Philosophy As A Tool For Action

‘Anything that we have to learn to do we learn by the actual doing of it… We become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate ones, brave by doing brave ones.’ (Aristotle, Niconachean Ethics, Book II, p.91).

Most of us switch off when we hear the word ‘philosophy’.  We imagine some boring old git lecturing us about some concept that is impossible to understand and has no relevance to real life.  But that isn’t how it all started.

The word philosophy comes from the Greek word “philosophia” which means love of wisdom (philos = love and sophia = wisdom). In the context of Ancient Greece, wisdom meant a few things.  One of these was knowledge – a wise man was one who had a thorough knowledge of subjects such as astronomy, maths, music and literature. But gaining this knowledge was never thought to be an end in itself.  The purpose of the acquisition of facts was to train the mind so that it could be used as a tool to help its owner to better navigate the world.

To some extent – and probably with the best intentions – philosophy has been hijacked by academics (and of course drunks).

Obviously philosophy means other things now, over 2,000 years later, but even so, perhaps we could forget about that and just go back to basics?  After all having a trained mind might be handy.  A trained mind would be better able not just to work and invent and plan and discover (though all of these things are important) but a trained mind would also be better able to manage the change that the arrow of time brings in its wake.

Big change, small change, medium change – unavoidable change. A philosophical approach might better give us the capacity to find our way around our constantly changing world.  Like the best interactive guidebook or GPS ever invented, it might give us the skills necessary not to fall down too many holes – or at least when we do, it should help us to work out how to climb out.

Change is always going to make us nervous – that’s just the way we are – but there is no need for it to be terrifying, no need for us to pretend it isn’t happening, no need for it to eat us up because we have ignored it for too long.  The good thing about proper philosophy is that it’s not a set of rules that need to be updated all the time – no need for 2.0 or more – it’s a skill.  It’s an ability to look at things and to reflect on them and then act and then look again and reflect and consult and so on, ad infinitum (as some old school Roman philosopher might have put it).

In spite of the way it has been practiced, philosophy doesn’t need to belong to one school of thought or another.

Philosophy can be an approach to living not a patented method.

Philosophy can belong only to itself – the love of wisdom.

It can be full of life and love and ideas for living but most of all, it can be about action – that should be it’s ultimate purpose.

I want us ordinary folk to take back philosophy so that we have a term we can use when we speak with each other about thinking and reflecting on life, the universe and everything and about how we should act to make it a better place.

Maybe we’re already trying?  Surely this video is philosophy?



  1. Yeah, I’m with you on this. Thanks for taking the action of writing it so clearly and allowing us to gain from your efforts at understanding the real value of philosophy.

  2. By definition: Knowledge is cumulative, wisdom is not.

    Knowledge can be gained (through experience, education, etc), built upon and expanded incrementally (sometimes exponentially). But most important, the accumulation and consequent growth of knowledge is not limited to the lifetime of the original ‘thinker,’ and can be passed on and expanded without limit from generation to generation. (Manpower > horsepower > steampower > coalpower, oilpower > nuclearpower > internetpower > ?)

    But wisdom, while perhaps ‘expandable,’ is not transferable. For example, was the ‘wisdom’ of Jesus fully absorbed by his Twelve Disciples, expanded upon, and then that enlarged view passed on to succeeding generations? Or are contemporary ‘believers in Jesus’ still struggling, just as much as that original twelve, to digest and put into practice all he said? Same with the ‘wisdom’ of Socrates/Plato. After reading/studying the Dialogs, can it be assumed that a reasonably intelligent student would then become as wise as Socrates/Plato as a result, then add significantly to that wisdom and pass that ‘wiser’ more insightful version on to the next generation for further development/improvement?

    And the point? If cumulative thinking results in measurable improvements, then its probably knowledge-based. But if that thinking results mostly in endless talking (arguing, wars, etc), then its probably wisdom-based. So…where does Philosophy come into the mix? Well, its the term that’s generally used to explain the meaning of the endless (countless) discussions about what is knowledge and what is wisdom. 😉

    1. William – you always make such good points. I think I mostly agree – though I do think we can build on wisdom to some extent but it’s a much slower process than the transfer of knowledge. I think wisdom is tied to experience – which is where action must join knowledge and therefore is tied to living. If we should all think for ourselves – and I believe we should – then we also need to experience life for ourselves and build our own ‘wisdom.’ Maybe becoming wise is an organic process like being alive rather than a block of super-knowledge that we can acquire one way or another? I really don’t know. And I completely agree that all talking and no action is both stupid and dangerous but I also think the opposite is equally true.

      I do think we need wisdom but I think it’s a type of wisdom we have to invent. A personal dedication to act and think and reflect and keep at this process as we stumble through our lives. All action and no thinking and reflection can give us Rwanda from the genocidaire side – and all talking and no action can give us Rwanda from the international community side.

      We need more than knowledge – no matter how good. I think that, ironically, setting ourselves to acquire knowledge for its own sake reduces useful action and even the paralysed version of philosophy we see around us is exactly that it is based on knowledge not wisdom. It has become turgid and intricate so that most people can’t be bothered.

      And this is true of most academic disciples and knowledge-based activities – academics largely collect knowledge and then their exposition is often not intended to do anything other than to show how much knowledge they have acquired. Kind of like crazy collectors. People who do this are absolutely entitled to live like that but, unfortunately, it gives thinking and reflecting and wisdom and even knowledge a bad name.

      Thanks a lot, William – I find your comments most thought provoking and (as I am such a big fan of thinking!!) that’s great!

      1. In the end–as you’ve made so thoughtfully clear–it all comes down to a question of definition…as ‘defined’ by one’s point of view. For example:

        If the opposite of knowledge is ignorance, and actions based on ignorance are not generally considered wise, then the same may be said of actions that reflect a poor application of available knowledge. In other words, the concept of ‘wisdom’ is a measure not just of one’s knowledge, but how well it is applied.

        A case in point:

        Suppose a child, upon learning that death is inevitable, decides that living must therefore be pointless, and consequently sits down on the ground, fold his hands, closes his eyes, and waits to die. But another, given that same bit of information decides instead to put all his energy into living as hard and fast as possible, for as long as he can.

        Of the two, given the same knowledge, which action (or lack thereof) would be considered most wise?

        And would not the answer be ‘defined’ by one’s point of view? 😉

    1. You’ve hit the nail on the head – because it should have a point but it has become a sort of meta-discipline (if such a thing is possible!) insofar as it is only about itself and that’s a waste of time. I think it does, however, have potential if we reclaim it for use in the real world. Thanks for this – most helpful way of putting it.

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