Vital Philosophy

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On Vital Philosophy
Jeff Huggins
Ronnie Hawkins

Philosophers are humans.  Any responsibilities, rights, and ethics that apply to all humans by virtue of being human, apply to philosophers as humans.
Philosophers also profess to love wisdom.  We who call ourselves philosophers make this claim explicit, and commit to the pursuit of wisdom.

Philosophy, then, isn’t an abdication of general human responsibilities.  Instead, it involves an addition—an aspiration that goes beyond the norm, at least regarding wisdom.  Although philosophers aren’t perfect, our love of wisdom suggests that we not only aim to understand and reasonably fulfill the responsibilities appropriate to being human, but also hope to live up to the name ‘wisdom.’ [1]

Given this, philosophers, of all people, should appreciate the importance of understanding the difference between knowledge and wisdom and of actually facilitating a wiser world. 

Alas, the relative paucity of wisdom in our societies today indicates a problem, increasingly dangerous because of our immense human population and the unprecedented power of human technologies.  As Martin Luther King Jr. observed, “We have guided missiles and misguided men.” (King 1963: Ch. 7)  In such a world—so highly populated, so technologically potent, yet so scarce of wisdom—what are philosophers to do?  

We suggest that philosophers should consider and embrace a more life-oriented, life-valuing, and vital understanding of and approach to philosophy.  Here, we will call it Vital Philosophy.   

Vital, Life-Oriented Philosophy

Vital Philosophy is a life-oriented understanding of philosophy that is vital in three senses: (1) Its touchstone is life, it values life, and it recognizes life’s centrality to the philosophical quest; (2) It’s pursued with vitality and promotes practice, aiming to make substantial positive differences in the world; and (3) It aspires to deserve to be considered vital to individuals and to society. 

Comparatively speaking, Vital Philosophy aims to be substantially more life-oriented and life-valuing than the preponderance of academic philosophy as presently practiced.  It places a much higher priority on praxis and on understanding and addressing our real problems of living at all levels—personal, local, and global.  It aims to advance theory and praxis in parallel, in mutually beneficial ways.  It aspires to bring philosophy out of the academic closet, into the living world.    

The Central, Vital Aim of Philosophy

The central, vital aim of philosophy, as we believe it should be understood, is to enhance life—the conditions of life, and life itself.  Put in practice as wisdom, philosophy should enable people to realize what is of value in life—both in the sense of “to become aware” and in the sense of “to actually achieve, to make real.

Present-day philosophy is diverse, and defies simple characterization.  What seems a predominant view, however, especially in Anglo-American philosophy, at least in practice if not intentionally, is that philosophy’s central and even ultimate aims are the discernment of truth, somewhat narrowly defined, and acquisition of knowledge, as if philosophy were just another science but with scope and methods that other sciences choose not to admit.  Granted, most philosophers regard philosophy as relating to life and living in some way.  Yet paradoxically, in its focused quest for “truth,” philosophy often seems disinterested in life and disengaged from life’s real problems and opportunities.  Moreover, much philosophy disregards what science helps us understand about the nature of life.  Much philosophy seems in love with abstraction and intricacy, but out of love with wisdom, and sometimes even with life itself.  

Of course, most philosophers would claim that philosophy is about much more than the discovery and establishment of “truth,” meaning “the truth about X” and “the truth about n(i),” with n(i) being many things, including answers to the so-called big questions.  Most will admit that wisdom involves much more than the knowledge of facts, and that wisdom applied in ways that benefit life is more valuable than wisdom kept to the mind.  But what too many philosophers actually do—and consequently the emphasis of academic philosophy as practiced—does not align well with what philosophy says about its ultimate aims. [2] 

Unfortunately, the prevailing view among the public, and even in academia, is that philosophy—as presently practiced—is largely irrelevant to “me” and to society.  Philosophy finds itself having to argue for its relevance, not to mention value.  We believe that a crucial reason why modern philosophy is commonly perceived as irrelevant to life is that it’s often practiced in ways that misconceive life’s relevance to it.  Philosophy is too often practiced as if life exists to ascertain truth, rather than recognizing that the value of understanding involves its usefulness and ability to enhance life.     

