How to Think Like a Philosopher (2023) draws from the lives and work of thinkers through history to reveal unique perspectives on beauty, truth, and the nature of reality. It presents philosophy as an all-too-human search for meaning, and encourages everyone to do the same.
Introduction: Discover the poets, sages, and provocateurs who engaged with life’s biggest questions.
At its core, philosophy has always been about the big questions in life. Like, Why is there something instead of nothing? Or, How can I know what is true? While our modern lives are vastly different from, say, the life of Socrates in ancient Greece, in some ways the questions humans face about the universe and our place in it haven’t changed much for thousands of years.
But that doesn’t mean the answers to those questions haven’t changed radically across time and cultures. Philosophy has never been the stuff of dusty old books – it’s an ever-evolving, eternally challenging conversation about the nature of reality. Not everyone who philosophizes calls themselves a philosopher, either. Poets, mathematicians, novelists, economists, psychologists, and historians have all engaged in thinking about thinking – and discovered profound truths along the way.
From ancient China to postwar Paris, the art of pondering life has influenced music and art, forced painful questions, and galvanized revolutions. Even more, it has inspired countless people to live with more purpose, awareness, and intention.
This Blink will ditch the dry treatises and dive into some of the ideas and personalities that have shaped civilizations – and a few that sent shock waves through them, too. You’ll also learn to think like these philosophers, and to bring the richness of their perspectives into your life.
Thinking in contradiction: Lao Tsu and Spinoza
Imagine starting a book by saying that you can’t possibly speak about its subject. Pretty strange, right? But that’s precisely how the Tao te Ching of Lao Tsu begins – it declares that words can’t express the full meaning of Tao, loosely translated to mean the way.
Since its emergence in China in the sixth century BCE, this enigmatic and poetic text has confused many with its contradictions and puzzles. It declares that Tao, or true reality, is unknowable and beyond description. So when humans try to grasp it, it slips through their fingers.
Its author, too, slips through our fingers if we try to grasp for a historical person. Lao Tsu translates simply to old master, and was likely not a single author. Like Tao, the author is unknowable and unnamed, but that doesn’t lessen their impact.
This ancient text uses enigmas and strange metaphors as a way to point at things beyond understanding. It’s full of strange comparisons – like saying that governing a large country is like cooking a small fish, in that it’s easy to overdo things. Or that the Tao is like water, because it flows into the deepest crevices and nourishes everything equally.
These cryptic verses point to a particular way of being, one where nature is the true window into reality. A certain quietness of mind and spirit is needed to truly observe, though. Freeing yourself from desire, like in Buddhism, is necessary to observe the mysteries of reality. Because of its focus on the way, the book has often been viewed as a religious text – despite it noting that religion only arises when humans lose sight of Tao.
If the true nature of reality is so ungraspable and unknowable, then philosophy is bound to run into religion in more places than just ancient China. Let’s consider the experience of seventeenth-century philosopher Baruch, or Bento, Spinoza.
Born in Amsterdam in 1632 to Jewish immigrants from Portugal, Spinoza’s philosophy was radically different from that of his family and the Jewish community. He believed that any idea of God couldn’t be separate from the natural world. Like Lao Tsu long before him, nature and the universe itself were true reality for Spinoza – and he paid a steep price for it.
Excommunicated from the Jewish faith at the age of just 23 after his publication of Deus sive Natura, or God or Nature, he became a total outcast. His Jewish heritage already excluded him from Dutch society, and his excommunication from Judaism left him without any community.
Spinoza’s response in the face of this suffering was to become kind. His personal experience of suffering grew his compassion for others. His outcast status helped further his philosophical work in some ways. Freed from outside influences, he developed a view of reality that was almost pantheistic – everything around him was a part of God, even those who rejected him.
For this, he was vehemently declared both a godless atheist and a religious zealot. He anonymously published a treatise in 1670, called Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, but everyone who read it immediately knew it was Spinoza. In it, he argued for things like freedom of speech and a secular society. It was then that he was labeled blasphemous – quite an accomplishment for an author formally rejected from religion!
So how can you think like Lao Tsu or Spinoza? Open your eyes to nature and the world around you with wonder, and quiet your mind so you can take it all in.
Earthy thoughts, from Aristotle and Epicurus
Ancient Greek philosophy is probably some of the best known around the world, with names like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle still inscribed in stone above universities and centers of learning more than two thousand years after their deaths. While we might think of their philosophy as belonging high in the ivory tower, some actually wanted to be much more grounded down here on earth.
Take Aristotle. A devoted student of Plato, he spent his early years at Plato’s Academy learning from the master who had presented the work of Socrates to the world. With such an august lineage, it’s not surprising that Aristotle’s writings are vast and cover topics as broad as medicine, astronomy, chemistry, biology, and much more.
At the very dawn of organized research and observation, Aristotle left Athens in 347 BCE to travel and collect data before returning in the mid-330s to establish his own school of philosophy. With his Peripatetic school, he’d essentially wander around Athens lecturing publicly to anyone who would listen. Instead of Plato’s very formal Academy, Aristotle’s school made itself relevant to the common people, and met them on their own turf.
