Philosophy 101: The Six Branches of Philosophy

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A/N: Taking a chronological approach to self-studying philosophy

This year, I have decided to take self-studying Philosophy seriously. Up to this point, I’ve been casually listening to an assortment of podcasts and reading and abandoning texts from Sartre, Plato, Aristotle, Epictetus, Simone de Beauvoir, Descartes, Kant, and Hobbes. Now, if that reads like a mess, that’s because it is.

I have been blessed with a very short attention span, which means that I am almost-hopeless at single-tasking. That spills over to reading. At the moment, I have five unfinished books on my bedside table. Every day, I read a few pages from each book—but it’s a real struggle not to add another one to that pile.

So, as you can see, I am a person that needs structure otherwise I’m all over the place. Hence, the decision to study Western Philosophy chronologically. I figured it would be easier for me to follow the birth and development of various philosophical movements this way, as opposed to randomly moving through philosophers or philosophical teachings.

That being said, on to today’s learnings.

THE SIX MAIN BRANCHES OF PHILOSOPHY

In a previous post called What is Philosophy?, we defined Philosophy as a study that “seeks to uncover the nature, root, and meaning of life, being, reality (metaphysics), ethics, and knowledge (epistemology).” As is evident in that definition, Philosophy is a study that covers a lot of ground. And like other complex fields of study, it is one that contains a multitude of classifications. Today, we’re going to be focusing on its six main branches or themes.

(Note: some sources leave out logic and politics in their lists, but I’m keeping those in.)

METAPHYSICS

Metaphysics is the philosophical branch that studies reality, existence, the nature of being, the physical world, and the universe.

It seeks to answer difficult questions like, what is the nature of reality? How can we say that the world exists outside of our thoughts? How did mankind come to be? How was the universe made? Was the universe made?  How can our disembodied minds control or affect our physical bodies? How can we prove the existence of something? Can “nothingness” exist? Etc.

EPISTEMOLOGY

Then there’s my favorite branch, Epistemology. So, Epistemology is often referred to as the theory of knowledge. It delves into the definition, scope, and parameters of knowledge and knowledge formation. It seeks to explain how we acquire knowledge, how knowledge relates to notions like justification, truth, and belief, and how and where it falls in the spectrum of certainty and error.

It is a study that asks big questions like what is knowledge? What can we know for certain? How do we know what we know? How can we acquire knowledge? What is a justified belief, and what makes it justified? Etc.

LOGIC

Logic is the branch of philosophy that studies reasoning. It teaches us how to differentiate between good and bad reasoning and how to construct valid arguments. It seeks answers to questions like, what is valid reasoning? How can you distinguish between a good argument and a bad argument? How can you spot fallacies or errors in an argument?

Now, we’ve all studied logic in one form or another. In Math class, logic came in the form of puzzles or word problems that required the use of inductive or deductive reasoning to arrive at the right equations or solutions. In English/Speech class, we studied fallacies and paradoxes and solved riddles with inferences, which taught us how to create convincing and logical arguments and how to debate properly. And the list goes on.

ETHICS

Ethics, also known as moral philosophy, is often referred to as the study of morality. It seeks to address questions about how we should live our lives, how we define proper conduct, and what we mean by the good life. It’s a study that teaches us what the virtuous life is like and how we can put these virtues into practice.

Ethics concerns itself with questions like, what is the good life? How should we act? What do we mean by virtue? What does “right” even mean?

AESTHETICS

In the world of philosophy, Aesthetics refers to the study of everything related to beauty, art, and good taste. This includes how we define art, how we feel when viewing art or witnessing beauty, how we judge works of art, and how we form our taste.

This branch of philosophy concerns itself with questions that include: What is art? What makes an artwork successful? Is art an expression of feelings? Can it be a “vehicle of truth?” Is “good taste” innate or learned? And, is art and morality connected?

POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY

Last on our list is Politics or Political Philosophy. As you can already tell from its name Political Philosophy examines various concepts related to politics, government, laws, liberty, justice, rights, authority, state, and even ethics (ethical ruling). It discusses how states should be built and run, and how its constituents should act.

It posits and attempts to answer questions like What is government? What makes a government work? Why do we need governments? What rights and freedoms should be granted to a state’s constituents? Why should the constituents follow any of the laws set by the government? What is the extent of the power of the government? And so on, and so forth.

Now, these six themes are very broad representations of the many categories in Philosophy. Of course, within these themes/branches are even more philosophical movements that give birth to more studies—seemingly ad infinitum. But that is the nature of philosophy. It’s a thinking subject. It’s a progression. It’s meant to move us forward, oftentimes by looking backwards.

Not-so-random thought:

When one thinks oneself out of a box, it’s only a matter of time before we’ve thought ourselves into another box to think out of.

Sources:
http://www.evphil.com/philosophy-101.html
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Outline_of_philosophy
https://www.philosophybasics.com/branch_logic.html
Kleinman, Paul (2013). Philosophy 101
Blackburn, Simon (Third Edition, 2016). The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy

Memento Homo: Finding Meaning in Your Mortality

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Image by: Reimund Bertrams from Pixabay

Frank Herbert once said, “To suspect your own mortality is to know the beginning of terror, to learn irrefutably that you are mortal is to know the end of terror.”

Now, being inspired by aphorisms like YOLO (you only live once) is one thing. I mean, true, there is emphasis on having one life, but it’s easy to stay positive when the conversation is about life or living. However, when you throw in words like mortality and impermanence, when the focus shifts to death, well, that’s when things can take a turn for the bleak. For most people, myself included, the idea of facing one’s impending death is a terrifying thought.