At The Foundation: Life

Life is the foundation of experience, knowledge, understanding, and action.  It’s the platform and perspective from which each of us interacts with the world and other beings.

Life is also the substrate and stuff of value.  A central aspect of life’s nature is that life values that which is needed to maintain itself and to perpetuate from generation to generation.  Life’s maintenance and continuation are the ultimate aims, in effect, that explain why we proximately value the many diverse things we value. 

Life, then, is the common denominator of all we experience, all we value, and all we do.

Without life, there would be no philosophy.  Moreover, there would be no value.  The existence of value depends on the existence of life.

Crucial points, these.  Ultimately, they explain why it’s wholly appropriate to understand philosophy in a life-oriented, life-valuing way.  

Vital Philosophy, Knowledge, and Wisdom

Vital Philosophy understands that wisdom has a broader scope and much greater value than knowledge.  It’s much more than “a whole lotta knowledge.”  Wisdom benefits from an understanding of how “the facts” interrelate and includes the capacity and inclination to apply understanding in ways that enhance life.  It involves values, judgments, and choices.  It’s enabled by knowledge but shouldn’t be confused with it.  To love wisdom is to love the development and application of understanding in the interest of enhancing life.

A crucial ingredient of wisdom is self-understanding.  Self-understanding should include a healthy understanding of the nature of life, biologically and more broadly; of the fact that humans are products of evolution and part of a larger web of life; of the nature of human sociality; and in general of whence we came and what we are.  All this serves as a platform for—and in addition to—a person’s evolving understanding of who she is as an individual.  These aspects of self-understanding are relevant to everyone, particularly to pursuers of wisdom. 

Another crucial ingredient of wisdom is situational understanding, of the larger context and how one fits into it.  What’s my situation?  We don’t merely mean bank balances and GPS coordinates.  We mean, among other things, that we live on a finite planet and are ecologically dependent on Earth’s life-support systems.  We mean that we are highly social beings, situated as members of social groupings, and that the interrelationships among these are both inherited and open to reconstruction.  Too much philosophy puts situational understanding on the back burner or ignores it.  Meanwhile, most modern societies act as if they don’t live on a finite planet.  We don’t do ourselves favors by acting this way.   

Wisdom involves addressing this question and acting upon the answer: In light of my self-understanding and situational understanding, how can I enhance life for myself and others?

Sources of Understanding 

Vital Philosophy values meaningful and beneficial understanding wherever it can be gained.  This doesn’t mean that all sources are equally relevant, equally valid, or equally beneficial to life.  However, Vital Philosophy doesn’t consider any single source or methodology to be the sole valid avenue for the pursuit of wisdom. 

Vital Philosophy retains a healthy degree of skepticism, aiming to minimize misunderstanding while advancing understanding that contributes to life.  It aims to discriminate between baby and bathwater, and nurture the baby.

Because of the centrality of life to life, and also to philosophy, sources that help us understand the nature of life itself, including human life, play a particularly important role.  Here, we briefly highlight a few points that we see as being vital to the modern philosophical quest.

First, humans are biological beings; our basis is physical and biological.  We are remarkable yet far from perfect results of evolutionary processes and of developmental and environmental factors unique to each of us.  Our fundamental needs, corresponding desires and tendencies, and abilities, limits, and idiosyncrasies reflect our “nature.”  Some of the most significant philosophical misunderstandings—past and present—result from ignorance or denial of these matters.  The biological and related life sciences are highly relevant and indeed invaluable to both self-understanding and situational understanding.  Meanwhile, however, the extreme reductionism common in such sciences should be recognized as insufficient as science comes to grips with life’s richness and attempts to integrate into a more sophisticated understanding of living wholes.  

Second, our connections with the world and each other, our “raw data,” our sensory experiences—ultimately, all of our sources of learning and understanding—reach us through our bodies and senses.  They’re our sources of input, our channels to understanding.  The natures of our faculties and tools—including reason—should also be understood in light of our existence as living beings within a physical universe.  In order to use them wisely, and avoid fooling ourselves, we must recognize their natures, capabilities, and limits.  Ultimately, it’s through our bodies, senses and faculties that we live and learn.          

