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What Do You Think? Interview With A Philosopher

The meaning of life is a question that has been explored by philosophers through the centuries. Generation after generation of ordinary people also question the meaning of life, is it one's family? One's work? One's friends and cars and houses? Is it money or religion?

Or perhaps it's the search itself that is the true meaning of life. Maria Prodromou is a qualified philosopher, she has studied philosophy for most of her career. In spite of, or perhaps because of, the amount of knowledge that she has about philosophy, her mind is still open to the myriad meanings that each person brings to his or her life. In the following interview, she brings her insights into philosophy to us.

Interview With Maria Prodromou, Doctor of Philosophy:

1.Which philosophers do you recommend to the ordinary person as the most accessible writers into philosophy?

Maria Prodromou: "Well, to an extent this depends on one’s taste, although there are certainly some philosophers who are more accessible than others, and even some works by the same philosopher might be easier to approach than others.

A stark example here is Sartre: I think anyone can read Nausea (a novel) without much difficulty and get a really good sense of what existentialism is about – notwithstanding becoming nauseous at times! - but reading his magnum opus Being and Nothingness really is a labor and I would not recommend it as an introduction to his work or existentialism.

Then there is Camus, another existential philosopher (although he refused the label), whose writing is really accessible. Even though neither Sartre nor Camus are amongst my favorite authors, existentialism is a good place to start reading philosophy because it deals with the everyday and subjective experience – for example, in The Myth of Sisyphus Camus deals head on with the question of suicide, and he even goes as far to say that “judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy”.

Or try Kierkegaard (the ‘father’ of existentialism) and start with Sickness Unto Death (a treatise on anxiety) and then perhaps try reading his Works on Love (a beautiful and philosophical reading of Christian love). 

And then there is Nietzsche – a philosophical physician if there ever was one. Nietzsche’s philosophy (or philosophies to be more precise, because there are so many faces to Nietzsche) is truly a testament to life and I cannot imagine reading Nietzsche and not being profoundly affected by it, above all in a very practical way in how one chooses to live their life. Nietzsche has always been a very popular philosopher - especially with angst ridden youth – probably because of the explosive side to his writing, which can be quite intoxicating. Unfortunately, this is the danger with Nietzsche: there is much more to his work than bold and vitriolic statements. I think that if one is to read Nietzsche well one has to listen to the silence of his writing.

Or one can start with Socrates. Socrates never actually wrote anything, but preferred rather to wander in the marketplace and the streets of Athens and strike up conversations with ordinary people. It is these conversations, or dialogues, that his students recorded – Plato foremost among them.

Or simply pick up Dostoyevsky (start with Notes from Underground), or Borges, or Kafka, or Augustine’s Confessions, and even Henry Miller or Bukowski. Philosophy is not a genre, literature can be philosophical, even journalism can.

I would also recommend the British philosopher Simon Critchley, who is one of the few academic philosophers that produce work that is accessible to non-academics. For me, a work is philosophical if it excites you to think, and by thinking I mean questioning what you think you already know and thinking that which resists thought. And of course, philosophy is all idle talk if it does not transcribe into praxis."

2.Is philosophy a source of meaning for people in their everyday life? Why?

Maria Prodromou: "I guess philosophy can become a source of meaning, just like religion, or science can. I am suspicious though – and this I learnt with philosophy – of any meaning that is ‘discovered’ or even worse, ‘ready-made’ handed to you.

What I learnt from philosophers, and especially Nietzsche, is that meaning is something, which we are responsible for creating. And this responsibility, I think, arises from a confrontation with nihilism, and this task is an interminable one. So what does nihilism mean? Nietzsche gave a very simple answer: “That the highest values devalue themselves. The aim is lacking: “why?” finds no answer”.

In a way nihilism is an event accomplished in history with the collapse of faith in any transcendent source of value and meaning (i.e. God) or as Lyotard would have put it, the discrediting of the grand narratives of modernity, whether this grand narrative is Christianity, communism, or whatever story we choose to believe in as an ultimate or absolute source of meaning. So we are left with this huge vacuum: where there used to be meaning now there is nihil. And this ‘experience’ of nothingness can be quite a terrifying existential crisis, a rupture in our sense of self, or more broadly a rupture in our very social, cultural, and political fabric.

Now, there are ways and ways of dealing with the void: one can ignore it and go on pretending that the old gods are alive or invent new idols to believe in (from celebrities to money). One can passively resign and practice what Nietzsche called a ‘Buddhist’ negation of the will (I think ‘New age’ propaganda is a case in point: consumer capitalism in the guise of spiritualism).

Or one can actively affirm the void in a manic attempt to respond to the anxiety of nothingness. Such active nihilism, I think, finds expression in violent pseudo-anarchist movements that excuse their appetite for destruction in the demand for total revolution, or as a wider psychological phenomenon you find it expressed in the attitude “all is meaningless therefore I might as well affirm the void and have a good time while at it”. Sex, drugs, money, guns, anything goes as long as it is a potent stimulant. I think that it is this either/or (passive/active nihilism), which is the configuration of nihilism, this deadlock.

There is a third way though which is neither passive resignation, nor manic affirmation of meaninglessness, but rather acknowledging the void and taking responsibility for our actions. That “God is dead” does mean that anything is possible, that we are free to give whatever meaning we choose to our lives. And this does entail that we are infinitely responsible for our selves and our actions. What are you going to do with this realization? Nihilism as a question mark. For me, the point is not overcoming or disavowing nihilism but rather listening to the noisy silence of the void.