Sure, one can talk about death and the permanent peace that comes with it. But oftentimes when such talk arises, it’s one that’s cloaked in abstractness. For the healthy person, at least, death may seem like a concept—a faraway thing separate from the reality he/she inhabits.

The truth is that few people want constant reminders of the impermanence of everything—especially life. It’s certainly not small-talk material. And yet, many mental health experts believe that facing and accepting one’s mortality can be an important ingredient to a better life. In Stoicism, for example, the path to eudaimonia, a.k.a. the life worth living, requires reminding yourself of the transient nature of your life and everything and everyone you hold dear.

In Massimo Pigliucci’s enlightening book, How to Be a Stoic, he asks the readers to come to terms with the impermanence of everything. He introduces the short Latin phrase used by Roman generals to remind themselves of their mortality—memento homo, Remember, you are only a man.

Now, I don’t quite know where the phrase originated from, but according to this source, Julius Caesar had asked an Auriga (slave) to whisper it to him during his victorious march.  Memento homo was a way for the great Roman General to keep his mortality and humanity in mind in the face of his great achievements. I guess in a way it was there to keep the general’s head in the game by keeping his ego in check. And that makes perfect sense. Ancient Rome was a place rife with plotting, conniving, and murder. Letting your guard down at any moment could prove fatal. Just ask any of the 80+ Roman emperors who were assassinated.

That’s all well and good for the ancient Romans, but how exactly does facing our mortality benefit us, the modern common folk? Well, for this lifelong student, the following advantages come to mind:

Contemplating and accepting our mortality gives us time to make preparations for the inevitable.

A former colleague once joked about the best graduation gift he’s ever received. It was a funeral plan, complete with his own plot of land where he could set up camp permanently in the very distant future. I remember we all got a big laugh out of it. We were all in our early 20s and the gift had seemed ridiculous then. Fast-forward to a decade later and the gift no longer seems ridiculous—if anything, it’s practical. The last few years have taught me that death is almost always unexpected. And while I’m not telling anyone to start purchasing funeral plans, or start giving them out to friends and family at Christmas, at a certain point, we’ll all have to start making some preparations.

Whether it’s setting up a trust fund for the kids, investing in life insurance, drafting a will, or creating a map that details the location of buried treasure, I think it might somewhat help our loved ones when it’s our time to go. Of course, having a ready last will and testament will not lessen the pain experienced by one’s family, but it might prevent further friction between them. I have heard about too many families fight over property, money, and other assets. If we can help save them from that kind of pain, why wouldn’t we?

Pondering death can motivate us to live our lives intentionally.

When somebody asks you, “What is your life’s purpose?”, sometimes it may sound like a loaded question, an opening for judgment. There is pressure to give an answer that would be considered noble, grand, or laudable. Now, I know a lot of people who struggle with this question. However, the upside of choosing your life’s purpose is that you get to decide on which things give your life meaning. The truth is that you define your own goals and objectives. No one else has the right to fault you for whatever answer you may have, or if you choose not give an answer at all. As the Wiccans put it, “Do what you will if it harms none.”

And the beauty of pondering and accepting the inevitability of death is that, in a way, it can help motivate you to pursue your dreams and to focus on the things that give your life value. Life is short—oftentimes, it feels too short. So, there’s no better time to start building the life you want than the present. Whether or not you achieve all your dreams isn’t as important as going after them. That is what it means to live your life with purpose.

Remembering that we must return to dust teaches us to appreciate what we have.

Take a deep breath and picture everything and everyone you love. Let your mind’s eye dwell on every detail of every person, pet, item, or place that brings your life tremendous joy or meaning. Do you have a clear picture yet? Now, imagine each one fading into nothingness. One day, everything and everyone we love will be taken away. Either we’ll go first or they will. This is the impermanence of everything.

It’s hardly a comforting thought, I know. But you know what is comforting? It’s the fact that we’re still here—and if we’re lucky, most of the things and people we love are still here as well. Our time on Earth is very limited. So, why don’t we spend the time we have left to show our love and appreciation for our loved ones? Now, before the clock runs out.

Thinking about death offers liberation from stigma and definition.

This is where memento homo really kicks in. Imagine being one of those triumphant Roman generals. You have vanquished your enemies and you might just be the most powerful man or woman in one of the most powerful empires of all time. You are the top dog. It’s so easy to get swept up in the hype (whether yours or other people’s), and you may even fancy yourself god-like with all your amazing achievements. Then, an Auriga comes up to you and whispers, “Remember, you are only a man.”

Now, let’s flip the coin. Imagine being the general who is forced into retreat. The advancing powers have left your army decimated and you have escaped by the skin of your teeth. You are cloaked in shame and are consumed with the guilt of having disgraced your family, your ruler, and your people. You weep at the thought that your name is forever sullied by your defeat. Then, the Auriga’s words ring clear in your memory, “Remember, you are only a man.”

While, as mentioned earlier, the reminder brings a unique set of advantages to an actual general/dictator/emperor, remembering that you will one day be gone and even forgotten is still pretty good advice today. It teaches you to see yourself beyond your reputation (how other people see you), your greatest strengths, and your most staggering failings. You are going to be just one of the many people who have graced the Earth. You are neither your greatest achievement nor your greatest failure. There’s a certain poignancy and freedom that comes with truly understanding that statement.

Knowing and understanding this can help free you from whatever definition or stigma you may carry inside of you. Here is a simple fact of life. We all win some and lose some and that’s all part of the journey.

Accepting our mortality reminds us to be mindful and to live hic et nunc (here and now).