Third, humans are highly social beings and should better understand the implications of our sociality.  Philosophy won’t achieve an understanding of human nature and the human condition without understanding our sociality, including its evolutionary roots and, in the scientific sense, ultimate raison d’être.  Integrating such understanding will help us move beyond western philosophy’s traditional ontological and methodological individualism.

Fourth, as a result of our remarkable sociality, combined with our imaginations and inventiveness, humans have constructed our own social and institutional frameworks and environments.  Crucial to an understanding of modern life and our current predicament is an understanding of the nature of these social constructions and our habituated commitments to them.  In order for us to move toward wisdom, to achieve peaceful, healthy, and sustainable societies, we need to recognize our own agency in constructing these frameworks and accept responsibility for reconstructing them intelligently.  Far too many people, even within philosophy, take even the most egregiously unjust and ecologically unsustainable institutional structures for granted, contributing to our social inertia (and its attendant problems) instead of questioning and reshaping it.   

Life, Broadly Speaking

The Tree of Life is deep and broad.  Humans are just one part of it, and recent arrivals.  From algae to angiosperms, earthworms to elephants, termites in colonies to humans in metropolises, we’re all related.  Life’s extent and diversity are rich and wonderful.

Vital Philosophy recognizes that all life is intrinsically valuable.  It also recognizes that species are valuable in crucial ways, in varying degrees, to other species.  The health, integrity, and viability of the whole web of life are fundamentally and ultimately valuable to all: “We’re all in this together.” 

Vital Philosophy also recognizes that the intrinsic value of life—of each living thing—is not merely a human fabrication, a status that we may (or may not) choose to bestow.  Instead, it is of life.  This follows from an understanding of the nature of life and the nature of value.  It isn’t up to us to decide whether nonhuman life has intrinsic value.  It does.  Instead, what we must decide are the attitude and actions we will adopt towards other life, given the intrinsic value of life.

Surely most philosophers will recognize that there is no credible evidence that the cosmos were created “for me”!

Getting Real

Humans are real beings in real situations with real needs, problems, and opportunities.  If the central aim of philosophy is to enhance life, as we suggest, then philosophy should aim first and foremost to help us understand and address the real problems and opportunities of living. [3]

“Getting real” involves recognizing that Earth is finite.  It’s problematic, therefore, that our modern economy is built on the assumption that we can achieve economic growth ad infinitum.  We’ve socially constructed our economy such that we’ve imposed a growth imperative upon ourselves; we’re in its thrall.  Worse, we seem committed to obey this imperative until harms to the biosphere and self-inflicted pains become unbearable.  Is this wisdom?  We doubt it. 

This is but one example of “bad philosophy” at work—or at least an absence of good philosophy at work.  There seems a paucity of philosophical thought directed toward what is, obviously, a central problem of our age—and a corresponding absence of effectiveness. 

Moreover, recognizing Earth’s finitude means recognizing that we cannot continue doubling our populations, as subgroups or a species.  Perhaps this poses the most difficult challenge, since the striving to multiply is natural to life.  But what of wisdom?

Philosophy should be deep—helping us understand and address problems at their causal roots—and integrative—enabling us to understand complex problems, involving multiple domains, and develop solutions that don’t create larger problems or involve killing Peter to gratify Paul.  Philosophy shouldn’t be a retreat from our problems, mere consolation, or tinkering on the sidelines.  Surely, the assumptions and paradigms that deserve the most immediate scrutiny, and should be the most vigorously challenged and soonest reformed, are those that cause the most harm to life and needless heartache to millions of people.  Wisdom involves having a good sense of priorities.

Practice and Theory

Life must be lived as understanding is gained.  The only value of knowledge is to life: Knowledge’s primary value involves its usefulness in enabling and enhancing the lives of living beings.  A person cannot wait for “the whole truth” before getting up each morning and being in the world to live, interact, and choose.  Significantly, living life is more art than science, and involves more knowhow than knowing.  Practice and theory-development go hand in hand.

