March 29, 2005

Developing a personal philosophy of life

I wrote in an earlier posting about how college is an ideal place to start thinking about developing a personal philosophy of life, because it brings together all the resources that can help you get started on such a fulfilling journey. I also noted the disturbing trend that the number of college students seeing that as a major goal of college was decreasing over time.

But what exactly do I mean by ‘a personal philosophy of life’? And how does one set about developing one? Does it mean reading books on philosophy and taking courses in them? Not necessarily, though such things can help since it helps you develop the vocabulary to better understand those kinds of questions. I have never had a course on philosophy in my life, but I think that I do have some sort of philosophy. What studying formal philosophy does do is give you the vocabulary to label what you believe and to make better contact with the philosophies of other people.

The first thing to realize is that all of us have some philosophy of life already, although we might not be able to articulate it. What is more accurate to say is that it is likely that we have many philosophies, each dealing with separate areas of life. We might have one for our religious beliefs, one for our political beliefs, one for our scientific beliefs, one for personal relationships, one for life, one for death, and so on. These philosophies may be fairly separate and we simply pluck them off the shelves of our mind to deal with specific situations.

Developing a personal philosophy of life does not mean abandoning all of these separate philosophies and starting from scratch but instead starting the process of bringing these various elements into a common framework. In other words, trying to mold them into a coherent whole, so that the beliefs and values we apply in one area of life are compatible with those in another.

This is far from easy to do. Having separate philosophies for different areas of our lives can make life easy for us in very practical ways and prevent us from facing awkward questions and contradictions. One of the biggest problems that some people face (and which I have discussed before - see here and earlier articles) may be the different philosophies that are brought to bear on science and religion. Another might be those we apply to our friends and those we apply to strangers. People who are extraordinarily kind to people they know might be quite callous about the plight of strangers. For example, people who say they object to murder might be quite agreeable with dropping bombs on people of other nations. Or people who say they value life and yet may be agreeable to the death penalty, Or people who are vegetarians on moral grounds yet are comfortable wearing leather shoes. And so on.

We all have such contradictions. What I am saying is that recognizing their existence and trying to resolve them is the basis of understanding oneself. The act of trying to bring all our separate philosophies into one personal, individualized, coherent framework that makes sense for each one us may not be possible. There may always be some things that cannot be made to fit and we may have to live with the contradictions.

The point I want to make is not that we must have one unifying philosophy, but acquiring the desire to have one and starting us on the road towards developing one of the most valuable things that a university education can give us.


Trackback URL for this entry is: Science, religion, and Ockham's razor-2
Excerpt: Following up on the previous posting, I want to look at how Ockham's razor comes in to play in the...
Weblog: Mano Singham's Web Journal
Tracked: June 1, 2005 07:26 AM


"People who are extraordinarily kind to people they know might be quite callous about the plight of strangers. For example, people who say they object to murder might be quite agreeable with dropping bombs on people of other nations. Or people who say they value life and yet may be agreeable to the death penalty, "

Not to be picky, but these examples aren't ncecessarily contradictions.

For example, being callous about strangers doesn't mean that my kindness towards people I know is hypocritical. If I believe that I should be kind to ALL people, then it is. But one could believe quite rationally that those people one had gained mutual affection towards were more worthy of kindess and respect than those we knew nothing about. This does not denigrate the stranger, but rather exalts the friend.

The second analogy equates dropping bombs on people with murder. While you or I may not agree, the international laws of war do not equate accidental bombing casualties with murder. We can argue the point, but it's not necessarily a contradiction unless the person believes that all killing at any time is bad. Some people could believe that bombing was necessary to stop murder.

A person may value life and still believe in the death penalty. In fact, that is the justification many people have. Ignoring mis-convictions, you are upholding the value of life by destroying murderers. If someone's life is dedicated to murdering other lives, then it is upholding the value of life to kill that person.

What I'm trying to say is that these examples are only contradictions if you make assumptions about the underlying values. There are many people for whom they are not contradictions.

Humans cannot survive with contradictions in their lives. These paradoxes must resolve themselves one way or another. I do not believe I have contradictions in my personal philosophy. My actions perfectly reflect the values I cherish. How could anyone behave differently?

"There may always be some things that cannot be made to fit and we may have to live with the contradictions."

Then either one's logic, information or assumptions are incorrect.

