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What is Philosophy?
Part I. Definitions
Defining philosophy is as difficult as trying to define love. The word philosophy is not much help. Philosophy is a combination of two Greek words, philein sophia, meaning lover of wisdom. In ancient times a lover of wisdom could be related to any area where intelligence was expressed. This could be in business, politics, human relations, or carpentry and other skills. Philosophy had a “wholeness” approach to life in antiquity. In contrast to this, some modern definitions restrict philosophy to what can be known by science or the analysis of language.
In today’s world there is a popular use of the word philosophy. Philosophy is a term applied to almost any area of life. Some questions may express this general attitude: what is your philosophy of business? banking? driving a car? or your philosophy of the use of money? If this popular misuse of the word were to prevail, one may admit that anyone who thinks seriously about any subject is a philosopher. If we do this, we are ignoring the academic disciplines, or study of philosophy. If this very general definition is accepted, everyone becomes a philosopher. It becomes true, paradoxically, that when everyone is a philosopher, no one is a philosopher. This becomes so loose a definition that philosophy becomes meaningless as a definition. If this definition prevailed, it would mean that a philosopher is anyone who says he is a philosopher. Because of this inadequacy it becomes apparent that we have to look elsewhere for a definition of philosophy.
Because the original meaning of the word, philosophy, does not give us much for specific content, we will turn to descriptive definitions. A descriptive definition of philosophy is that it seeks to describe its functions, goals, and reasons for existence. In the following pages a number of these definitions will be set forth and examined.
A word of warning is offered to the beginning student of philosophy. The beginner may despair over diverse definitions. Students who come from a scientific background frequently expect concise, clear, and universally accepted definitions. This will not be true in philosophy and it is not universally true concerning all issues in any science or non-scientific study or discipline. The diversity of opinion in philosophy becomes a source of embarrassment for the beginner when asked to explain to parents or unknowing friends just what a course in philosophy is all about. It might be expected that one of the oldest disciplines or subjects in academia should achieve some uniformity or opinion, but this is not the case.
Yet in spite of diversity, philosophy is important. Plato declared that philosophy is a gift the gods have bestowed on mortals.1 This may reflect man’s ability to reason about the world as well as man’s life within it. Socrates’ famous statement, “Know thyself,” reflects this aim of philosophy. Plato also warned against the neglect of philosophy. He wrote that “land animals came from men who had no use for philosophy. . . .”2 In light of this it might help to threaten the reader with the warning: if you don’t take philosophy seriously, you will turn into a pumpkin! But more seriously, men live by philosophies. Which one will it be?
We now turn to consider several definitions of philosophy. These will include the historical approach, philosophy as criticism, philosophy as the analysis of language, philosophy as a program of change, philosophy as a set of questions and answers, and philosophy as a world-view. Along the way we will also analyze the definitions and attempt to reach some conclusions about this analysis.
A. The Historical Approach
Remember our question: what is philosophy? According to this approach philosophy is really the study of historical figures who are considered philosophers. One may encounter the names of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Thales, Philo, Plotinus, Aquinas, Kant, Erigena, Hume, Marx, Hegel, Russell, Wittgenstein and many more. All are considered philosophers. What holds them together since they are so diverse in many of their views? One answer lies in their common set of problems and concerns. Many were interested in the problems of the universe, its origin, what it is in its nature, the issue of man’s existence, good and evil, politics, and other topics. (This may serve as a link to another definition to be considered later.)
The argument for the historical approach is that no real understanding of philosophy can be had unless one understands the past. Philosophy would be impoverished if it lost any of the names above. Some argue that knowing the history of philosophy is required for a positive appreciation of philosophy, and necessary if one is to make creative contributions to the advancement of philosophy.
This definition of philosophy has its problems: (l) it tends to limit philosophy to the great minds of the past and makes it an elitist movement, (2) it restricts philosophy to an examination of past questions and answers only, (3) it is not really different from the study of history of ideas. This would make philosophy a sub-unit of history. (4) This definition would not describe the work of those philosophers (logical empiricists) who regard the philosophy of the past as so much rubbage to be rejected.
The value of the historical approach is that it introduces the student to the great minds of the past and the confrontation one has with philosophic problems that are raised by thinking people in all ages. This is desirable in itself even though this is not the best definition of philosophy.