The minute we’re born, our body’s countdown to the end begins. It’s a peculiar clock. There’s no way to see how much time we have left. We have no way to halt or significantly slow its pace, though a myriad of things can quicken its ticking. This should be a reminder to us that each moment we have is precious and should not be wasted.

I believe that instinctively, we all know this to be true. And yet, so many of us still spend our days just half-present. Somehow the days meld together into an unrecognizable heap that by the end of the week, we can’t even remember what we had for breakfast last Wednesday. While man has yet to discover how to physically time travel, our minds have become proficient at living in the past and worrying about the future. Going through life in this manner, speeding through life just half-there to experience the ride is a surefire way to gather deathbed regrets. And what use is regret when you can no longer rectify your errors?

This is where the importance of mindfulness and living in the hic et nunc (here and now) comes in. When faced with certain death, you wouldn’t want to be the person who spends your final hours taking stock of the countless should’ves, would’ves, and could’ves. So, slow down. Be here now. Live every moment with intention and appreciation. Make use of the time you have left wisely and deliberately.

What is Philosophy?

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Image by morhamedufmg from Pixabay

The word Philosophy is rooted in the Latin word Philosophia—a portmanteau of the two Ancient Greek words: philos which means loving and sophia, which means wisdom. So, you can say that the literal and original translation of Philosophy is the “love and pursuit of wisdom for its own sake.”

Nowadays, however, the word has taken on a broader meaning. In everyday conversation, the word is often used to refer to a person’s values and ideologies. It’s not uncommon to hear people refer to their belief systems as their philosophy/ies in life. And the usage would still be correct. However, for the purpose of this post, and most succeeding posts pertaining to this subject, we’ll be examining and using the definition of the academic discipline called Philosophy.

Merriam Webster offers a broad definition of Philosophy as “the study of ideas about knowledge, truth, and the nature and meaning of life.” While Wikipedia offers a more comprehensive definition with, “Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental questions about existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language.” Now, whether you choose to go with the Merriam Webster definition or that of Wikipedia’s, you come away with a fundamental understanding that Philosophy is a thinking subject. One that requires effort, action, and deliberateness. It is a subject that seeks to uncover the nature, root, and meaning of life, being, reality (metaphysics), ethics, and knowledge (epistemology). It’s also an incredible history lesson because it gives you a glimpse of the prevalent ideologies and belief systems of various civilizations throughout the ages.

If the definition seems expansive, that’s because it is. After all, as I mentioned in an earlier post, Philosophy is regarded as the mother of all sciences. Through the constant thinking, imagining, and overthinking of various philosophers throughout history, humankind has come away with a thirst for discovery and knowledge. If curiosity killed the cat, the philosophers’ curiosity birthed modern science, critical reasoning, logic, and many of the plotlines of today’s best works of art, film, and literature.

Trivia Time: Plato’s belief that everything in the universe is patterned after “invisible geometrical shapes” (Platonic solids) helped start the study of Modern Chemistry. His telling of the story of “The Ring of Gyges” in The Republic is also the inspiration behind Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings.” As for Aristotle, he happens to be the father of the species-genus classification that we use in Science today! He also believed the world was round long before Copernicus was even born. He came away with this conclusion after studying the lunar eclipse and the shadows created by the Earth against the Moon. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg!

So, you see, Philosophy has taught us a great many things throughout history—and it continues to offer us a plethora of learnings today. By offering us multiple perspectives on life, meaning, reality, et al., it helps expand our mindset. It teaches us to become more logical, introspective, openminded, and consequently, empathic. And since creativity means venturing past reality into the realm of possibility, there’s a great chance philosophy can also help widen and deepen our thinking process, i.e. make us more creative. All good things in my book.

 

Recommended Read: The website Philosophy Basics offers an excellent collection of the many definitions of Philosophy that you’ll find online and in various dictionaries.

Related Articles:

Writing Exercise: A Book that Changed My Life

Thoughts on Philosophy: Is studying philosophy pointless? Does it make you pretentious?

Thoughts on Philosophy: Is studying philosophy pointless? Does it make you pretentious?

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Photo by Janeb13 (from Pixabay)

In a previous post called Writing Exercises: A Book that Changed My Life, I talked about how Sophie’s World started my love for Philosophy. Now, let me begin by saying that I am by no means an expert on the subject matter. In fact, when we were studying the subject in college, I was a rather mediocre student. As was the case with Math and Physics, my love affair with Philosophy was very one-sided. But it’s a love of mine that’s endured the years, and one that I’m keen on nurturing and strengthening—occasionally through short courses but mostly through reading and listening to lectures and podcasts.

Now, over the years, I’ve noticed that Philosophy has a bit of a reputation problem. As a conversation topic, unless you’re surrounded by other enthusiasts, it’s bound to be a pretty quick stopper. People may nod or hmm politely, but it’s not very likely that you’d get any follow-up questions. Some people may even find the very word itself to be a bit of an internal ugh or eyeroll trigger. According to some friends, it’s just because philosophy is one of those things that are hard to get into. Some people find the subject inaccessible, boring, or even useless. Others have confessed to just finding people who talk about it really smug and annoying. And yes, the word pretentious did come up frequently and forcefully.

And honestly, I get it. I really do. People like what they like and are entitled to their opinions. I also see how philosophy isn’t exactly the most relatable or accessible, outwardly practical or interesting subject out there. In fact, a lot of philosophical texts are loaded with highfalutin words and stubbornly abstract concepts. I also get that some philosophy fans do come across as pretentious, arrogant, argumentative, and snooty know-it-alls. And hey, maybe some of them really are all those things and more. But what I’m really more interested in and concerned with are the harsh generalizations about the subject and its students that I’ve heard about or seen, (mostly online).

