on philosophy as a way of life

(San Antonio, TX) Here I briefly introduce schools of thought–Indian and European–that have combined introspective mental exercises with reasoning about moral principles and critical analysis of social systems. I contrast their integrated approach to forms of philosophy that construct comprehensive models of ethics by using reasons alone. This essay will be the introduction to a book on mapping moral networks, which is a new introspective exercise.

–“I should have given that man some change. He looked hungry.”
–“He would have used it for drugs or alcohol.”
–“Maybe he has that right—it’s his life!”
–“If you’re going to try to help the homeless, you should donate to the Downtown Shelter. They spend the money on real needs. Plus, it’s tax-deductible.”
–“That’s not realistic advice. While I am talking to a homeless person, I have homelessness on my mind. Once I get back home, the thought is gone. I’d never remember to mail off a check.”
–“Perhaps we should set aside some time every day to practice compassion and remember people who are suffering.”
–“Yes, I guess I’m for compassion—but handing someone money seems to create the wrong kind of relationship. What did Emerson write? ‘Though I confess with shame I sometimes succumb and give the dollar, it is a wicked dollar which by and by I shall have the manhood to withhold.’”
–“Maybe we should think about why some people are homeless in the first place and what policies would end that situation.”

This little dialog shows a pair of human beings doing several valuable things. They display emotions, some expressed with enthusiasm and some with regret. They exchange reasons. But they know that their reasons may not actually influence them deeply because they have habits that they would have to counteract by altering their regular routines. They cite rules—such as the tax deduction for charity and the shelter’s ban on alcohol—that are meant to improve and regulate people’s behavior. Finally, one speaker (perhaps showing off) cites an influential thinker from the past whose argument seems relevant.

Each of these modes of thought can be practiced at a high level. Instead of quickly asserting moral beliefs, we can develop whole arguments: chains of reasons that carry from a premise to a conclusion. If the argument persuades, it joins the list of things you believe, and you have been changed. Anyone who is serious about being a good person must struggle to get the reasons right and then act according to the conclusions.

But because our wills are weak, we also need enforced rules that guide or constrain us. And just as we can reason about our own choices (“Should I give a dollar to this homeless person?”), so we can reason about laws, regulations, social norms, and institutions. We can ask whether the rules that are in place are acceptable and, if not, how they should change. As Alexander Hamilton wrote on the first page of the Federalist Papers, laws are meant to arise from “reflection and choice” rather than “accident and force.” Political thinkers have often offered elaborate arguments about how institutions should be designed to improve people’s behavior.

Meanwhile, we can learn reflective practices such as confession, memorization, visualization, meditation, autobiographical reflection, and prayer. These methods are more personal than arguments, for they work directly on an individual’s beliefs, emotions, and habits. They are less coercive but more individualized than rules and laws, for we enforce these practices on ourselves. They tend to require practice and repetition to achieve their goals. You can read an argument once in order to evaluate it, but you must repeat a mental exercise for it to affect your psychology. In the 1500s, Michel de Montaigne observed, “Even when we apply our minds willingly to reason and instruction, they are rarely powerful enough to carry us all the way to action, unless we also exercise and train the soul by experience for the path on which we would send it” (II.6). But self-discipline without reason is blind, potentially turning us into worse rather than better people. Think of terrorists who have overcome their habits of peacefulness and tolerance to make themselves into killers; their fault is not a lack of discipline but a poor choice of means and (often) ends.

Finally, we can take the interpretation of other people’s thoughts to high levels of sophistication and rigor. Instead of just quoting a snippet of Emerson, we can make a full study of his ideas in their context. Cultural critique and intellectual history help us understand where we come from and what influences us. After all, we believe what we do in large measure because other people have formed and shaped our thoughts. No one invents her whole worldview from scratch. Since we begin with the traditions that have developed so far, it is important to understand them. Reasoning or self-discipline requires a critical understanding of the materials with which we construct our thoughts, which are ideas that our predecessors have invented.