And even though there may be moments of excruciating despair in the realization that life does not come with a manual (for finding meaning, or whatever) there can also be a lingering calm in silence. But to get back to your question: I think I can sum it up with a phrase I read on a fridge magnet(!): “The point is not to discover yourself but to create yourself”. And how can this not affect your everyday life?"

3.In your opinion, what is the best philosophical question anyone can ask themselves in life?

Maria Prodromou: "The best philosophical question? I don’t think I can come up with the best one, and there probably isn’t a single best philosophical question, but two related ones that come to mind are “how do I live my life?” and “how do I become what I am?” (I am borrowing from Nietzsche on ‘how one becomes what one is”).

To become reflective on how to live and on the self that one wants to become…these sound and are quite basic questions but I think that very few people actually ask themselves such questions, and even if they do, very few have the courage to follow them through in action. Such questions go back to Socrates who thought that the unexamined life is not worth living and Aristotle whose ethics were meant to have a very practical application, the goal being ευδαιμονία (he describes it as “virtuous activity in accordance to reason”).

There are a lot of complexities to Socrate’s dictum and Aristotle’s notion of ευδαιμονία and I do not entirely agree with either’s answers but the point I am trying to get across is the importance of raising questions that reflexively put one in question.  People are so afraid of failure and letting go of security (whatever security means: money, a stable career, marriage, etc.) that they seize questioning the lives they lead and the self they have become. So they get stuck in a job that they hate but that pays well, or end up spending a lifetime with a partner that offers security and nothing more.

The result is cynicism and depression. Work nine to five 350 days a year so you can take two weeks off. And then use these two weeks to replenish the energy that is needed to keep an inhuman system running and reproducing itself. Is this really the way you want to live your life, your one life? Part of the problem is denial of death, and the failure to acknowledge our mortality unfortunately structures the way we live and the choices we make or fail to make.

What is the worse that can happen by choosing change? Well, the worst is failure, but so what? At least you tried and failure can be – if you choose to make it so- an opportunity for improvement. It is only the ego and its appetite for melodrama and self-pity that fears failure. Like Beckett says: Fail again, try again, fail better!"

4. The word 'philosophy' translates into the love of wisdom or knowledge - do you think the current educational system gives people the tools to appreciate wisdom?

Maria Prodromou: "Philosophy as the love of wisdom is a huge topic, partly because the term wisdom can encompass so many different qualities like scientific rigor, intellectual humility, knowing what is right and what is true, intuitive understanding, and the power of discernment.

Above all though wisdom is practical: the wise man is not merely someone who is well educated but someone who practices the above qualities in their life. Now, an educational system that views knowledge as a means to an end (the end being getting a job, passing exams, etc.) does not only suppress love of wisdom or knowledge but produces docile minds and bodies and irresponsible citizens.

Our schools do not teach students respect for the other or how to think or to use their own reason, but rather how to become machines that reproduce information that sinks to oblivion as soon as one exits the examination room. When asked in an interview what he considered to be the goal of education, the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard replied: “an apprenticeship into resistance”. Resistance to what? To the inhuman system of development which once went by the name of capitalism, resistance to the manufacturing of mono-dimensional and irresponsible human beings, resistance to the stifling and deadening through education of the capacity for receptivity or affectedness with which we are all born with.

For Aristotle philosophy begins in wonder and there are many stories about how philosophy begins, but I think that there is something irreducible about the way in which children find wonder in the world and I think this has to do with this capacity for receptivity which education should encourage rather than suppress if there is any possibility of it training people to practice wisdom in their lives."

5. How can people apply philosophical thought to their everyday lives?

Maria Prodromou: "I don’t think of philosophy as a tool, which you can then decide to use in your life. In fact, to think of philosophy or knowledge as a tool is a gross misunderstanding.  Philosophy is – or should be - an activity in the very practical sense of the word: philosophy is something you do, not something you speculate about.

Sure, philosophizing entails very complex and rigorous theoretical activity but to divorce theory and practice and to posit them as polar opposites is a reification, a misuse of language where an abstraction becomes objectified into a concrete thing. Just like all dualities that become polar opposites rest on reification: nature vs nurture, male vs female, active vs passive, etc.

There is a spectrum between these dualities that gets covered up when the mind thinks in oppositions. And of course the history of philosophy shows us that philosophers themselves have been guilty of making such reified distinctions (Marx – amongst others- went to great lengths to show this).

Having said this, philosophy has a long history, which means that philosophers have been laboring over questions and coming up with answers for thousands of years: it would be foolish to ignore such a long tradition and start from zero. Of course, I do realize, that when my brother asks me after watching The Matrix “how do I know that I am not a brain in a vat” it would be conceited and lazy of me to tell him to go read Kant’s or Hegel’s response to skepticism.

So there is a need for philosophers to reach out to a broader audience and make philosophy practical not only for non-academics but for the sake of philosophy itself. A dear friend of mine and a brilliant young philosopher is doing just that in a collection of essays which deal with themes like the meaning of life, the fact that we only live once, skepticism, and so on, and she is trying to show how philosophy can be applied to everyday life.

Yet, one does not have to read Adorno on the culture industry to realize that advertising works through manipulation (and therefore become critical and suspicious when a TV ad promises that taking that pill will make you happy – yes, they do that in the States and it’s legal) or read Levinas to treat the other person with respect. Reading Adorno though or Levinas will deepen one’s understanding on the culture industry and ethics, it will add to, broaden, question and clarify your what you already know.

One of the greatest pleasures in reading is finding articulated in words a thought or an intuition you had but could not put into words yourself, and such moments are truly transformative in terms of understanding for knowledge requires the intelligible application of concepts (Wittgenstein). Now, whether this deeper understanding will leave you indifferent in your everyday life, well, what’s the point of you bothering with philosophy or thinking at all?"

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