August 25

What is the difference between Philosophy and Spirituality

“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?