Philosophy for Life

I have no idea who might, or might not, have, at some time or other, exhorted us to adopt a philosophy for life – or even if they ever did. I don’t know where the idea came to me from – but came it did and, unlike many ideas that happen upon me, I have actually, sort of, remembered it and come up with one.

Having said all that, it was probably a Stoic like Marcus Aurelius that suggested it to me. I do like the way that Stoic philosophy seems to be rooted somewhere in life. Philosophy, as we understand the term, came about through people (ancient Greeks in this case) pondering on what it was to live a good life. I am not so sure that is still the case. Much of western, mainly European, philosophical thinking is so complex and impenetrable to the layman that you have to question it’s usefulness outside of formal philosophy study.

I am told that Being and Time (Martin Heiddeger) is one of the most important philosophical texts ever written and I am sure it is, (who am I to question such a claim?) but have you tried reading it? I have, it was hard and I gave up. I have tried reading other philosophers and I found that they are nearly all really hard to read. So I have stopped trying to read and understand what philosophers have written. I don’t entirely ignore them. I like nothing more than to be reading a book or watching a film, perhaps, and encounter a philosophical idea contained therein. I suppose you would call this the application of philosophy but isn’t that what it is for? If not, why come up with it in the first place? What possible good is an entirely abstract idea however brilliant it might be? Is it even possible to have an entirely abstract concept that has no applicable basis in ‘reality’? Who knows.

So I don’t read ‘philosophy’ I now write my own. And right now, this is it.

In a recent post – Know your place I alluded to this shift. As part of an artistic project I modified a book on philosophy. I glued the pages together and pasted in two of my own. On these pages was the following phrase:

It is here that I am.

On the face of it this is entirely self-explanatory. This is the place where I am. It is always the case, I have to be somewhere and it is necessarily here. There is, of course another level to this. The term ‘I am’ occurs in, arguably, the most well known philosophical phrase – Descartes declaration “I think therefore I am”. This conveys a slightly less physical dimension to the notion of being. Specifically, I am in my mind, I exist because I am able to comprehend my existence. I don’t have to be anywhere as long as I am cognisant of my being. I sort of flip that to suggest that it is only when I am somewhere (here) that I exist – I can only demonstrably exist in space and time (here and now).

There are, of course, other forms of existence. My family and friends all have knowledge of me and I exist for them even when I am not in the same ‘here’ as they are. I don’t cease to be whenever I leave their presence. Indeed I am as much with them as I am when they are without me. That is different from the ‘I am’ to which I refer. That is more aligned with Descartes – we all exist in one another’s minds as thoughts or memories. We could say ‘you think therefore I am’ and that has an undeniable truth. If I wasn’t in your cognition then I would not exist to you. This could be extrapolated further to the logical point whereby I would cease to exist entirely, on one level at least, were I completely unknown to anyone.

Another important aspect of the phrase ‘It is here that I am’ is that the ‘here’ is both central to the experience and simultaneously irrelevant. As I suggested earlier, where I am is always necessarily the place we refer to as ‘here’. Here is where I am located physically but, in order for it to be where I am then it must also be where I think I am or, more significantly, where I think I ought to be.

You have to be somewhere. Whilst we might all prefer that place to be somewhat idyllic – whatever your particular idyl is; hot or cold, wet or dry, alone or in a crowd etc. – your experience of this place (presuming you are not being held against your will) is almost entirely within your control. First of all, you sort of have to want to be there. Sounds obvious but no matter how ‘nice’ the place is, it won’t feel that way if you wish you weren’t there. Next, it must meet somewhat with your prior expectations. If you were anticipating peace and quiet and you find yourself amidst some noisy maelstrom then this is likely to reduce any pleasure you might hoped to have enjoyed. Finally you should be suitably attired. “There is no such thing as bad weather”, as Billy Connolly once said, “only the wrong clothes”. Thus, I can be as content and at ease in my kitchen as I can on a beach or up a mountain. No place is inherently better than any other despite what you may be told (usually by someone that suggests they are in a better place than you) so accept where you are right now and if you don’t like it, go somewhere else (the lounge is nice).

Perhaps it could be said that the ultimate, perfect, place to be is where we belong. There are a number of ways to describe what is meant by belonging and we each might have our own sense of what that is. My own definition is to be at a point where fantasy meets reality – where our idea of who and where we should be most closely matches who and where we are. This is where the ‘KNOW YOUR PLACE‘ bookmark originated.

To tell someone to ‘know your place’ is generally a pejorative put down. Accept where you are and stay there. But what is so wrong with this basic idea. Is it not because of the false claims that we live in a meritocracy whereby anyone can ‘rise’ to be anything they want to with a bit of hard work and a strong enough will to do so? In this imagined world, if you accept where you are then it is because you lack ambition, because you are afraid of a bit of hard work. You are allowing yourself to be bound by limits placed on you by ‘the man’ and you are imprisoned by you own failures to do something about it. I am suggesting that the opposite is true and that to truly ‘know your place’ is entirely liberating and ultimately fulfilling. To be where you belong and to be both aware of your responsibilities and capable of fulfilling them is the perfect place to be and it could be precisely where you are if you actually ‘know your place’.

Stop wishing you were someone else, somewhere else doing something else.

Know Your Place.

It is here that I am.

Where are you?