What is simple philosophy?

Simple philosophy is ‘slow thinking’ to ensure your actions are optimal or, at least, worthwhile.

Before your information-consumption autopilot rushes you past that 15-word sentence, I invite you to pause with me for a minute or two to reflect on its meaning and the magnitude of its promise.

Let’s break open the words, explore their worth.

simple: Simple is not synonymous with simplistic. Simple is an adjective that can bestow a precious quality on its noun: simplification achieved through deep understanding.

If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.—Albert Einstein

Simple things are not poor cousins to their regular/unconsidered or complex/convoluted alternatives. Quite the opposite.

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication—Leonardo da Vinci

philosophy: This word comes from Greek and literally means a love (phil) of wisdom (sophia). Wisdom sits at the top of the information pyramid (wisdom-knowledge-information-data) for a very good reason: it provides the best bang for our buck. Wisdom is the ability to make good decisions—to direct your life well—and it stems more from experience and reflection than from education. Any of us can think wisely and our collective wisdom, over millennia, has culminated in no less than our continued existence. (For example, we have the data, information, and knowledge to build nuclear bombs, but we have the wisdom to explore every possible avenue to not use them.) Philosophy is about thinking well to live well, and all those who wish to fulfil their potential must practise philosophy.

slow thinking: This term is synonymous with words like consideration and contemplation, and describes thinking that is ‘effortful’ [1] and deliberative, which is the type of thinking required for designing new solutions to new situations.

In analysis we break things down into standard and recognizable parts. In design we put things together to achieve a value and a purpose.—Edward de Bono

Slow thinking has been expertly defined by the renowned psychologist Daniel Kahneman in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow (Penguin, 2011). Kahneman contrasts slow thinking with our default type of thinking—fast thinking—which is ‘automatic’ and intuitive, based on learned patterns, and ingrained with biases.

actions: Perhaps we don’t need to pause on this word; perhaps we do. In my work teaching writing skills to knowledge workers, I often have to remind participants that empathy, for example, is something we do (and display in our actions and words), not just think. So perhaps we all need reminding of the truism that actions speak louder than words, and louder still than unexpressed thoughts. Philosophy is about acting wisely through thinking deeply, and the value of our lives is ultimately achieved through our actions. So, those of us who are busy thinking well need to make sure we also act out our wisdom.

optimal: Optimal does not mean most or best. Optimality is inherently conditional and ephemeral. Optimal means the best status for the context (time, place, situation), which means optimal actions require their actors to be ‘tuned in’ to the context—to not be on autopilot. You can’t box and sell optimal, like some well-meaning folk try to sell ‘best practice’. Optimal actions are typically based on fixed principles and honed skills, but in each instance they are mindfully chosen from a range of options.

worthwhile: And, finally, just a reminder that this word is shorthand for ‘a valuable way to spend your effort’. We all have capabilities, but we don’t all generate value from them. In my experience, those who feel their lives are truly worthwhile are precisely the same set of people as those who feel they make contributions valued by others.

Now, back to the definition of slow philosophy as a whole, and its promise.

Just how valuable is a simple means of ensuring your effort is ‘optimal or, at least, worthwhile’? Worthwhile actions mean no futile busyness, no wasteful excess, no avoidable angst; just useful contributions—or, at least, contributions that are as useful as your fully exercised wisdom can make them. Such a means would be more valuable than gold dust, I reckon, particularly as our context grows more outwardly complex and confusing.

I write these words as a (remarkably fortunate) 46 year-old, but what if, 30 years ago, someone had offered to sell student-me a method to ensure my future actions would be worthwhile? What would that have been worth to me then?

The truth is, 30 years ago I was offered such a method—a simple and common recipe in two parts (a ‘how’ and a ‘why’)—and it has served me so well I have structured my entire life around it. I’ll gladly share it with you now.

The ‘how’ came primarily from my father: Use your common sense. These four words spoke volumes. He meant, think for yourself. He meant, don’t assume. He meant, connect the dots. He meant, don’t get stuck on autopilot. And, although the terms hadn’t been coined yet, he meant think slow, not fast.

The ‘why’ came primarily from my mother: Treat others as you would like to be treated. A universal tenet so easily forgotten in a world obsessed with individualism, busyness, and (new) stuff.

I think every human with a healthy mind grows up wanting to be a good person and my parents, like parents and guardians the world over, provided me with a simple blueprint for being such a person. Together, they recommended that I think deliberatively for the benefit of myself and others, and I believe this is everyone’s simple philosophy.

Yet today, too many of us—particularly those of us blessed with unprecedented wealth and privilege—are too busy to think wisely. Self-distracted with excess and angst, our contributions are fractured and individualistic. We don’t allow the time needed to think and act wisely for communal benefit. Instead, we rush and over-consume and, worse still, we degrade things we need: our quality of life, our contributions to each other, our relationships, our health, and the health of our environment.

So, dear reader, I urge you to slow down and question—deeply—the systems and behaviours that make up your life so you can act wisely and contribute fully. I urge you to stop wasting time and energy on endeavours that don’t matter and I wish you every success for endeavours that do, because our contributions combine to create the societies we share.

simple philosophy books

Philosophical words

Perhaps this web site can be of help to you—that’s what it’s for. The philosophical words of dozens of ‘slow thinkers’ [2] have helped me at every stage of my growth, personally and professionally, and I hope my measured words (given freely but not lightly) will also help you to live wisely, generously, and fruitfully.

Please do explore the full list of posts. The topics are diverse, but simple philosophy—contemplation for the purpose of living well—is at the heart of every post.

[1] Kahneman, Daniel, Thinking, Fast and Slow, (Penguin, 2011).
[2] Such as Edward de Bono, Alain de Botton, Yvon Chouinard, Edwards Deming, Albert Einstein, Marsilio Ficino, Chip and Dan Heath, Daniel Kahneman, Greg McKeown, Michel de Montaigne, Friedrich Nietzsche, Eleanor Roosevelt, Otto Scharmer, Peter Senge, and Henry David Thoreau.