Reflect systematically

Systematic reflection and study of philosophy, the views of the masters of the field, will help you to improve the way you're leading your life. But it's not primarily rules and recipes you are looking looking for. Good philosophy, and reflection, won't give you a prescription directly for how to act or feel in a given situation, although they certainly shape your ability to figure out such things. More importantly, and more fundamentally, they'll give you a background of insights — an extensive, coherent, reliable web of views and attitudes, attuning you to appropriate feelings, guiding you towards effective actions and coherent beliefs.

How does one get there? Skimming philosophical (and other insightful) writings for outstanding quotes that stir some feeling of depth is not a good strategy. Even if insights sometimes are crystallized in a slogan, be wary of those. Good thought can't rest in aphorisms alone (however well-known the name of the author next to it may be). It gets its strength out of careful, systematic coverage of the whole subject, a set of methodically connected elements, put together consistently and elegantly.

Sometimes philosophers sum up insights in pointed and memorable formulations. These can of course only really be understood after working through the arguments and explanations that precede them — they are summaries helpful mainly for keeping the main points in mind when the discussion moves on. So they are just a kind of shortcut, a summary that needs unpacking. Those who have worked through the topic that is summarized so know how to unpack them; but without investing that effort, your understanding remains incomplete and shallow. (That doesn't apply only to this particular sort of knowledge: being able to recite a physicist's formula and actually using it to predict the movements of a physical body are two very different sorts of thing.) What's worse: you're also deceived about your own progress. Being able to quote some catchy one-liners is not yet the same as having the insights expressed in them, even if the one-liners seem plausible to you.

If you're serious about reflection, and philosophy, they way to go is via systematic study. The rewards are plenty, but it takes effort and determination. It also takes courage: you will quickly find that even a long tradition of clever people hasn't so far exhausted all the paths of thinking through things. What those aphorisms mentioned earlier, in their overt well-roundedness and terseness, hide from view is that there still are many questions, more than there are answers, and that your own reflective insight is at least as helpful and important as that which has already been found and written down centuries ago. Take care.
Copyright © 2007-2012 by Leif Frenzel. All rights reserved.