It makes sense to put these modes together because we are reasonable creatures (capable of offering and sharing reasons for what we do), but we are also emotional and habitual creatures (requiring either external rules or mental discipline and practice to improve ourselves), political creatures (living in communities structured by laws and norms that people make and change), and historical creatures (shaped by the heritage of past thought).

In some periods, it has been common to combine argumentation about personal choices and social institutions, mental exercises, and the critical study of past thinkers. In other times–including our own–these elements have come apart. Here I will offer a very short and suggestive review of that history to support the thesis that now is a time to put the pieces back together.

Plato and Aristotle, the preeminent philosophers of the Greek classical era, each offered a whole system of thought. Think of an argument as a persuasive connection among two or more ideas. Plato and Aristotle offered arguments, but not just a few disconnected ones. They tried to build whole structures of arguments that would cover most of the important topics for human beings and lead the reader from self-evident premises to sometimes unexpected conclusions. The most ambitious goal for that kind of systematic thought is that it can really settle matters of importance and change people’s lives by giving them whole integrated worldviews that are genuinely persuasive. One source of persuasiveness is coherence; the whole system impresses us by hanging together so well.

Platonism and Aristotelianism are “designed” systems in the sense that the authors try to build complete and self-reliant structures with as few assumptions as possible. A systematic philosopher is like an engineer or architect responsible for the blueprints of a whole structure, not like a gardener who prunes and tends the plants that have already grown on a plot of land– nor like a traveler, observing and assessing the ways of diverse people. To endorse a systematic philosophy is to adopt the whole blueprint as the structure of one’s own thought. Of course, systematic philosophers do not view themselves as creating ideas but rather as discovering truths: their models are meant to represent the way the world actually is. They see themselves less as engineers than as physicists, creating models of truth. And one of them could be right–but only one, for the rest would have to be in error. If you doubt that a given philosophy is an accurate representation of truth, then it seems rather to be a carefully and intentionally designed structure, a human product.

The followers of Plato and Aristotle organized “schools,” known respectively as the Lyceum and the Academy, that maintained their founders’ traditions of systematic philosophy. But after Aristotle’s death, philosophy in the Mediterranean region tended to retreat from those ambitions. New schools arose called Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Epicurianism that had a different character. Sextus Empiricus was a member of the Skeptical school who lived in the Roman period. He explained that Skeptics did not offer a whole set of beliefs that were consistent with each other, consistent with what we observe about the world, and leading to counterintuitive conclusions. (He didn’t name Plato or Aristotle in this passage but must have had them in mind.) However, Sextus continued, a Skeptic did offer a method that helped people to live rightly. (Outlines of Pyrrhonnism, 1.8.16). The main practice of the Skeptical school consisted of going over examples that would shake a person’s confidence in general truths. For instance, recognizing that people from different nations believed different things would prevent a Skeptic from fruitlessly searching for truths beyond human ken. “Consideration of our differences leads to suspension of judgment,” Sextus wrote; and suspending judgment was a path to inner peace and good treatment of others.

Sextus believed he was offering a persuasive argument: if human beings believe radically different things, none is likely correct. But this was not part of an elaborate system of arguments linking many ideas together. Instead, it was a fairly simple thought meant to change our mental habits so that we would live better. Such thoughts had to be repeated as a daily practice to change people’s psychologies. For instance, you could gain mental peace or equanimity by reflecting daily on the impossibility of attaining certain knowledge of a wide range of topics.

