What is the difference between Philosophy and Spirituality?

Jeff Carreira Popular Posts 36 Comments

“What is the difference between Philosophy and Spirituality?” This is a question that has been propelling much of my efforts in writing this blog. Generally here I have limited my meandering thoughts to those ideas and thinkers that tend to safely fall within the general spectrum of what are known as philosophies and philosophers. My recent musings on the writing of Ralph Waldo Emerson however, has veered dangerously close to the domain of the spiritual. I have also recently been reading about the existential philosophers and again they seem in many ways to have a more spiritual leaning to their perspective. (More on that to come.)

So what is the difference? What makes us call one set of thoughts philosophical and another spiritual? I think that I have come across an answer that helps me – but I definitely would like to hear from some of my readers on this and add your thoughts to the mix.

First of all let me state that I realize this is not a cut and dry distinction. There are philosophical traditions that seem very spiritual to me, and spiritual traditions that seem very philosophical. I would say the distinction must lie in a certain tendency in one and the other. As I see it that tendency can be stated as follows.  

Philosophy is the domain of wisdom, knowledge and understanding about reality. A philosophy is an explanation of the way things are where spirituality is a description of a position that you as a human being should take in relationship to the way things are. Philosophies give us big, and to the extent possible, objective pictures of reality without telling us explicitly (although often they do implicitly) how we should be in relationship to that picture. Even in moral philosophy generally what we get is an explanation of why certain things are right and others wrong. What we don’t get is someone telling us that we should do the right thing. What we do with morality is left in our own hands. Spirituality resides in the realm of truth, spirit and moral judgment. Spirituality tells us how we should be in relationship to the way things are. Spiritualities always include philosophical explanations of the world, but those philosophical aspects are the backdrop for the main event which is direct instruction about how to live. I suppose that is why you usually speak of spiritual teachings as opposed to spiritual theories.

There are other possible ways to see this distinction and one is that philosophy tends to include wisdom gained through reason and rational argument while spirituality tends to be insight gained through spiritual experience and revelation. To my mind however this is a more specific difference and there are many counter arguments to it. So to avoid at least one fight I will leave this be for now and stick with my original distinction as a more general and more easily defensible one.

I believe that this gets us back to the two kinds of truth that I mentioned in an earlier post; Truth as Fact & Truth as Commitment. Philosophy is a tradition that comes straight to us from the ancient Greek thinkers. And this was the ‘Truth as Fact’ crowd. To them reality was riddled with universal laws that governed everything and that needed to be understood and lived in accordance with. Since these laws were fact, there was less need to dictate why a person must live by them, in fact, once you realize that they are true and that they are indeed universal laws it would be impossible not to live in accordance with them. As an example once you know that gravity is a universal force that must be obeyed, you don’t really need a spiritual teaching to tell you not to jump off a cliff. If you are foolish enough to jump off of a cliff knowing that gravity is a universal law, then you will simply suffer the consequence of falling. You cannot break universal laws. You can only live well or live poorly based on how you do or do not align with them. And so a philosophy only needs to tell you what the truth is in the sense of telling you what the facts are.

Spirituality, at least in the western world, can be most directly traced back to the Judeo-Christian tradition. Here we see a ‘Truth as Commitment’ crowd. The “fact” that Moses received the 10 commandments directly from God, or that Jesus was the promised messiah are not verifiable facts. They are matters of faith. Because they are matters of faith there is an onus on the indiviudual to stand for them, to act as if they are true, in order to make them true. The 10 commandments are not universal laws in the same way that gravity is a universal law. We don’t have to live by them. If we do live by them we can make them universal laws, but only through our adherence to them. For this reason a spiritual tradition can’t just tell you what the facts are, it has to convince, inspire or force you to live by them.

Any thoughts?

About the Author

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira is a mystical philosopher and spiritual guide. He is the author of eleven books on meditation and philosophy. He teaches online programs and leads retreats throughout the world that teach people how to let go of their current perceptual habits so they are free to participate in the creation of a new paradigm. To put it simply, he supports people to live a spiritually inspired life, free from the constraints of fear, worry and self-doubt, and aligned with their own deepest sense of meaning and purpose.
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Liesbeth
Liesbeth
11 years ago

Spirituality finds its origin in the believe that we are One. God as symbol of the common source from which everything else originates. If these are the forms of Plato or God as father of God as nature, or emptiness, we are all connected, we are One. It is a basis for goodness. This is where the believe in goodness of human beings comes from. There is no goodness in plants or in animals (only ‘care’ caused by biological conditioning or genes). But goodness in the way we know it, originates in the idea of Oneness. This is what the… Read more »

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
11 years ago

I just read a line: some philosophers think life is basically spiritual, they are called (in the 17th century) idealists; others think everything finds its origin in the concrete, they are called materialists (physics). Even though in that time sometimes materialists believed in God, which could lead to the idea of determinism.

A story: an astronaut (not Christian) and a brain surgeon (Christian) where talking about spirituality. The astronaut said: I have been in the universe, but I never met God or angels. The brain surgeon said: I have operated many brains, but I never saw a thought.