B. Philosophy is the Analysis of Language
This is one of the more extreme definitions of philosophy. This definition began as an emphasis in philosophy at about the turn of the century. A growing revolt took place against the metaphysical systems in philosophy. Metaphysical systems in philosophy explained everything from the standpoint of a great idea like “mind” or “spirit.” The reaction was primarily against the philosophy of idealism which is a highly developed metaphysical philosophy. More of this will be forthcoming in the fifth definition. The analysis-of-language-emphasis rejected metaphysics and accepted the simple, but useful modern standard of scientific verification. Their central thesis is that only truths of logic and empirically verifiable statements are meaningful. What does scientific verification mean in this context? If you can validate or reproduce an experiment or whatever, you can say it is true. If there is no way to reproduce or validate the experiment in the context of science, there was then no claim for truth.
How do verification and language work together? Try this example. How do you know when to take a statement as referring to a fact? We can use three sentences: (l) God is love, (2) Disneyland is in California, and (3) rape is wrong. These sentences are constructed in a similar manner. But only one is factual, i.e., it can be scientifically verified. Thousands of people go yearly to Disneyland and anyone who doubts can go see for himself. But you cannot scientifically verify that rape is wrong and that God is love. I can say factually that a person was raped and may even witness the event as a fact, but how can I verify the word “wrong?” God is not seen and love is not seen scientifically. Are these statements meaningful?
Plato, cir. 428-348. One of the greatest names in philosophy, was born in Athens, knew Socrates as a youth, and desired to enter politics until the death of Socrates. Plato founded the Academy in Athens which may be called the first European university. Plato’s dialogues are classic as a model of simplicity of philosophic expression.
The conclusion reached by analytic philosophers is that anything not verifiable is nonsense. All of the systems of the past that go beyond verification are to be rejected as nonsense. This means that the realm of values, religion, aesthetics, and much of philosophy is regarded only as emotive statements. An emotive statement reflects only how a person “feels” about a topic. Declaring that rape is wrong is only to declare that I feel it is wrong. I may seek your agreement on the issue, but again it is not an objective truth, but two “feelings” combined.
Other analytic philosophers moved beyond the limitations of the verification principle to the understanding of language itself. Instead of talking about the world and whether things exist in the world, they talk about the words that are used to describe the world. This exercise in “semantic ascent” may be seen in contrasting talk about miles, distances, points, etc., with talk about the word “mile” and how it is used. Language philosophers such as Quine spend entire treatises on the nature of language, syntax, synonymous terms, concepts of abstractions, translation of terms, vagueness and other features of language. This is a philosophy about language rather than being interested in great issues that have frequently troubled the larger tradition of philosophers.
Language analysis as the definition of philosophy changes philosophy from being a subject matter into a tool for dealing with other subject matters. It becomes a method without content.
This definition is as one-sided as the definition it rejected. The analysis of language has been an important part of philosophy from the time of Socrates and others to the present. But language connected with verification and restricted by that principle places great limitations on areas that philosophy has often regarded as important. This limitation is seen particularly in the areas of morals and ethics. Morality cannot be verified in a scientific way. But it does seem obvious that we can discuss actions and adopt some means of objective evaluation in terms of reason. Moreover, it does not seem obvious that some moral distinctions are merely “emotive feelings.” It appears quite reasonable and acceptable to most people that there is a big difference between paddling a child by a concerned parent, and the child-abusing parent whose discipline kills the helpless child. If verification is required for the statement–it is wrong to kill the child–then all moral standards are at an end, and philosophy is turned into stupidity.
C. Philosophy is a Program of Change
Karl Marx declared that the role of philosophy is not to think about the world, but to change it. Philosophy is not to be an ivory tower enterprise without relevance to the world of human conditions. A contemporary Marxist has asked:
What is the point in subtle epistemological investigation when science and technology, not unduly worried about the foundations of their knowledge, increase daily their mastery of nature and man? What is the point of linguistic analysis which steers clear of the transformation of language (ordinary language!) into an instrument of political control? What is the point in philosophical reflections on the meaning of good and evil when Auschwitz, the Indonesian massacres, and the war in Vietnam provides a definition which suffocates all discussion of ethics? And what is the point in further philosophical occupation with Reason and Freedom when the resources and the features of a rational society, and the need for liberation are all too clear, and the problem is not their concept, but the political practice of their realization.3
The criticism of Marcuse is a stinging one. But the question of change is not one for philosophy per se. Philosophy has no built-in demand that change be the end product of one’s thinking. It seems natural that one who is thinking seriously about the problems of man that one seek good solutions. It seems natural also that one having good solutions should seek to carry them out. But it is also possible that one have good solutions and only contemplate them without any action. There is no inherent mandate in philosophy for a program of action, although it may be tacitly assumed that some good action will come forth.
