Build on past insight (but make up your own mind)

Over the centuries, there have been entire traditions of philosophy, dedicated to excellence in thinking through things, searching for genuine insight in complicated matters, striving to accommodate results from empirical observation and to eliminate logical and conceptual mistakes. (Also, most of the natural and social sciences which are distinct subjects today have started historically as branches of philosophy.) To study their approaches and compare them with each other is rewarding in itself, even though it takes some time and discipline. It also gives you an idea of where to locate yourself and your views in the space of possible philosophical positions.

In philosophical traditions, such as Stoicism, thinkers have built on each other's work and advanced a coherent system of ideas, suggesting and scrutinizing solutions for problems and inconsistencies on the way. Sometimes elegant and comprehensive theories have evolved from this; sometimes internal tensions between fundamental assumptions have driven permanent re-combination and re-arrangement of elements into new wholes. You'll notice similar patterns in your own reflections. You may also find that you develop an affinity for a particular tradition or school of thought. (Be wary of affinities that were already there before you even started studying them, however. It's doubtful that these have originated from your own considered thought; more probably, they were suggested to you by others' opinion.) Or perhaps you're rather eclectic, picking up ideas from various sources; you can increase the richness of your background that way, of course, but there is also a higher risk of inconsistencies and gaps in it.

In any case, you should decide yourself what to think, however much it will be based on insight learned from others (or books). And it matters for what reasons you accept a view. Beware, for instance, of taking them on mere authority. Even the masters of the field have erred; more frequently, their view may be based on premises you wouldn't agree with; and generally, only an insight which you have reached yourself by thinking through a matter (guided by someone else or not) is a genuine and potentially stable insight: you don't really know what you merely believe because it is someone else's doctrine. A fruitful relationship to a philosophical view won't take the shape of blindly following the lead of a guru — it's rather one of critical examination. It's also a two-sided one: a philosophical position, even one out of a book by a long dead author, benefits from your efforts in trying to understand it, from your interpreting and discussing it with others. Just taking over views on faith does nothing for making them better understood. It merely adds a disciple; but excellence is not measured by counting devotees — it's a much clearer sign if critical minds have systematically reflected on a view and found good reasons to agree. Take care.
Copyright © 2007-2012 by Leif Frenzel. All rights reserved.