Lammert Kamphuis – Philosophy for an Inimitable Life
Life is like waking up on a stage. The play—the one you ended up in—has already started. The other actors react to you. The audience is watching, curious to see what kind of role you’re going to play. As soon as you realize this is not a dream, the questions start racing through your mind: Where am I? Who am I? Who are all these other people? Why is everyone staring at me and what are they thinking about me? What do they expect of me? Why am I here? Can someone please tell me when this is going to stop?
The Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955) once used this image of a stage to illustrate how people experience their existence. The moment you were born, you stepped on stage into the only performance of your life there will ever be. You didn’t choose this, and you were not prepared for it. There is no dress rehearsal for life. There is only one performance, that’s it. You don’t get to do it over. The performance of your life is literally inimitable. It cannot be repeated.
These initial questions encompass major life themes, yet little attention is paid to them in school, for example. In fact, there are very few places in our society where one can ask these essential life questions. Our society rarely seeks questioners and doubters; it wants self-assured individuals who see opportunities, not problems, who approach every challenge proactively with boldness and enthusiasm. This contemporary ideal is evident in job advertisements, which unfailingly seek independent, result-oriented people. Naturally, these high expectations can lead to stress: Can we really live up to these ideals? In the online sphere, we make each other even more anxious by constantly showing the world how happy and successful our lives supposedly are. Meanwhile, we hardly ever have a chance to ask ourselves what exactly we’re doing on the stage.
Anyone promising peace can take advantage of this situation. Meditation, yoga and mindfulness centers are popping up left and right. My friends who are into meditation say they find peace by imagining their thoughts as clouds and letting them float away. In their experience, calmness comes from turning off their thoughts. I can imagine that this may be pleasant at times, but philosophy works exactly the other way around.
Philosophizing trains you to develop a more pliant perspective. Consciously or not, you encounter ideas throughout your life that shape how you view yourself and others and how you want to live your life. This influence, which starts with your upbringing, comes from advertising, books, friends, job advertisements, and the jargon used in your organization. But do we ever pause to think about the language that determines our lives? And how can we discover which ideas are helping us and which ones are holding us back?
Philosophy invites us to critically examine our ideas and actions, particularly those that seem self-evident. By philosophizing, you can create a healthy distance between yourself and your fixed patterns of thought. This process trains your mind to be more flexible, and you may discover that you are more free-thinking than you thought. You won’t find peace by turning off your thoughts, but rather by challenging and enriching them with philosophical ideas, both old and new. Philosophizing helps you put things into perspective and gives you new ways of looking at the world, others and yourself.
This history of philosophy is a 2,500-year-long conversation, one in which everyone is constantly looking for the right words. It may be comforting to know that all those questions you’ve been asking yourself—they’re the same ones that have been keeping philosophers awake at night for centuries. Philosophy doesn’t offer all the answers, but through philosophizing, you can find a language that resonates with you, one in which you feel at home.
I was raised in a strict Calvinist household. For a long time, the church was one place in society where there was room for life’s essential questions. But in the church of my youth, most of the answers were already cast in stone. As I grew older, I felt less and less at home with the language of the church and its words like “self-denial”, “original sin” and “judgment.” Eventually, the boundaries of my world became too oppressive. Philosophy was my salvation—it stimulated me to look differently at myself and my life. Little by little, I learned a new language through philosophy, literature and poetry, and this gave me an enormous sense of freedom and space. As the Austro-British philosopher Wittgenstein (1889-1951) once said: “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”
Whether you come from a sectarian, atheistic, leftist, capitalist, hedonistic or careerist environment, becoming aware of the ideas entrenched in your mind is healthy. By philosophizing, you start to notice that there is always more to see and discover than you expected. I hope this book will shift the boundaries of your world as well.
The essays in this book are organized according to three major relationships that you, as a human being, have to maintain: your relationship with yourself, your relationship with others, and your relationship with the world. In our culture, it seems only natural to start with ourselves. Our culture tells us that we must first discover who we are in life, independent of others and our environment. Yet, in doing so, we risk forgetting that we are essentially social beings. In African Ubuntu philosophy, for example, the motto is “I am because we are”. Does the self even exist independently of the people we encounter and the things we do? To compensate for our “start with yourself” culture, I’ve decided to structure this book differently.