Philosophy is in contrast generally to a movement like Christianity which has a built-in motivation for changing the world by the conversion of people to its cause. Traditional philosophy has concerned itself more with academic questions. But there is the underlying assumption: if you know what is right and good, you will proceed to do it.
Another view of philosophy with an emphasis on doing, or change, is that of Alan Watts. Watts describes philosophy from the standpoint of contemplation and meditation. He starts with the conclusion of the language philosophers: all language about philosophy is meaningless. If this is true, then philosophy should be silent and learn to practice oriental mysticism which is characterized as “idealess contemplation.”4 The aim of meditation is to get to the Ground of Being. What is the Ground of Being? In a simple way it can be described as the all-pervasive Spirit that is the only basic reality of the world. Everyone is part of the Great Spirit. The aim of philosophy is not to think, but to achieve union with the Great Spirit.
The idea of change is different between Marcuse and Watts. The Marxist idea of change is to change the material world and man will be better. Watt’s view of change is to forsake social change for all change is futile. The real change is to attain oneness with the impersonal world-soul. The world of the material is transient and the visible world is not the real world. Even the Ground of Being, or the Great Pervasive Spirit is changing and manifesting itself in various forms. There is a subtle contradiction in Watt’s philosophy. The Ground of Being continues to produce human beings who must continually deny their own being to be able to return to the Ground of Being. This denial of one’s own being reflects the fact that the Ground of Being is constantly making a bad thing come into being.
Another variation on the theme of mystic contemplation–the attempt to attain oneness with God–is seen in the thought of men such as Eckhart or Plotinus. Their philosophy encourages a contemplative role. While Eckhart or Plotinus are motivated from a religious or quasi-religious motive like Watts, they do not promote the revolutionary social change as advocated by the Marxists.
D. Philosophy is a Set of Questions and Answers
Philosophy has a long list of topics it has been interested in. Some of these are more interesting and up-to-date than others. Is the world of one or more substances? Is it matter, mind, or other? Is man only a body? Is he, or does he have a soul? Does God exist? Many other questions could be incorporated here. Some questions have several proposed solutions. This is true in trying to answer what the nature of man is. Other questions cannot be answered decisively. Does God exist? can only be answered in terms of a probability situation. No scientific proof can decide the question either way. Some questions have been answered to the satisfaction of many philosophers for a long period of time only to be raised again. One example of this is the old question of Socrates’ day about man being born with knowledge, called innate knowledge. For centuries this was accepted by a variety of people. But John Locke seems to have solved the matter for many philosophers that man is not given innate ideas at birth. Hence, he must gain his knowledge through experience.
Now in contemporary thought, Noam Chomsky has raised the question again in proposing what he calls “generative grammar.” He rejects the view of Locke that language is learned empirically. When we learn a language we are able to understand and formulate all types of sentences that we have never heard before. This ability to deal with language is regarded by Chomsky as innate, something we have inherited genetically. So the issue comes anew.5
But other questions have not met with the same success for such a long period of time. In summary, it can be said that defining philosophy as a set of questions and answers is not unique by any means. Other disciplines or studies could also be defined by the questions they seek to answer. If this definition is accepted as the only definition, one must set forth the particular kinds of questions that are restricted to philosophy. Obviously the answers to the problem of pollution are not the kinds of questions one deals with in philosophy. But the relation of man’s body to his mind is one of the kinds of questions that philosophers have regarded as their own.
E. Philosophy is a World-View (Weltanschaüung)
Early philosophers attempted to describe the world in its simple make-up. Thales asserted that water, and Anaximenes asserted that air, were the important materials of the universe. Many other proposals have come from other philosophers. But the main issue concerns the nature of the universe. A world-view, or Weltanschaüung, as the Germans term it, involves more than the questions of the universe. A world-view is the attempt to come to a total view of the universe as it relates to the make-up of matter, man, God, the right, the nature of politics, values, aesthetics, and any other element in the cosmos that is important.
Such a definition was held by William James who said,
The principles of explanation that underlie all things without exception, the elements common to gods and men and animals and stone, the first whence and the last whither of the whole cosmic procession, the conditions of all knowing, and the most general rules of human action–these furnish the problems commonly deeded philosophic par excellence; and the philosopher is the man who finds the most to say about them.6
In spite of this definition, James is not one of the better examples of a philosopher who carried on the development of a systematic world-view.
