"Empty is the argument of the philosopher which relieves no human suffering" — Epicurus.

It is often disillusioning to find that many great thinkers are not nice people. Frequently, they are not even happy people. Schopenhauer was as miserable as they come, Heidegger was a member of the Nazi Party, and Nietzsche went mad (though probably due to syphilis rather than philosophy). We expect philosophy to help us to live happily and wisely, yet many philosophers not only fail to do this, but are dull or unpleasant into the bargain.

Of course there have been many philosophers who happily gave up everything (even sometimes their lives) in the pursuit of wisdom: Buddha, Socrates, Diogenes, Hypatia, Wollestonecraft. What I want to ask here, though, is whether philosophy is any help in providing a happy, meaningful and ethical life for ordinary people, not just full-time philosophers. Can philosophy bring wisdom, and can wisdom bring happiness? Philosophy is worth pursuing as a purely intellectual exercise for people who like that kind of thing, but does it have any more to offer?

In ancient Greece, India or China, people would have claimed either that philosophy was the way to live the good life, or that it had nothing to offer at all. Priests were mainly concerned with performing rituals to keep a set of rather unruly gods in order; if people wanted to know the best way to live, they went to see a philosopher. To this day Chinese people consult the Analects of Confucius to make decisions about their family or business, in the same way that fundamentalist Christians consult the Bible. Yet Confucius did not claim to have a hotline to God, but only to have thought about things carefully, which is essentially what philosophy is.

Philosophy comes in many forms, and has many associated practices. For example, the benefits of meditation, yoga and Taoist exercises like t'ai chi are well-known, but here I want to consider the essence of philosophy: the systematic consideration of our ideas, or, as it has sometimes been put, "thinking about thinking".

Standing Back

Sometimes the contemplation of abstract ideas is a pleasure in itself. This doesn't only apply to philosophy, of course—the same could be said of physics or chess. In all these cases, it can also provide much-needed detatchment from our everyday problems. I'm not saying that we should always live at a theoretical level, but it often makes a nice change to read Plato's Republic rather than the sordid doings of our own government, to discuss ethics rather than our neighbours' extra-marital affairs, or to puzzle over logical problems rather than financial ones. I remember years ago taking a course in renaissance poetry, and being struck by how often poets said words to the effect of "Well that's enough court intrigue and courtly love for me, I'm off to my estates to read a bit of Cicero." And why not? As a way to relax, philosophy may not be as healthy as yoga, but it's more edifying than watching TV or getting drunk (you can combine all three if you want, cracking open a few beers and deconstructing an Arnold Schwarzenegger film, but let's not get too ambitious here).

No Philosophy is Bad Philosophy

The Philosopher C.E.M. Joad once said that people who think they haven't got a philosophy simply have a badly-thought-out one. Frequently this is not a problem. If you live a very simple, unchanging life with no pressing existential questions or difficult moral choices, then the beliefs you acquired from your ancestors may well serve you in good stead. "If it ain't broken, don't fix it" may be a good motto sometimes. However, most of us lead lives more complicated than those of our hunting-gathering forebears, and it is no accident that philosophy as we know it began with urbanisation. We have to make decisions, and we need some set of principles on which to make these decisions.

One popular solution to this problem is religion, but religious belief uninformed by reason can be extremely dangerous. In a complex society, even the most exhaustive list of religious commandments would, even if true, prove inadequate. Some kind of exegesis is always necessary, and this has the potential to go wildly astray, especially since interpetation of holy books has a regrettable tendency to attract mediocre minds (I admit it also sometimes attracts brilliant minds, but for every Rumi there are ten Khomeinis, and for every Augustine there are ten Oral Roberts). Religion may have an important role in providing spiritual comfort, and occasionally encourages people to behave better towards each other, but, as Frank Zappa so elegantly puts it

You can't run a country by a book of religion,
Not by a heap or a lump or a smidgeon.

Of course philosophy too can lead us astray, but, like science and unlike most religion, it has self-correcting devices. Bad philosophy can be criticised, and there are tools to do this. Almost all philosophers admire Socrates, but these days very few would actually agree with him. Philosophers sometimes correct or reject their own work; for example, people thought Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus was hot stuff, but he spent much of his later life disproving it. Philosophy does not proceed in the orderly manner of the physical sciences, but at least it provides the opportunity for criticism and self-criticism, a model which we would do well to follow in our everyday lives.