Arul Dev
11 years ago

Philosophy is generally in the mental state of consciousness. It is the mind taking efforts to know. It is the domain of abstractions. Spirituality is ranges of states of consciousness that exist above the mental ranges. There knowledge transcends domain of rationale and intellect. Here it is knowledge by identity. Knowledge here cannot be accessed by thinking but knowledge is revealed and is often received in silence.

Rebecca
11 years ago

This post brings me back to last Sunday, when I was sitting in my hometown Episcopal Church which I attended from infancy, and now when I’m visiting family, listening to the first reading of the day, a passage from Amos. In it, the Lord proclaims to Amos that he will abandon His people in Israel, turning “feasts into mourning” and “songs into lamentation”. It is in these moments that I always smile, because quite often in the cycle of readings from the Bible, there is one reading like this, and another, like the one read on the same day from… Read more »

Catherine
Catherine
10 years ago

I would likes to answer to Arul on this very interesting topic. Even in philosophy, knowledge is revealed. The intellect and the mind is one door to transcendence. It is working quite well, and maybe it is the most well understood door of transcendence in the present state of evolution of humanity. My take on this very interesting blog, is that all the distinctions between philosophy and spirituality are the reflection of our lack of evolution. At the end I believe that both will merge into one human activity. Jeff says : “Philosophy is the domain of wisdom, knowledge and… Read more »

Frank Luke
Frank Luke
10 years ago

Can I make the generalization that philosophy is usually thought of in terms of being very intellectual and spirituality is usually considered more involved with emotions and intutition? Spirituality is often denigrated by intellectuals for that reason. Often many intellectuals feel they’re just too cool and hip to be spiritual. True or not?

Arul Dev
10 years ago

If we take the Divine as the point of contemplation. Philosophy is intellectual thinking and abstractions about the Divine. The actions based on this may not have much transformative power. Spirituality is allowing the Divine to take over our lives more and more. The Divine reveals through direct visions, intuitions and illuminations. But in our normal consciousness we are so caught up with our emotions, sensations and thoughts and our mind is so active that there is no room for the Divine. We need to learn to quieten down a bit so that we can connect more and more to… Read more »

Frank Luke
Frank Luke
10 years ago

There’s historically been a dual attitude in spirituality, of those who feel there should be focus on personal enlightenment that turns away from affairs of the world. Then there are those who espouse spirituality in action, engaging in mundane affairs of the world. EnlightenmentNext’s position acknowleges humanity has an interconnectivity and that the personal has a connection with all Creation holistically. We see in the 21st century that our connection to the web of life is inescapable and ignored at our own peril. We personally and collectively need to be holistically engaged to be truly spiritually engaged not only in… Read more »

Ralph Remo Faes
Ralph Remo Faes
10 years ago

Dear Frank My experience is exactly the same as yours. On the other side I can not see any conflict between philosophy (=love and intellectual serch for wisdom) and spirituality (=love and opening our hearts for the wisdom). The two approaches can marvellously be like sister (heart) and brother (brain) in the process of coming to the point of BEING part of the ONE on one side and then BECOMING part of the big thing on the other side – in being active in life, or, as the ZEN buddhist say, back on the market place. Send you Frank, all… Read more »

Frank Luke
Frank Luke
10 years ago

Hi Ralph, there in Switzerland!

Would you agree or not that philosophy so intent on analysis is rather cebebral and “cold”? Pls cite examples to the contrary, if you will. Philosophers’ heat may be in their rhetoric, I grant.

Spirituality I would say is concerned more about ethics and life when it does its job, not merely in scholarship and dogma. As we observe, the more emotional a faith can offer its followers, the more it may appeal to them. I’m not talking about the fire-and-brimstone delivery preachers sometimes adopt.

Aloha from Hawaii,

Frank Luke

Darshan Chande
10 years ago

I recently did an article with the same title, and then decided to find out what other people have to say about it. Found this article to be very nice. Kind of says the same thing that I too think. I think if we regarded philosophy as a science in general, spirituality is essentially the science of happiness. While philosophy is born out of curiosity, spirituality is born out of suffering. That’s precisely the reason, as you said in the article above, it concerns itself with telling how to live. For more detailed view of my thoughts on the subjects… Read more »

Anonymous
Anonymous
9 years ago

In my opinion, spirituality starts where philosophy ends. What is Philosophy? Philosophy is analyzing of your own thoughts, feelings, world and events around you using your intellect. Using your intellect, you try to understand this entire existence. However, beyond a point, you cannot go using your intellect. That is where the philosophy ends and this is exactly where spirituality starts. You assume that there is a greater depth in this existence or levels of consciousness and allow it to take over. You let go off your thoughts, feelings, and logical intellect and slowly the greater depth of this existence starts… Read more »

Barry Sheehan
8 years ago

Hi there, Greetings from Australia. As I sun myself on beautiful Hamilton Island, triggered by reading a book titled ‘Philosophy for Life’ I have been reviewing a variety of information, particularly that dealing with differences/similarities between philosophy and spirituality. It’s obvious all contributors have strong beliefs and their contributions are considered and measured. However, why do we speak in cryptic tongues? It’s like it’s a competition to see who can outdo the other in their use of the English language. Philosophy has a place in life, as indeed spirituality does, however those that involve themselves in either seem to revel… Read more »