If we accept this definition of philosophy, we are not committed to any pre-arranged conclusions. There are many world-views that are contrary to one another. Look at the following brief examples: (l) Lucretius, in his essay on nature, developed a world-view based on the atomic nature of all things.7 Everything that is, is atomic. Even the souls of men and gods are composed of atoms. When atoms disintegrate, things, souls, and gods also disintegrate. Only atoms are permanent. Lucretius dealt with many other facts of existence, but they are all related to the atomic nature of things. (2) In contrast to the simple atomism of Lucretius is the philosophy of Hegel which views all reality from the standpoint of mind, or Absolute Spirit.8 Spirit is the only reality. What looks like matter is really a sub-unit of Spirit. Hegel interpreted politics, the world, and man from the single vantage point of Spirit or Mind. (3) A middle viewpoint or hybrid example would be the philosophy of realism which asserts that mind and matter are both equally real. Matter is not mind, nor is mind merely matter in a different form. Samuel Alexander’s book, Space, Time, and Deity, give an example of this third viewpoint.9
The three examples above are attempts at world-views. Neither example is compatible with the other. Neither thinker would accept the other’s views. But all are seeking explanations of human existence that result in world-views.
The modern era of philosophy–since the turn of the century–has seen considerable rejection of the world-view definition of philosophy. In spite of this rejection, it has a time-honored tradition behind it. Aristotle has a sentence that is widely quoted about this emphasis:
There is a science which investigates being as being, and the attributes which belong to this in virtue of its own nature. Now this is not the same as any of the so-called special sciences, for none of these treats universally of being as being. They cut off a part of being and investigate the attribute of this part.10
Looking at the universe as a whole involves questions which cannot be ignored. The questions are not to be isolated from one another, but should be put together to form an integrated whole, or total view of the world. It is this integration that makes this definition of philosophy better than the previous one or questions and answers.
This definition of philosophy will have an appeal to the student who aims for consistency and coherence in his approach to thinking. The role of education tacitly leads to such a conclusion. If one believes in social planning as advocated in Walden Two, that belief will call for a corresponding reduction in claims for human freedom and responsibility. Similarly, if a person believes in God, and takes God seriously, there should be a concern for human rights, equality, justice, and a concern for the wholeness of man in both body and spirit. Something is wrong when a person affirms belief in God as Creator and then regards certain categories of people as sub-human.
A world-view will include views on man, social responsibilities and politics consistent with the view of man. Any discipline or study having a bearing on the meaning of man will have relevance for a world-view. This will include biology, anthropology, psychology, sociology, theology, and other related disciplines. A world-view is an attempt to think coherently about the world in its completeness.
Defining philosophy as a world-view sounds good, but it too has problems. One basic criticism is that the systems of philosophers–Lucretius, Hegel, and others–have been limited by the basic motif, or guiding principle that is adopted. The principle is too limited and when applied, it makes a mockery out of some areas of human existence. For example, Lucretius’ materialism or atomism is true to some extent, but it makes a mockery out of mind and is inconsistent with freedom or denies it. Other limitations exist in other world-views. To put it positively, a world-view should be based on the best possible models, principles, or motifs. They should be set forth tentatively and not dogmatically.
F. Philosophy is Criticism
The idea of philosophy being “criticism” needs explanation. An understanding may be reached by looking at one of the philosophers who embodied this definition. Socrates is one of the earliest to engage in philosophic criticism. For Socrates, criticism referred to critical thinking involving a dialectic in the conversation. A dialectic, one must keep in mind, is a running debate with claims, counter-claims, qualifications, corrections, and compromises in the sincere hope of getting to understand a concept. This may be seen briefly in Plato’s Republic (Bk. I). Socrates asked Cephalus what his greatest blessing of wealth had been. Cephalus replied that a sense of justice had come from it. Socrates then asked: what is justice? The conversation then involved several people including Thrasymachus who claimed that justice was a mere ploy of the strong to keep the weak in line. Socrates rejected the tyrant-theory as irrational and the dialectic went on in pursuit of the question: what is justice?
