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  • From a distance, philosophy seems weird, irrelevant, boring, and yet, also, just a little, intriguing.

  • But what are philosophers really for? The answer is, handily, already contained in the word philosophy itself.

  • In Ancient Greek, "philo" means love and "sophia" means wisdom: Philosophers are people devoted to wisdom.

  • Being wise means attempting to live and die well.

  • In their pursuit of wisdom, philosophers have developed a very specific skill set.

  • They have, over the centuries, become experts in many of the things that make people not very wise. Five stand out.

  • There are lots of big questions around: What's the meaning of life? What's a job for? How should society be arranged?

  • Most of us entertain them every now and then, but we despair of trying to answer them.

  • They have the status almost of jokeswe call them pretentious.

  • But they matter deeply, because only with sound answers to them can we direct our energies meaningfully.

  • Philosophers are people unafraid of asking big questions. They have, over the centuries, asked the very largest.

  • They realized that these questions can always be broken down into more manageable chunks.

  • And that the only really pretentious thing is to think one's above raising big, naïve-sounding inquiries.

  • Public opinion, or what gets called "common sense", is sensible and reasonable in countless areas.

  • It’s what you hear about from friends and neighbors, the stuff you take in without even thinking about it.

  • But common sense is also often full of daftness and error.

  • Philosophy gets us to submit all aspects of common sense to reason. It wants us to think for ourselves.

  • Is it really true what people say about love, money, children, travel, work?

  • Philosophers are interested in asking whether an idea is logical rather than simply assuming it must be right because it is popular and long-established.

  • We're not very good at knowing what goes on in our own minds.

  • Someone we meet is very annoying, but we can't pin down what the issue is.

  • We lose our temper, but we can't readily tell what we're so cross about.

  • We lack insights into our own satisfactions and dislikes. That's why we need to examine our own minds.

  • Philosophy is committed to self-knowledge, and its central precept, articulated by the earliest, greatest philosopher, Socrates, is just two words long: Know yourself.

  • We're not very good at making ourselves happy. We overrate the power of some things to improve our lives and underrate others.

  • We make the wrong choices because, guided by advertising and false glamor,

  • we keep on imagining that a particular kind of holiday, or car, or computer will make a bigger difference than it can.

  • At the same time, we underestimate the contribution of other things like going for a walk,

  • which may have little prestige but can contribute deeply to the character of existence.

  • Philosophers seek to be wise by getting more precise about the activities and attitudes that really can help our lives to go better.

  • Philosophers are good at keeping a sense of what really matters and what doesn't.

  • On hearing the news that he'd lost all his possessions in a shipwreck, the Stoic philosopher Zeno simply said:

  • "Fortune commands me to be a less encumbered philosopher."

  • It's responses like these that have made the very term "philosophical" a byword for calm, long-term thinking and strength-of-mind; in short, for perspective.

  • The wisdom of philosophy is, in modern times, mostly delivered in the form of books.

  • But in the past, philosophers sat in market squares and discussed their ideas with shopkeepers or went into government offices and palaces to give advice.

  • It wasn't abnormal to have a philosopher on your payroll.

  • Philosophy was thought of as a normal, basic activity rather than as an unusual, esoteric, optional extra.

  • Nowadays, it's not so much that we overtly deny this thought, but we just don't have the right institutions set up to promulgate wisdom coherently in the world.

  • In the future, though, when the value of philosophy is a little clearer, we can expect to meet more philosophers in daily life.

  • They won't be locked up, living mainly in university departments.

  • Because the points at which our unwisdom bites and messes up our lives, are multiple and urgently need attention, right now.

From a distance, philosophy seems weird, irrelevant, boring, and yet, also, just a little, intriguing.

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