I think a lot of these misconceptions and generalizations stem from a misunderstanding of what philosophy is and what it’s used for. But before we get into the definition of philosophy and an enumeration of its uses, (things I’ll tackle in a separate post), I’d like to share a few of my thoughts on some of the criticisms levied against philosophy and its students.  Just my two cents, really.

  1. Not everyone who studies philosophy is pretentious or intellectually arrogant. To say that everyone who studies philosophy is pretentious or an intellectual snob is a pretty heavy generalization. As I’ve mentioned earlier, I’m sure there are some philosophy students who think they are smarter than the average joe or jane, but that’s not an always and everybody case. In fact, some of the most low-key, quiet, and humble people I’ve met happen to be philosophy professors or graduates. Pretentiousness and intellectual snobbery occur in every possible realm of study where conflicting opinions could arise—which is basically everywhere and regarding everything these days. I believe that being pretentious or having a superiority complex is more of a personality thing than a byproduct of studying or loving a specific subject.

 

  1. Philosophy is only as boring as every other subject you can think of. The word boring is incredibly subjective. What’s boring to one person is another person’s passion. Philosophy isn’t and doesn’t have to be everyone’s cup of tea.

 

  1. Many philosophy books feel inaccessible with their highfalutin words and hard-to-understand concepts. But there’s a solution to that problem. I don’t know about other philosophy fans, but I find original texts (translated into English) hard to grasp at times. To make it easier to study a particular branch of philosophy, I usually take short online courses, read Introduction to Philosophy books, and listen to various lectures just to get a better grasp of what a particular philosopher is teaching. I also think that some texts are designed to be hard reads with circuitous verse or logic, (Plato, anyone?), because the writer wants you to really pause and digest what you’re reading. It’s healthy brain exercise.

 

  1. Yes, some philosophers and their students may seem bullheaded or argumentative at times, but the end goal isn’t (or shouldn’t be) to be proven right. A philosopher’s quest is always to get to the truth of a particular belief or statement. This is where the Socratic Method comes in. As you can tell from its name, the Socratic Method refers to the teaching technique used by Socrates. Unlike most of today’s instructors, Socrates didn’t teach via key points and definitions. Instead, he taught by asking a lot, and I mean a lot of questions. It was his way of seeking truth. Naturally, this method annoyed a lot of powerful people during Socrates’ time, which eventually and unfortunately earned the philosopher his death sentence. Philosophers are truth-seekers, and sometimes this means pitting their beliefs against the beliefs of others as a way to check the strength and verity of their assumptions. Sincere philosophers will welcome being proven wrong if it means bringing them closer to the truth.

 

  1. We are all philosophers, sort of. Okay, so maybe very few of us have published books or articles on philosophy, and even fewer have earned MAs and PHDs in the field. But if you closely examine the foundations of many of our beliefs and principles, a lot of them are rooted, (at least partially), in some ancient philosophical movement. For example, in his book How to Be a Stoic, Massimo Pigliucci points out the similarities between an Epictetus quote (Stoicism) and The Serenity Prayer. The Epictetus quote partially reads, “Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens. Some things are up to us and some things are not up to us.” Now, consider the start of The Serenity Prayer, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” See the similarities? This belief that we ought to recognize and focus our efforts on the areas that we can control is also one that transcends religion. It’s a nugget of wisdom that secularists also try to practice.

 

  1. Philosophy has a lot of practical everyday uses. Though it may not be as obviously practical as studying medicine or law, or any other empirical subject out here, Philosophy is NOT a useless endeavor. In fact, here’s a bit of trivia: Philosophy is the mother of all sciences. Modern science, as we know it, along with the study of logic (mathematics) and even language arose partially from the efforts of the ancient philosophers. So, that alone shows the importance of the subject. But what about its everyday uses? Well, from experience, studying the different branches of philosophy has made me more openminded and emphatic. I find that the more I study philosophy, the less inclined I am to make snap judgments about things and people. The discipline has also improved my critical thinking, creativity, and problem-solving skills by pushing me to think logically and outside the box. And lastly and most importantly, it has inspired me to always try to do good by others. All fine things in my book.

Writing Exercise: A Book that Changed My Life

My 2010 Copy of Sophies WOrld
My tattered copy of Sophie’s World

Some books will make you smile for a moment, others will make you weep and ache for days—I’m looking at you, Anne Frank and Elie Wiesel. But my favorites are the ones that stick with you forever, the ones that change the course of your life in one sitting. Now I’ve been fortunate enough to have read a number of life-changing books, and today, I’ll be featuring one of my earliest favorites—Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder.

It was one of my payday gifts to myself. The book had sat, fat, shiny, and bright blue on the cramped shelf, occupying more space than the other novels beside it. Price-wise, it was a bit more than what I’d pay for if I got another Penguin Classic. But I’m a sucker for hefty books in pretty packaging—one of my reading mottos being, “More pages = more bang for my buck.” So, with just a glance at the title and the author, Sophie’s World made its way home with me that night.

In case you haven’t read Sophie’s World, (a book I highly recommend but understand isn’t for everyone), here’s a bit of a warning: it reads more like a crash course on the history of philosophy than an actual work of fiction. Sure, the part that is fiction is very compelling and well-written, but the bulk of the book consists of philosophy lessons being fed via mail to the novel’s protagonist, 13-year-old Sophie Amundsen.

