When I think about some of the famous philosophers throughout history I notice something about most of the early ones. They were always by the side of powerful, successful, wealthy people who sought counsel on how to handle success and how to grow.
Some of the great works of philosophy come out of what we might call today personal coaching or consulting sessions. Philosophy has its origins firmly rooted in efforts to help those who are serious about it to achieve their best life.
This is not to condemn any form of disinterested speculation or claim that philosophy must always be clearly connected to living a better life today. But the observation does highlight the fact that those who are called philosophers today, almost exclusively college professors who specialize in quite obscure topics, might actually be less like the ancient philosophers than people today who are considered “cheesy”.
Tony Robbins, for example, spends most of his life being paid by highly successful people who want to find the good life. As non-philosophical as his language and marketing may seem to a college professor, what he does is primarily provide new mental models and conceptual tools that help his clients progress to their next goal.
This isn’t a matter of better or worse. I don’t think a professor obsessed with solutions to hypothetical ethical problems found only in academic journals is better or worse than a consultant or life coach obsessed with getting clients to achieve “exponential growth” or whatever the phrase of the day is.
The realization is more interesting to me as a way to put the old revered thinkers in perspective. Most of them were not crafting their ideas in the abstract, but were doing it with specific goals and often for specific clients. It’s a reminder that truly profound and enduring insights are not only to be found in disinterested analysis, but can also be found in practical attempts to solve present problems.
I’ve met a number of entrepreneurs who I think have truly original philosophical insights. Most of them would never dream of writing them down or sharing them in the abstract, outside of specific applications to their work. They have been trained to believe that philosophers do that, and they aren’t philosophers. There are some brilliant, potentially breakthrough ideas trapped in the minds of practical people. There is a lot of deep wisdom to be found if you’re patient and willing to look.
This doesn’t mean it’s everywhere. It doesn’t mean doing philosophy well is easy. I don’t think it is. I think most stuff – academic or not – isn’t very good. But it does mean it can be found in more than one place. After all, Machiavelli was writing a paper for a client.
Related: Steve Patterson and I discussed what it means to do philosophy outside of official academic circles in this podcast episode. Check it out!