I wasn’t exposed to philosophy as such in high school, but I did take a world religions class that raised many philosophy of religion topics and increased my interest in comparing religions and worldviews. As part of my exploration of the rational status of Christianity, I checked Alvin Plantinga’s God, Freedom, and Evil out of the library and read through it with some profit.
This experience helped me to see some of academia’s assumptions about how to live. You need to devote yourself to professional success first, and any family commitments you have cannot interfere with your academic work. You are supposed to follow a pattern of waiting to have children until you are already established in your career. There are penalties for those who do not fit in, particularly when it comes to familial and communal relationships, as Jennifer Morton’s excellent work on the costs of succeeding for low-income and first generation students shows.
It seems better, indeed only right, to destroy even what is close to us if that is the way to preserve truth. And we must especially do this as lovers of wisdom; for though we love both the truth and our friends, reverence is due to the truth first.
While I felt this at the time, I wasn’t able to articulate it, as I was focused on fitting in, not challenging the setup of academic life. One of the aims of the philosophy as a way of life movement is to encourage a more humane understanding of philosophy that integrates the search for wisdom into a life that makes room for all the components of human flourishing.
At the same time, as someone who had significant theological disagreements, very different devotional practices, and a somewhat different overall orientation to the world than the conservative Catholic supermajority, I never entirely fit in. I was bothered by some of the ways in which the dominant culture affected the educational environment. My time there gave me a further sense of the strengths and problems of communities committed to a very specific conception of the good life.
I know many who were raised in religious environments and found that their questions were not welcome, often leading to alienation from or rejection of religion. I was fortunate to never experience that, something that may reflect the relatively open Canadian social context I grew up in, where no one religious group took itself to be in a dominant position where it could dismiss questions or ignore rivals. I didn’t feel pressure to avoid certain topics and was always encouraged in my explorations. I often saw faith seeking understanding, something that continues to inform my belief that religious explorations are not irrational or fundamentally opposed to philosophical inquiry, in the way that some (including, as we’ll get to, one of my graduate mentors) think.
I am currently working on a manuscript on Augustine’s place within ancient eudaimonism that offers an extended treatment of how Augustine continues the tradition of philosophy as a way of life (again, responding to Cooper’s claim that Augustine ends philosophy as a way of life [Pursuits, 386-7, cf. Rachana Kamtekar’s review]). I argue that Augustine endorses eudaimonistic ideals of tranquil wisdom and psychic harmony, a divine life of knowing and loving, while insisting that these ideals cannot be met in our current life. They require hoping for a future life in which they can be fulfilled.
Caleb Cohoe was one the scholars most responsible for shaping the culture of the University of Notre Dame’s Philosophy as a Way of Life project. In a simple way, reporting back from the 2019 summer conference of that project was the kernel for my mini-series over the past year. Readers should look out for a call for papers coming by the end of the year for an August 2022 conference at Notre Dame.
Is a philosophical way of life restricted to those who have attained wisdom and full self-mastery? One of the reasons Cooper downplays the role of formative exercises in ancient philosophy is his focus on what the philosophical life looks like when perfected, e.g. in exemplars such as Socrates, the Stoic sage, or the Platonist communing with the forms. Cooper’s approach is representative, as discussions of ways of life often focus on those who are seen as experts. To a considerable extent, the role of expertise in living a philosophical life is an issue needing to be settled by norms that are internal to the school or tradition in question about which level of achievement or consistency of practice is needed to count as living out that way of life. We can, however, still come to see how the life of a progressor is possible. In our paper for a special Metaphilosophy issue on philosophy as a way of life, Stephen and I make a general case for thinking that progressors in a philosophical way of life count as living it, despite their flaws.
Spiritual Exercises and the Idea of Philosophical Progress
Again, I felt like an outsider, especially since I was also, for several years, the only student in my department with children (my wife Samantha and I had our first two children while I was completing my PhD), something Princeton’s housing arrangements and policies did little to support at that time. For example, although Princeton offered to help with childcare for grad students, the support program was only set up for full-time childcare for couples with dual full-time jobs. Our efforts to get support for occasional childcare so my wife could spend some time working on a novel were unsuccessful, despite Princeton’s riches (her debut novel A Golden Fury, came out last year, no thanks to these struggles).