The first part of the book addresses themes related to our relationship with the world around us. By looking at the world in an investigative and philosophical way, you will be radically opened up to different perspectives of everyday life. For instance, you’ll discover that you have at least four different relationships with your smartphone and that Netflix series can teach you how you should live. You’ll be encouraged to be more playful at work and inspired to reexamine what you’re doing between the sheets. Through philosophy, you’ll discover surprising ideas to help you relate to these everyday topics in a new way.
Another essential benefit of philosophizing is that it helps you better understand others. You’ll learn to doubt your own convictions and become more open to other people’s views. In the second part of the book, you’ll examine your relationships with others from various perspectives. The essays in this section are sure to deepen your bar conversations—with both your friends and with people who have political, ethical and spiritual beliefs that are completely different from your own. You will also discover some practical exercises to help you develop your contrarian side.
Philosophizing has always been a practice of self-care. Early philosophers considered helping people heal themselves from unhealthy ideas their primary task. The Roman philosopher Cicero (106-43 BC) wrote: “There is, I assure you, a medical art for the soul. It is philosophy, whose aid need not be sought, as in bodily diseases, from outside ourselves. We must endeavor with all our resources and all our strength to become capable of doctoring ourselves.” Philosophizing can help you become aware of the patterns of thought standing in your way. In the third part of this book, you will learn some creative ways to deal with dissatisfaction, anger and turmoil. The final essay illustrates how thinking about your own death can help you deepen your life.
This book is not a ten-step plan for an inimitable life. The title does not mean to suggest that by the time you reach the last page you will most certainly have found happiness. The word ‘inimitable’, as used in the title of this book, means impossible to repeat. You have woken up totally unprepared in the unique, unrepeatable performance of your own life. Philosophy can make your life more pleasant by enriching your world with unusual perspectives, helping you better empathize with others, challenging you to experiment with new ways of thinking and acting, and equipping you with thinking skills to help you take better care of yourself. I hope to let you experience for yourself how philosophizing can help you participate more consciously in this inimitable performance of life.
Philosophy for your relationship with the world
We are geniuses in what we enjoy.
– Friedrich von Schlegel
I work, therefore I am.
“We work in jobs we hate, so we can buy shit we don’t need,” says Brad Pitt as Tyler Durden in one of his monologues in the 1999 film, Fight Club. In the movie, Durden starts a club where men can vent their anger caused by disappointments in their careers and other areas of their lives. This quote prompts the question: When was the last time you were truly excited about going to work? Do you really want to continue working like you are now for ten, twenty, thirty or forty more years? People tend to have high expectations for their work, and these high expectations can give way to deep disappointments.
Back when the Bible dictated life, expectations about work were quite different. For centuries, people believed that the fact that we had to work to survive was a punishment from God. When Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, God inflicted a heavy punishment on Adam:
Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken.
Because of this curse, people throughout history expected little satisfaction from their work. Nowadays, this is very different for many of us. We no longer see our work as merely a means to earn a living; we expect it to challenge us, to contribute to our happiness and self-development. Our work has become an important part of our identity. When you introduce yourself to someone, you start by mentioning your name, perhaps your age and civil status, and then your job description. No one finds this strange. But if you really think about it, isn’t it odd that we answer the “who we are” question by telling what we do? In some cultures, this would be considered highly unusual. In such cultures, a person would answer the who-am-I question by telling about his or her ancestors, tribe or religion. We can thus conclude that in our present-day culture, our work has become an essential part of who we are, and this puts us under increased pressure for a successful career. The assumption is: if you work hard enough, you can be anything you want to be.
The statistics, however, are worrying. The National Survey of Working Conditions 2016 (an annual collaborative project of Statistics Netherlands, TNO and the Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment) revealed that more than one in seven Dutch employees has suffered some form of burnout. Research by the Social Cultural Planning Office shows that the average workweek in the Netherlands is five hours longer than it was in 1985. And research from the Harvard Business School suggests that we are, on average, available to our job 82 hours per week. We are working longer hours, making ourselves more available, and experiencing more stress at work. Fortunately, philosophy offers some strategies to help you derive pleasure and satisfaction from your work in our performance-driven society.
Do what you’re good at! It sounds easy enough, but in practice, organizing your work in such a way that you only have to do the things you excel in is actually quite complicated. One organizational theory behind this is the “Peter Principle”, developed in 1969 by Laurence J. Peter, which asserts that “in a hierarchy, a person tends to rise to his or her level of incompetence.” Generally, you start out in a position suited to your skills. If all goes well, you will continue to move up in the organization until you reach a position (often in management) in which your industry-specific expertise is no longer needed. Company leaders wouldn’t want to send you back to your former position because that could be viewed as an estimation error on their part, and you wouldn’t want that either because it would feel like a downgrade.
