Philosophers around the world: rejoice, for the entire world shall pay homage to the great subject this week.
In 2002, UNESCO first declared the third Thursday in November to be world philosophy day; this year, the United Nations agency organized discussions and lectures to celebrate philosophy from November 14 to 16. In honor of world philosophy today (Nov. 15), here are some of the philosophical musings of great philosophers throughout history on the very subject to which they are devoted:
“Philosophy’s main task is to respond to the soul’s cry; to make sense of and thereby free ourselves from the hold of our griefs and fears,” writes musician and philosophical writer Sharon Lebell in her 1995 book The Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness. Her writing, highlighted by Maria Popova in BrainPickings, explores the comforts philosophy can bring: “Philosophy calls us when we’ve reached the end of our rope. The insistent feeling that something is not right with our lives and the longing to be restored to our better selves will not go away. Our fears of death and being alone, our confusion about love and sex, and our sense of impotence in the face of our anger and outsized ambitions bring us to ask our first sincere philosophical questions.”
To others, philosophy is not a comfort, but a necessity. When Socrates was sentenced to death for “corrupting the young” through his philosophical provocations, he responded that it was all worth it. In Plato’s Apology of Socrates, which chronicles the trial, Socrates claims that “the life which is unexamined is not worth living.” Socrates details his pursuit of knowledge and truth, and declares that the philosophical discourses that led to his death sentence ultimately made life rewarding.
Socrates died more than 2,400 years ago, but the value of philosophy has not diminished. In 2014, philosopher Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, author of“Plato at the Googleplex, told The Atlantic that philosophy teaches people to “think critically” and “challenge your own point of view.” She added: It’s us at our most human. And it helps us increase our humanity. No matter what you do, that’s an asset.”
For a lengthy philosophical treatise on the value of philosophy, turn to 20th century thinker Bertrand Russell, who wrote an entire essay on the subject in his 1912 book The Problems of Philosophy. Russell acknowledges that philosophy struggles to arrive at any one definite truth, but argues that is besides the point. His concluding paragraph reads:
Thus, to sum up our discussion of the value of philosophy; Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation; but above all because, through the greatness of the universe which philosophy contemplates, the mind also is rendered great, and becomes capable of that union with the universe which constitutes its highest good.
And if that seems too abstruse an introduction, Twitter has a far pithier take:
In honor of world philosophy day, why not give such impossible, complex thinking a go? You probably won’t arrive at a new truth; it’s far more likely that you’ll realize all your existing truths are false. But philosophical thinking is a beautiful and mind-expanding process, regardless of whether it arrives at a definitive answer. So read Kierkegaard and Nietzsche and Camus, and reckon with the great questions and disintegrating reality. For the sake of UNESCO and philosophers around the world, acknowledge that certainty is nothing more than a myth.