Vital Philosophy recognizes the immense value of “insufficiently theorized agreements” and cooperative action when they are beneficial to life.  Two philosophers will pause their quibbling in order to save a drowning child nearby.  It isn’t clear, however, and indeed it’s doubtful, that academic philosophy as presently practiced has quite the same sense of priorities.  Here, we aren’t commenting about individual philosophers; most would pause their work to save a child in need.  Instead, our comment is about the daily, institutionalized practice of academic philosophy and its lack of relationship to, or very distant relationship to, the self-imposed and growing challenges engulfing the drowning children who are all of us.

A vital approach to philosophy elevates insufficiently theorized agreements and cooperative action in terms of their philosophical priority and intellectual and ethical stature, relative to those they currently receive.  Although philosophers should of course distinguish among “genuine truth,” agreements between fallible humans regarding supposed knowledge, and agreements regarding cooperative action, a Vital Philosopher will understand that agreements regarding action are often immensely valuable and shouldn’t be demeaned as second-class citizens.  Wisdom and knowledge aren’t identical.  Wisdom, when genuine, is actually the more valuable.

Indeed, it’s highly unlikely that all humans or societies will ever agree on what to believe, let alone discover and agree on genuine truth.  Humans are far too diverse, our minds too egoistic and group-oriented, to achieve that sort of agreement.  So the question of whether we can eventually live together peaceably, justly, sustainably, and happily is tied to the question of whether we can arrive at insufficiently theorized agreements or at least act with mutual respect, tolerance, and on crucial matters cooperatively.  It’s probably correct to say that the future of humankind depends more on whether we can act respectfully and cooperatively than on whether we ever discover the genuine truths of the cosmos.  What does this tell us about wisdom?

It doesn’t suggest, of course, that philosophy should not value truth and knowledge or not try to obtain them.  Instead, it means that philosophers should understand that the value of truth and knowledge is their value to life, that they have no value without life, and that the immense value of insufficiently theorized agreements and cooperative action should not be dismissed.  To “love the one you’re with” may prove, ultimately, to be much more important than to get them to agree to your version of truth.

Thinking and Life

A crucial role of philosophy is to recognize, understand, and correct errors in thinking—to clear the way for excellent thinking and try to describe and apply it.  But in order to fulfill this role, or at least pursue it intelligently, one must recognize what thinking is, including the relationship between thinking and life.

Of course, this isn’t to say that we should identify excellent, error-free thinking with the way that most humans, or even brilliant humans, actually think, embracing the imperfections, biases, and idiosyncrasies of typical human thinking.  Instead, our point is that one must recognize the essential relationships between thinking and life in order to understand important aspects of what we should take to constitute errors in thinking.

The assumption that many philosophers appear to make—that the highest or even ultimate aim of thinking is to obtain truth—is neither well informed nor sound.  It neither reflects the ultimate dependence of thinking on life—on existence—nor thinking’s ultimate raison d’être, to facilitate and enhance life.

Making Pins

Much philosophy today seems to submit to, and even embrace, a narrowing place in the modern “division of labor.”  This is a mistake and problem for at least three reasons:  First, by its nature, philosophy can’t possibly fit into such a place; its scope must be broad and deep, its ultimate aim integrative.  Second, to the degree that a narrowing causes philosophers to misunderstand the relationship between knowledge and wisdom, and to set priorities unwisely, the narrowing becomes self-perpetuating and can cause philosophy to miss not only the big picture, but also the whole point.  Third, to the extent that the division of labor is accompanied by an assumption that divvying up tasks absolves practitioners of general human responsibilities, as is often assumed in a division of labor—“It’s not my job to be concerned that humankind is on a self-destructive path; I’m busy seeking truth!”—the intellectual narrowing is accompanied by ethical abdication.

Vital Philosophy rejects narrowness, aims at wisdom, and embraces responsibility.

Being Whole

Vital Philosophy calls on us—and helps us—to be whole humans, to use all our senses and faculties, including both cerebral hemispheres, and to recognize that we live within and as part of whole environments and contexts.  We humans are physical, biological, sensual, experiential, emotional, mental, social, and in some senses spiritual beings.  In living life, learning, interacting with others, and choosing our actions, humans make use of—and hopefully enjoy—all human abilities.

