We Must Become Philosophers To See That Philosophy is Relevant to Daily Life

Excerpt: Franz Kafka, "On Parables"

Many complain that the words of the wise are always merely parables and of no use in daily life, which is the only life we have.  When the sage says: 'Go over,' he does not mean that we should cross to some actual place, which we could do anyhow if the labor were worth it;  he means some fabulous yonder, something unknown to us, something too that he cannot designate more precisely, and therefore cannot help us here in the very least.  All these parables really set out to say merely that the incomprehensible is incomprehensible, and we know that already.  But the cares we have to struggle with every day:  that is a different matter.

Concerning this a man once said:  Why such reluctance?  If you only followed the parables you yourselves would become parables and with that rid of all your daily cares.

Another said:  I bet that is also a parable.

The first said:  You have won.

The second said:  But unfortunately only in parable.

The first said:  No, in reality:  in parable you have lost.


Trans. Willa and Edwin Muir in Franz Kafka:  Parables (New York:  Schocken Books, 1947), 11.


Perhaps the most important objection ever raised against philosophical thought is that it is irrelevant to daily life.  In "On Parables," Franz Kafka considers this problem of the relevance of deep thought for everyday life.  For Kafka a parable, or a simple story with a deep message, is a way to illustrate philosophical thoughts. Here Kafka has written a parable about parables, in order to consider whether parables, or "the words of the wise," have any real value. Through his story, Kafka suggests an intriguing reversal of the traditional problem:  If philosophical thought is irrelevant to our daily lives, perhaps the fault lies with our daily lives, not with philosophy! In other words, he seems to be placing the burden on us to make our daily lives philosophical.

Certainly Kafka's parable is quite extreme in this regard--he seems to be challenging us to "rid [ourselves] of all [our] daily cares," perhaps the way a monk or a poet might abandon all the everyday concerns of life and live only in deep reflection. But even if we are not ready to quit our jobs and head for the hills, perhaps we can consider the possibility that the deepest philosophical thoughts and questions should be a part of our daily lives. Despite all the practical demands that daily life places upon us, perhaps our lives are not complete unless we give ourselves a chance to ask the big questions, confront "the incomprehensible."

This is our choice, of course, and as the first man in the story says we can "win" against the world of philosophical thought by simply dismissing it as an irrelevant mental game. The second man has taken this approach, and the first man seems to be warning him that his outlook is a self-fulfilling prophecy:  If you see parables as "merely parables," then "in reality," that is, in your reality, they will be of no consequence.

Kafka seems to be suggesting, through the first man, that the real victory comes when we give philosophy a chance, by ourselves becoming philosophical seekers: "you yourselves would become parables." Kafka thus highlights one of the most important features of philosophy, the fact that it cannot be given to us, even by the greatest sages--we must enter the dialogue ourselves, becoming active participants in the quest to understand. The true nature of philosophy, far from being irrelevant to our lives, is to actually become a part of who we are.

Copyright 2004 by The Daily Philosopher
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Posted: May 2004

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