At the same time, I wanted to figure out the practical implications of believing. If you accept Christianity, what does this mean for how should you talk, eat and drink, socialize, raise your children, and so on?
This is an installment of Into Philosophy.
Into Philosophy was influenced by one of the books that inspires me the most, We Are All Explorers: Learning & Teaching with Reggio Principles in Urban Settings. Currently, I’m at work on a book about the politics of wonder.
Similarly, you can meaningfully engage with music, painting, or theater even if your grasp of musical theory, color theory, or dramaturgy and choreography is somewhat limited. We think that “making progress in how one acts in the world and improving one’s understanding and direction through being part of a community is living a philosophical way of life.” (2020, 408)
During my time as a grad student, I was also pushed to defend my own religious way of life and faced questions about whether it could ever count as philosophical or instead involved abandoning reason or turning away from the truth. Cooper’s overall interpretation of the value of philosophy sought to separate cleanly the properly rational way of life which philosophers pursue from religion or tradition-based ways of life. He grounded this view in claims made about philosophy by key Greco-Roman thinkers such as Socrates, Aristotle, and the Stoics. Cooper’s reading of these thinkers – and a view with which he sympathized – holds that:
My own thinking in this area is an effort to articulate how to think about philosophy as a way of life in a way that recognizes the truth of many of the points Cooper emphasizes while articulating what his interpretation of ancient philosophy mistakes or misses. I agree with several of the critiques Cooper made of Pierre Hadot. Along with Cooper, I think Hadot was mistaken to insist that ethical concerns are foremost for all ancient philosophers. I also agree that Hadot underplays the significance of truth for these ways of life. Arguments and rational debate are central to these schools, because they are aiming to get things right, not just find consolation regardless of justification.
Here again the analogy to fitness is helpful. People who work out consistently and maintain or improve their levels of fitness count as pursuing fitness, even if their performance of many exercises is flawed, and even if the fitness levels they reach are less than fitness experts. A life of fitness for progressors may be a life of struggling to maintain fitness or make small improvements. But the goal is still directing their care for their body.
So Socrates, on my reading, recognizes the power of reason but is keenly aware of the limits of our human reasoning. He also does not think that respecting reason requires seeing it as the only authority. The limitations of reason show the need for other practices to support the philosophical life. In our co-authored European Journal of Philosophy paper, Stephen Grimm and I identify two ways in which practices that do not themselves consist of discursive reasoning can help us in living philosophically. These practices are what Pierre Hadot calls “spiritual exercises.” The first way is in a discerning role: “Thought experiments, mental disciplines, and exercises of the imagination” can “help train our attention and assist our value judgments.” (2021, 7). They have both a constructive function, insofar as they assist us in attending to what is good and true, and a critical function, insofar as they help us to dispel powerful illusory appearances.
Finding sources of meaning and worth outside my professional academic work was not only psychologically helpful, it also helped ground me intellectually. My experiences of family and spirituality provided me with reasons to resist the idea that the good life should be identified with the life of reason practiced in the academy. While I was at Princeton, I was moved to further explore and defend religious ways of life and to think more about what it takes to live philosophically.
Growing up, I also saw some of the strengths and problems of communities with deep commitments to distinctive ways of life. The farming region I grew up in had a significant local community of Old Order Mennonites who refused to use motorized vehicles but were willing to be bused to the Norwich town arena to give blood, a sign of love for one’s neighbour that stuck with me. After Ontario changed its laws to allow for Sunday shopping, the ultraconservative Dutch Reformed church community in my area – distinct from the Christian Reformed church community that sponsored the schools I attended – threatened to boycott any shops in Norwich that were open on Sundays, ensuring that stores there stayed closed and providing a day of rest for workers. Just-in-time 24-7 scheduling has severely damaged service workers’ ability to organize their social and family lives. So I’m inclined to think that ensuring this protection was valuable to the whole community. I, at least, appreciated never having to work on Sundays when I worked in high school stocking shelves and helping customers at the Norwich grocery store.
