Philosophy vs. Philosophies

by Peter Saint-Andre


On the very first page of his book What Is Ancient Philosophy?, Pierre Hadot — the late French scholar who almost singlehandedly resurrected the humanistic conception of philosophy as a way of life — drew a distinction between individual philosophies on the one hand and philosophy itself on the other:

Seldom do we reflect upon what philosophy is in itself. Indeed, it is extremely difficult to define it. What philosophy students are introduced to is above all philosophies.... In itself, there is nothing wrong with all this. It certainly seems that the way one can come to have an idea of philosophy is by studying philosophies. Yet the history of "philosophy" is not the same as the history of philosophies, if what we understand by "philosophies" are theoretical discourses and philosophers' systems. In addition to this history, however, there is room for the study of philosophical modes of life.

Here is one way to think about it: loving and practicing wisdom is not the same thing as adhering to a worldview. The aim of wisdom is self-mastery and self-knowledge, i.e., both serious self-examination as a central, organizing activity of your life and the development of deep "mindedness", intentionality, understanding, and insight as abiding traits of your thinking and character. By contrast, if you consider yourself to be primarily an adherent of a worldview, then your allegiance to the love and practice of wisdom is only secondary, and can be successful only to the extent that the worldview to which adhere truly values wisdom. Not all of them do: consider, for example, the very idea of utilitarianism as a way of life; as a rule-based ethical system, it doesn't really value wisdom and character as first-class concerns (of which, to my mind, the failures of Effective Altruism are merely the most recent manifestation).

It seems to me that the aspiration to be a philosopher is rooted in an existential commitment to live an examined life and to pursue truth wherever it may lead. By contrast, the aspiration to be, say, a loyal and consistent Stoic or Buddhist is rooted intellectually in accepting that worldview as final truth and emotionally in feeling the comfort of feeling that fundamentally your search for truth is over. To put it metaphorically: while the adherent sighs contentedly as he settles into his comfortable home, the explorer shoulders his pack to track the trail of truth over the next mountain range.

That said, I do think that a person can become wise within the narrower scope of a well-defined worldview; however, it might require more time and even some cognitive dissonance as the adherent tries to bend that worldview to deal with the messy realities of life. This might be easier in long-lived traditions like Confucianism and Christianity that contain competing strands of thought (e.g., the Augustinian and Thomistic strands of Christianity), since that enables the adherent to pick and choose different emphases to suit the demands of particular situations.

(Cross-posted at

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