Epicurus (341–270 BCE) founded the school that bore his name. His “Letter to Menoeceus” includes a formal argument that we should not fear death. Death is a lack of sensation, so we will feel nothing bad once we’re dead. To have a distressing feeling of fear now, when we are not yet dead, is irrational. The famous conclusion follows logically enough: “Death is nothing to us.” But Epicurus knows that such arguments will not alone counteract the ingrained mental habit of fearing death. So he ends his letter by advising Menoeceus “to practice the thought of this and similar things day and night, both alone and with someone who is like you.” The main verb here could be translated as “exercise,” “practice,” or “meditate on.” It is a mental practice that anyone can use, regardless of her other beliefs and assumptions. Importantly, it should be pursued both singly and as part of a community. (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, 10: 134. The verb is meletao, translated into Latin as meditatio.)

The late French historian Pierre Hadot argued that members of the Hellenistic schools were most interested in these reflective practices. Hadot called their style “Philosophy as a Way of Life.” Hadot claimed that we misread a work like Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations if we assume that it is a set of conclusions backed by reasons. Instead, we should find there a record of the Stoic emperor’s mental exercises, beginning with his daily thanks to each of his moral teachers. Marcus Aurelius listed these exemplary men by name because he would actually visualize each one every day. The Meditations shows us how a Stoic went about meditating.

Although Hadot emphasized the reflective practices of the Hellenistic schools, Stoics, Epicureans, Skeptics and and others also took formal reasoning very seriously (Nussbaum, The Therapy of Desire, p. 353) and they rigorously studied older works, including those of Plato and Aristotle, from which they borrowed specific ideas, if not the overall structures. In short, they combined at least three of the four modes of thought that seem essential to moral improvement. Their weakest contribution was in the area of political and legal critique. They did contribute some political ideas, but on the whole, they were alienated from politics and pessimistic about improving institutions. For many of them, the only truly satisfactory regime had been the self-governing city-state of classical Greece, which was now obsolete.

The same Greek word that we translate as “school” was also used for the Jewish sects of the same time, the Pharisees and Sadducees. And the Greco-Roman schools of this time were roughly similar to Asian traditions, which also produced organized bodies of living teachers and students who studied their own communities’ foundational texts. One could join the Skeptics or Stoics almost as one could join a Hindu philosophical tradition or a Buddhist sangha. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna says:

Simpletons separate philosophy [sankhya, or organized theoretical inquiry]
from discipline [yoga], but the learned do not;
applying one correctly, a man finds the fruit of both.

(Fifth Teaching, 4-5, translated by Barbara Stoler Miller and slightly edited)

The man whom we call the Buddha also mixed philosophical argument with reflective practices. Our evidence of his own thought is so indirect that many interpretations are plausible. One view is that the Buddha was educated in a culture that had developed elaborate, systematic moral philosophies in the form of the Vedic texts. But the Buddha was not convinced that these systems were helpful for the sole purpose that mattered to him: improving human life. His apparent skepticism is captured in anecdotes like the one in which he is asked whether gods cause suffering, and he says that that’s like asking who shot a poisoned arrow during a battle: the point is to get the arrow out of the victim. In lieu of a systematic philosophy, the Buddha proposed four main conclusions, each of which he supported by reasons and experience: the truth of suffering, the truth of the cause of suffering, the truth of the end of suffering, and the truth of the path that leads to the end of suffering. These four ideas were not meant to be comprehensive, nor would assenting to them at a theoretical level improve one’s life; to accomplish that would require repeated mental practices.

The Buddha’s world was not unlike the milieu of Plato and Aristotle, but the two intellectual traditions were still fairly remote while these men lived. That situation changed when Aristotle’s pupil, Alexander the Great, conquered northern India and left an empire to Greek successors. For instance, Strato I ruled territories around Punjab; his coins showed Athena (the goddess of wisdom) with Greek text on one side, and “King Strato, Savior and of the Dharma” in an Indian script on the reverse. It was in this Greco-Indian context that the early Buddhists developed their ideas, not only offering mental exercises–such as yoga–but also practicing formal argumentation and textual criticism. As this example illustrates, any distinction between Western (or European) and Eastern (or Asian) philosophy is largely confusing; both traditions have encompassed enormous diversity, and the two have often overlapped, as in the centuries after the deaths of Aristotle and Buddha.