Now, this structure may be off-putting to other readers. And that’s fair. Most of the time, we pick up novels as a means to escape real life, not to be inundated by lengthy history and philosophy lessons. However, to me, Sophie’s World was the spark that started my lifelong love for Philosophy and Philosophy Books. Now, prior to this book, I have read and loved other think-reads from great authors like George Orwell, Milan Kundera, Alan Lightman, and Kurt Vonnegut. But Sophie’s World was the book that inspired me to really study philosophy. To read Plato, Sartre, and Kierkegaard (to name a few), to watch lectures, to take certificate courses in Coursera, and to listen to podcasts like The Partially Examined Life and Philosophy Bites.

By introducing me to philosophy, Sophie’s World has helped give direction to my life. It helped shape my life’s purpose, which is to keep learning, to constantly seek truth, and to always strive to do good. And for that, I am very grateful.

What about you? What’s one of your biggest literary game-changers?

Quotes and Lessons from Carl Sagan’s Billions & Billions

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Celebrated astrophysicist, cosmologist, astronomer, astrobiologist, Pulitzer-winning writer, and world-renowned scientific genius Carl Sagan was a man that wore a multitude of hats. And boy, how he wore each hat so well! Beyond being a highly lauded scientist, he was a pop culture icon that brought the most complex of scientific ideas into the everyday consciousness of the everyman.

In Billions and Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium, Sagan condenses a plethora of scientific learnings and juxtaposes them with his views on humanity’s role in preserving the Earth and all its lifeforms. To quote the great scientist,

“We are privileged to influence and perhaps control our future. I believe we have an obligation to fight for life on Earth—not just for ourselves…”

He teaches this essential lesson through a series of essays (and transcribed speeches) dealing with various and seemingly disparate topics. Some of the topics tackled in his essays include the power of exponential notation and growth, man’s quick but ultimately limited progress in exploring the mysteries of the universe, the importance of morality, the great debate on abortion, the possibility of extraterrestrial life, how man is destroying the world through global warming, and the razor-sharp and double-edged sword that comes with technological growth.

Now, if that last sentence reads like a mouthful, that’s only because the book itself is overflowing with information that spans, not just the scientific plane, but the moral, the political, and the philosophical arenas of thought as well. Mind-blowing is one of the quickest terms that come to mind when I think of Billions and Billions, but it is a word that still feels greatly lacking. I’ve been awestruck by truly great text before, by works like A Room of One’s Own, An Unquiet Mind, and Existentialism is a Humanism. But this is the first time I’ve been both awestruck and struck dumb by one book.

Carl Sagan was truly a man that was larger than life, and much of his learnings (both personal and academic) have been poured out into the essays in Billions and Billions. I feel that any attempt from my end to come up with a standard review for this book will only come out clumsy and wanting. So, in lieu of an actual review, let me instead present to you a list of my favorite quotes and lessons from Billions and Billions. (Sagan’s quotes are in italics.)

Read and enjoy.

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In Preparation for Spring Cleaning: The KonMari Tidying Order

Some weeks ago, I wrote a post about how a messy workplace affects a person’s creativity and productivity. While I’d like to think that the messy state of my life and my possessions is simply the manifestation of my, gulp, creative mind, 31 years of transforming living spaces into pig sties has taught me what productivity experts have been saying and rhyming for the last decade—MESS really does create STRESS.

I can’t begin to count and recount the multitude of anxiety attacks I’ve suffered over “losing” key items like my keys, my wallet, other people’s paychecks, and even a land title/car registration or two-wenty. I once ‘lost’ my mobile phone only to find it ringing in the fridge.

Now, I know, these things happen to the best of us. The unprecedented success of Mari Kondo’s book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, is testament to how millions of people see the disorganized state of their affairs as a setback when it comes to their pursuit of productivity and happiness. Many of us perceive tidying as the hallelujah solution to most, if not all of our problems.

So, with spring, (and consequently, the period for Spring Cleaning), just around the corner, I thought it best to impart some of finest lessons I’ve learned from Mari Kondo’s ‘life-changing’ book—particularly the KonMari Tidying Order. I’m hoping that this will help you get a head start on your annual spring cleaning project too.

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Book Review: Good Benito by Alan Lightman

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Title: Good Benito
Author: Alan Lightman
Genre: Fiction, Bildungsroman
First Published: 1994, Pantheon Books

In a world where the everyman struggles to perfect one craft, Alan Lightman is one of those rare individuals whose immense talents lie in multiple fields. Not only is Lightman an award-winning novelist, he is also a celebrated physicist and social entrepreneur. In his fictional works, he deftly injects a touch of physics into the novel’s equation. His first novel, Einstein’s Dreams offers a whimsical and fictionalized take on a slice of Einstein’s life—featuring dreams that lead up to the theoretical physicist’s formulation of the theories of relativity.

Einstein’s Dreams was an absolute delight to read. Its stunning prose and breathtaking ideas left a serious and indelible imprint in my mind’s landscape. So it was with tremendous excitement that I turned to Lightman’s second novel, Good Benito.

Simply put, Good Benito is a non-linear account of the life of Bennett Lang, a physicist trying to make a name in the world of science and academics while struggling to comprehend and navigate the chaotic plane of human emotions and relationships. Each chapter reads like a vignette, showing an episode of Bennett’s life. We see his journey from an emotionally stunted child, creating his first ‘rocket,’ to an assistant professor for a second-tier college—still trying to find his place in the academic world.

Along the way, we meet a myriad of interesting, well fleshed-out, and incredibly flawed characters that helped shape Bennett’s viewpoint of the world. We meet his emotionally distant father who had dreamt of being a WWII hero but now wishes he had died with his men, his lonely mother trying to find happiness anywhere she can, his African American nanny who has let him into her life but refuses to let him into her house, his uncle with a severe gambling problem, and his self-destructive wife who pushes Bennett into becoming a cruel version of himself. We see how a promising romance and marriage devolves into an emotionally abusive relationship that ends in divorce.

