I read some arguments in this forum about Western vs Eastern viewpoints. And about the idea that modern-Western thought applies Science principles and eastern, being older merely applies a more rudimentary logic, or so implied. This 'judgment' goes along with the idea that the purpose of Philosophers is to ferret out truth.

I would want to argue that that isn't the only purpose, that ferreting out is just a tactic to resolve subjects. I would say a large purpose to it is knowing how to live.

I'm suggesting that Philosophy still retains a purpose that created it, answering the question, "How best to live in a world were much of it is unknowable?" In this case I see the pursuit as one where you muddle through the best you can, with what you do know, including the tactic of Science, Logic, investigation and testing.

But if the Eastern and the Am-Orient way of the shaman is, "Let's just dance" and see what pops up, I see some useful philosophic, if a bit archaic wisdom in that too. It does answer the question, "How do I live though this?"

The problem with our modern approach is that western thought tends to diminish the value of methods navigating the unknowable and focus only on the known, or deriving the known. Any basis of touchy-feely, fuzzy logic for example would tend to be disrespected.

I see Philosophy as a part of wisdom, not the other way around. What else, what other sources of wisdom do we ignore, restricting ourselves to modern thinking?

Am I all wet, or does any of that makes sense?

  • 3
    This is not focused enough to be considered a good, on-topic SE question here. There are many valid topics of philosophical discussion that don't suit the SE Q&A format. For this question it's hard to determine what would make an appropriate answer (although I gave my best attempt below). Commented Feb 26, 2016 at 16:58
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    Philosophers are in general agreement that their discipline has something to do with life. What exactly that may be is hotly disputed. Commented Feb 26, 2016 at 19:34
  • Epicurean philosophy, popularly conceived is all about living for pleasure; whereas Epicurus's actual philosophy was about living well. Commented Feb 26, 2016 at 22:35
  • The word means love of wisdom. Philosophy is about understanding, whatever the topic or method may be.
    – user10479
    Commented Feb 27, 2016 at 0:21

5 Answers 5


The "purpose" of Philosophy depends much on the attitude of the philosopher. In The Philosophy of Bergson, Bertrand Russell wrote,

The classification of philosophies is effected, as a rule, either by their methods or by their results: “empirical” and “a priori” is a classification by methods, “realist” and “idealist” is a classification by results. An attempt to classify Bergson’s philosophy in either of these ways is hardly likely to be successful, since it cuts across all the recognized divisions.

But there is another way of classifying philosophies, less precise, but perhaps more helpful to the non-philosophical; in this way, the principle of division is according to the predominant desire which has led the philosopher to philosophize. Thus we shall have philosophies of feeling, inspired by the love of happiness; theoretical philosophies, inspired by the love of knowledge; and practical philosophies, inspired by the love of action.

Among philosophies of feeling we shall place all those which are primarily optimistic or pessimistic, all those that offer schemes of salvation or try to prove that salvation is impossible; to this class belong most religious philosophies. Among theoretical philosophies we shall place most of the great systems; for though the desire for knowledge is rare, it has been the source of most of what is best in philosophy. Practical philosophies, on the other hand, will be those which regard action as the supreme good, considering happiness an effect and knowledge a mere instrument of successful activity. Philosophies of this type would have been common among Western Europeans if philosophers had been average men; as it is, they have been rare until recent times, in fact their chief representatives are the pragmatists and M. Bergson. In the rise of this type of philosophy we may see, as M. Bergson himself does, the revolt of the modern man of action against the authority of Greece, and more particularly of Plato; or we may connect it, as Dr. Schiller apparently would, with imperialism and the motorcar. The modern world calls for such a philosophy, and the success which it has achieved is therefore not surprising.

According to Russell, in the Western tradition, the pragmatists are among those whose philosophies focus on "how to live," or as Russell puts it, they "regard action as the supreme good, considering happiness an effect and knowledge a mere instrument of successful activity."

The pragmatist William James wrote,

In the preface to that admirable collection of essays of his called 'Heretics,' Mr. Chesterton writes these words: "There are some people—and I am one of them—who think that the most practical and important thing about a man is still his view of the universe. We think that for a landlady considering a lodger, it is important to know his income, but still more important to know his philosophy. We think that for a general about to fight an enemy, it is important to know the enemy's numbers, but still more important to know the enemy's philosophy. We think the question is not whether the theory of the cosmos affects matters, but whether, in the long run, anything else affects them."

I think with Mr. Chesterton in this matter. I know that you, ladies and gentlemen, have a philosophy, each and all of you, and that the most interesting and important thing about you is the way in which it determines the perspective in your several worlds. You know the same of me. And yet I confess to a certain tremor at the audacity of the enterprise which I am about to begin. For the philosophy which is so important in each of us is not a technical matter; it is our more or less dumb sense of what life honestly and deeply means. It is only partly got from books; it is our individual way of just seeing and feeling the total push and pressure of the cosmos.

And he concludes his essay The Will to Believe with a quote from James FitzJames Stephens:

I began by a reference to Fitz James Stephen; let me end by a quotation from him. " What do you think of yourself? What do you think of the world? . . . These are questions with which all must deal as it seems good to them. They are riddles of the Sphinx, and in some way or other we must deal with them. . . . In all important transactions of life we have to take a leap in the dark.... If wc decide to leave the riddles unanswered, that is a choice; if we waver in our answer, that, too, is a choice: but whatever choice we make, we make it at our peril. If a man chooses to turn his back altogether on God and the future, no one can prevent him; no one can show beyond reasonable doubt that he is mistaken. If a man thinks otherwise and acts as he thinks, I do not see that any one can prove that he is mistaken. Each must act as he thinks best; and if he is wrong, so much the worse for him. We stand on a mountain pass in the midst of whirling snow and blinding mist through which we get glimpses now and then of paths which may be deceptive. If we stand still we shall be frozen to death. If we take the wrong road we shall be dashed to pieces. We do not certainly know whether there is any right one. What must we do? ' Be strong and of a good courage.' Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes. . . . If death ends all, we cannot meet death better."