Hadot claimed, however, that medieval Christianity ruptured the combination of argument and mental exercise that had been common in both the Mediterranean and in Northern India before the Christian Era. Medieval Christians adopted all the major ideas of the classical moral thinkers but parceled them out. Abstract reasoning and the interpretation of ancient texts went to the university, where knowledge became the end. Meanwhile, reflective practices were taught to monks and laypeople to be used without elaborate argumentation. A typical monk fasted, sang, and recited prayers but was not expected to reason about theological or moral principles. Hadot argued that this split was fateful and still predominates today, “In modern university philosophy, philosophy is obviously no longer a way of life or form of life unless it be the form of life of a professor of philosophy.”

The best illustration of Hadot’s thesis is the High Middle Ages of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in Western Europe. That period generated Scholastic theology, an impressive effort to explain everything in terms of organized and coherent principles that derived from scripture and Aristotle’s philosophy. The mode of Scholastic philosophy was abstract argumentation illustrated with examples and authoritative quotes. Its origin was in universities, and its leading lights were university teachers. St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, taught at the University of Paris. At the very beginning of his multi-volume book aimed at non-Christians, Aquinas defined the “wise person” as “one whose consideration is directed at the end [or ultimate purpose] of the universe, which is identical to the origin of the universe; that is why, according to The Philosopher [Aristotle], it is the job of the wise one to consider the highest causes” (Summa Contra Gentiles, I.i). From that start, Aquinas developed a whole theory of everything important. He assumed that if we could only answer the most general and abstract questions correctly, we could derive every important truth and law from those answers, and thereby persuade even heretics and atheists by force of reason alone. This project had relatively little to do with prayer, confession, meditation, pilgrimage, and penance, although those activities were also raised to high arts in the same era.

Although “philosophy as a way of life” was marginal in the high middle ages, the Renaissance thinkers whom we call humanists rediscovered the Hellenistic schools and their approach to improving concrete human thought and behavior. Montaigne, a great representative of Renaissance humanism and a man deeply immersed in the Hellenistic schools, relished listing the enormous diversity of human customs and beliefs–just as the Skeptic Sextus Empiricus had recommended. This diversity led Montaigne to doubt all elaborately designed theories about good and evil. He wrote that “the laws of conscience” (which tell us what is right and wrong) are not actually natural and universal, as we assume. They are rather born of “custom.” We “inwardly venerate” the manners and opinions approved by the people immediately around us, thinking they are true even though they merely reflect our community’s customs (1.23). The same must be true of abstract philosophical reasons; they are not universal or certain but rather derive from local mores. We believe what we happen to believe because of where we were born and who educated us.

But we can look critically within. Montaigne wrote introspective prose texts that he called “attempts” (in French, essais), from which we derive the word “essay.” His “essays” were not arguments about what is right and good for all people, but records of his struggle to understand and improve himself:

For, as Pliny says, each person is a very good lesson to himself, provided he has the audacity to look from up close. This [the book of Essays] is not my teaching, it is my studying; it is not a lesson for anyone else, but for myself. What helps me just might help another. … It is a tricky business, and harder than it seems, to follow such a wandering quarry as our own spirit, to penetrate its deep darknesses and inner folds. …This is a new and extraordinary pastime that withdraws us from the typical occupations of the world, indeed, even from the most commendable activities. For many years now, my thoughts have had no object but myself; I investigate and study nothing but me, and if I study something else, I immediately apply it to myself–or (better put) within myself. … My vocation and my art is to live (ii.6).