The differences I observed between the Christian Reformed and Baptist versions of practicing Christianity made me wonder. Did Christianity require abstaining from alcohol and tobacco, being very careful to avoid swearing, and embracing praise and worship music, as my Baptist experiences suggested? Or were drinking and smoking, the use of earthy language, and skepticism about the value and tastefulness of evangelical music compatible with being a Christian in good standing, as many of the Christian Reformed persuasion thought? At my Baptist church I was also repeatedly warned against the Pentecostal embrace of emotion and seeking for spiritual gifts. I wasn’t personally inclined to charismatic and emotional displays of religion, but I did worry that I might be missing out on experiences that were important to being a Christian.
Farming, Christianity, & Philosophy
Dear Reader, However, the cornerstone of Cooper’s interpretation is his insistence that “philosophy, not religion, not cultural tradition, no other authority at all, has the standing needed to show and declare what sort of life is best for us” (Tanner Lectures, 28). Reason and argument are the only tools we need to live well and they will guide us to truth and the good life. I disagree with him both about whether this accurately describes the general orientation of the main Greco-Roman schools of philosophy and about whether philosophy as a way of life should restrict itself to reason and argument in this way. In my view, there are strong reasons to recognize the limits of human reason. Moreover, religion and tradition-based way of life can be practiced in truth-directed and philosophical ways.
For ancient Greco-Roman philosophers (including Platonists, Aristotelians, Stoics, and Epicureans), finding the right way of life requires successfully investigating natural philosophy and metaphysics. We need to establish the correct views about human nature and the cosmos in order for our lives to be guided well. Indeed, on some views – such as those of Aristotle and late Platonists – the best ways of life do not consist in outwardly directed ethical actions, valuable as those may be, but in inward contemplation of divine reality – theoretical activities, not practical ones.
This raised questions. What’s wrong with public schools? Are Christian required to have a specifically Christian education? If so, why did so few who identified as Christians send their children to such schools? These were topics open to discussion: I did not grow up in a fundamentalist or closed-off community. Most of the other farmers and Baptist church members we knew (including our pastor) sent their kids to public school. CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) radio programs were regularly on in my house, passing on the perspective of secular multicultural Canada. I grew up with both my family’s perspective and contrasting views.
I live with my family in Shaker Heights, Ohio, where I acknowledge the indigenous lands ceded by the Treaty of Greenville (1795), subsequently violated by the U.S.A. A graduate of New Hartford High School, Yale College, and University of Chicago, I work in the philosophy department at Case Western Reserve University as Professor of Philosophy and serve as a Senior Research Fellow with the Earth System Governance Project, Universiteit Utrecht.
My own emphasis on the possibility of living philosophically as a progressor, not an adept, is influenced by Augustine and his understanding of this life as a pilgrimage. During our lifetime, we can progress in virtue, even though perfect virtue and complete happiness are not yet attainable (City of God, XIV 25; XIX 4, 10-11). In a recent Oxford Studies in Medieval Philosophy article, I argue that Augustine’s otherworldly conception of happiness actually allows him to be more inclusive about what human flourishing involves, incorporating the states of our bodies, our relationships, and the cosmos as a whole instead of just the state of our individual minds (contrary to the Stoic view to which he is responding).
I benefitted greatly from John’s insightful readings of these thinkers. But interacting with him clarified where I disagree, both in interpreting ancient philosophers and on how we should now think about the nature and limits of philosophy as a way of life, including its relationship to reason, tradition, and religion.
I ended up pursuing a Great Books education as an undergraduate at Thomas Aquinas College, a California liberal arts college with a version of a Great Books program that emphasized Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy and Catholic theology. The community at TAC was intensely Catholic and rather insular. I loved being part of a campus that was deeply committed to pursuing wisdom and saw learning, not extracurricular experiences or career success, as the primary aim of the university. The attentive reading and level of discussion in our classes were truly impressive.
