The intersection of philosophy, family, and the lives we live

I’m thrilled that the latest episode of the New Ventures West podcast features me exploring the intersection of philosophy, family, and the lives we live.

Over the course of 26 minutes I talk with my colleagues Adam Klein and Joy Reichart about how philosophy can help us inquire into the mostly invisible background of practice and culture that shapes our lives, how our early families play a part in this, and how we might expand our ways of taking care of the world and of others in the light of what we find.

Along the way we explore the legacy of the philosopher Rene Descartes and the consequences of his powerful method for inquiry on our education system and our sense of ourselves; how more recent philosophers have sought to develop more inclusive and complete accounts of what it is to be a human being; the intersection of philosophy and science; and what all of this means for how we live our lives with meaning and dignity.

I’m delighted with the way this has turned out. I hope you will be too.

You can listen online here, or subscribe to the podcast (which features many of my colleagues) through iTunes here.

The Path

I’m reading, and loving, Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh’s ‘The Path‘, a book about how ancient Chinese philosophy can help us understand ourselves and live our lives more fully. It’s concise, clear, and beautifully written. And, at the heart of it, is an important and wonderful idea from Confucius (echoed in the contemporary world by Martin Heidegger among others): that we largely become who we are through our everyday actions.

This apparently simple claim has some extraordinary consequences.

The first is that there is not so much of a fixed way that each of us is. When I say ‘you know me, I hate being around company, I don’t know what to do in a crowd’ and then repeatedly take myself off to be on my own, I’m actively building myself into someone who is more skilful being with myself than being with others. I’m also becoming someone who knows myself in a particularly narrow way. I get to be the kind of person I am through the accretion of thousands upon thousands of actions, both internal and external, and the stories I tell about those actions, bringing some parts of me into view and pushing other parts towards the margins.

For Confucius this is an important ethical issue. My story about myself – that I am a particular way – is much too small, leaving out as it does all those aspects of me (less known, and perhaps less tolerated by me) that can be quite skilful at social relating and which, with purposeful cultivation, could help me live a life which has more connection with people and a greater possibility of moment-to-moment care for others around me.

The second consequence is that there is a profound and quite pragmatic developmental path to follow, one which can open up wide possibility, and that is the path of practice. Repeated, well-chosen practice – in my example above, the practice of being with and being attuned to others – not only builds skilfulness but allows me to rehearse a different kind of relationship to myself and to life than the one I’m used to. By choosing practice carefully I can gradually find out what it is like to be a social person as well as a solitary person, and cultivate those parts of me which (simply by being human) are quite able to be present with and take care of others.

The point made so beautifully by ‘The Path’ is that in a culture dominated by the detached world-view of Cartesianism, which privileges thinking and theorising about things over the day-to-day doing of things, we’ve largely forgotten the value of simple, everyday practices and rituals as a support for living well. And we’ve forgotten how they can widen our horizons, build our capacity to respond more fully to life’s inevitable unpredictability, and help us take care more skilfully of life’s needs.



For the past century and a half, we’ve become driven by measurement, a consequence of the revolution in philosophy and science ushered in by the work of René Descartes in the 17th century.

Descartes’ profound contribution was to make detached, analytical observation of the world central to human knowledge. He gave wings to the scientific method of hypothesis and experimentation which has transformed our way of living. And he did so by being committed to objectivity – what’s independently observable and measurable, as opposed to subjectivity – the particular first-person lived experience of being-you or being-me that cannot be described in objective ways.

By dividing subject and object in the way that he did, Descartes gave us tools to stand back from the world with a critical, doubting eye and to make new startling new discoveries. But in order to do so he had to split ‘I’ from ‘world’ – leaving out personal experience completely because of the way it appears to arise from the mysterious insides of a person’s mind rather than being ‘of the world’.

Descartes gave us a world in which we take ‘hard’ – what’s objective – to be real and of primary importance and ‘soft’ – what’s subjective – to be secondary, often so far as to be considered of no value at all. And so completely do we live in this Cartesian world that it can be difficult for us to see how much we systematically discount by looking at the world, and ourselves, through these eyes. Even the words ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ say much about our orientation to these matters.

There will be much more to say about this over the coming days and weeks. But for now, a simple question – how often in organisational life are you insisting on looking only for what you can measure, and consequently how much of the human world of your work are you not looking at, at all?

‘Hard’ measures can tell you much about machines, or processes, or inventory, or money. But they will leave out most of what’s meaningful about the people who work with you – the ‘soft’ stuff that isn’t ‘soft’ at all and which can only really be discovered by being in conversation with others. And this is precisely because people are not objects but subjects, the kind of being that the Cartesian world in which we live goes to great lengths to discount.

Hard measures – productivity, hours worked, behaviours observed, profit earned – will tell you nothing about vital human concerns such as meaning, aliveness, longing, camaraderie, friendship, love, dedication, frustration, resentment, inspiration and so on – because people are essentially ‘I’ rather than ‘it’, subjects rather than objects.

You may well be trying to shape the life of your organisation by paying attention to what’s measurable when you should also be paying attention to what’s not measurable, but equally real.

Photo Credit: country_boy_shane via Compfight cc