Philosophy vs. Spirituality

Jeff Carreira Blog Posts 11 Comments

I wanted to write a few words about what I see as the difference between philosophy and spirituality. I realize, naturally, that anything I say can only be some overly generalized distinction that may be helpful to some, but could never be definitive in any way. At the very least this distinction is something that I have been thinking about a great deal and I continue to feel compelled to think it through and to try to articulate what I come to over and over and over again. Like making a line of demarcation in wet mud with your finger, this distinction may help me see a difference for a moment, but inevitably it will fade, blur and ultimately disappear as time goes on. One last disclaimer is that, as I see it, philosophy and spirituality are opposing poles on a continuum. Some philosophies are more spiritual in nature and some spiritualities are more philosophical. So again I am trying to make a distinction that is clear and crisp where none probably exists.

In short I have been thinking about the fact that philosophies are theories that attempt to describe the nature of reality. In their most ambitious form they are “theories of everything” that attempt to explain what all of reality is made of and how it all works together to create the world as we experience it. So, again being ludicrously over simple, philosophy is composed of philosophical theories about reality. What philosophy doesn’t do is tell you how you should relate to all that. Philosophy might describe ethics in the sense of what is right and what is wrong, but it will generally veer away from directly telling you that you should do what is right. Maybe philosophers feel that is self-evident anyway. Spirituality on the other hand rushes straight into the challenge of telling you how to relate to reality. Spiritual teachings are direct instructions about how you should live. They are based on a philosophy, but usually their main emphasis is on changing the way human beings relate to reality rather than describing it.

 A philosophy is describing a view of reality from the outside. Similar to science, it attempts to reveal the objective truth about the way things are. Spirituality, on the other hand, approaches reality from the inside out. It is a subjective view of reality that ultimately points to a way of being that we should adopt in the world. I believe that a spiritual teaching is, in the end, the description of a position that we should take in the world. It is a stand that we adopt and hold.

It is a relationship to the world, not a description of it.

 Both are critical. One rests on the other, in fact. As a self-proclaimed romantic my tendencies take me toward spiritual teachings, but recently I have been reading about existential philosophy and I am finding that philosophy shares this emphasis on a stand in the world. I will be expanding more on that as this blog goes on.

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James Alexander
James Alexander
10 years ago

I think you are onto a useful distinction, Jeff. But as you said, there are a few philosophical movements that have focused on or at least included discussion on our relationship to the world, to ourself, and to others. From what I’ve read that includes existentialists, objectivists, and the pre-socratics (the stoics come to mind). To me it always seemed that understanding reality was a necessary pre-requisite to formulating an ethical position. One was the basis of the other. Of course just coming to terms with one philosophical branch can take years so you have to assume something in the… Read more »

Nils Montan
Nils Montan
10 years ago

I am glad you brought up Nietzsche Jane and by the way that is quite a beautiful comment you penned. I am more a mystic myself by temperament, but I have always been drawn to philosophy by the power of it’s explanatory project as Jeff has mentioned. On Nietzsche, some years ago I listened to a CD set by the philosophers (and married couple) from the University of Texas, Robert Solomon and Kathleen Higgins. The set is called “What Nietzsche Really Said,” (they have a book by the same name) and in the lectures they point out, among other things,… Read more »

Nils Montan
Nils Montan
10 years ago

whoops, I meant James, not “Jane.” Sorry about that.

Frank Luke
Frank Luke
10 years ago

New ideas often will trigger an over-reaction that throws out the old, the baby with the bathwater. In the case of science assuming a hegemenomy over intellectual mindset, spiritually took a backseat. Many intellectuals have assumed themselves way too hip and cool to be spiritual, much less religiously aligned. I believe we are recovering our sense of reality, that science is unquestionably valuable to humanity but that spirituality must be given its due or we suffer the consequences of lower moral standards and a losing of the meaning of being human. Many have become less compassionate and caring of others… Read more »

Frank Luke
Frank Luke
10 years ago

Spellcheck to the above:

(hegemony) in the first paragraph, second sentence

Carl
10 years ago

I look at my library and try to decide which books are Philosophy and which are Spirituality. I do this with the background that in college I went through a Great Books program for two years at Seattle University, a Jesuit Catholic institution known for teaching critical thinking, etc. The reason I mention this is that in that program we studied History, Literature and what was called “Thought” in three interconnected seminars for two years, that began with Hindu, Buddhist and Middle Eastern periods and ended after two years with contemporary writers of literature, modern history, and current day “thought.”… Read more »

Frank Luke
Frank Luke
10 years ago

Hello, James re: “Even Nietzsche, perhaps the most famous atheist, spent most of his life pondering religion. The fact that he ultimately chose atheism misleads the casual reader from the deeper truth that he actually thought the existence or non existence of God was a deeply important issue that was worth years of his time and deep contemplation – unlike today’s carefree, inherited, atheists.” I wonder if the growing numbers of those who embrace a spirituality without embracing religions or God, who attest that it’s possible to be good w/o those traditional beliefs are a progression from what Nietzsche was… Read more »

james alexander
james alexander
10 years ago

Hi Frank, I think that the type of people you describe “those who embrace a spirituality without embracing religion or God” are indeed a progression of the orientation to life that Nietzsche was aspiring toward. As I said, I consider him to be a spiritual man, as far as I understand the subject of spirituality…and yet he also evidently thought the idea of transcendental realms, values, and metaphysics overall, was poison to life. He instead wanted to justify the purpose and goodness of life on its own terms – without stepping back, seeking justification on a meta level. In fact,… Read more »

Frank Luke
Frank Luke
10 years ago

Hi James, TY for your very appreciated comments. I wonder if Nietzsche’s term Superman appropriated by Nazi sympathizers is actually a misunderstanding and actually is meant as that individual who has attained free will and is liberated from outside influence? Is this my misunderstanding of his term? Today I think that term is politically incorrect disregarding the females of our race. Humankind (not mankind) is half female and they may be the more spiritual component, no? Superpeople may sound better in German, it doesn’t go well with me. I wonder if Spiritually Awakened would cover the concept? What do you… Read more »

Subir
Subir
9 years ago

Last night I was trying to explain this distinction to my wife from my own perspective and understanding. Being an engineer and finance person by training, I have no academic or theoretical expsoure to philosophy, esp. Western Philosophy. Thus I was very happy to have reached this page, which not only had a great original post, but also some very erudite comments. Just to add my own take about this distinction: I think, that one of the fundamental differences between philosophy and spirituality is that of the approach. While both try to interpret reality and search for “the right way”… Read more »

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira
9 years ago

Thank you for this Subir, you might find my next few posts interesting as well.