While there are some constraints on the wisdom Socrates is seeking (e.g., it must imply virtue), we do not, at the outset, know its precise structure or objects. This indeterminacy then allows later philosophers such as Aristotle to deny that wisdom (sophia) refers to knowledge about human affairs or values since “there exist other things that are far more divine in nature” (NE VI.7 1141a34, trans. CDC Reeve). For Aristotle, when we are pursuing wisdom, we are primarily pursuing something divine, a grasp on reality itself and its causes, not something human (though the divine in us is precisely what enables this pursuit).
By contrast, I interpret Socrates as much more aware of the limits of human reason. Cooper recognizes that Socrates takes divine wisdom to be wisdom itself, true and unchanging, while human wisdom is an awareness of our limitations that has real but limited value. Our reason is to be measured by this higher standard. Cooper elides the significance of this by claiming that the wisdom Socrates ascribes to the god is a grasp of truths “about human values” (Pursuits, 46). But Socrates is seeking wisdom itself, whatever that turns out to be and wherever it turns out to be found, not just true claims about human values (even if those must be the starting points of our inquiry). Would the god’s wisdom (sophia) really have “human values” as its object?
To try to achieve the ideals now is to pursue unattainable goals in ways that will be value-distorting. For Augustine, the Stoics’ banishment of negative emotions is a misguided attempt to achieve tranquility now. On my interpretation, Augustine allows for limited and difficult progress in this life, a life in which we are practicing wisdom and virtue, even if, like many of us when it comes to physical fitness, we don’t get very close to the true form. We need to hope for a future life in which we can have the security and tranquility of the Stoic sage, as well as the divine wisdom and happiness that Socrates sought.
The Limits of Human Reason
Similar patterns are apparent when it comes to engaging with the arts. Finding experienced guides who can help draw your attention to the beauty and order of an unfamiliar art form (e.g. Kabuki theater) and setting up consistent practices of engagement with this art will contribute greatly to your appreciation, even if those activities are not themselves instances of artistic engagement. Just as supporting practices are required in a life of fitness or in engaging with art, so too in the philosophical life.
With this post today, the mini-series “Philosophy as a Way of Life” will come to a close, just as Sidra’s “Genealogies of Philosophy” came to a close last month. The posts from all of the mini-series are still grouped under the umbrella category Into Philosophy on this blog. But you can see the individual mini-series too.
Our inclusive approach to philosophy as a way of life is helpful for teaching. In the idea of the progressor, we have a model for how someone can live philosophically without getting a PhD or teaching philosophy. Most of our students will not go on to graduate work. Indeed, many of them will take only a single philosophy course. As teachers, we need to consider how that one course can, to the extent possible, set them up to use philosophy as part of their intellectual explorations. Single-class examples include Notre Dame’s “God and the Good Life“ and Wesleyan’s “Living a Good Life.”
(At the same time, this Dutch Reformed community was suspicious of vaccines, based on, in my view, damaging misinterpretations of Christian views on providence and divine causality. We see similar distrust in the contemporary suspicions of vaccines and health authorities common in religious and cultural communities alienated from mainstream culture.)
My disagreement with Cooper goes back, in large part, to how we interpret Socrates, that ancient Greek exemplar of the philosophical life. The disagreement was apparent from the beginning of the graduate seminar I took with John. It’s worth dwelling on the matter, because Socrates has been portrayed as the true philosopher in much of philosophical history from Plato and the Stoics on. Differing interpretations of the figure of Socrates have led to very different understandings of the nature and goals of philosophy itself. On Cooper‘s reading, Socrates uncovers the preeminence of reason and sees wisdom as the “permanent, deeply settled, complete grasp of the total truth about human values of all sorts” that would enable us to act well consistently (Pursuits, 46). While Socrates does not claim to have reached this wisdom, because his views are not fully settled and he is still examining, Socrates does see reason as the one standard we can use for living well.
Here’s one quote that I read in my early 20s and still use to keep things real: “Greatness of heart is the true human greatness” (Søren Kierkegaard, 1849). Although I’m not Christian, this quote relays something that I felt in my Slovak family of pretty humble origins. Not letting philosophy go to our heads, we’re all in this together.
