A few years ago I was chatting to a friend who had lived in a lot of off-grid communities, about the nature of leadership. A healthy community, he said, is like a circle. Each member of the community brings something important and unique to the whole, and each member is like a point on the circle. In order for the community to remain whole and functional, each point has to do their part and have equal influence. If one point has too much or too little influence or power, the circle is pulled out of shape and collapses. So a member of a community who does important manual work is no more or less important than somebody who makes strategic decisions, or indeed any other person or role. In this model, we all become leaders in our own aspects of the community. The plumber is the leader in the area of plumbing. The baker is the leader in the area of baking. The manager is the leader in the area of management. This can be contrasted with a hierarchical system where a leader is somebody at the top, with descending levels of power to the most menial worker, who has very little power or freedom.

It’s human nature to tend to see things from a certain point of view, and to think that others will share that view. This is something that leads to a lot of conflicts and misunderstandings, and there’s training out there designed to help people learn to stop doing this.

So it is that, as a philosopher, I am regularly baffled. For example, whenever I encounter a new situations or need to make a decision, I go through a thought process a bit like this:

  1. What is the right thing to do here? What is just, fair, balanced and will lead to the greatest goodness for the people and things involved? What values and virtues are championed or challenged by this decision?
  2. What is there for me to learn from this situation?
  3. Do I have a proven strategy that works in this situation, and does it need updating with new information?

Then I make my decision.

In my mistaken way, I assume that others do the same thing…and then I’m regularly surprised that people do hurtful or harmful things and don’t notice. Looking at the bigger picture, we are a civilisation that hurts and causes harm, and doesn’t notice. Our personal attitudes become our collective impact.  For example, this is a diagram for the remaining animal biomass on the earth:


Similarly striking examples can be found about plant-life, biodiversity, and of course there is overwhelming evidence for the impact of humanity on our planets’ weather and environmental stability.

So I think it’s important to wonder if a decision is right or wrong. I think it’s important to have an education in making moral decisions, and I think it’s important that we keep ourselves informed about the state of the world so we can continue to make the right decisions as circumstances change. Underpinning this, I think it’s important to be curious about the world, to question and doubt ourselves and our world, and to have a strong enough personal identity to endure being proven wrong about things, so that we can change our beliefs and values to fit the facts.

These are my beliefs. It’s my belief that human beings would be healthier in themselves, form better communities, be safer for the world and take steps towards cultural evolution if these kinds of values were shared by us all.

I see an ongoing evolution in humanity, since our “fall” and loss of innocence when we transitioned to civilisation (which is a huge topic in itself, please excuse me for putting it so briefly). The protection of people and culture through strict religious dogma was useful for a while, but it was then (mostly) shaken off through hundreds of years of cultural evolution – most notably the enlightenment. More recently, other problems with civilisation have been corrected through feminism and the interconnectedness of the internet. Massive problems remain – most notably our treatment of the natural world – but we have taken steps. They tend to be invisible or problematic as they’re happening, as all growth tends to be, but looked at retrospectively there’s progress and there’s reason for hope.

From my perspective, humanity would take bigger steps if there was more awareness, more self-reflection, more enquiry, more willingness to change and more desire to know.

In the global community circle, there is a point reserved for philosophers, and our kind of leadership is to guide this kind of deep, rigorous enquiry amongst our fellow humans. But the philosopher’s point on the circle in the modern world is not equal with others, and we are not providing this kind of guidance. Why is this?

Well, things have changed since the innocent days of Plato, when philosophers sat around and contemplated, and were listened to and taken seriously. “Celebrity philosophers”, whose opinions are taken seriously by those in power, are the best we have now, and even they are rare. The world has changed and matured.

So in the modern world, what does a philosopher like me have to offer? Well, let’s look at the aspects of the modern world that mean there aren’t a great many conversations about values, beliefs, right, wrong, absolute truths and greater meaning…

  • Science and philosophy have proven that all things are relative. There are no absolute answers.
  • Postmodernism has taught us that this applies culturally as well as scientifically.
  • The internet has created distributed expertise where everybody has access to most information – even if they have very little guidance in how to use it.
  • We have deeply held beliefs about individuality – “you can’t tell me what to do” is a cultural norm.
  • Global trade and travel mean that we mingle ever closer with those from other countries and cultures, trying to navigate any cultural differences with politeness, and becoming ever more confused about what constitutes “my culture”.
  • There are no public forums to share, debate, explore, come-together or celebrate a shared culture.
  • Questions about spirituality and absolute truths are now a wholly personal thing, with priests and theologians having been mostly side-lined and forgotten.
  • The commodification of virtually all traditional aspects of community means that people are used to buying what they need. If I can’t buy it, and if there isn’t a social pressure to do it, I won’t trust it.
  • Other specialisms now fulfil many old roles – psychologists, counsellors, doctors, niche experts
  • The niche of philosophical guidance has been filled, variously, by celebrities, products, brands, demagogues and politicians – each of which have their own agenda and are usually motivated by personal power or profit.
  • Most of us still identify with binary gender, but we find that a lot of the old-fashioned ideas about men and women have no answers to many modern questions. This leaves us with little guidance about how to build personal ego-structure as men and as women, leaving us vulnerable to manipulation, and often defensive towards change or new information.