To give a more concrete example, a friend of mine in Japan had a very beautiful but not particularly gifted student who needed an A from his course. She walked into his office, unbuttoned her blouse, and said something like "Are these worth an A?" (note: if any of my students are reading this, don't even think about it!). Now, he could take a religious view, fail the student and spend an appropriate amount of time feeling guilty about his impure thoughts. Alternatively, he could take a philosophical view and consider it as a problem in ethics (or, to be more precise, casuistry, the application of moral philosophy to specific cases). The question here is which philosophy. If he's a straightforward consequentialist, all he has to do is look at the likely results of accepting or rejecting the student's offer. It could be argued that accepting the offer is the best choice—the student gets her A, he gets his end away, and no one is harmed as a consequence. Of course, he's taking a risk here, but let's assume for the sake of argument that neither his wife nor the university authorities will find out about this piece of creative grading. However, there are still some problems with this approach, which is why classical Utilitarianism (the simplest kind of consequentialism) is no longer supported by many philosophers. We've seen that one problem with absolute religious commandments is that it is impossibe to have a rule for every conceivable situation; a similar problem with pure consequentialism is that you have to calculate the consequences every time you consider a course of action.

One solution is to adopt principles based on the consequences, not of any one act, but of that act performed overall—the "what if everybody did it?" approach. If, as a general rule, marks were awarded according to students' physical attractiveness and/or willingness to engage in dubious extracurricular activities, the educational system would suffer. So would society as a whole—we wouldn't want computer programs to be written by software engineers whose main qualification is their personal hardware. As a result, we can imagine that our horny but philosophically-inclined professor politely rejects his student's mammary generosity, awards her whatever mark she really deserves, and goes home to have a cold shower and read some Kierkegaard.

Here we might ask what the difference is between the religious/moralistic and philosophical points of view; after all, the end result is the same here. We are not comparing a moral with an immoral action, but identical moral actions based on different premises. Both perspectives are capable of producing errors; we can have bad moral philosophy and bad religious morality. However, while I would not reject a religious approach entirely, the philosophical approach has certain advantages in this case.

Firstly, by having a rational basis for constructing general principles and interpreting them in practice, the system is more adaptable to differing circumstances. Absolute moral commandments need to be wide-ranging and rather heavy-handed: "Thou shalt not commit adultery," for example, rather than "Thou shalt not manipulate thy students' grade-sheets." Secondly, our professor does not need to feel guilty for wanting to sleep with his student, since he is only assessing the advisability of his actions, not the state of his soul, which is another question altogether. While we may sometimes regret the compartmentalising of thought into different disciplines, we would do well not to confuse confuse ethics and metaphysics.

Thinking and Feeling

Philosophy would be worth practicing if it did nothing more than provide a rational basis for social action, in other words, if there were no more to it than ethics and politics (which as Joad said, can be seen as "ethics writ large"). However, we also need to consider the claim that philosophy is of use in our "inner" lives. To put it crudely, can it save your soul - to which, of course, a typical philosopher would respond "What do you mean by 'soul', and from what do you intend to 'save' it?"

Some philosophers would dismiss these questions altogether, claiming that philosophy is concerned only with establishing the truth or falsity of propositions, and questions about happiness, purpose and so on are unanswerable or even meaningless. "Of that of which we cannot speak, we should remain silent," as Wittgenstein put it. There again, Wittgenstein spent a large part of his life considering the meaning of life, which shows that you can't always take philosophers at face value.

Since I don't want to bite off more than I can chew, I shall leave the tricky question of the soul aside, and concentrate on language and emotion. Many people would deny that they have a soul, but few would say that they have no emotions, and to say that they have no language would be logically impossible. My working hypothesis (and that of some psychologists) is that language and emotions affect each other, and a careful consideration of language can have desirable effects on emotion.

Let's take anger as a practical example. For Christians anger is a sin, for Buddhists it's a form of stupidity, and for the rest of us it's a monumental pain in the butt. It is probably impossible to be completely free from anger, but most of us would agree that on the whole it is an emotion which is rarely pleasant in itself, and often has unpleasant consequences. There are anger-addicts who take pleasure in going around in a perpetual rage, but outside the small worlds of hellfire-and-brimstone revivalism, extremist politics and the weirder fringes of "humanistic" psychotherapy, such people lead frustrasting and inconsequential lives. The question is not whether anger is good or bad, but whether we can do anything to deal with it other than swearing and throwing things around the room.

I have to admit that I often get angry, and even lose my temper from time to time. If I was living in a hermitage I would probably be as tranquil as the Dalai Lama, but I have an active and stressful life which gives me plenty of opportunities for infantile behaviour, the last occasion being when I spent an entire afternoon trying, and failing, to pay my phone bill. This ended up with me thumping the bank counter and coming out with a profanity I won't repeat here. However, I do not enjoy such feelings and behaviour, and, like most people, I try to limit them as much as I can.

Is philosophy any help here? I would claim that is. Firstly, there is the consideration I mentioned earlier, that contemplation of philosophical questions can put things in perspective. Reading philosophy may not stop me from being angry when I can't pay my phone bill, but it might at least help me calm down aftwerwards, and realise that there is more to life than avoiding having my phone cut off. In addition, philosophy encourages us to inquire into things sceptically and honestly, so it may also encourage me to question the bases for my anger.