Armchairs, lecture halls, and conference rooms are frequently useful but deeply insufficient for the vital pursuit and practice of wisdom.

What Vital Philosophy Isn’t  

Vital Philosophy isn’t a specific “philosophy” in the narrow sense, or a precise ethical system, although it places life at the center of philosophy and ethics.  Instead, it’s a more vital understanding of philosophy, broadly speaking, than that presently held and practiced in much of academic philosophy.  It places much more emphasis on identifying, understanding, and addressing real problems and opportunities of living, including those at the global and societal levels as well as at the individual-person level.  

Nor is Vital Philosophy about “plugging a leak” in philosophy, or building a new niche.  Instead, it’s about bringing life back to philosophy and philosophy back to life.  It’s about a future in which philosophy is much more vital.

The Need For Philosophy to Become More Vital

The problem, simply put: The world is a mess.  Wisdom is far too rare.  And too much present-day philosophy involves fiddling while Rome burns. 

There is, in short, a pressing need for philosophy to become more vital.

Life is the only thing that philosophy can make better, and philosophy’s star is hitched to it.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that philosophy will succeed, that its star will shine brightly, or even that it will help save humankind from self-inflicted disaster.  But maybe, with more-vital philosophy, there might still be reason for hope.

It won’t be easy.  Some of the characteristics of, and pressures upon, modern academic philosophy—the specialization and corresponding fragmentation, the pressure to defer to money-providers (or at least not upset them), the societal trend to think of universities as places of career prep, and others—tend to sideline philosophy, turn it into a distraction, or otherwise neuter its effectiveness.

But the good news is this: As philosophy becomes more vital in two senses—more life-oriented, and more energetically practiced and practical—it will naturally become more vital in the third sense: considered vital to life by increasing numbers of people.  This will benefit those people and the world at large, and also philosophy and philosophers.  The three senses of ‘vital’ go hand in hand.

Our message is one of emphasis, understanding, application, and increased vitality in all senses. We hope the present paper, the integration of existing ideas, new suggestions, and the introduction of so-called Vital Philosophy contribute positively to increased vitality and, as a consequence, to the enhancement and sustainability of life going forward.


Audi, Robert, General Editor (1999)  The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, Second Edition.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

King, Martin Luther, Jr. (1963) Strength to Love.  New York: Harper & Row.  

Maxwell, Nicholas (2014) Global Philosophy.  Exeter, UK: Imprint Academic.

Maxwell, Nicholas (2014) How Universities Can Help Create A Wiser World.  Exeter, UK: Imprint Academic.


[1] In the entry for wisdom in The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, Second Edition, C. F. Delaney defines wisdom as “an understanding of the highest principles of things that functions as a guide for living a truly exemplary human life.” (Audi 1999: 976)

In How Universities Can Help Create A Wiser World, Nicholas Maxwell defines wisdom as “the capacity and the active desire to realize what is of value in life, for oneself and others, thus including knowledge, technological know-how, and understanding, but much else besides.” (Maxwell 2014: 22)

[2] Our point here is certainly not to diminish the immense value of the truth or of the quest for truth.  Instead, it’s that the value of understanding the truth about X is the value of this understanding to life—i.e., the benefits of this understanding to, and in the lives of, living beings—no less and no more.  Whatever academic philosophy may say about its ultimate aims, it seems to us that the way it is presently practiced, on average, places not enough priority on wisdom and certainly not enough on applying wisdom to life, both individual and collective.  Indeed, wisdom itself entails having a wise sense of priorities, and a wise sense of priorities should reflect what we suggest in this paper about the relationships of all these—“truth,” knowledge, understanding, wisdom, and praxis—to life.  The value of all these is their value to life.  Examples deeper in the paper will illustrate our meaning.

[3] In Global Philosophy, Nicholas Maxwell writes, “A central task of philosophy ought to be to keep alive awareness of our unsolved fundamental problems—especially our most fundamental problem of all, encompassing all others: How can our human world—and the world of sentient life more generally—imbued with the experiential, consciousness, free will, meaning and value, exist and best flourish embedded as it is in the physical universe?  This is both our fundamental intellectual problem and our fundamental problem of living.” (Maxwell 2014: vii)