Unlike Plato, who believed that true forms of human beings existed outside the physical realm, in the form of a soul or spirit, Aristotle wasn’t so quick to dismiss physical reality. He was fascinated by all the different types of beings he saw around him, and gave them equal weight. How was being a horse different from being a man, he wondered, or from being an object like a gold ring?
Aristotle challenged Plato’s spiritual explanation of true reality with a far earthier one: What if, instead of being spirits or souls in search of reality, we were simply reality itself? This led Aristotle to value ethics – being good to others and to the natural world – alongside health, or living in harmony with your physical body.
This mindset resembles that of another Greek philosopher with a very different reputation in the modern world. When we think about the word Epicurean, we might be tempted to think of someone who regularly indulges in excess of wine, rich food, or sensual pleasures. That’s quite far from the ideals of Epicurus, who inspired the term.
Epicurus settled in Athens in his mid-thirties after a youth spent in Colophon, a city in modern day Türkiye. He is now considered an atomist – meaning he believed that everything in the world, including the spirit or soul, was made up of fine particles. Of course, the soul was made of finer particles than the body, which explained how difficult it was to find.
A profoundly materialist thinker, he observed that children are driven by seeking pleasure – and so pleasure must be, at its root, the impulse for life and the basis of good living. But what is pleasure for Epicurus? It would appear that his definition is simply the absence of pain. The pursuit of excess pleasure, like too much wine, often leads to pain. So for Epicurus it’s something to avoid.
What emerges in his philosophy is not a recipe for indulgence, but a call to simplicity. Life can be full of contentment if you strive for less. Striving for more brings pain to the self and others, so why not plant a garden instead? Its simple beauty will nourish both body and soul.
How can you think like Aristotle or Epicurus? Be as grounded as you are curious about everything around you. And be kind to others and yourself along the way, to alleviate all the suffering you can.
Thoughts on alienation, with Marx and Nietzsche
If philosophy often looked to an examination of the natural world for answers, other more modern souls looked to the workings of human society to grasp the true nature of reality. They analyzed systems like mathematics and language, or turned to history for the meaning of life.
For Karl Marx and his collaborator, Friedrich Engels, it was industrial capitalism that represented the true reality of modern life. While his writings were largely classified as economics, Karl Marx had a profound impact on modern philosophy – and his ideas were co-opted by countless revolutions around the globe, from which Marx himself would be quick to distance himself.
Marx critiqued philosophers like Spinoza, whose arguments considered mankind to be a sort of fixed category instead of evolving being. For Marx, reality was determined by the conditions of living in the here and now. Material conditions, like how people work and what they get in return for it, were the underlying reality for industrial society.
But it’s in his concept of alienation that Marx perhaps crosses fully into the realm of philosophy. He points out that if the aim of industry is profit, then workers must be paid less than the products they make are worth. The surplus is pocketed by the capitalist as profit. So workers are alienated from the fruits of their own labor. Worse, they have no control over what they do or when they do it. In competitive workplaces, they are even pitted against one another, alienating them from their fellow workers.
In the late nineteenth century, workers weren’t the only ones who were alienated. With Friedrich Nietzsche’s declaration “God is dead,” it seemed like everything was alienated. Incredibly provocative and grandiose, his semi-autobiography Ecce Homo, which translates to Behold the Man, included chapter titles like “Why I Am So Clever” and “Why I Write Such Excellent Books.”
A philosopher of aphorisms, or pithy short statements, Nietzsche was as famous for sayings like “Some men are born posthumously” that displayed both a cutting wit and a certain irony when it came to Western philosophy. Indeed, “God is dead” was written in all capital letters as if shouted from the pages of Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
This book inspired Richard Strauss to compose his 1896 tone poem of the same name, probably best known from the opening of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Such a bold philosophy needed some equally dramatic music.
For Nietzsche, this pronouncement had nothing to do with the life or death of a supernatural being – it was a commentary on the current state of society. He was essentially warning that once religion subsides as the basis for social morals, society is at risk of going down in flames without some unifying ethics.
So how can you think like Marx and Nietzsche? First, embrace the idea that every system, be it religion or language or industrial capitalism, can be analyzed to reveal an underlying reality. But keep your sense of humor while you do it, because humans behave pretty ironically.
Thinking about love and sex, with Sappho and de Beauvoir
While the Greek poet Sappho might not spring to mind when you think of philosophers, her poetry demonstrates a fine philosophical mind. She was praised by Socrates and Plato as the “Tenth Muse,” so fine was her writing. Her descriptions of desire, full of finely painted imagery, imbue notions of love and beauty into philosophy with powerful presence.
Sappho uses terms like bittersweet to describe feelings of attraction and desire. Her poetic references to fluttering in her breast, subtle fire running over her skin, or her ears buzzing when seeing her beloved connect readers across the centuries with a deeply personal account of the felt experience of love. If love and beauty were aspects of the gods, their nature was an important part of true reality.
