Thursday, August 1, 2013
What is philosophy?
I am teaching four sections of philosophy this fall but in an unusual arrangement. Two of them are traditional general education course; one is an honors seminar; and one is online. As always, I begin by asking myself what the Hell I am talking about. Philosophy is distinct from the other courses I and other professors teach in so far as most students have no idea what it is they will be doing in such a course. A math student begins with some idea of numbers and their manipulation; a student of literature begins with some idea of reading; but what does a philosophy student begin with? Here are some of my introductory reflections.
Philosophy is a human activity. To philosophize is to do something that philosophers do. It is a fundamental activity in the sense that to do it involves taking a basic position with regard to oneself and the world around oneself. In that sense it is like religion, politics, war, and business. Such activities shape both individuals and communities. As some Chinese wit said, to the man who makes shoes, the whole world is made of leather.
It may be argued that, of all such fundamental activities, philosophy has had the greatest impact on human history. Philosophy gave rise to science and science to modern science and the latter to modern technology. These underlie the astonishing changes in the world over the past two centuries. One of the reasons that this impact is so profound is that, again unlike other similar activities, philosophy does not seem to arise spontaneously in different places.
Politics, religion, war, and trade are ubiquitous among human societies. They arise spontaneously wherever enough human beings gather. Philosophy seems to have arisen spontaneously only once, on the western shore of Asia Minor around the turn of the sixth century BC. Since that time, everyone we know about who has philosophized has done so after encountering the philosophical tradition either by meeting a philosopher or reading what some philosopher wrote.
In saying this, one might suppose that I am privileging “Western philosophy” over other philosophical traditions such as Eastern philosophy. I do not at all imply that alternative traditions of thought are inferior; however, I do hold that they are distinct from what Thales or Socrates or Leo Strauss meant by philosophy. It is perhaps easiest to begin by saying what philosophy is not.
Philosophy is not the elaboration of doctrine. Most of what is called Eastern philosophy falls into this category, as for example the Abhidharma tradition in Buddhism. These traditions begin with certain fundamental principles backed by religious authority (e.g., all compounded things are impermanent). They proceed by elaborating and reconciling. They value of such enterprises depends, of course, on the value of the original principles. Whatever one thinks of this (and I have a deep respect for Buddhist traditions), it isn’t what Socrates was up to.
Philosophy is not religion. Religions begin and perhaps end with an authoritative statement. Hear, Israel, the Lord your God is one! Philosophy begins with questions and perhaps remains with the same. Likewise philosophy is not mysticism, which views rational thought as an obstacle to wisdom.
Philosophy is emphatically not a statement of personal beliefs that one holds without bothering much to think about them, as in: “my philosophy is live and let live.”
So what is it? I will offer the following as the simplest possible answer:
Philosophy is the attempt to become wise by relentless questioning.
That definition fixes the essence of philosophy in its goal (wisdom) and its method (questioning). Both must be present if what is being done is genuinely philosophical. The definition is sufficient if you read back the method to understand the goal, which is to say that questioning as a path to wisdom presupposes a certain view of wisdom.
You might suppose that wisdom is a largely meaningless term, since it is necessarily understood in different ways by the distinct activities identified above. You would be wrong. Wisdom means simply having the answers to all the important questions. Again you might object that there are a very large number of important questions and that different cultures and distinct professions within a culture will select out their own privileged set. Again, you would be wrong.
There are really only two important questions. The wise in any group, from the elders in the tribe up to the priests and divine emperor, rest their claim to wisdom on the answers. The two questions are:
What is the nature of the world?
How should we live in it?
The tribal elder will present as a wise person because he or she knows the authoritative stories (the world is mud on the back of a giant turtle and curiosity killed the cat) and because his or her long life provides a multitude of illustrations. The prophet is wise because he knows that God created the heavens and the earth and that fear of God is the guide to the best possible life.
Philosophy begins when someone first took seriously the distinction between opinion and knowledge, between the way that things seem to be and the way that they really are. Water, ice, and vapor seem to be different things, as different as caterpillars and butterflies. But wait! Don’t ice and vapor seem to come from water? Could it be that all three are different forms of the same thing? Okay, so the world is mud on the back of a really big turtle. What is the turtle swimming in? Philosophy begins by questioning both appearances and the stories that we tell about them.
Perhaps the best illustration of philosophy occurs at the beginning of Plato’s magnificent Republic. Socrates asks the aged Cephalus
What do you consider to be the greatest blessing which you have reaped from your wealth?
Cephalus replies that he is preparing for death by making sure that all his debts are paid, so he will carry no moral deficit if and when he faces the afterlife. So is justice paying what is owed? Socrates isn’t so sure.
Well said, Cephalus, I replied; but as concerning justice, what is it? --to speak the truth and to pay your debts --no more than this? And even to this are there not exceptions? Suppose that a friend when in his right mind has deposited arms with me and he asks for them when he is not in his right mind, ought I to give them back to him? No one would say that I ought or that I should be right in doing so, any more than they would say that I ought always to speak the truth to one who is in his condition.
That is philosophy. One question is followed by another until all questions have been answered. Of course, questions always remain or, at least, questions still remain. As long as that is so, the wisdom sought by the philosophers is beyond their grasp.
The philosopher is the person who refuses to stop asking questions until all questions have been answered. Philosophers are rare, but anyone can participate in philosophy in so far as he or she remains alive to the unanswered questions and can hear their seductive whispers.