Does philosophy make you spiritual?

Does philosophy make you spiritual?

By James Tartaglia, author of Inner Space Philosophy 

I’m a career academic philosopher, I did a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, then a master’s, then a PhD, then I got a job as a lecturer; some would say that I’ve never done a proper day’s work in my life, I’d say “define ‘proper’”. Has my career made me a spiritual person? It’s been the life of an academic, teaching and writing in universities, and if the topic had been geography, chemistry or maths, then you wouldn’t assume anything about spirituality. Still, philosophy seems different because so much of it has spiritual overtones: the meaning of life, why there is something rather than nothing, the nature of the self, existential angst, mystical experience, and so on. And another good reason it’s not so silly to suggest that the life of an academic philosopher might make you a spiritual person, is that in the ancient world, philosophy wasn’t just an academic subject, it was a way of life, with philosophers teaching that the philosophical life is the best one. In the Platonist tradition, which was dominant for large swathes of European, North African and Middle Eastern history, the aim of the philosophical life was to become godlike – to the live the intellectual life of the soul which the gods were already enjoying. Philosophy was the intellectual discipline required to fulfil our spiritual destinies.

I sometimes worry that philosophy has lost its drama and seriousness of mission, and that, as maverick philosopher Alan Watts once observed, the new model of the philosopher is of the “nine-to-five businessman, going to the office with his briefcase to ‘do philosophy’ in the same spirit as an accountant or research chemist”. So, in my new book, Inner Space Philosophy, I’ve decided to remind everyone what philosophy has once been, and what it could be again, through a series of encounters with some of my very favourite philosophers –  people who really, really meant it.

What I mean by “encounters” is that I pretend to be the philosopher, talking directly to you in an imaginary, magical place. I start with Plato (427-347 BC), who tells you a bit about his philosophy and life (they merge), before revisiting the Atlantis myth which he invented, this time to expand on it with a new tale of Atlantis, one which has a clear moral for us concerning mobile phone addiction. Then we move onto Plotinus (204-270 AD), a Roman philosopher who advocated introspective intellectual mediation for the purposes of “merging with the One”, an intense spiritual ecstasy in which we grasp the truth of being at one with the universe – that’s what Plotinus was always trying to do in his everyday life, while remembering to be kind and considerate to others, of course. The third encounter is with Chinese philosopher Xuanzang (602-664 AD), a leading figure in the “consciousness-only” school of Buddhist philosophy – after he’s told you about his amazing 16-year adventures in India, he gives you a straightforward account of the outlines of his philosophy, one which you’ll notice has a lot in common with the kind of things Plato and Plotinus were recently saying. The fourth encounter is with Nana Abena Boaa, who was a real African queen from the 17th century about whom nothing is known apart from her name – so unless I got very lucky, she wasn’t really a philosopher. Still, anything can happen in my encounters, and I needed somebody to represent the traditional Akan philosophy of West Africa, which was only passed down by anonymous oral tradition. Again, you’ll notice the same ideas reoccurring – people were realising all over the world. The fifth encounter is with F.H. Bradley (1846-1924), the leading figure in the British Idealism movement, and you’d better brace yourself for this one, because he’s a very stern and foreboding Victorian chap; if you’re a cat lover you might not like Bradley. And the sixth and final encounter is with Zemina (3304-3531), who is from the distant future – she has hair that glows like a green star and she’s lived her entire life in virtual reality, as everyone does in her time.

These philosophers have philosophy firmly lodged in the “inner space” of their minds – they love it, it’s the most important thing there is to them, and it does them a lot of good too. They’re not focused on getting prestigious publications, on building their academic careers, on getting a following online … and philosophy certainly isn’t just an interest or hobby for them. What they’re focused on, exclusively, is spiritual enlightenment. If we can all start becoming a little bit more like them, then I think the human race can become a cosmic force to be reckoned with. Hence the lengthy subtitle of Inner Space Philosophy, which is: Why the Next Stage of Human Development Should Be Philosophical, Explained Radically (Suitable of Wolves). You’ll have already got the message about “Explained Radically” – and the “encounters” are only one of the many strange things that happen in this book. (The emphasis on literary presentation and entertainment, by the way, is because if philosophy is ever to leave the academy and turn us into the “philosophical people” that I’m imagining, then it cannot be boring; if it’s boring it’ll stay in the academy.) But what about “Suitable for Wolves”? Philosophy should always be about thinking for yourself, so the author of a philosophy book can’t tell you what to think, wolves go their own way. I’ve tried to write for the kind of “wolf” that reads a philosophy book.

I never did answer that question about whether I’ve become a spiritual person … it’s a strange one! Well, philosophy is hardly a day job for me, philosophical thoughts come to me whenever and wherever they want – you can never entirely turn it off, it’s hard when at some level you don’t even want to, people laugh and say you’re absent-minded. But does continually thinking about how to make sense of our strange reality amount to spirituality? If a person’s life is a never-ending quest to keep their inner space philosophical, does that make them a spiritual person? I really don’t know. I’d certainly like to be a spiritual person – sounds great! – but I could only go along with it in some kind of strictly rational and philosophical sense. If it’s enough to be spiritual that you’re not be the kind of person who’s always mindlessly following the crowd (or money), then sure, of course I’m spiritual – you are too – but I suspect there’s more to it than that.