This feeling of not using your talents to their fullest potential doesn’t only occur in large organizations. Faced with financial pressure, freelancers run the risk of limiting their activities to those that will lead to work—and this may or may not be the work in which they excel. It turns out that being able to do the type of work you are actually good at isn’t so easy after all, which leads us to the sad conclusion that there is so much potential out there that will never be actualized. And when you feel that you cannot reach your fullest potential, you are deprived of so much pleasure in your work. With his Aristotelian principle, the American philosopher John Rawls (1921-2002) explains what most motivates us by nature:
Other things equal, human beings enjoy the exercise of their realized capacities (their innate or trained abilities), and this enjoyment increases the more the capacity is realized, or the greater its complexity. The intuitive idea here is that human beings take more pleasure in doing something as they become more proficient at it, and of two activities they do equally well, they prefer the one calling on a larger repertoire of more intricate and subtle discriminations.
Rawls illustrates this point by discussing the difference between chess and checkers. Since chess is more complex than checkers, people who are able to play both games will be more inclined to play chess. He calls this the Aristotelian principle, as Aristotle’s ideas are largely based on the Greek concepts of dunamis and energeia, two terms that could be roughly translated to “potential power” and “strength at work”, respectively. According to Aristotle, all of reality is aimed at realizing the potential of things. In concrete terms, this means that human happiness is to be found in actively exercising and realizing one’s abilities.
You, too, can apply these ideas to your everyday life. First, start by taking a good hard look at the moments in which you enjoy your work. According to the Aristotelian principle, these moments are instructive: they can tell you something about your specific abilities. The principle holds that the activities you enjoy most are those that require you to use your complex skills. The German philosopher Friedrich von Schlegel (1772-1829) once summed it up as follows: “We are geniuses in what we enjoy.” In addition, you can also use the Aristotelian principle to discover which of your latent abilities can be further realized in your work. Rawls offers a practical tip for discovering what these abilities are: “We want to be like those persons who can exercise those abilities that we find latent in our nature.” In other words, your desire to be like someone else is a clue about who you want to be, so your jealousy seriously. What capabilities are lying dormant inside you? Is there someone you want to be like? What is it about this person’s work that appeals to you? Try to investigate how you can realize this dormant ability in your own career.
Take ownership of your work! Dutch author Florien Vaessen describes in her book how she suffered a burnout as a communications manager at ABN AMRO bank. It turns out that one of the main causes of burnout is a perceived lack of direct influence on results. Very few people are responsible for carrying out a project from beginning to end entirely on their own. According to Vaessen, a perceived lack of influence over a project can result in a lack of autonomy and ownership, ultimately leading to dissatisfaction and stress. Vaessen’s idea is in line with economist Paul Dolan’s research, which concluded that the top-three happiest professions are: 1) florists and gardeners, 2) hairdressers and beauticians, and 3) plumbers. Interestingly, people in all three of these professions are generally responsible for carrying out their own work from A to Z. In addition, they all have the opportunity to directly experience the fruits of their labor.
You probably know the German philosopher Karl Marx (1818-1883) as the father of Communism. Marx devoted his life to fighting for workers who had suffered the miserable consequences of the Industrial Revolution and calling for a socialist revolution. Behind his political ideas was his understanding of how people should ideally relate to their work. Already in the nineteenth century, he observed the problem that people don’t feel “at home” in their work:
The worker therefore only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself. He feels at home when he is not working, and when he is working he does not feel at home.
Marx’s explanation for this is largely from a financial point of view: the added-value that workers bring to products ultimately disappears into the factory owners’ pockets. But Marx also blamed the division of labor, the fact that each person works on just one small part of the larger process. As a result, the individual holds no ownership over the process or the product of the labor. Marx wrote:
Lastly, the external character of labor for the worker appears in the fact that it is not his own, but someone else’s, that it does not belong to him.
Marx longs to return to the time of medieval guilds when artisans were completely absorbed in their work, when they mastered the entire process of their craft and—in contrast to modern-day indifference—found satisfaction in their slave-like relationship to their work. They held ownership over the entire work process, and as a result, they happily gave themselves over to their work.