She describes the loss of love with similar breathless clarity – as true physical pain, one that can rob all joy of living in a desperate grief. That Sappho sees love and loss as profoundly linked, even twins, is a timeless truth. Her unblinking observations of the vulnerability of love, and the irrationality of humans under the influence of powerful emotions, continues to resonate.
Similarly, novelist and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir made a life’s work of carefully observing the reality of the lives of women, and her unblinking accounts of systemic oppression published in The Second Sex had her labeled an early feminist icon. But she resisted the label, as her concerns were not just about the conditions of women’s lives, but of men’s as well.
Her relationship to fellow philosopher Jean Paul Sartre placed her firmly at the center of the French Existentialists, a group of philosophers who took Nietzsche’s declaration that God was dead quite seriously. But this left a fundamental crisis: If God was dead, then anyone could do anything, right?
The answer for de Beauvoir, like Nietzsche before her, was a resounding no. With no God, it was up to individuals to behave ethically and morally, for no other reason than that everyone deserves freedom. This may seem paradoxical – but if everything is permitted, the freedom of some to live and thrive might be lost. A moral society preserves the freedom of everyone and empowers them to make choices about their lives.
She was particularly well known for her idea of The Appeal, meaning that freedom also requires getting others to align with common ideals. No man is an island, and de Beauvoir forcefully pointed out that no woman is, either. Her call to mutual recognition of the other alongside the self remains a resonant appeal for equality and diversity.
So how can you think like Sappho and de Beauvoir? First, remember that humans aren’t as rational as we like to think – and all of us can be irrational under the influence of emotions. Then seek to recognize the experience of others as fully as you recognize your own so everyone can be free.
Philosophy is a constantly changing, ever-challenging conversation about the big questions in life. You, too, can think like a philosopher if you’re willing to open your mind to nature and all its wonders, like Spinoza or Lao Tsu. Or stay grounded and curious in conversations with everyday people, like Aristotle or Epicurus. You can empower yourself by pondering alienation and choosing alliance over anarchy, like Nietzsche and Marx. Or you can find meaning in your relationship to others, with all the accompanying joys and pain, like Sappho and de Beauvoir.
About the Author
“How to Think Like a Philosopher: Scholars, Dreamers, and Sages Who Can Teach Us How to Live” by Peter Cave is a thought-provoking exploration of the world of philosophy and its practical applications in our daily lives. The book introduces readers to various influential philosophers throughout history and examines their ideas, providing readers with a comprehensive overview of different philosophical approaches and how they can be applied to contemporary issues.
Peter Cave takes readers on a journey through the minds of philosophers, exploring their thoughts on morality, ethics, knowledge, existence, and more. He presents complex philosophical concepts in a clear and accessible manner, making it suitable for both beginners and those familiar with philosophy.
The book is divided into thematic chapters, each focusing on a specific aspect of philosophical thinking. Cave examines the ideas of renowned philosophers such as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, Nietzsche, and others. He delves into their theories and explores how these ideas can shape our understanding of ourselves, society, and the world around us.
Cave also highlights the relevance of philosophy in addressing contemporary issues. He discusses topics like the nature of reality, the existence of free will, the ethical implications of our actions, and the pursuit of happiness. Through engaging anecdotes and thought experiments, the author encourages readers to think critically and question their own assumptions.
“How to Think Like a Philosopher” is a captivating and accessible book that successfully brings the world of philosophy to life. Peter Cave’s writing style is engaging and thought-provoking, making complex philosophical ideas comprehensible to readers from all backgrounds. The book strikes a balance between providing an overview of philosophical concepts and stimulating readers to reflect on their own beliefs and values.
One of the book’s strengths is its selection of philosophers and their ideas. By presenting a diverse range of thinkers, Cave offers readers a broad perspective on philosophy and its different schools of thought. The inclusion of both ancient and modern philosophers allows readers to see the evolution of ideas over time and appreciate their ongoing relevance.
Cave’s use of anecdotes and thought experiments adds an extra layer of depth to the book. These illustrative examples help readers grasp complex concepts and encourage them to apply philosophical reasoning to real-life situations. The author’s skillful storytelling keeps readers engaged throughout the book.
Moreover, the book does an excellent job of bridging the gap between abstract philosophical concepts and their practical implications. Cave explores how philosophical ideas can inform our understanding of morality, ethics, and the pursuit of a meaningful life. By presenting philosophical thinking as a tool for personal growth and societal reflection, the book inspires readers to actively engage with philosophy beyond the confines of academia.
However, one potential drawback of the book is its brevity. Given the vastness of the subject matter, some readers may feel that certain philosophers or ideas are not given sufficient attention. Additionally, while the book provides a solid foundation in philosophical thinking, readers seeking in-depth analysis of specific philosophers or concepts may need to consult more specialized texts.
In conclusion, “How to Think Like a Philosopher” is a highly recommended read for anyone interested in exploring the world of philosophy. Peter Cave’s engaging writing style, comprehensive coverage of philosophical ideas, and practical approach make this book a valuable resource for both beginners and those already familiar with philosophy. It serves as an invitation to think critically, question assumptions, and apply philosophical reasoning to enhance our understanding of ourselves and the world we live in.