Philosophy as a Way of Life: The Course

Philosophy as a Way of Life: The Course

Philosophers, have you ever taught a course about philosophy as a way of lifeStephen R. Grimm, professor of philosophy at Fordham University, has. During the course his students have to select one of the ways of life covered in the course, spend three days living it, and then create video reflections of the experience. It would be great to hear from others who’ve tried something like this. 

Grimm philosophy way of life course

From Grimm’s syllabus:

The goal of this course is a little audacious: to help you become wiser, and to lead a better life.

The idea of “philosophy as a way of life” is that this goal cannot be achieved just by discussion, argument, and reflection—the usual tools of philosophy as it is practiced today.  Although these methods are important, what is needed in addition is an attempt to live out the theories we learn in class, to try to incorporate their insights into our lives, and to see whether they bear fruit.

In the first part of the course we will focus in particular on four approaches to life—Stoic, Buddhist, Confucian, and Jesuit—and you will be asked to choose one of these ways of life to “live out” for three days, and then to report back to the class with your observations and experiences.

In the second part of the course we will then consider different theories about the purpose or goal of life, and about what makes life meaningful.  Along the way, you will be asked to develop your own views about what makes life meaningful, and to defend them.

You can check out the videos at his site. Here’s one:


(top image: still from Buddhism as a Way of Life #3 video)


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Matthew C. Halteman
8 years ago

Terrific! Thanks for posting this story. I’m teaching a similar course this spring–a senior seminar titled “Philosophical Transformation: Historical and Contemporary Prospects for Philosophy as a Way of Life”. I had contemplated integrating this sort of experimental assignment component but couldn’t figure out how to do it well. This post gives me some good ideas for future offerings.

Here’re the required books and course description for my seminar:

Augustine, On Free Choice of the Will (Hackett)
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (Penguin)
Gandhi, The Story of My Experiments with Truth (Beacon)
Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life (Blackwell)
Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love (Penguin)
Lao Tzu, The Way of Life (Perigee)
Simone Weil, Late Philosophical Writings (Notre Dame)
Cornel West, Democracy Matters (Penguin)
Course readings pack

PHIL 396: Philosophical Transformation: Philosophy is often viewed as an abstract, theoretical investigation of logical space.  But there is an underemphasized—often hidden—tradition stretching from antiquity to the present that sees philosophy not merely as theoretical discourse, but as a way of life that can lead to spiritual transformation for the practitioner.  Our seminar will explore this vision of philosophy as transformative experience by way of engaging in two closely-related and often simultaneous tasks: (1) we’ll excavate some key prospects from the hidden history of philosophy as a way of life, paying attention not only to the Western historical roots of this tradition, but also touching down in Chinese and Indian strains of thought that view philosophy as transformative experience (this task will involve both foregrounding the work of thinkers viewed as marginal to the standard Western history, like Marcus Aurelius, Gandhi, and Simone Weil, and reimagining the work of some of its canonical figures, like Plato, Augustine, and Descartes); and (2) we’ll consider contemporary applications of philosophy as a way of life with an eye toward drawing out their prospects for provoking redemptive responses to a variety of social ills (including careerism, materialism, scientism, and structural sexism, racism, and speciesism).

recent grad
recent grad
8 years ago

This is really great. If it weren’t for the video component, I’d add hedonism.

Phoenix, son of Amyntor
Phoenix, son of Amyntor
Reply to  recent grad
8 years ago

Just so long as it is Epicurean hedonism, videos should be fine! There’s nothing scandalous in the life of Epicureans.

recent grad
recent grad
Reply to  Phoenix, son of Amyntor
8 years ago

True. Just some cheese eating and wine drinking, and maybe some naps.

Melody Hill
8 years ago

This is brilliant! I’m glad people are teaching philosophy courses which don’t conform to the stereotypes thrown at philosophy: in particular that philosophy is only a lofty, professorial, detached pursuit. Applicability to a well lived life, or exploring these concepts by trying to live them and reflecting on the experience is great.

Stephen R. Grimm
8 years ago

Thanks, Justin!

It’s worth noting, for people who might be interested in trying a similar course, that the video part wasn’t required. I only asked them to do a 3-to-4 minute class presentation–originally assuming the presentation would be live in class, like normal. Eventually I thought this would get pretty repetitive (there are 35 students in the class), so I said that if they wanted they could do a short video instead. Nearly 2/3 of the class opted for the video route, and frankly all of them were really good. The whole class really dove feet-first into the assignment.

Also worth noting that some of the ideas for the course were adapted from similar courses Stephen Angle taught at Wesleyan and Evgenia Cherkasova at Suffolk. They were very helpful as I was planing the course, and I am in their debt. Stephen Angle in particular assured me that the “living it out” part would be the best part of the course, and he was right.

Justin Tiwald
8 years ago

Great to see this! I teach a similar course, which, like Grimm’s, is modeled on Angle’s “Philosophy as a Way of Life.” It also includes a short-term experiment in “living it out,” and indeed the students both take it seriously and relish it. Students should be encouraged to identify just a few, manageable practices to adopt. Attempting to turn into Seneca or Zhuangzi overnight will only lead to defeat and despair.

The philosophies that are meant as ways of life have some empirical commitments, so why not get some perspective from contemporary psychology? I usually assign Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis, although recommendations for something more current (and preferably as readable) would be welcome. Much has changed in positive psychology since 2006.

Contemporary psychology:
Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis

Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic and “On the Tranquility of the Mind”

Discourses from the Pali Canon, Gowans’ The Philosophy of the Buddha

The Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu). I recommend this more highly than the Daodejing (Tao Te Ching). The Zhuangzi is among the best works ever written, philosophical or otherwise. But it helps to have an accessible introduction to the major themes and some interpretive principles. Write me if you’d like suggestions ([email protected]).

Selections from Epicurus, Lucretius, and Nussbaum’s Therapy of Desire