Montaigne said that he studied only himself, but he was evidently fascinated by other people’s individual personalities and characters as well. The aspect of his work that I want to bring out here is not so much its inward turn as its particularity. Montaigne tried to improve a specific person (who happened to be himself), and he assumed that this effort would require concentrated inspection and reflection. He did not propose a unified theory of the self, comparable to theories that explain all of human psychology in terms of self-interest, or reason struggling to master passion, or some other small set of principles. He rather saw his own personality as a somewhat miscellaneous assemblage of beliefs and mental habits that he had accumulated over a lifetime. He turned to one belief or emotion at a time, identifying and describing it and sometimes seeking to change it. He doubted that large abstract principles would be much help in this ongoing effort. He was less like an engineer or architect than a gardener working on an old and somewhat untidy plot of land.

Montaigne was relatively secular, but a similar shift can also be found in deeply religious authors of the same period, such as St. Francis Xavier and St. Teresa of Ávila, each of whom reunited reasoning and argumentation with continuous introspection and techniques of mental discipline. Thus–to be clear–the split between abstract reasoning and mental self-discipline is not intrinsic to Christianity; it is just one trend in Christian history that has waxed and waned over two millennia.

Systematic philosophy was rekindled when Immanuel Kant awoke from what he called his “slumbers” to produce an impressively organized worldview that influenced and inspired efforts by Schiller, Hegel, and Marx, among others. Despite their vast differences, the great German philosophers of 1750-1850 all hoped to construct coherent theories that would yield guidance for all human beings. They were intensely concerned with politics, law, and institutions as well as personal choices. In these respects, at least, they were comparable to Plato and Aristotle. But once that moment of confidence ended, intellectual leadership again passed to essayists who were most interested in individual characters (their own or other people’s) and who tried idiosyncratic “experiments in living”–people like Nietzsche, Thoreau, and Emerson. All three of these writers admired the ancient Stoics and classical Indian thinkers, and like them, tended to withdraw from politics, pessimistic that they could change it for the better.

Somewhat later, Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) exemplified a new combination of argumentation, self-discipline, and cultural critique–and she added a strong dimension of political activism. When she was a young woman, Arendt had studied with the most distinguished representative of academic German philosophy then alive, Martin Heidegger. Many years later, she recalled:

The rumor about Heidegger put it quite simply: Thinking has come to life again. … People followed the rumor about Heidegger in order to learn thinking. What was experienced was that thinking as pure activity–and this means impelled neither by the thirst for knowledge, nor the drive for cognition–can become a passion which not so much rules and oppresses all other capacities and gifts, as it orders them and prevails through them. We are so accustomed to the old opposition of reason versus passion, spirit versus life, that the idea of passionate thinking, in which thinking and aliveness become one, takes us somewhat aback.

What did her phrase “Thinking has come to life again” mean? Because Heidegger wrote a book (Being and Time) that seems comparable to the grand systematic, theoretical works of Kant, Hegel, and Marx, one might assume that Arendt was merely acknowledging her former teacher’s importance. Perhaps she meant that Heidegger was famous and impressive, and it was exciting to be able to study with him.

But I think she meant something different. Reading classical works in Heidegger’s seminar (or in a reading group, called a Graecae) was a creative and spiritual exercise. The point was not only to construct arguments but to live a new kind of life in a community of fellow seekers. Once Arendt broke off her intellectual (and romantic) relationship with Heidegger, she moved to the seminar of Karl Jaspers. Jaspers had been a brilliant psychiatrist, and he saw philosophy as a different kind of therapy, better than psychiatry because it aimed at moral improvement instead of mere mental health. Elisabeth Young-Bruehl cites this sentence of Jaspers’ as exemplary: “Philosophizing is real as it pervades an individual life at a given moment.” Young-Bruehl adds: “For Hannah Arendt, this concrete approach was a revelation; and Jaspers living his philosophy was an example to her: ‘I perceived his Reason in praxis, so to speak,’ she remembered.”(Young-Bruehl, Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World, 63-4.)