All this, we witness through Lightman’s naked, prosaic, but impossibly precise prose. Though not as beautifully, or rather as poetically, written as Einstein’s Dreams, what makes Good Benito so compelling is how grounded the whole work feels. The matter-of-fact and yet introspective and eloquent manner by which Lightman writes ensures that the reader is along for the ride in this strikingly profound novel.

Rating: A+

Book Review: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo

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Full Title: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing

Author: Marie Kondo

Genre: Non-Fiction, Self-Help, Organizing

Originally Published: 2011

**Translated from Japanese by Cathy Hirano

 

I’m a hoarder. I’m a hoarder of a very specific sort. More than clothes, makeup, or shoes, I like to hoard books, CDs, journals, and an assortment of office supplies. At my messiest, these items would take up so much floor space that walking from one end of the room to another was a very real ordeal. Books, magazines, and half-finished journals would occupy the expanse of my bed, and I’d take to sleeping partially on top of them.

Now, while dealing with clutter has always been a part of my everyday existence, it doesn’t mean that I enjoy being the messiest person in the household. For the last couple of decades, my mother and I have been butting heads over my ‘mess’ on a daily basis. So, when I got Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up as a Christmas present, I saw it as an opportunity to finally become more organized.

Besides, the book couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. The year 2015 had brought massive changes to my life. It was the year I got diagnosed with Graves’ disease and saw the end of a major relationship. After months of feeling lost and feeling at a loss, the book came as a sign that it was time to turn over a new leaf. Time to start over.

So, I started 2016 by cracking open my copy of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up—and boy, was I glad I did! True to its name, this book from Marie Kondo truly is life-changing.

To properly organize one’s household, Kondo advises the reader to follow these basic rules:

  • Organize the house completely and thoroughly in one go (ikki ni). This is a period that generally lasts six (6) months.
  • Start by discarding, keeping only items that “Spark Joy.” I must admit the ‘spark joy’ bit did sound a little gimmicky at first, but it’s a gimmick that actually works. What she basically asks from the reader is to only keep items that he/she needs and loves.
  • Sort by category and not by location. Kondo points out that people don’t usually keep the same types of items in one place. Sorting by category instead of by room/space allows the reader to cull his/her belongings properly.
  • When sorting by category, follow this order: Clothes à Books à Paperwork à Miscellaneous Items (Komono) à Sentimental Items. Kondo intentionally puts clothes first and sentimental items last to help bolster the reader’s confidence in his/her culling abilities. It is a lot easier to decide on which shirts to keep than it is to pick out which pictures deserve album space and which ones need to be discarded.

Now, more than just offering concrete and doable tips on how to eliminate mess in the household, Kondo also forces her readers to take a closer look at their chosen lifestyle. To try to figure out why we hold on to so many items that we no longer need—or even truly want.

Working for the family business—which means working at home in my jammies—did I really need dozens of stilettos, scarves, necklaces, and cocktail rings? I have how-to-books on style, building capsule wardrobes, and makeup application—all of which I’ve read, none of which I’ve followed. I still had all my college textbooks, handouts, and notes. I had palanca letters from grade school and high school classmates. And while these items provided hours of joy as I flipped through their pages, I realized they were all good for that one moment of reminiscing.

A few weeks into my organizing phase and I realized that beyond being a book hoarder, I also have a tendency to hold on to items for sentimental reasons. While I had no problems getting rid of five large bags of clothes, dozens of shoes, and a box of accessories, I still couldn’t bring myself to let go of pictures and letters from people who are no longer a part of my life. And yet, as Marie Kondo puts it, “Truly precious memories will never vanish even if you discard the objects associated with them.”

And that’s what I mean when I say that the book is life-changing. I was forced to ask myself why I was holding on to the past so much. I realized that a lot of it had to do with a fear of the future. See, most of the items I kept, which had lost their purpose long ago, came from a period of intense, carefree happiness. Band pictures and drafts of old songs, bodycon dresses that were two sizes too small, a chandelier earring that I wore during a night-out with old friends. These items predated my exit from the corporate world, a family member’s long-term illness, and the onset of my own physical limitations. I was holding on to these things because I was afraid I’d never feel those lighthearted moments again. And maybe I won’t.

But going through this organizing phase, this dogged application of the Konmari method, I came to the realization that things change. People change. I’ve changed. And maybe, just maybe that’s not such a bad thing. As we grow older, and hopefully wiser, our priorities shift—and consequently, the things that make us happy take on different forms. In my 20s, happiness meant getting gussied-up for booze-fueled all-nighters. These days, I get the same amount of satisfaction by going to a coffee shop and reading for hours, writing my novel, spending time with my family, having coffee-fueled talkathons with friends, and watching TV show reruns with my boyfriend. Some people may think my current life is boring, but the fact is, with my life now, I am never bored. And that’s all that matters.

Reading The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo has done more than just minimize my morning squabbles with my mother. It’s made me more appreciative of the things I own and the life I have now. And therein lies the magic of this book.

Rating: A+

Comments: It would have been an A++, except (SPOILER ALERT), Kondo has owned up to tearing pages out of her favorite books.

