The Role of Philosophy in Spirituality

Sophia, goddess of wisdom. (cc) Chris Beckett.
Sophia, goddess of wisdom. (cc) Chris Beckett.

Our Education Director, B.T. Newberg, has published an article for us discussing the role of science in helping us find a Way of Life. So, I thought it would be fitting to cover the role of philosophy in our practice, as philosophy is something we discuss and write on a lot at the Society.

Just the other day, I overheard a philosophy student at a local coffee shop conveying doubts to a friend about continuing to get a doctorate in philosophy. He said that many of the people in the philosophy department are simply not the kind of people he enjoys being around. He described them as pretentious, snobby, and so on. Now, of course, we cannot say all philosophy students, professors, or enthusiasts are like this, but this person’s perception was also not unheard of.

This is because academic philosophy has, to a large extent, become an overly intellectualized, abstract, and often egotistical perversion of what philosophy was originally supposed to be about; at least if we go by what came out of Ancient Greece’s golden age of philosophy. I would venture to say that many writers and professors of philosophy, who are often called ‘philosophers’ do not actually fit the definition. In Socrates’ times, people who performed these services for money were called ‘sophists’ and received condemnation from the philosophers. However, it would not be practical or reasonable for us to condemn strictly academic philosophers of today in the same manner given the realities of our world. They, in fact, are doing noble work in education. But it is crucial to understand the important differences between the philosophy we often see expressed as an academic subject in our schools, and the applied living philosophy of the ancient philosophers.

In The Spiritual Teachings of Marcus Aurelius, Mark Forstater describes what Pierre Hadot says about ancient philosophy:

“To the ancient Greeks, philosophy (the striving after wisdom) was not a dry, analytical discourse but a means to living life correctly. Philosophy was a tool: a method you could use to maintain harmony in your life, to control negative passions such as anger and hatred, to reason out the best action to take, to understand how the universe worked, and to find your place in it.”

Most people know the word philosophy means “love of wisdom”. If we remember that wisdom is not the same as knowledge, then a philosopher is not someone who simply spouts off technical jargon and name-drops thinkers of the past. Rather, in essence, a philosopher is a person who asks, “what does it mean to be wise, and how can I be wiser?” More specifically, any time you are asking “what is?”, “what ought to be?” or “how do I know either?” you are doing philosophy, or some subset of it.

More importantly, a philosopher is someone who does more than think and talk – opinions are a dime a dozen and matter little. But philosophers also act according to that wisdom and seek to make their lives a living example of it. Having a degree in philosophy from a university doesn’t make you a philosopher; nor does writing books, having a high IQ, or knowing a lot of trivia about philosophical history. Increased knowledge is bound to happen as we pursue wisdom and degrees can be one way to help with that. But it is the pursuing of wisdom and living a thoughtful, principled, consistent, and examined life that makes you a philosopher.

In this sense, when philosophy is practiced as a lifestyle, it will intimately connect with our spirituality. If Spirituality is about focusing on the essential things in life in order to cultivate ourselves for greater flourishing, then this cannot be done without sound and consistent philosophy. This is why traditions such as Stoicism and Buddhism are both philosophies, as well as religious and spiritual paths. With a sound philosophical underpinning, our practices make sense – connecting our understanding of the world with how we live in it, and providing the rationale behind that system of practice and the goal it is designed to achieve. One might say philosophy is the blueprint, spiritual practice is the construction, a life well lived is the building, and flourishing is the home – and all of this is of what our spirituality consists.


Subscribe to The Spiritual Naturalist Society
Learn about Membership in the Spiritual Naturalist Society

The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.