If you walk into a cheese shop and ask the owner about one of his products, chances are he will be able to tell you exactly where and how that cheese was made. The owner’s connection to the product creates solidarity between the customers and that product, between him and his customers, and perhaps even among the customers themselves. If you walk across the street to the supermarket and ask one of the employees stocking the shelves where a certain cheese is from, he or she will probably tell you that it came from the distribution center. The employee stocking the shelves has no connection to the cheese. Marx’s philosophy begs the question: do you feel connected to the product you sell or the service you provide? And do you feel a sense of ownership over the projects you work on? If this is not the case, then Marx would describe this work as external labor:
Labor is external to the worker, i.e., it does not belong to his intrinsic nature; that in his work, therefore, he does not affirm himself but denies himself, does not feel content but unhappy, does not develop freely his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind.
Work on what you value! In his Formalism in Ethics and Non-Formal Ethics of Values, German philosopher Max Scheler (1874-1928) argues that values play a central role in a person’s life. Scheler’s book was written in response to the ethics of Immanuel Kant, who was in search of unconditional commandments. Scheler considered his predecessor’s approach to ethics too objective and formal; thus, he proposed an ethics in which one discovers which universal value is most important at a given moment in one’s life. In almost romantic terms, he writes:
This value whispers: for you. And this content gives you a unique position in the moral cosmos and obliges you to deeds, actions, work, and as you perform them they all cry out, “I am for you” and “You are for me.”
How can you discover this value? Scheler offers two tips. First, ask yourself what you think society needs right now. Scheler borrows an expression from Goethe to articulate this notion: Die Forderung der Stunde (“the claim of the moment”). What do you feel called to do right now? There is a thought-provoking quote about this that is generally attributed to Aristotle, though no one seems to know for sure where he wrote it: “Where your talents and the needs of the world cross; there lies your vocation.” Scheler’s second tip is to ask yourself: What you are you willing to make sacrifices for (whether in money or time)? Your answer to this question will provide insight into your values. Aligning your work with whatever it is you find critical right now will help you derive meaning from your work. A bartender might value hospitality; the hairdresser might value care; the artist creativity; the politician justice; the scientist insight; the soldier love for the homeland; the environmentalist sustainability; the police officer safety, and so on.
Don’t forget to play at work! Two lawyers might agree to use an old-fashioned expression in every letter they write and then compare notes at the end of the day to see who used it in the most original way. Rather than sending pupils out of the classroom for bad behavior, a schoolteacher could have them draw their own punishment out of a hat: sing a song for the class, walk around all day dragging a chain, write a list of one hundred punishments. Two business associates could challenge each other to replace certain unavoidable words in a meeting with other words—for example, “profit” for “pancake” and “project” for “snowman”—and then try to get the rest of the people in the meeting to go along with it. The story goes that two journalists at an Amsterdam newspaper once dared each other to use the words “poop hole” and “giant dildo” in each of their articles for three months!
There is room for play on the workroom floor. In his book, Homo Ludens, Dutch thinker Johan Huizinga (1872-1945) explains how indispensable play is for humans (“ludere” is the Latin word for “to play”). “[Play] adorns life, amplifies it and is to that extent a necessity.” According to Huizinga, man is made to do things purely and solely for pleasure. We often spend our lives trying to reach our goals as efficiently as possible; it certainly wouldn’t hurt to counter this with a few playful initiatives every once in a while. The beauty of play is that it has no aim. It is superfluous, but in its superfluity, it is indispensable because it makes us who we are.
Huizinga’s characteristics of play are evident in all the examples mentioned above. There are no requirements attached to play. It is something people do by choice. In this sense, play is outside of ordinary life. It reinforces bonds between people, and there is often an air of mystery around it. It is one of the primary ways in which we shape our lives and connect to others.
“Do what you are good at!”, “Take ownership of your work!”, “Work on what you value!”, and “Don’t forget to play at work!”. These four pieces of philosophical advice could be translated into four questions about yourself. First, you can ask yourself the Aristotelian question: To what extent does your work correspond to your most developed skills and how can you use your work to reach your potential? Then, Marx’s ideas might lead you to wonder how you can experience more ownership over your work by becoming more connected to its process and results. Scheler challenges you to identify your values by first articulating what you think society needs right now and then asking yourself how you can better align your work with your values. Finally, Huizinga invites you to bring more play into your work. By regularly reflecting on these philosophical ideas, you can avoid having to admit that Tyler Durden was right about us only working to buy things we don’t need.
Translated by Kristen Gehrman