food and an obstacle to thinking and reasoning, since the exhalations rising from it, being turbid, darkened the soul. For this reason also the people who make larger use of it seem slower in intellect.

Musonius Rufus, ‘That One Should Disdain Hardships’

Having just come back from a beach barbecue this is top of mind at the moment. Thankfully, with friends and family we’re past the inane questions about the smell and taste of bacon butties. Yes I like the taste of meat. Yes I’ve realised it’s cruel to kill animals and eat them. No I’m not tempted just this once. No I’m not virtue signalling.

It’s worth noting that I do eat fish, although I try not to think too much about this, as I don’t have strong arguments as to why I’m pescetarian rather than vegetarian. To be quite honest, it’s a matter of convenience, as it makes me easier to cater for, and affords me more options when we go out for dinner.


This post is Day 18 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

Living a good life is not a theoretical exercise

At another time the problem rose among us whether for the acquisition of virtue practice or theory is more effective, understanding that theory teaches what is right conduct, while practice represents the habit of those accustomed to act in accordance with such theory.

Musonius Rufus, ‘That One Should Disdain Hardships’

My go-to reading on Stoicism is Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, probably in that order. I hadn’t read Musonius Rufus before, despite seeing him referenced in Ryan Holiday’s The Daily Stoic.

Picking up a copy of That One Should Disdain Hardships, I found that Musonius Rufus was a reasonably progressive thinker for his time on, for example, whether women should study philosophy. Like Epictetus and Socrates, it’s actually his students writing down what they’ve learned.

In one of the early chapters, Musonius Rufus explains that practice is more important than theory when it comes to virtue. He uses three examples to illustrate his points: physicians, sailors, and musicians. In each case he pits someone who knows the theory and can speak well about the subject against one who is practically skilled — but cannot speak well on the subject, and perhaps doesn’t know the theory. His interlocutors agree in each case that practical skill is better than theoretical knowledge and rhetorical ability.

How, now, in view of these conclusions, could knowledge of the theory of anything be better than becoming accustomed to act according to the principles of the theory, if we understand that application enables one to act, but theory makes one capable of speaking about it?

Musonius Rufus, ‘That One Should Disdain Hardships’

I have spent much of my adult life studying Philosophy, either formally at university or informally through reading and discussing. But living a good life is not a theoretical exercise, and that is why my Mastodon bio simply quotes Epictetus in saying:

Don’t explain your philosophy. Embody it.

Epictetus

This post is Day 17 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

Why I still believe in badges [DMLcentral]

My latest post for DMLcentral is up. Entitled Why I still believe in badges, it’s a response to a comment by a Philosophy professor (who will remain anonymous) that Open Badges are merely a way that for-profit companies can get a slice of the action in Higher Education.

A quotation from the article:

While badges could, potentially, be used for nefarious purposes, it’s my belief that the open, distributed architecture of the code and community means that we can seek to improve our education both inside and outside the walls of institutions. This is not about ‘disrupting’ education for the sake of it or for private profit. This is about providing another way of doing things to promote human flourishing.

You can read the whole thing at DMLcentral. Please do comment over there (I’ve closed comments here).

Revolutionary tools do not a revolution make.

20110321-101930.jpg

A lot has been made of about the role of social networking tools such as Facebook and Twitter in the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa recently. Whilst I don’t know enough about Egypt, Libya and Bahrain to comment on their internal political situation, what I do know is that it takes more than the mere ‘potential’ of something to make a difference in practice.

And so it is with education. Mark Allen’s contribution to the #purposed debate reminded me of the important difference between something’s being available and an individual or group having the requisite skills and critical faculties to use it in a new, interesting, or even revolutionary way. As I mentioned in my comment on Mark’s blog, one of the reasons I think everyone should study a little Philosophy and History is because it prepares one to consider the ways things might, could or should be rather than being limited to tinkering within existing parameters.

So next time you read or hear of a technology or service that is going to, is, or has ‘revolutionised’ something, think of the context and milieu into which that tool or idea has been launched. As with Purpos/ed, it’s very likely you’ll find more than a hint of latent demand and the ‘adjacent possible’ in there. It’s never just about the tool or service.

Image CC BY Rev. Strangelove !!!!

Why everyone should learn a little History and Philosophy.

Inductive EmpiricismI’m all for breaking down the arbitrary and artificial barriers between ‘subjects’. I can remember having no idea what to specialise in at age 16 (and so hedging my bets with Maths and Physics on the one hand, and English Literature and History on the other). Despite this wish to see more osmosis between subject areas, the knowledge, skills and understanding that come under the headings ‘History’ and ‘Philosophy’ I believe to be especially important.

OK, so I’ve got degrees in both of them but their erosion, I believe, cuts us off from the past and alternative ways of thinking about the world around us. And that’s not a good thing.

I’ve just finished reading Tom Holland’s excellent, eloquent Millennium: the end of the world and the forging of Christendom and have just embarked upon Jared Diamond’s ambitious Collapse: how societies choose to fail or survive.* Diamond writes:

Past people were neither ignorant bad managers who deserved to be exterminated or dispossessed, nor all-knowing conscientious environmentalists who solved problems we can’t solve today. They were people like us, facing problems broadly similar to those we now face. They were prone either to succeed or to fail, depending on circumstances similar to those making us prone to succeed or fail today. Yes, there are differences between the situation we face today and that faced by past peoples, but there are enough similarities for us to be able to learn from the past.

It’s surprising, and encouraging, that many of those interested in educational technology have a background in the Humanities; the latter lends, I believe, a critical element that underpins a wider digital literacy.

I’ll be speaking several times this year on ‘The Essential Elements of Digital Literacy’. You can be sure that I’ll be stressing the importance of the criticality developed in the Humanities subjects over some of the shortsighted technological determinism that sometimes rears it’s ugly head online. I can say with some confidence that any time you wonder how Device X ‘will change education’ you’ve got it backwards.

So, long live History and Philosophy! (although not necessarily as discrete subject areas)**

Image CC BY-NC-SA mr lynch

*A good deal of my reading comes from serendipitous finds in secondhand bookshops. 🙂

**If you’re wondering, the choice of image for this post comes from it being one of the best tests I’ve found so far for the reading/understanding element of ‘digital literacy’. Why? Well, because you would have to understand:

  • The concept of a meme
  • That this is a derivation of a meme calledlolcats
  • How to search to find out what it’s referring to
  • Which websites to visit for reliable information on this (which to trust)
css.php