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Three tips on how to celebrate World Philosophy Day

The UN has christened 21 November World Philosophy Day, a day on which ‘the enduring value of philosophy for the development of human thought, for each culture and for each individual’ is celebrated. But how should we celebrate it? We ask philosopher Victor Gijsbers.

The texts about World Philosophy Day on the UN’s website don’t urge us to party like there’s no tomorrow. So, in his office looking out on Leiden Observatory, we ask philosopher Victor Gijsbers how we should mark the day instead – even if we don’t know much about philosophy.

Tip 1: read an original text by a philosopher

Philosophical texts have a reputation of being incredibly complicated. But that isn’t true for all texts, says Gijsbers. ‘There are plenty of original works by philosophers that are an entertaining read. That’s what makes philosophy such fun, that you can read the original.’ Although, says Gijsbers, you do have to know which text to choose, and there can be big differences within the work of a single philosopher. ‘Some of Plato’s texts are an easy read, whereas there are others that have even me wondering what exactly they’re on about.’

Gijsbers’s reading tips:

  • Plato, Symposium
  • Lucretius, On the Nature of Things
  • Descartes, Meditations
  • Nietzsche, Schopenhauer as Educator (in Untimely Meditations)

Tip 2: Listen to a philosophy podcast

‘There’s a fantastic podcast about the history of philosophy by Peter Adamson. I learn something new every time I listen to it. The history of philosophy usually covers Plato and Aristotle and then jumps to the Middle Ages, but Adamson also looks at everything in between.’ Catching up with what you’ve missed thus far could be a challenge: the podcast has been going since 2010, with one episode per week. ‘Obviously, you can just pick out a few interesting philosophers, movements or periods.’

Podcast History of Philosophy without any gaps (Peter Adamson)

Tip 3: Do your own philosophising!

If we imagine ‘a philosopher’, we immediately think of someone sitting in a chair thinking deep thoughts about the meaning of life and other profound things. But anyone can philosophise. Gijsbers: ‘To a certain extent, it is indeed just a matter of sitting in a chair and thinking. However, you can only do this properly if you have first delved into what others, who sat in that chair before you, already came up with. What is more, you’re actually already full of ideas about the question that you are going to consider. If you aren’t aware of this and don’t know where these ideas come from – from which opinions, your surroundings or your education – you won’t be able to come up with new insights. Then all that sitting and thinking won’t produce an original idea.’

So if you want to start philosophising, do sit in that comfy chair, but first grab a book by a philosopher, says Gijsbers. And while you are reading it, ask yourself questions: what does the writer mean? Why does he think this? What do I think about it? And what can I do with it? ‘The second question is important because then you place your theories in their social and historical context. The last question is perhaps the most important of all. Because even if you don’t agree with a theory, that doesn’t mean you can’t do anything with it.’

I think, therefore I am

Gijsbers doesn’t have a nice philosophical quote to use as a motto on this day of philosophy. ‘Most of the famous quotes are nothing like the original text. They’ve been abridged or even changed.’ Take Descartes’s famous words: ‘I think, therefore I am.’ Gijsbers: ‘The word therefore doesn’t belong in this sentence at all. It is rather strange reasoning, somthing like, “the table is green, so there is a table.” In Descartes Meditations, it is “I think. I am.” Descartes meant that our thinking is our being.’

Gijsbers doesn’t yet know how he will celebrate World Philosophy Day. Perhaps by reading something by his favourite philosopher? ‘Gosh, that’s a difficult question! I find fun or interesting elements in so many different philosophers. But if I have to choose, then Kant would be high on my list. His theoretical philosophy about how the world works is really fantastic. However, it’s not what you’d call unputdownable. Then I’d rather pick up Nietzsche, a real stylist and fiery thinker. And really interesting too with his often controversial thinking.’

Text: Marieke Epping
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