8 thoughts on “The Role of Philosophy in Spirituality”

  1. Good article! Not to cause an argument at all, but you just described my personal relationship of religion to spirituality! So many thoughts and actual Word have been twisted! We use them today to explain how it was, but the meanings conveyed are the twisted meanings. Thank you for sharing. *S*

  2. Thanks Patty! No argument here. Religions generally do provide the underlying philosophy behind their adherent's practices (if they practice what they preach). When we ask "what is?" that might entail a naturalist or supernaturalist answer. When we ask "what ought to be?" Those answers would naturally follow from our concept of "what is". And, when we ask, "How do we know?" some people answer with empiricism and others involve faith or revelation. Not all of these answers are strictly Spiritual Naturalist, but they are all philosophy of one sort or another. Not all pursers of wisdom agree on the path to it, but I think they can all benefit from sharing and loving one another along the way 🙂

  3. I agree with and appreciate what Daniel writes here, particularly in regard to the considerable difference between philosophy as the pursuit of wisdom and philosophy as a form of knowledge. I would, however, like to present another value that one might find in philosophy, particularly the metaphysical branch of philosophy.

    Metaphysics deals with questions that cannot be answered by any systematic means. Because it cannot provide solid answers to these questions, it currently has a rather bad reputation. The Positivists disavow it completely. The Positivists are correct that Metaphysics cannot give any kind of positive knowledge, but they are incorrect in thinking that metaphysical questions are therefore useless.

    To the contrary, metaphysical questions are the great questions that inquisitive humans will always ask. The fact that the questions cannot be answered is in itself an important thing to know. Metaphysical questions help us to know what we don’t know. They humble the intellect. Socrates, a great poser of metaphysical questions, came in the end to know that he didn’t know.

    The value of a metaphysical question is not in the answer, it is in the question itself. The study of Metaphysics leads to a greater and greater sense of the depth of the great metaphysical questions such as What is being?; What is truth?; How do we know what we know?; What is matter?; what is information?

    Asking such questions isn’t likely to make you rich or endear you to friends or help you find your soul mate or any of the other highly valued things in our culture. But to hob nob with the great metaphysical questions has its sublime moments. I consider myself blessed to have the leisure to give time to these great questions.

  4. “Spirituality is about focusing on the essential things in life in order to cultivate ourselves for greater flourishing.”

    I appreciate this definition of Spirituality, from your last paragraph. Spirituality is often defined and viewed as the alternative to the material world, and that perspective sets up all sorts of complications. Connecting it to the central issues of being alive is very constructive.

  5. My life has felt really unfulfilling lately, and I’m trying to be more spiritual. Your article had some great information about how philosophic plays a role in spirituality, and I liked how you said that philosophers act according to their wisdom and seek to make their lives a living example of it. Thanks; I’ll keep this in mind when trying to discover my spirituality.

  6. Spirituality deals with the mind and the intellect but also the essence of life. Spirituality seeks to transcend the mind to be conscious of the Divine Consciousness. Spirituality seeks to ignore mental dispute but experience the underlying reality of life….

  7. This is a fair article, but does not adequately move me, much. Philosophy is the love of wisdom, yes, but simply asserting that love for wisdom, and not saying, “here’s how we can show, in the history of philosophy, that love for wisdom taking unexpected turns,” seems shallow. To say that all philosophy essentially approaches spirituality, is true, yes, but that does not mean that necessarily these various praxeological and terminological debates within the ‘philosophy department’ have no validity as “true philosophy.” What would you say is the difference between Alfred Whitehead and Albert Camus? Clearly, both are philosophers, but they have wisdom for different types of people. Camus writes eloquently and speaks to those who love literature, and Whitehead is crazily intelligent with his process philosophy and terminology. Camus may not have the system that Whitehead does, and Whitehead may not have the love for the aesthetic that Camus explicitly had, but both have their place within the history of philosophy, just as well does spirituality have its place in the history of spiritual philosophy: or, that is to say, the wisdom that can be applied to all people, anthropologically, and not to specific types of people in specific areas of expertise is what separates spirituality from “philosophy qua philosophy” (or philosophy for philosophy’s sake).

    Just because philosophy has tried to update its terminology, to continue to be relevant, doesn’t mean that it is weaker than the timeless wisdom of the ancients. It means, we have to think through the evolution of history, and the evolution of society and people, in order to continue to apply relevant and timely spirituality.

    I would like to just state again, this was a good article, if not a little small in its scope. I just think you can continue to expand this relationship between what makes philosophy of philosophy different from philosophy of spirituality.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.