Thank you for reading this mini-series, “Philosophy as a Way of Life.” Its approach has been to push the bounds of the discursive space of that tradition. Starting last year, the series shared the stories of folks inside philosophy and outside it who might be interpreted in light of the tradition but do not explicitly avow it. We then looked toward communal, not individual, practices that should expand the tradition’s logic, but are not conventionally seen as part of it. Comparative philosophy next expanded the Greek and Hellenistic tradition. Finally, this past Spring, the series narrated how the Notre Dame PhiLife project was involved in shaping curriculum, then how it affected outdoor education too. By ending with the work of Caleb and Stephen R. Grimm, we come back to the traditional core of philosophy as a way of life and some of the debates within the scholarship around it. As you can see, however, the tradition is quite open.
Academia’s Assumptions about How to Live
While I had already studied several ancient views on philosophy as a way of life, my time at Princeton gave me opportunities to examine these philosophies with much greater depth and care. John M. Cooper was an advisor on my dissertation, and I participated in the graduate seminar in which he presented his interpretation of ancient philosophy as a way of life (later published in his Tanner Lectures and book, Pursuits of Wisdom). There we read the works of Pierre Hadot, the French scholar of Neo-Platonism who was a key figure in the revival of philosophy as a way of life. We also read other contemporary scholars, and the ensemble helped me to think more systematically about what is essential to philosophy as a way of life.
This is not to say that my overall experience was negative: Princeton Philosophy’s flexible unit-based system of graduate work allowed me to adjust my workload and class attendance when we had our first child, and my professors were kind and accommodating. Having religious commitments and a family in grad school helped me resist the sense that only academic success mattered, a mentally and psychologically damaging conviction that many grad students at Princeton University struggled with.
Our approach also allows for sharing of reasons and truth within communities, allowing members to benefit from the insights of others. As Stephen and I put it, “even if we do not all have the leisure to fully articulate and defend a view of reality, each of us can reflect on what is beautiful and true in our experience of the world. We can also make use of the practices, techniques, and ideas shared with us by others in our communities” (2020, 408). Philosophy as a way of life can be a communal pursuit where we work together to live well.
Socrates’ awareness of the limits of human wisdom also allows him to recognize other sources of truth and excellence such as the temporary inspiration of the poets that takes them out of their minds, discussed in the Ion and extended to lawmakers at the end of the Meno. When they act wisely, they do so by divine inspiration, not because of their understanding. Socrates does not claim we should always trust such people. Knowing whether a choice is inspired is hard; and poets and politicians, when examined, do not seem more aware of when their actions are inspired than the rest of us. Nevertheless, Socrates leaves room for different sources for acting well that might produce excellence, even if our reason cannot see how they work. This, of course, fits well with Socrates’ own respect for his divine sign (daimonion), an inner voice forbidding him from moving forward with certain actions, a restraint Socrates respects even when he does not understand why it commands him to hold back.
These are the roles that “spiritual exercises” should play. Their practices need to contribute to the pursuit of wisdom as such, not just have some therapeutic or pragmatic benefits. On the resulting picture, the philosophical life will contain more than pure intellectual activity.
Life as a Pilgrimage
I then moved to a very different cultural and intellectual environment as a doctoral student in the Classical Philosophy program at Princeton University. I went into graduate school without having taken any formal logic or having read any analytic philosophy (other than my high school experience with Plantinga). So much of my effort in my first couple of years was spent adjusting to the language and assumptions of the graduate seminar room, as well as finding a place in a graduate culture that had been quite adversarial and competitive but was slowly transitioning to something more collegial and supportive.
During the conference in 2019, Caleb and Stephen R. Grimm presented their theoretical and scholarly work on philosophy a way of life, locating it within the formative debate on the tradition between John M. Cooper and Pierre Hadot. Here, for this final post of this mini-series, I wanted to give Caleb an opportunity to share their work, including his story and perspective behind it. What follows is in his voice.