At the very beginning of her career, Arendt was not particularly interested in politics–but politics was interested in her, a Jewish woman from a leftist family who lived a bohemian life. Already subject to discrimination, she became an enemy of the state with the Nazi takeover of 1933. By then she had decided that pure introspection was self-indulgent and that Heidegger’s philosophy was selfishly egoistic. She found deep satisfaction in what she called “action,” assisting enemies of the regime to escape and then escaping herself. From then on, she sought to combine “thinking” (disciplined inquiry) with political action in ways that were meant to pervade her whole life. But like the other skeptical authors I have cited so far, she offered no system; rather a set of practices that would improve the women and men of her own time.

By the time of Arendt’s death in 1975, systematic moral philosophy was being revived in the English-speaking world. The Harvard philosopher John Rawls proposed an ambitious new theory of justice that triggered valuable responses from libertarians and others. Kant and Aristotle were among Rawls’ explicit influences and models. But skepticism about such grand theories seems to have returned since the 1990s; indeed, Rawls’ own late work was more modest than his A Theory of Justice (1971).

I have suggested a rough pattern of oscillation between periods when leading thinkers are confident about philosophy as systematic reasoning–and times when influential writers turn instead to concrete exercises of reflection. During moments of maximum confidence about pure and self-sufficient reasoning, the two classical Greek theorists, Plato and Aristotle, typically become inspirations, even for philosophers who disagree with their actual views. In the periods of greater skepticism, authors frequently turn back to the Hellenistic Schools of the Mediterranean, to their analogues in India, or to the subsequent movements that they have inspired.

In these skeptical moments, authors begin by identifying what specific individuals happen to believe and reflect on these emotions and ideas, one at a time. The results are often admirable. However, when mental exercises come unmoored from reasoning and from political engagement, the risk of self-indulgence arises. Thus I am not proposing that we renounce argumentation in favor of introspection and mental hygiene, but rather than we combine them again–and add a strong element of cultural and political critique. This combination seems essential if are to avoid giving up altogether on improving ourselves and the world around us.

The situation is not immediately promising. The academic discipline of moral philosophy is again dominated by an argumentative mode that doesn’t take seriously mental exercises and practices. Academic philosophers analyze and sometimes develop reasons; they do not offer or even study practices. Thoreau’s exclamation in Walden rings true today, “There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers.” He explained, “To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates. … It is to solve some of the problems of live, not only theoretically, but practically.”

Outside the academy, mental exercises are common, given the continued importance of prayer and the rising popularity of meditation in the West. The self-help section of a bookstore is full of works on these topics and memoirs of individuals who have tried radical experiments in living, from renouncing all their worldly goods to moving to Tuscany. But for many people, meditation and other forms of mental discipline are separate from formal argumentation and moral justification, not to mention social critique. In fact, we are sometimes told that meditation is an opportunity to leave moral judgment behind for a time.

Meanwhile, “therapy”—the Greek word for what Hellenistic philosophers offered–has been taken over by clinical psychology. That discipline does good but misses the ancient objectives of philosophy. Modern therapy defines its goals in terms of health, normality, or happiness (as reported by the patient). Therapy is successful if the patient lacks any identifiable pathologies, such as depression or anxiety; behaves and thinks in ways that are statistically typical for people of her age and situation; and feels OK. Gone is a restless quest for truth and rightness that can upset one’s equilibrium, make one behave unusually, and even bring about mental anguish.

It would be false as well as arrogant to recommend present this book as a momentous new beginning. There have in fact been many examples of efforts to unite reasoning about moral choices and about institutions, mental discipline, and the interpretation of past thought. I have already mentioned Epicurus and Sextus, the Buddha, Montaigne, Nietzsche, Thoreau, Emerson, and Arendt as models and will add more as the book proceeds. These authors vary enormously, not only in their actual beliefs but in their genres and styles of writing. Montaigne invented the introspective essay, which was also Emerson’s main form; but Nietzsche wrote aphorisms, Thoreau reported on his radical experiment with a new form of life, and we attribute to the Buddha texts that we call “sermons.” I intend homage to these authors both when I quote them and when I propose a new experiment.