Coming back to my hypothesis about language and emotion, philosophy also requires that we analyse our fundamental beliefs, concepts and even words. In our gung-ho, "action speaks louder than words" culture, the philosophy of language is often seen as a sleepy backwater where academics can draw a modest salary by asking whether "Can you open the window?" is an interrogative or an imperative. But, to quote Wittgenstein again, "words are deeds." They have an effect not only on the world outside (as in asking "Can you open the window?") but on our inner life as well. If someone can "make us angry" with words, can we not then make ourselves angry with words?

The quotation marks in the last sentence were to emphasise the point that certain words need to be treated with suspicion if we want to think clearly. If we say that someone has made us angry, we are making some assumptions which are open to criticism. "Make" contains an idea of causation or compulsion, as in "The fish made me ill," or "My mother made me do the washing up," which can be rephrased as "Eating the fish caused me to become ill," and "My mother forced me to do the washing up." These sentences may sound clumsy, but they carry more-or-less the same meaning as the first two. However, "He caused me to become angry," or "He forced me to be angry" sound decidedly strange. We do not get angry in the same way that we get food poisoning, and you cannot force someone to be angry in the same way that you can force them to do the dishes. Saying "He made me angry" places the responsibility for our emotions (and consequent actions) fairly and squarely onto an outside event, which is not entirely healthy. It wouldn't stand up in court, either.

Anger itself is not a simple thing. What we call "anger" covers a range of emotions from irritation to blind murderous rage, and these differ in kind as well as degree. We can think of "pure" anger as a kind of primordial "Grrrr!", which is what you might feel the instant that someone treads on your toe or pinches your bottom, but anything beyond that is culturally and linguistically conditioned. This can be seen in the way these two situations may develop. If someone treads on your toe and immediately apologises, the anger is normally nipped in the bud; we instantly reframe an assault as an accident. With the bottom-pinching episode, however, a very rapid chain of linguistic behaviour may transform the simple "Grrr!" into something more powerful and complex. Cultural attitudes towards personal space and relations between the sexes (or between people of the same sex) come into play, as does the relationship, if any, between the two people directly involved (some people are happy to have their bottom pinched by their partner, would hate it from a stranger, and be absolutey furious if it was their boss, for example). In contrast to the momentary annoyance accompanying having your toe trodden on, such an incident can leave you seething for hours afterwards, and language plays a large part in this.

As we have seen, the simple word "make" can put the focus of control outside yourself, which can make it harder to deal with unpleasant emotions. Additionally, prototypical "anger" in Western cultures generally involves a refusal to accept what has happened. Obviously we do not want to accept toe-stomping and bottom-pinching in the sense of tolerating the behaviour, and expecting an apology or delivering a quick knee to the groin might well be appropriate responses. However, there is a difference between a refusal to tolerate behaviour and a refusal to accept its existence. The fundamental idea is that someone "should" not have done something, but there seems to be a confusion between the kind of "should" which advises appropriate behaviour to achieve a specific end (as in "You should practice your backswing") and the kind of "should" which makes a statement about the world (as in "The beans should be cooked by now"). Obviously in the predictive (epistemic) sense, the person "should" have stepped on my toe, because that is what happened, and in the prescriptive (deontic) sense, the question is "in order to achieve what?" Either the guy trod on my toe by accident, in which case "should" is meaningless, or his aim really was to cause me pain, in which treading on my toe is exactly what he "should" have done! In either case, whatever response I make, there is no point in worrying about it too much. A line from Marcus Aurelius illustrates this:

If the cucumber is bitter, spit it out. But do not ask why there are bitter cucumbers in the world.

Perhaps what is sometimes called "passive-aggressive behaviour" is a case of getting upset about the existence of bitter cucumbers instead of spitting them out.

If philosophy can help us to understand unpleasant feelings, can it also help to relieve them? This, after all, is the question we raised at the beginning. I would claim that, at least to some extent, it can, and there is even some clinical evidence to back up this claim. While philosophy may not be able to do much if you have something physically wrong with your brain (look at poor old Nietzsche), some of the most effective treatments for emotional disorders such as depression and anxiety are basically applied philosophy with a light coating of medical terminology - Cognitive Therapy and Rational Emotive Therapy are two examples. Outside the medical establishment, considerable interest has been raised by "philosophical counselling" which is seen by some of its supporters as a complement to psychotherapy, by others as a radical alternative, and by its critics as a new form of Sophism (to be fair, this last comment comes from Roger Scruton, who is hardly a modern Socrates). Whoever turns out to be correct, philosophy is definitely back in the business of relieving human suffering. It's not a simple case of "Plato, not Prozac" (as a recent book-title has it) but simply a long-overdue recognition that clearer thinking makes for better living.

Robin Turner, 1999