Setting Philosophy on a Course beyond the Classroom
NICOMACHEAN ETHICS I 6, 1096A16-17, TRANS. IRWIN WITH MODIFICATIONS
I grew up Baptist, and my mom was determined that my brother and I get a Christian education. So she sent us to the only Christian school around in our area, a private school in the Christian Reformed tradition, founded by immigrants from the Netherlands. Private schools are much rarer in Canada than the USA and required a big financial sacrifice for my parents, especially in years when crop prices were down. I was aware from a young age that my family was deeply committed to a type of education that differed from the norm.
Here an analogy to fitness, the pursuit of bodily health and strength, is helpful. Physical exercise is a key component of the life of fitness, but there are other supporting practices that are not themselves physical exercises. Coming to a better understanding of which exercises and diet will be most conducive to your fitness goals and studying how to perform the key exercises in your workout plan better will contribute to your fitness even though these activities do not, as such, exercise your body. Articulating fitness goals, setting up rewards, and finding a community of others committed to the same goals will also play a motivational role that is distinct from the motivation provided by the physical exercises themselves.
Philosophy tells you how to live—what to do, what not to do, with what thoughts, in what spirit, in every aspect of your life. Second, philosophical understanding, lodged in your mind, steers your whole life, by directly and on its own moving you to every choice and action making up your life. Third, one thing that philosophy tells you is that philosophical study (discussions and the like) is a very good thing, and should be included in your life (if you are up to it). (Cooper, Tanner Lectures 39).
Cooper even describes Socrates’ view of the god as “non-standard” and one he “devised himself” (Pursuits, 39). Yet similar ideas about the divine as that which has true wisdom or reason, in contrast to our human limitations, are clearly found in Xenophanes, Parmenides and other pre-Socratic thinkers. Such an approach to the divine is, on my reading, largely continuous with and, in many cases, informs theological views, especially in the Abrahamic traditions (Judaism, Islam, and Christianity), that value reason but see our human reason as limited (possibly even weakened and corrupted) and in need of a divine measure and an appropriate openness to other ways to find truth.
I also think philosophy should be in open conversation with traditional and religious understandings of the world, something I do in my work in philosophy of religion. Going forward, I think there is a lot of potential for further exploration of the supporting roles that a wide variety of practices, including bodily exercises, psychological therapy, social and communal conversations, and spiritual and religious activities, might play in a philosophical way of life. I see the philosophy as a way of life movement as opening up space for integrating philosophy with a variety of social and cultural practices that support transformation and community.
All these differences meant that I was interested in figuring out what was true about the questions that arose in my life: Is Christianity right? Do we have free will to choose what’s good or not? What explains your beliefs, your choice or God’s predestination?
On my reading, the Socrates of Plato’s Apology is genuinely pious both insofar as he respects this divine sign and insofar as his whole mission in life has been to show the limits of human wisdom when compared with true and divine wisdom. Cooper takes this framing of Socrates’ work to be misleading rhetoric. Socrates offers a pious reinterpretation of his activities that appeals to the jury but does not accurately describe his own way of life, which was based on questioning values without making reference to the Delphic oracle or anything divine. In doing so, Cooper himself admits that his own interpretation of Socrates requires us to “disregard many details that the Apology conveys” (Pursuits, 40). In particular, Cooper rejects Socrates’ claim that his practice of questioning came from his desire to test and display the truth of the Delphic oracle’s claim that no one in Athens was wiser than Socrates. Yet none of our sources give us reason to doubt that this was Socrates’ sincere conviction.
My interest in examining different ways of life and what it takes to practice them goes back to my own formative experiences. I was raised on a family farm in Norwich Township, Ontario, Canada, where the Cohoes have been farming since the 1840s. My cousin Lindsay continues this tradition to this day.
My interest in conflicting ways of life, whether we could figure out which one was true and how to live them out, led me to pursue a Great Books education. The Great Books approach consists in seminar-style discussions based around close readings of some of the most influential historical works of literature, philosophy, history, theology, mathematics, and science. The goal is to engage carefully with many strongly opposed thinkers, treating each as a respected authority to be examined. I found this method of discussion invigorating and loved the freedom that came with focusing on the claims of a work on its own terms.