There is an argument to say that in the face of these challenges, philosophy has surrendered. Philosophy can only really be found, as a specialism, within the protective enclaves of academia. Research papers continue to be written, experts are available for consultation and interview, universities are staffed and students are taught. Academic philosophers exist like medieval monks – powerful and influential, but cloistered and detached.

What I’m arguing for is practical philosophy – the kind of philosophy that seeks to provide useful, practical, applicable answers to real life problems, through stringent and disciplined enquiry, with reference to the most recent information. To be able to voice opinions and give input and guidance, and to be able to show our workings, to trace a logical and consistent paths between ideas. To be passionate about truth, rather than personal benefit. To hold reasonable, demonstrable grounds for a belief that humanity can behave with morality, nobility and reason. To act as sources of wisdom in a post-modern world.

If we make an assumption that it’s something good and useful in society for there to be people who can act as guardians of reason and ethics, then practical philosopher (the friar to the academic philosopher’s monk) fills this niche.

But these philosophers need to be real. The challenges outlined above are real, and they have entirely neutered the role of philosophy in society. Anybody can hit Wikipedia and become a philosopher of sorts, and there are a hundred voices – on TV, on the radio, on the street, in education – telling us how to live. What can this role of a practical philosopher contribute?

Well, I see this role fulfilled by somebody who is qualified to advise and assist in deep enquiry, who holds an over-arching perspective, which is the betterment of the world and the people in it. For want of a better term, let’s call it the Way of the modern, practical philosopher. Here are some of the things it must entail, in order to reclaim some authority in the face of the challenges above.

  • She must be as informed as possible, about as many fields as possible.
  • He must understand psychological theory and its therapeutic application, to be able to distinguish between emotional distress, cognitive impairment and genuine personal enquiry.
  • She must be versed in anthropology, history and story-telling so that she can be put every person within a valid context.
  • He must have weathered personal exposure to the challenges of post-modernism, anti-realism and other modern philosophical challenges, and have come to some sustainable, realistic answers to them that work for him.
  • She must have looked deeply inwards, to establish her own failings, wounds, beliefs, needs, longings, hopes, realities and ego-structure – and have learned to put them entirely aside when needed.
  • He must be a practical person, with a trade, to experience the realities of being alive at this time – taxes, alienation, consumerism, biased media, etc.
  • She must be fully engaged with young people, the technology and its influence on the path of our culture. It is easy to dismiss young people with their oscillating emotions, outlandish ways and strange humour – and it always has been. They are the future.
  • He must have some desire to do good in the world, to be a force for positive change and progress. He must foster a love of life, without filtering its discomforts or escaping into illusion.
  • She must have a love of wisdom, from any place and at any time. She must not value western thought over eastern, or the exotic and foreign over the familiar and mundane. People are people and wisdom is wisdom. Our job today is to integrate it all and provide the distilled answers in practical, digestible ways.
  • To that end, he must be an expert at communication, at learning another’s patterns of thought and language so that ideas can be conveyed effectively and without loss of meaning.
  • She must be willing to entertain a proposition without accepting it and, when proven wrong, be willing to drop long-cherished beliefs without a loss of personal confidence or determination.
  • He must act in service to others, to tolerate the demagogues and their insidious and influential ways, and remain determined to bring truth and reason to the people he meets.
  • She must travel, be vulnerable to new answers and new ways, absorb as many kinds of information as possible, spend time with the very young and very old, with the rich and the poverty-stricken, with those who choose to step outside of society and those for whom society means everything. She must be of society and apart from it.
  • He must never decide that his outlook is The Truth. Even if he fights for his deepest beliefs, he must know that there is always more to learn and in learning, his beliefs may be shaken to their core. He must knowingly build his life on shifting sands.
  • She must find some mechanism or route to have an influence over people and over systems. This way and this training must be for a purpose, and she must find a method for teaching and conveying what she has learned – in Joseph Campbell’s model, she must return to the people with new information to share.

With things like this, I suggest, a modern philosopher answers the challenges of the modern world, becomes relevant again and takes up their position of leadership within the circle of the global community.  I can see a great need for people like this to be having influence over the choices that people are making, to become a counterpoint to a world filled with bad advice.