The experiment begins with a few modest assumptions. You already have many beliefs relevant to moral judgment that you have derived from forebears and peers or invented or discovered yourself. At least some of these beliefs seem to you to be connected to other beliefs by reasons. Thus you could view your whole moral mentality as a network. A network is a contemporary model for thinking about the “deep darknesses and inner folds” that Montaigne found as he explored his self. Thinking in terms of networks is useful because we now have illuminating methods for network-analysis.

A systematic moral philosophy proposes one organized network composed of ideas linked by reasons. Its organization is typically hierarchical, with one of a few big ideas implying all the others. The systematic approach suggests that you should adopt this ideal network, wholesale, to replace whatever ideas you have accumulated. I would reply: if there is one ideal, complete, and valid network of moral ideas, we have no way of knowing what it looks like. Instead, we each have a different structure of ideas and connections in our own heads. But we can improve what we happen to believe so far. If we all work on self-improvement, we may converge on similar views; our networks will increasingly resemble each other. Indeed, that convergence may have already happened to large regions of our moral thinking. But the point is not agreement, it is the improvement of the network with which each of us begins.

By the way, improvement does not necessarily mean tidying up or removing inconsistencies, for a complex and rich network may be better than a beautifully organized one that misses the complexities and tensions of actual life. What shape a network should take is a major question for this book.

Given these premises, I propose that you actually diagram your moral beliefs as a network and then refine and reshape the diagram in response to questions that I suggest. I first explain how to generate a network and then offer eight exercises for improving it, each requiring a chapter to explain and justify.

If you are primarily concerned about methodology–about the general, philosophical question of how people do or should think morally–then it will be sufficient to spend a few minutes diagramming your own moral network to get a feel for the method I propose. You can then turn to my justification of the method in the pages that follow and consider the “meta-ethical” issues that arise. But I am at least as interested in a different audience, one that includes people who may never have heard the phrase “meta-ethics” and who don’t find methodological disputes in philosophy especially intriguing. They want to understand and improve their own moral views so that they can live better. That process will inevitably take more than one quick experiment with mapping. The initial analysis of your moral ideas is a start; but you must then contemplate, revisit, and revise the map over time for it to have any value. This is the aspect of the method that involves practice and self-discipline as well as abstract argumentation.

The map is a model, not the reality; it is a tool, and not the only one worth using. Making and revising the moral network map is therefore not the only activity you should use for moral reflection and self-discipline. An example of another valuable method, not emphasized here, is to construct autobiographical narratives that make meaning of one’s life so far. A narrative is quite a different model from a network. Still, I claim that moral network analysis is a valuable tool and also one that illuminates certain general truths about moral thinking that we should take into account even when we use different tools and methods.

Like Epicurus’ practice of reflecting on death, moral network mapping can be done both alone and with others. It will not immediately generate a new worldview, nor do I offer an argument for a whole network that you should adopt instead of your current one. (That would be the mode of systematic philosophy.) Rather, you can gradually improve your own structure of ideas by reflecting on the pieces and the overall shape in a continuous, disciplined way and sharing the results with friends. The result should be a richer, more thoughtful, more defensible structure of moral ideas that will more seriously influence your emotions, your habits, and your actions.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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  • Wonderful. Thank you.

  • whplg

    Is mapping moral networks explained in Reforming the Humanities and/or are referring to a work in progress? The eight exercises — where can I find them? Is this a pedagogy that you have used in a college course? I find this intriguing. Thank you.

    • PeterLevine

      It’s a work in progress. The eight exercises aren’t online yet, and I haven’t tried all of them. I have used some of them in courses, both for undergrads and for adults. See http://peterlevine.ws/?p=14034 and http://peterlevine.ws/?p=13443 for some graphical examples. I’ll put everything online as I write it up. Thanks.