I grew up fascinated by history. I loved it in elementary school. I loved it in high school. I decided to study it in college. I studied it at the undergraduate and graduate level. What I never realized was that it wasn’t necessarily history that I loved – I enjoyed history as it was a discipline trying to piece together what happened in the past. More specifically, it is constantly searching for the truth. Although I don’t believe we can ever know the full truth when looking back on history, the discipline is obsessed with getting as close to it as it can. And that’s what I love, this relentless pursuit of the truth. And through the pursuit of truth lies the path to wisdom.
I’ve had a misconception of philosophy for a very long time. The last time I seriously had to read anything philosophical was in early undergraduate. I was young, naive, and inpatient. After reading a range of the major thinkers and works, I got bored with a lot of the minute details and what I perceived as pretentious dribble by men who had spent too much time locked up in ivory towers. So that didn’t leave a great first impression with me and I wrote philosophy off as some pompous exercise in mental and verbal regurgitation.
I always have multiple books on the go, all at various stages of completion. It is almost exclusively all on finance, business, or investing. I use my Kindle app on my iPhone to read books primarily for my morning commute. Let’s see, the books I’ve read through the Kindle app so far this year are:
- Berkshire Beyond Buffett by Lawrence Cunningham
- Irrational Exuberance 3rd Edition by Robert Shiller
- The Millionaire in the Mirror by Gene Bedell
- The Little Book of Value Investing by Christopher Browne
- Influence by Rober Cialdini
- Why Bother with Bonds by Rick Van Ness
As you can see, outside of Influence by Robert Cialdini, there is a common theme the readings tend to cluster raround. I read somewhere – I forget where – that Will Durant was an excellent historian who wrote the epic series The Story of Civilization (something I desperately want to read but not doing so at the moment because it would take up all my time).
The Story of Philosophy
Since I am censoring myself from reading that work by Will Durant, I figured I’d take a stroll through his earlier book The Story of Philosophy. I’m only into the first quarter of the book but it has been revolutionary for me. The clarity and beauty in which Will Durant writes has allowed me to appreciate philosophy for the first time. In Henry Throeau’s words:
To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live, according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust.
Durant goes on to explain, what turned into a light bulb moment for me, what the difference between science and philosophy is:
Science seems always to advance, while philosophy seems always to lose ground. Yet this is only because philosophy accepts the hard and hazardous task of dealing with problems not yet open to the methods of science…
Every science begins as philosophy and ends as art; it arises in hypothesis and flows into achievement…
Philosophy is a hypothetical interpretation of the unknown (as in metaphysics), or of the inexactly known (as in ethics or political philosophy); it is the front trench in the siege of truth…
Science is analytical description, philosophy is synthetic interpretation…
[Science] does not inquire into the values and ideal possibilities of things, nor into their total and final significance; it is content to show their present actuality and operation, it narrows its gaze resolutely to the nature and process of things as they are…
But the philosopher is not content to describe the fact; he wishes to ascertain its relation to experience in general, and thereby to get at its meaning and it’s worth; only wisdom – desire coordinated in the light of all experience – can tell us when to heal and when to kill…
To observe processes and to construct means is science; to criticize and coordinate ends is philosophy: and because in these days our means and instruments have multiplied beyond our interpretation and synthesis of ideals and ends, our life is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing…
Science gives us knowledge, but only philosophy can give us wisdom.
What I took from this is that science – facts and knowledge – is simply not enough to navigate this complex world. You need to know what to do with facts and knowledge, and science will not be able to tell you. We can make tools of unimaginable destruction, such as the atomic bomb, but how we act with these tools is not derived from the knowledge base of nuclear physics and chemistry.
Science is incredibly important in the pursuit of truth, but it alone cannot satisfy our cravings for it. Science is like knowing all the ingredients and measurements necessary for baking a cookie, and philosophy is the experience and insight to know how to take it all and create that cookie only grandma can truly make.
What Do We Even Know?
Truth. It’s a slippery concept.
I don’t believe we can ever know what I refer to as Capital T “Truth” – by this, I mean that I don’t believe there is an ultimate truth. How could we, with our limited sensory organs that can only perceive a certain, narrow bandwidth of light. We can only see the world between 430 to 770 THz. We can only hear the world between 20 to 20,000 Hz. Similarly, sensations such as taste, smell, and touch are also limited to a narrow range of a vast spectrum.
Only 4% of the universe is made up of the ordinary matter we have some rudimentary understanding of; the rest of the 96% of the universe is made up of dark energy and dark matter that we are completely and blindly ignorant of. We have no idea what 96% of the universe is. And even the 4% we have an elementary grasp of, we have not mastered that knowledge yet either.
We are just so limited, it would be arrogant to proclaim any sort of universal monopoly on what is true and what isn’t. This is why I am always highly suspicious of anyone trying to monopolize truth. Yet, there is something noble to pursuing truth, even if it is – in my opinion – near impossible to ever attain.
While I believe searching for truth is a noble pursuit, the proclamation of it is what I find abhorrent. There is a great quote by Marcus Aurelius where he states:
Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth
Obviously, some opinions are backed by more facts than others, but I take this to mean that you are responsible for taking in knowledge, wisdom, facts, opinion, perspectives and coming to your own conclusion on what truth is from your vantage point.
Truth is like handling a wet, slippery fish: you can only get your hands on it for a moment, until it slips away from you. Like looking through a phoropter at the optometrist, my goal is to continually tweak and hone the clarity of the image I am trying to see. I don’t believe I will ever be able to see with perfect clarity, but that doesn’t mean I won’t try to see as clearly as I can.
The pursuit of truth is the journey I am interested in. Investments and money are just the means to that end. I’ve never been interested in the money per say, I’m only interested in having my time. And through this time, I want the ability to continuously pursue knowledge, and perhaps gain some wisdom.
I had like another 1,000 words I had written starting to go into some abstract thoughts on philosophy and investing. Then I started to realize that much of it wasn’t make too much sense (I’m not sure what I left here even makes sense) so I cut it short. It was a lot of thought experiments and questions that I couldn’t even start answering – it was like a horrifying expanded version of what I had written previously on ethics and morality and investing. Anyways, I think if I didn’t cut it short, I’d be stressed out about trying to make sense of all these thoughts, which would then probably take this into a 5,000+ word tome of really confusing musings and ramblings.
In conclusion, reading about philosophy recently has me thinking about philosophy – go figure.
Ironically, I’ve come to realize all these years later that I am truly a philosopher at heart.