Philosophical Tourism

Some people travel to see sights. Some go to learn languages. I’ve always been more interested in travelling to meet people, specifically, to find out how they think.

Everyone has a philosophy of life. Not everyone writes a blog about it, or ponders big questions endlessly, but everyone has a life philosophy. They reveal it unconsciously in the way they speak and the things they cherish and chase. This is my tourism—trying to get in other people’s heads.

Too many people view philosophy as a boring, static subject. Something a few Greeks wrote about two thousand years ago. Something with no answers or impact—intellectual masturbation.

I couldn’t disagree more. To me, your philosophy is the operating system for your life. It informs your decisions, makes you happy or miserable, evolves to match your surroundings and your personality. Most of all, you have one whether or not you think you do.

Not all Philosophies are Equally Good

I see a lot of mistakes in the common reasoning about life philosophies. A big one is assuming that all perspectives on life are equally valid and equally good. It’s well-meaning political correctness, but that doesn’t make it true.

If your philosophy is the operating system for your life, then just as with computers, you can have good operating systems and bad operating systems.

I’m not saying that there is one perfect life philosophy, nor that I possess it. Like computer programs, there can be many different good designs. Also, like computer programs, you must match the operating system to the hardware. A philosophy merely guides your underlying personality and culture, it doesn’t replace them.

The implication of this isn’t for me to start judging others’ philosophies. I’m a vegetarian, atheist, driven entrepreneur. The fact that not all life philosophies are equal doesn’t give me license to start bashing theistic, meat-eating, slackers. Who knows, maybe I’m the one with a philosophical deficit?

The insight of this fact is, instead, that since not all life philosophies are equal, you can strive to improve and adapt your own. Philosophical tourism isn’t about curiosity or diversity—it’s about witnessing other perspectives on life so that you can debug your own.

Tourism of Others’ Minds

The biggest imprint from living in France for me wasn’t the memories, friends or even learning a second language. It was noticing the subtle ways that the French lived differently than I had.

I have to be careful about generalizations, as philosophies aren’t homogenous. However, in the individuals I met in France, certain algorithms for life crept out. The French cared a lot more about eating well, work was often not the center of life, quality of interactions mattered more than efficiency.

As I lived in France, I began to accumulate many of the patterns I admired. In returning I was also surprised how many I lost—perhaps showing that an individual’s life philosophy can’t be entirely separate from the cultural context it finds itself.

I recently spent a week at SXSW, when the entire internet seems to relocate to Austin, Texas in March. Juggling between the blogging circles and start-up circles, it was also interesting to see divergent life philosophies. Even in groups of people so similar, it was easy to notice different ways of processing the world.

Finding a Place to Live

Another reason people travel, which I neglected in the opening paragraph, is looking for a home. Many people choose to live where they were born, out of convenience or connections. Expatriates, choose where they live, finding a home somewhere far away from where they began.

I believe the same metaphor can apply to finding a philosophy to live with. The vast majority will stick with their culture and social group. In some ways, this is an easier, safer choice. Since your life philosophy isn’t independent from culture or context, you can use tradition and norms to guide you.

Yet amongst these people will be philosophical expatriates. People who opt to live somewhere different from their upbringings, sometimes close, sometimes far away. It’s for these people, who choose to tour not just other places, but other people’s minds, that I write.