To become a philosopher, the first step is actually not what most people do. Namely, seeking an external authority on philosophy.
Most people will read the book if it is "critically acclaimed" or by a "renowned professor", who is "well-respected by his / her peers". That is, they put their faith in what other people say. They think, "If so many people trust this author, then he must be right." And they fall right into step, trusting blindly. Bad start.
Why is this a problem? Because in philosophy, the only guide is your own powers of rational thought. Not quoting names. Not spouting obtuse jargon. Not twenty years as an academic professor. Not five PhDs. None of this matters. None of it counts as actual proofs for the validity of any argument. In fact, it probably counts against the likelihood of a sound philosophical argument that actually goes somewhere!
In summary, the first main pitfall to avoid is looking "outwardly" for an authority on ultimate questions. Unless you first understand a concept, you won't know others are wrong or right. So the first thing to do is to become your own authority --- and enter the logical realm.
That's a big step, but an important one. Count yourself very unusual if you have taken that step.
And now, what is philosophy about? What is the logical realm useful for? This is the all-important objective of philosophy: to understand the nature of Reality.
It is of vital importance that the budding philosopher exercise a very sharp capacity for distinguishing bullshit from sound reasoning. Skepticism is a healthy trait in philosophy. Douglas Adams was right to parody the seeking of the ultimate answer to life, the Universe, and Everything in "The Hitch-hikers' Guide to the Galaxy" as: 42. This was really very insightful. One needs to remember that in answering the question, "What is Ultimate Reality", that one doesn't go creating some particular reality as the answer.
Philosophical answers must be based on diligently exercising logic to its fullest extent. There is no magic potion. It's not la-la land, or speculative musing about what if the moon were made of blue cheese? Philosophy is not about dreaming, or emotional flights of fancy. Philosophy is not a New-Age fashion, the kind of tomfoolery for disenchanted divorcees who are convinced in New World Conspiracies, or in the bizarre notion that they've been abducted by aliens. No philosophy is able to speak through the ego-boosting psycho-babble of Deepak Chopra, Eckardt Tolle, or Oprah Winfrey's "philosophy of living harmoniously with yourself". And, philosophy is not about entering into mystical states of consciousness in order to escape the dreariness of ordinary, day-to-day existence. It's not religious dogma, either. There is certainly a lot of "ultimates" and "absolutes" in religion, but none of that has the slightest iota in common with philosophical answers.
Really, it is a simple matter to answer the ultimate question about the nature of Reality. All one need do is stop grasping for a particular reality. That's all. Simple, isn't it?
The reasoning here is: if you seek a particular reality as the ultimate, then what about someone else's reality? What about a reality you can imagine in another galaxy, or space-time bubble? Evidently, all those would be alternative realities. Therefore, no particular reality can be Ultimate Reality.
The nature of Ultimate Reality is the core question in philosophy, and it is easily answered by recognising that Ultimate Reality is present in all realities, but cannot be anything dualistic. It cannot be one particular "something", since that would compete with the validity of another particular "something". This is why people have invented words like "nondualistic", or "absolute", or "formless", to describe the nature of Reality.
At this point in this short introduction to how to be a philosopher, it is pertinent to mention that philosophy is something you do. It isn't a purely academic exercise of experimental thinking, or detachedly musing over intellectual questions. Many people wrongly believe that philosophy is an ivory-tower game for nerds and Mensa members, a kind of unrealistic navel-gazing that must be dropped eventually, in order to return to earth to do "real" things like taking the dog for a walk, or giving the wife a cuddle. The whole reputation of life-removed academic nonsense is well-deserved, but unfortunate for real philosophers. The fact of the matter is: philosophy is both intellectual and experiential. It involves your entire being. If you're not prepared to fully enter into the equations of logic, with your very life at stake, then you aren't doing philosophy.
This should give the beginner-thinker some idea of what philosophy really entails. It is not for the faint-hearted! Philosophy is a dangerous business.
Recommended for further reading:
David Quinn, "The Wisdom of the Infinite"
Kevin Solway, "Poison for the Heart"
Nagarjuna, "Verses on Emptiness"
Hakuin Ekaku, "Zen Teachings", "Wild Ivy"
Hui Neng, "Platform Sutra"
Soren Kierkegaard, "The Sickness unto Death"
Friedrich Nietzsche, "Thus Spake Zarathustra"
Otto Weininger, "Sex and Character"
Celia Green, "The Human Evasion"
How to be a philosopher
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14 August 2010
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