Musnadin
8 years ago

Hi, this is a totally deneirfft Anon, so you can catch your breath again. I have not been able to reply to many of the recent comments over this past week, but have agonizingly been able to read them.Just a few comments:1 – “Jesus is democratic” (someone wrote this) – interesting. Although man’s free will deceivingly indicates that they have many options, Jesus is very clear that there is ONLY 1, and He is it, or the consequences are eternally damning. And Paul unapoligetically declares this in his ministry aswell.2 – Someone also brought an accusation against Craig for wielding… Read more »

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[…] What is the difference between Philosophy and Spirituality […]

Lama Surya Das
6 years ago

For me, Philosophy is about how I think my way through life and spirituality is about how I feel my way through life. Philosophy deals with the mind and the intellect. Spirituality seeks to transcend the mind to be conscious of the Divine Consciousness.

Mirza Atif
5 years ago

After reading this article, anyone can clear what is philosophy and what is spiritualism. Philosophy is about learned lessons which came when someone learn from real life and Spirituality is hard to define generally. Its about believe. Its depends on religion thought.
In my opinion spiritualism is a faith, one might can find ALLAH, if he preach so much and try hard to find. That person can define what it is. We all just can guess.

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[…] to Philosophy is Not a Luxury, the biggest difference between spirituality and philosophy […]

Young Luxury
4 years ago

Nice! I got a blog going about spiritual philosophy and self improvement!
Check it out: keithmintz

taki
taki
4 years ago

Mathematics/Sciences are the most powerful tools the human mind has developed with the help of abstraction/logic. Philosophy (dialectical) being the most accurate framework for logical thinking.
Spiritualism (inc. older metaphysics) – old transitional forms when we cannot explain why/how things relate.
Other species have developed better instincts to survive. Humans hardly need to survive (instinct), other than from themselves/exploitation (spiritual dependency/driver). Logic is the highest human achievement, so is philosophy.

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[…] and new from the “hidden wisdom” of the Orient; not one fact in physical science or spiritual philosophy. Moral maxims and instructions are not included, for these are the world’s property, and no […]

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[…] POSTED BY JEFF CARREIRA ON JULY 19, 2010 IN UNCATEGORIZED | 23 COMMENTS […]

DM Swain
DM Swain
4 years ago

The division is synthetic,created, I believe, out of fear that if one believes in philosophy they will necessarily not believe in whatever religion they follow. In truth, philosophy is supposed to be an effort to understand man by understanding how they develop the ideas (beilefs) they have, which of these are objectively true and which of these beliefs and ideas benefit the individual man and society in general. This is certainly true of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, three people who are the seed ground of philosophy itself. In current philospy this is not the case. Husserl states clearly that spirituality,… Read more »

Republic Foundation
4 years ago

I agree with this!!!

Anonymous
Anonymous
3 years ago

Philosophy is a fruit of the spirit in form

William
William
3 years ago

I appreciate your effort to make some clear distinction here. Nevertheless, I generally think of philosophy as about the mind, and usually detached from real-life experience, and spirituality as either about spiritual growth, or rather dubious. It seems like they are large domains. At best I think spiritual growth is about the true nature of reality, and philosophy is about insight and revelation. Oh well.

Lynne
Lynne
3 years ago

In response to DM Swain, Husserl’s position on spirituality is interesting. He states in 1935 that the study of the mental and spiritual must be established on a scientific foundation. But he also writes that consciousness has an immediate awareness of an absolute being that is not available to perception and reason. The divine for Husserl is transcendent to the created order, but yet is described as “the unsearchable Within”. Husserl regards each person as being an embodiment of the divine light, and suggests that in fulfilling the divine will, we and the world “become God”.

Dod
Dod
2 years ago

N.a.the greek word for philosophy occurs once in the bible to delineate vain philosophies from spiritual philosophy

Dod
Dod
2 years ago

The verse. Is Colossians 2:8

Miozoti
Miozoti
2 years ago

Spirituality is not religion.

s.dinni
s.dinni
2 years ago

Ultimately words,explanations have limits. They are only pointers. The Truth, a living thing if explained it is put to sleep (dies). Truth is alive,afresh & anew. If you ( I) know it already you are in the grave. (J.Krishnamurti). Total choice-less awareness (JK) & attention…thundering silence ( A Buddhist statement)

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Emma
Emma
3 months ago

I was reading “Life After Life” by Raymond Moody Jr., a doctor of philosophy as well as “The Varieties of Religious Experience” by William James, the psychologist and philosopher. I’m a psychology major and have always found myself very opinionated on philosophical matters. But in my own personal life, I have struggled to find where I lie with spiritual beliefs; between truth and personal experience. Well, as I was reading I was wondering what exactly the difference between spirituality and philosophy was. And your explanation makes a lot of sense to me. Not only do I agree with it, but… Read more »