Sartre, Simplified: A Review of Existentialism is a Humanism

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Title: Existentialism is a Humanism

Author: Jean-Paul Sartre

Genre: Non-Fiction, Philosophy, Existentialism

First Published by: Éditions Nagel in 1946

Translated by: Carol Macomber

Introduction by: Annie Cohen-Solal

Notes and Preface by: Arlette Elkaïm-Sartre

Edited by: John Kulka

 

Legends:

Bold – important points in existentialism

“Italicized” – direct quotes from Sartre or another source

 

To fully grasp the magnitude of Existentialism is a Humanism (L’Existentialisme est un humanisme) by Jean-Paul Sartre, it is imperative that we understand its whys and why nots, the driving force behind this monumental piece. Existentialism is a Humanism didn’t start out as a philosophy book, rather it was originally a transcript of a lecture given by Sartre in Paris for Club Maintenant.

The club, which was founded by Marc Beigbeder and Jacques Calmy, was founded to help encourage “literary and intellectual discussion.” The lecture, which was held on October 29, 1945, was the perfect platform for Sartre to help clear the air of the rumors and unfounded criticisms that targeted his take on existentialism.

Earlier that year, Sartre had released the initial volumes of The Roads to Freedom. The novels The Age of Reason and The Reprieve were met with disdain by the era’s conformists. The characteristics of the unlikely protagonist did not kowtow to their idea of what a ‘hero’ should be like. Add to that the confusion and misguided notions regarding existentialism, and what he had was a crowd of detractors determined to go for his life work’s jugular.

In a bid to enlighten his critics, Sartre accepted the invitation for the lecture. He appeared in front of a packed crowd, sans notes, and proceeded to defend his philosophy. The strangeness of the situation was not lost on Sartre. Understanding that the discussion of existentialism had shifted from the purely academic platform of philosophers to the dinner table of the everyman, he said:

“In the past, philosophers were attacked only by other philosophers. The general public did not understand philosophy at all, nor did they care. These days, philosophy is shot down in the public square.”

 

The Public Trial: Charges against Existentialism

“My purpose here is to defend existentialism against some of the charges that has been brought against it…” And thus begins Sartre’s lengthy, didactic, and illuminating monologue explaining the tenets of existentialism. It was a simplified version of the philosophy addressed to existentialism’s main detractors—the Communists and the Christians.

Being an atheist, Sartre only aimed to correct the mistaken notions some Christians had about the philosophy. To his religious critics, existentialism focused too much on the basest parts of humanity—in the process, completely disregarding the better side of human nature. They also questioned the philosophy’s morality. To them, denying God’s existence and ignoring his teachings meant man could do exactly as he pleased.

As for the Communists, Sartre had hoped for some form of reconciliation with the movement. For while he was unbending on his views, he felt that by giving a thorough clarification of existentialism’s points, his Communist critics would find that their beliefs weren’t so different after all. But the Communists were under the impression that existentialism was a bourgeois philosophy, a contemplative doctrine that encouraged quietism, inaction, and despair.

Both sects also accused existentialism of focusing too much on subjectivity, thereby overlooking the possibility of and necessity for human solidarity. To this, Sartre answered with a definition of Existentialism. He asserts that existentialism is a “doctrine that makes human life possible and also affirms that every truth and every action imply an environment of human subjectivity.”

He claimed that the allegations made by Communists and Christians alike were furthered only by a terrible misunderstanding. Over the course of its existence, ‘existentialism’ had become a catchword, “applied so loosely that it has come to mean nothing at all.” Through the discourse, Sartre aimed to debunk these charges and to put forth the belief that existentialism is actually a form of humanism.

 

Christian Existentialism vs. Atheist Existentialism

Underneath the umbrella of existentialism resides two distinct philosophical movements—Christian Existentialism and Atheist Existentialism. While both movements believe that existence precedes essence and that subjectivity should be the philosopher’s main point of departure, there are fundamental differences between their treatments of these notions.

Now, before we delve into the disparities of these two movements, let’s take the time to understand what we mean by existence precedes essence. For Christian Existentialists, existence precedes essence because man is the product of God’s intelligence. But for Atheist Existentialists—the movement which Sartre belongs to—because God does not exist, the only being whose existence precedes essence is the one being that exists prior to developing its essence and morality. That being is man.

Another notion that separates Christian existentialism with its atheist cousin is its understanding of the human condition. While Christian existentialists believe in ‘human nature,’ which helps explain man’s actions, atheist existentialists only subscribe to the idea of a shared ‘human reality.’

Human reality is a term borrowed from Heidegger. It does not concern itself with dictating human nature, rather it talks about the shared limitations of man. To paraphrase Sartre, the human reality is this—man is born into the world, exists among others in the world, and will eventually perish in the world. There is no shared nature that predetermines man’s actions.

This brings us to the first principle of existentialism—that “Man is nothing other than what he makes of himself,” or in simpler terms—the world of human subjectivity.

 

What does Sartre mean by Subjectivity?

Merriam-Webster defines subjectivity in philosophy as “relating to the way a person experiences things in his or her own mind.” For existentialist philosophers, subjectivity refers to how “prior to man’s projection of the self, nothing exists.” Man only begins to exist after he begins to exercise his freedom of choosing his projects/morality. Because man is responsible for what he chooses, he is also responsible for who he becomes.

But beyond being responsible for himself, man is also responsible for the rest of mankind. This is because what man chooses for himself, he also chooses for all men. According to Sartre, “to make a choice is to affirm at the same time, the value of what we choose.” So if a person decides to live an honest life, he is, in fact, saying that all men must lead honest lives. Sartre also points out that man must “always choose the good and nothing can be good for any of us unless it is good for all.”

Once man comes to terms with these truths, he experiences the weight of anguish, abandonment, and despair. Existentialists redefine these words to illustrate the effects of their philosophy.