I guess the point of all this is that there are schools of thought in Western philosophy that consider "action", or "how to live", to be one of the primary subjects of philosophy.

Add to that the fact that ethics is a huge subject in philosophy, and that religion is concerned primarily with "how to live", and it is pretty clear that "knowing how to live" is very much a part of modern Western philosophy.

  • Quite right, but as the question reminds us, this has not been the emphasis in contemporary philosophy departments through much of the 20th century. Until pragmatists and existentialists regained ground, much of such philosophy sheltered in the literature, classics, sociology, theology, and humanities departments under "critical studies." Commented Feb 26, 2016 at 20:12
  • That is very true, though I think it goes back to my first point, that the "purpose" of philosophy is not singular, but depends on what the philosopher is looking for. Being a layman, my purposes are purely personal, and "how to live" is primary, though I get a lot of enjoyment out of logical analytical reasoning. A professional academic philosopher may have a different focus, though our purposes may overlap. A computer scientist seeking a background in the philosophy of math may have a different purpose still. I guess I would say that philosophy doesn't have a purpose - philosophers do. Commented Feb 26, 2016 at 20:38

Man needs philosophy to operate. Even if he is not consciously aware of it, he operates by a particular philosophy. Typically, he operates by the philosophy given to him when he was growing up. Usually, it's a mixed bag of a variety of philosophy. There are those who seeks to be fully integrated and so they pursue a specific philosophy and try to adopt it to their life. It could be a religion. Or it could be Ayn Rand's Objectivism.

The consequence of their life depends on the philosophy that they choose to apply to their life. The standard that the philosophy holds as "the good" determines those consequences.

Choose carefully. You only have one life.


Much of Western philosophy, from Plato to Kant and Sartre to Rawls, does address problems relating to "how to live," how to be just, what is wisdom, and so forth. Though with more specialization and greater emphasis on theoria than praxis.

There is a historical issue here. With the emergence of modernity after, roughly, Descartes, the studies of "physics" and "theology" began to draw apart from the more unified approach of "metaphysics." This left philosophy in a state of potential downsizing and job insecurity. With the rise of empiricism and logical positivism in the early 20th century, many philosophers began to believe that "value" or "ought" questions, while important, could never be settled by either reason or evidence. They must be abandoned to religion, politics, sociology, custom, cultural consensus, etc.

Henceforth, the role of philosophy in what is called the Analytical or Anglo-American tradition was to act as the "under laborer" of science, as Locke put it. Only the scientific method, as it evolved creatively, could secure genuine, actionable knowledge, and philosophy could in turn help clarify the logic, epistemology, and meaning of science. This was never entirely true, and Analytical philosophy did return to "values" in such famous works as Rawls' Theory of Justice.

Meanwhile, a very large branch of so-called Continental philosophy, following from Kant and German idealism, never did give up on questions of how to live and act. This is especially apparent in Heidegger and the subsequent existentialists, such as Sartre, as well as in the various Marxist and Freudian traditions, which do emphasize praxis. While many philosophy departments continue to emphasize the "scientific" aspects you cite, things are today far more heterogenous than they were even in the 1970s.

Eastern philosophy has influenced Western philosophy, from Pythagoras and Plato through Schopenhauer. Today, there is some admittedly marginal interest in, say, Zen practices,even in relation to cognitive sciences. But I would say that the cultural development of "explanation" has simply diverged in different cultures. It underwent a historically unique "critical" turn in the West, for better or worse. But this is hardly to say: Game over. Taken as a historical whole, the majority of Western philosophy is concerned with wisdom and "how to live," with one answer being "scientifically."


The dictionary definition of philosophy is, "the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence, especially when considered as an academic discipline."

To answer, philosophy is not entirely about living, but answers about life in general are sought out within philosophy. Of course, the answers to questions about knowledge, reality, and existence may effect how we live, but it is not to say that philosophy is purely about living.

Involving the restriction of thought, it's self-evident that we damage our ability to explore other forms of wisdom. This is a worry of mine as I see more people in society either narrowing their view extremely and calling themselves "open minded" or, instead, choosing to not think at all.

  • This is a definition in the dictionary, but philosophy is a living academic discipline -- probably not best defined by looking into a dictionary.
    – virmaior
    Commented Feb 27, 2016 at 10:55
  • And that is problem I have as well. Apparently, I don't want to study Philosophy academically, I want to resolve my own wisdom using some of the constructive ideas from phylosophy. Asking for that input from academics often seems outside the scope of their mind set. And that seems somewhat evident here as well.
    – Ari Lea
    Commented Mar 3, 2016 at 22:19

How to live has been a main topic for many philosophers throughout time, and in many different places, including figures as diverse and influential as Plato, Confucius, and Sartre. However, there are also philosophers who have considered and concentrated on very different types of questions. In modern analytic philosophy, for example, big general questions are discouraged.

  • Looking at the arguments, I think I find that, I'm unfortunately trying to co-opt the idea of philosophy to make my point, In other words I was actually more interested in wisdom about living. If I relegated my internal debate to that realm, I'd be countered by fewer of these definition points to deal with. But to tell the truth I'm happy to see the presentations made. They have been very thought provoking. - Still one point remains, how do you apply solid logic to unknowable subjects.
    – Ari Lea
    Commented Mar 3, 2016 at 21:43
  • PS, It does not seem like Science or Religion contains an adequate answer, while both often claim that they do.
    – Ari Lea
    Commented Mar 3, 2016 at 21:53

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