Posted by Brian Moore on March 29, 2005 11:33 AM

This is something I am certainly still working out, and I don't know if I will ever be able to integrate my "plucked" philosophies completely. The problem I run across is that sometimes carrying a philosophy across contextual boundaries can amplify it's effects, and amplification can often be dangerous. Matthew 16:21 (from the mouth of Jesus) would have me selling all of my posessions and giving to the poor. The philosophy is there: to be selfless in your dealings with others. Transitioning it to a position where it controls longer term actions puts you in a pretty tricky spot. I've known many "strong" Christians personally, and none of them followed through with this exhortation. I've developed a pretty strong belief that the most solid of philopsophies are developed by means of a self taught lesson that is open to dispute. Does this mean that I must refrain from any sort of intervening discipline should I raise a child? (No.)
Therefore, I must disagree with Brian that humans cannot survive with contradictions in their lives. When I assess the underlying values of these two situations, I see them in conflict. However, I'm too afraid of the danger that might result in the full fledged implementation of the belief I prefer. Personally, I have found myself changing stances on issues rapidly enough that it becomes hard for me to see my actions (read, actions over time) as reflecting a single set of values. I think it's difficult to admit the inherent disintegration of personal philosophy, because it means you have not "arrived," but if you look hard enough, I think you'll find it.

Posted by Kurtiss Hare on March 31, 2005 12:37 AM

I think we do live with contradictions and it is not so much that we always resolve them, but rather that we ignore the contradictions giving them the feeling of being resolved. Looking at the death penalty, it is an obvious contradiction to value life and yet support death by lethal injection. We rationalize it by saying we are only upholding the value of life, but it's still a contradiction. To go against a value in order to uphold is that not a contradiction? Such a line of rationale justifies the actions of a cop to beat a lawless convict in order to uphold the law. It is a contradiction. If you value life, then you will value a murderer's life as well. The way to stop a murderer is to stop them from murdering, not breathing. The death penalty is just revenge, not upholding the value of life as it has been explained.
I wish I had enough time to explain all that I've said in greater detail, but realize that if you are a Christian, the teachings you follow require faith in order to be carried out. They won't work without complete dedication and belief. Thou shalt not kill is one of them and there was never an asterisk next to that. So are Christians who support the death penalty hypocrites? Definitely. It is imperative that people see that hypocracy means literally "below belief". It isn't such an insult, unless you're made a fool by claiming not to be one. It just means one doesn't fully believe something. It is very difficult to fully believe in things that require self-sacrifice, patience, understanding, and putting yourself in the hands of others. Those who wish to be safe, self-reliant, and in control are right to compromise their beliefs. Just don't go saying you've avoided all contradictions, because we are all full of them. If you honestly think that admonishing murder and supporting bombings aren't contradictions, then witness the aftermath of a bombing. Bombing other countries is a quick and easy way to remove those who murder or violate what we believe in, but once you see what really happens when a bomb goes off, I'm convinced that finding a more complex, much less violent or even non-violent way of dealing with the situation will be much more appealing. But it is right that many people can't live with contradictions. So they simply ignore or rationalize them.

Posted by Ryan Nagelkirk on November 2, 2005 05:58 PM

i believe that lifes like a box of chocolates, you never know what your gonna get..... for some people, others are stuck in the same mold and find it impossiable to find contentment in themselves because of their outlook on life. lifes a bitch. fuck the death sentence were all gonna die does it really matter its like everything in this world its ongoing to satisfy some cuts.

Posted by on December 15, 2006 10:44 AM

Hi there

I like you blog although the comments after seem to have focused on quite a simplistic and limited view, that’s fine but it doesn't really reflect my understanding.

What I understand from your blog is that your saying that life philosophies are like a cleaning cupboard. We have cream for the oven, bleach for the toilet, and a spray for the surfaces. In forming an overall philosophy for your own life first look at all the major area's in your life and explore your values and beliefs around that, from that gather the elements together and decide, because it is a very real and deliberate choice, what your philosophy will be. That’s what I'm planning to do.

However there is a fundamental problem with developing a philosophy and that’s the philosopher. There is this therapy tool called the Johari Window,, and it focuses on our blind spots. Blinds spots and the unexamination of blind spots is the breeding ground for ignorance. I guess it’s about seeing those contradiction in life, bombs vs. murder.

So, if anyone out there is thinking of formulating and formulising a personal philosophy I suggest exploring your blind spots before hand. There's a lot we don't know in the universe outside us but it’s surprising how much we don't know about ourselves.

Posted by Niall Ferguson on April 20, 2008 04:28 PM

It makes me think more about my convictions and my decision to live a green life. I believe I chose the right path.

Posted by Joseph Chism on November 24, 2011 09:41 AM

I think it's true that not everyone can articulate their philosophy of life, despite an awareness of separate philosophies for different areas of our life like religion, politics, science, personal relationships, life, death, etc.

Maybe philosophies are usually separate for dealing with the different situations that they represent.


Posted by Mike on December 6, 2011 01:57 PM