 

The Existentialist’s Anguish…

 Sartre defines anguish as man’s realization of his “full and profound responsibility.” It is an awareness of his inability to move past human subjectivity, an acknowledgment that his choice matters to the rest of mankind. As a guiding point, Sartre says, we must always ask ourselves, “What would happen if everyone did what I am doing?” To not ask this question or to ignore it completely is to lie to oneself. To create excuses for one’s behavior is to act in bad faith and to struggle with a bad conscience.

To illustrate this anguish, Sartre tackles Kierkegaard’s idea of the anguish of Abraham. In the Bible, God sent a messenger to Abraham asking him to sacrifice his beloved son. Abraham made the choice to believe that it was God’s will. While he was determined to follow God’s orders, the choice was not without pain or anguish. This is the same emotion felt by generals and commanders during the war. For the sake of the greater good, they may sacrifice the lives of their men in the process—it is a torment-filled decision, but one that does not stop them from acting.

In our daily lives, we too are sometimes faced with choices laced with anguish. It is an emotion anyone with responsibilities can attest to. It is a shared experience, but one that is rooted in subjectivity and resulting in action.

 

… Sense of Abandonment…

“Man is condemned to be free: Condemned because he did not create himself, yet nonetheless free because once cast in the world, he is responsible for everything he does.” – Sartre

Abandonment is what man experiences because God does not exist. Because there is no God, and consequently no code of conduct that must be followed, we bear the full responsibility for the values we choose to uphold. Dostoevsky once wrote, “If God does not exist, everything is permissible.” Indeed, that is accurate. It is one of the starting points of existentialism and is one of the accusations hurled by Christians against the philosophy.

But while everything may appear allowable, existentialists believe that there are no excuses for our actions. Because God does not exist, a person cannot explain his choices as being a result of ‘human nature.’ In Sartre’s words, “We are left alone and without an excuse.”

Man cannot hide behind passion or signs. Because feelings are built by the actions we take and choices we make, emotions can never be used as guidelines for our actions. As for signs, we are the ones who choose to interpret their meaning. In short, abandonment is the acknowledgment that we alone must decide who we must become—and that decision entails anguish.

 

…and Despair

Despair, on the other hand, is the idea that man must limit his decisions and actions to things that he can control. Choices are made based on the available probabilities that will allow action. As Descartes once said, “Conquer yourself rather than the world.” For existentialists, this means acting without hope or expectation.

 

A Response to All Allegations

That existentialism breeds quietism and inaction. As a response to the Communists’ allegation, Sartre replies that existentialism cannot breed quietism, because reality only exists in actions. Man is nothing other than his project…he is nothing more than the sum of his actions, nothing more than his life.”

That it is a pessimistic description of man. Outside of it being an atheist philosophy, according to Sartre, existentialism is actually rather optimistic because it’s one that furthers the belief that man’s destiny lies within himself. And that while man is nothing more than his project, it is a project that does not define him completely. For projects can be reevaluated, re-planned, and repeated.

That existentialism is a bourgeois and individualistic philosophy. Sartre acknowledges that the point of departure is the Cartesian cogito, “I think therefore I am.” But this is so, only because existentialists want a solid base to build their philosophy—one that is not based on “comforting theories full of hope but without foundation.” But contrary to the philosophies of both Kant and Descartes, the existentialist’s idea of “I think…” is to think within the presence of others, to see the other as a condition of one’s own existence. So rather than dwelling in the world of subjectivity, existentialism actually enters into the field of “intersubjectivity.”

That the philosophy leaves man free to do as he pleases. While on the one hand, this is true, Sartre asserts that “Man finds himself in a complex social situation in which he himself is committed, and by his choices commits all mankind.” And since man is responsible for all his choices, he must always choose what is good, not only for himself but for the rest of mankind.

That the philosophy makes it impossible to judge other people for their wrongdoings. Again, this is both true and untrue. For when man commits to his project in a lucid and genuine manner, in the pursuit of what is good for all, then he cannot choose anything else. However, if the choices are made in bad faith—then these choices can be judged for having been made in error.

To which, Sartre says, “Those who conceal from themselves this total freedom under the guise of solemnity, or by making determinist excuses, I will call cowards. Others, who try to prove their existence is necessary when man’s appearance on earth is merely contingent, I will call bastards.”

That existentialism makes it impossible to build a human community. While the philosophy teaches its pupil to focus on the areas of life one can control, it doesn’t mean that one cannot belong to an organization or party. Sartre advises the existentialist philosopher to act, create, to invent, but without illusions or unfounded hope.

 

Existentialist Humanism

Ultimately, Sartre proves that existentialism is a humanism because it is a philosophy that reminds man that (a) in his abandoned state, man must make his own choices, (b) that man’s choices must be good for all (not just himself), and that (c) man will only realize himself as truly human when he commits himself to a project or special achievement that betters the state of all.

 

A Reader’s Reaction to Existentialism is a Humanism

As a reader, the question here is whether or not Sartre was successful in defending existentialism against its critics. In this humble reader’s opinion, Sartre did well in addressing all their concerns and in establishing the foundations of his young philosophy. Admittedly, some of the points were rigid and lacking in refinement. But it is important to remember that this was an attempt from Sartre to simplify his philosophy and make it more palatable to the masses.  He was also at the point in his life wherein he was yet to fully fine-tune his philosophical and literary work.

Now, despite being an incomplete picture of existentialism, I highly recommend this work to anyone in crisis over the purpose of life. For a book on philosophy, this slim volume is an easy read and one that comes with a lot of chewable and digestible truths.

Rating: A++ (because one + is not enough)