January 31, 2014

On Why Studying Philosophy Is A Waste Of Time

by Rob Hanly

We ducked off the street, through the low doorway, and into the warmly lit restaurant.

There were 20 people in the wooden walled room, tucked away in the heart of the city. We sat on low chairs at the bar table, and the conversation flowed.

Business. Relationships. Death. Life. The intimate parts of life.

Our experiences and the philosophies that informed them.

He learned of the dream I’d held for so long:

To take time off work, off business, and travel the world while spending my days studying philosophy.

He also learned the reality of the dream:

It made me miserable.

Learning At 147 Kilometers Per Hour

When you get onto a new motorbike, one of the first things you’ll learn is how heavy it is.

One of the second things you’ll learn is how much trust you’ll need to have in yourself to lean it around corners.

These are lessons that cannot be truly internalised by reading a book. You must experience them to understand them.

The understanding comes through application. Through action.

And as you hurtle along a road, watching the needle move along the dial, you will know death. Intimately.

You will imagine grinding your teeth along the asphalt. Skin ripping from bone. Phone calls made by strangers to family back home.

This will not be pleasant.

But you will no longer be afraid. What is will be what is. And you accept the risk, or you cease the activity.

Now reading Seneca’s Letters From A Stoic will give you a framework to imagine this death. To imagine death without fear.

But imagining death from a 204kg vehicle at 147 kilometers per hour will have a greater impact on your understanding than doing it from a cosy cafe chair.

Studying The Operation From An Armchair

Reading alone will not change your life.

Yes, you’ll learn new things. You might even have new ideas. But the thinking alone does nothing.

The truth is that learning, without taking action, is like wearing a self-imposed set of handcuffs. The learning shows you what is possible. Your lack of action restricts you.

The more you learn, the more you become an expert in theory. You understand the concepts and ideas and can argue them on message boards with finesse. You can spit them out over a coffee to whoever you choose to impress.

But you still know nothing. You are no better than you were before.

You are commentating on the operation from an armchair.

To truly understand a concept, you have to experience it.

The scar on your right knee taught you that skateboarding down that hill was a bad idea.

The scars on your knuckles taught you how not to throw a punch.

And the emotional devastation you felt after being let down by the girl you’d fallen in love with? That taught you how to value yourself and self validating.

Until you have scars from failure, and symbols of victory, you have truly learned nothing.

Get Your Skin In The Game To Keep Your Skin Off The Road

Want to ensure you succeed? Have a reason to achieve your goal. One that inspires you to not fail, to not die.

Don’t just digest Black Swan and develop the ability to regurgitate the core concepts with confidence. Gamble on yourself with a calculated risk.

Don’t become a student of politics. Learn how the game is played, and then play both to win, and to not lose. Then, when you know the rules, take a stand.

Learn the framework. Put yourself in a position where you have no choice but to move beyond theory. Take action.

That’s how you study philosophy, how you ensure your study isn’t a waste of time.

By living in a way that could skin your knees.


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  • http://www.frontierlivin.com/ Taylor Pearson

    I won’t flatter myself to say you specifically thought about me while writing this post, but I felt like this could have been written to me.

    I would say it’s probably a weekly occurrence (usually brought on by the Resistance) where I fantasize what it would be like to spend all my time “doing” Philosophy.

    Of course, as you point out, it’s an oxymoron.

    I’ve never sat down to write it out and elaborate the thought, but I believe there is a strong distinction between “knowing” and “believing.” Someone that “knows” how to ride a motorcycle at 147kg isn’t terribly useful to themselves or society. Someone that has the experience and confidence to believe it is just straight up dangerous.

    Publish more.

    • Cristina C. Ansbjerg

      Taylor, I don’t think I “know” how to ride a motorcycle at 147 kg…I’m almost 100 kg short… too skinny ;)

      • http://www.frontierlivin.com/ Taylor Pearson

        Damn metric system abbreviations…

    • http://MakeWP.com/ Thomas Howard

      Haha you have referenced Taleb so many times I certainly associated the two of you now!

  • Cristina C. Ansbjerg

    Learning philosophy is like living. We’re doing it already whether we’re aware of it or not. Our mind tries to postpone it until “everything is under control” or we’ve hit our personal goals. But it’s happening already.

    Yes, you’re right. Trying to learn without taking action is not learning anything.

    Take action, expose yourself to serendipity. You may not learn the philosophy of riding a 204 kg motorbike at 147 km/h, but you will learn many other philosophy lessons that life is saving for you.

    “Until you have scars from failure, and symbols of victory, you have truly learned nothing”… wise words and a timely reminder to me.

  • tillcarlos

    That’s exactly the feeling I have when riding a motorbike. Well written, Rob!

  • http://tropicalnomad.com/ Adam Finan

    A fine perspective Rob. You gotta do it to know it. All the reading in the world won’t do the justice of experience.. But I still love Alan Watts!

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