Under the usual conditions of modern society, on schools and universities is incumbent the intellectual formation of citizens, on churches and activist groups their moral education, on counseling clinics and psychotherapy the integration of their personality. These three aspects may be separated in the academic curriculum and in the division of social labor, but not in the real existence of the individual. Every concrete problem of life poses cognitive, moral, and psychological difficulties at a time, requiring an integral and simultaneous response in all those three areas. Each human decision requires an integration of the knowledge acquired, of the values at stake, and of the psychological integration necessary to coordinate one thing with the other. In the academic world, which is an imitative scenery constructed for the sake of learning, these three elements may remain separate, precisely because decisions there do not have the definitive and irrevocable character of the acts of real life.
Philosophy, however, is a reflection upon real life as it reveals itself in concrete experience, not in the abstract classification of curricular disciplines and of professions. It is impossible to teach philosophy in an adequate way within the limitations of a purely academic mental scenery. Philosophy as a strictly cognitive discipline, detached from personal moral involvement and psychological intimacy, is but a didactic imitation of philosophy. However rigorous and scholarly it becomes, it will always bear along the vice of levity, of absence of commitment to real life. The fact that this “academic philosophy” has gone as far as becoming the only type of philosophy that is known—and sometimes the only one that is conceivable, creating enormous communication difficulties for the complete philosopher, be it in the academic field or in the wider cultural debate—is one of the most depressing symptoms of contemporary spiritual degradation.
The enormous progress of academic education in the last two centuries has spread an aberration everywhere, namely, philosophical levity adorned with all sophistications of erudition and logical thinking. It is no wonder that a philosophy suffering from this congenital condition has become an ancillary instrument of ideological propaganda, wholly abdicating, sometimes with conscious pride, the search of wisdom. Under certain circumstances, this abdication even boasts that it is a higher requirement of intellectual honesty, a necessary adjustment of philosophical reflection to the “methodological modesty” required by the current stage of scientific knowledge. But there is no methodological modesty whatsoever in making a certain stage in the history of science the absolute model of all knowledge that is regarded as valid, even if retroactively. This amounts to making a particular moment in history, fleeting as any other, some sort of supratemporal judge of history in its entirety—past, present, and future. The apparent modesty conceals an almost psychotic presumption.
I have nothing against those who are interested in dedicating themselves to the philosophy thus conceived, even though I would rather they did it under some other name. For me, as for millions of people eager to use all the technical instruments of philosophy in order to reflect with greater clarity upon the concrete experience of life, academic philosophy is but a curious exercise. The teaching, as I understand it, of philosophy does not intend to create “professionals” of a given business—apt to the exercise of philosophy by merely fulfilling certain curricular requirements regardless of the moral and psychological conditions of its performance—but rather to enable concrete human beings to take reflective hold of the real life that presents itself in their experience. The philosophy thus understood is, inseparably, intellectual formation, moral improvement, and psychological integration.
Since the aim of philosophical education in the Institute lies precisely at the meeting point of these three requirements, it can be reached neither by three ways separately, nor by their sum, nor by their synthesis ex post facto, for the plain reason that the three dimensions referred to existed together in the concrete human being prior to their division into the three areas of professional activity and respective academic disciplines. The common root whence they come is what we have to seek.
Fortunately, the philosophical tradition itself brings us the answer. Philosophy, before its division into school disciplines in the Middle Ages, was inseparably the search of intellectual knowledge, the moral improvement of conduct, and the search of eudaimonia, or harmony of the various impulses of the soul.
Ours, therefore, is not an unprecedented enterprise. In Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, the problem of a philosophical education like the one we are seeking is virtually resolved.
I say “virtually” instead of “really” because the philosophy they practiced was but reflection upon the concrete experience of their lives in the scenery of Athens, and the scenery in which we live is no longer that one. Ours includes the heritage of twenty-four centuries of philosophical thought, with the entire network of byproducts it left in culture, in education, in politics, etc. One of these byproducts is the modern system of academic teaching of philosophy. This system is not the one we want. We do not accept it as formative influence, but, if we are to philosophize like the classical Greeks, we do have to accept it as an element of our historical and social circumstances, and to reflect upon it. We must not let it absorb us; we rather have to absorb it as matter for critical reflection, as one of the elements composing the real environment of our experience.
In like manner, philosophy as a profession, philosophy in the sense it is understood today, is also an inheritance of this historical evolution. We do not have to enter into it nor let it shape us, but rather take it as an object of critical reflection, purposefully placing ourselves outside of it and trying to be philosophers in a more informal yet much deeper sense.
For Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, philosophy was not a professional identity for a human being to invest before working time and divest after arriving home. It was a lifestyle and an inner discipline. If we adopt this lifestyle and this discipline, we shall be in good condition to reflect upon the philosophical profession from without and at the same time remaining within philosophy.
We therefore shall not study philosophy as students in some modern university, as future members of a professional corporation, but as philosophers in the strong sense of the term: as persons straining not only to live by philosophy, but to live in it, to live for it, and for the sake of it. We shall philosophize not to meet academic requirements, but to find answers to our existential questions. Anyone with no philosophical commitment can seek these answers—the difference is that we shall do it with the entire technical apparatus created by philosophy ever since Socrates, therefore including and surpassing academic requirements, insofar as we shall not only absorb them through study but also critically reflect upon them out of a more serious philosophical commitment than that which they involve.
This commitment shall be seen clearly in the selection of questions and in the manner of approaching them.
The criterion of selection we have adopted implies that no question that presents itself as philosophical shall be accepted as such without sufficient justification. This justification must meet three requirements:
1. The question must be philosophically and historically important.
2. It must be of moral importance to the student, that is, of significance to the moral course of conduct of his life in society.
3. It must be of psychological importance to the student, that is, its solution must be capable of being regarded as the decisive element in psychological healing or liberation.
The first requirement is acknowledged by the entire modern academic establishment. The second and the third, though essential in the philosophical practice of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, have been totally abandoned. Recovering and integrating them in teaching is the specific difference between the Philosophy Seminar and academic teaching.
As for the approach we take, it is characterized by the continuous requirement that the student’s conscience and his psychological self-knowledge keep up to the evolution of his intellectual learning, which must not become an autonomous development with no existential basis.
At every step of his learning, the student must (1) get conscious of the personal moral implications of what he has learned; (2) strengthen his sense of personal integration, by growing ripe to bear the responsibility for the knowledge acquired.
In order to attain this aim, we rely on a set of disciplines and techniques developed by the philosophical tradition. These techniques serve four different ends: (1) optimize the operation of rational intelligence; (2) develop the sense of moral responsibility for the knowledge acquired; (3) increase the student’s psychological integration; (4) provide him with the cultural and informative elements necessary for the best efficiency in his learning.