Criticism is the attempt to clear away shabby thinking and establish concepts with greater precision and meaning. In this sense John Dewey noted that
philosophy is inherently criticism, having its distinctive position among various modes of criticism in its generality; a criticism of criticism as it were. Criticism is discriminating judgement, careful appraisal, and judgement is appropriately termed criticism wherever the subject-matter of discrimination concerns goods or values.11
Another example of criticism is the philosophic movement associated with the name of Edmund Husserl who is the father of phenomenology. Phenomenology is a method of criticism aiming to investigate the essence of anything. The essence of love, justice, courage, and any other idea may be dealt with critically, and a tentative conclusion reached. Such criticism is vital to philosophy as well as to other disciplines.
Criticism must not be confused with skepticism. Criticism is carried on for the pursuit of purer, or better knowledge. Sometimes skepticism may be viewed as a stepping stone to knowledge. Unfortunately, skepticism frequently degenerates to irresponsible negativism. When this happens, skepticism becomes a willful, self-serving game rather than the pursuit of knowledge.
Criticism as the activity of philosophy has been fairly popular in the contemporary scene. Robert Paul Wolff describes philosophy as the activity of careful reasoning with clarity and logical rigor controlling it. Such an activity has strong faith in the power of reason and it is an activity in which reason leads to truth.12
Similarly, Scherer, Facione, Attig, and Miller, in their Introduction to Philosophy, describe philosophy as beginning with an attitude of wonder. Philosophical wonder “leads to serious reflection on the more fundamental or more general questions that emerge in a variety of particular cases.”13 This sense of wonder leads to activities in which one raises questions concerning the meaning of terms, the attempt to think things through systematically, and comprehensively, to have good reasoning in the thought process, and then evaluate various options.
Joseph Margolis suggests that doing philosophy is an art and philosophers pursue their creative work in different ways. Studying master minds of the past is done for the purpose of analyzing the ways they sought to deal with philosophical problems. Consequently, there is no prevailing way of working, to which professionals everywhere are more or less committed.14
Milton K. Munitz suggests that “philosophy is a quest for a view of the world and of man’s place in it, which is arrived at and supported in a critical and logical way.”15
A final example of this definition is found in the following:
. . . philosophy is a radical critical inquiry into the fundamental assumptions of any field of inquiry, including itself. We are not only able to have a philosophy of religion, but also a philosophy of education, a philosophy of art (aesthetics), of psychology, of mathematics, of language, and so forth. We can also apply the critical focus of philosophy to any human concern. There can be a philosophy of power, of sexuality, freedom, community, revolution–even a philosophy of sports. Finally, philosophy can reflect upon itself; that is, we can do a philosophy of philosophy. Philosophy can, then, examine its own presuppositions, its own commitments.16
Criticism as a definition of philosophy also may be criticized. Philosophy must be critical, but it seems to turn philosophy into a method of going about thinking rather than the content of the subject. Criticism will help one acquire a philosophy of life, but criticism is not the philosophy itself. Generally, when one asks about philosophy the intention relates to a subject matter rather than a method of approach. This would make it possible for all critical thinkers in any critical topic to regard themselves as doing philosophy.
Part II. Concluding Observations
The thoughtful reader has now probably come to the conclusion: a definition of philosophy is impossible. Another may say: why can’t all of these be used for a definition? The idea of pooling the best element of each definition–known as eclecticism–has a certain appeal to the novice, but not much appeal to the philosophers. There is, however, some truth in an eclectic approach to defining philosophy. Philosophy would not be the same without criticism. No philosopher worth his salt would consider an important discussion without resorting to an analysis of the language. Neither is it strange to see a philosopher attempting to put his beliefs in practice either in the classroom or outside of it. What philosopher does not feel good with a few converts to his platform? Even though a world-view definition has been rejected by some philosophers, still others seek to understand the whole of the universe.
Part III. Divisions of Philosophy
Philosophy covers many subjects and emphases. The following divisions are important in an over-view of the subject of philosophy.
A. Epistemology. Epistemology is a Greek word translated as the theory of knowledge. Epistemology is a foundational area for other areas of philosophy. Epistemology involves three main areas: (l) the source or ways to knowledge. How do we know what we claim to know? How do we know certain kinds of things? (2) The nature of knowledge. What do we mean when we say we know something? If I declare I know a pin oak tree, do I know this directly or indirectly? (3) The validity of knowledge. In this the matter of truth or falsity is considered. How do I claim to know that something is true? Why is one statement regarded as true or false? These three issues will be considered in the next four chapters.
B. Metaphysics. Metaphysics is another Greek word which refers to the attempt to describe the nature of reality. It involves many questions such as the nature and makeup of the universe, whether the world is purposive or not, whether man is free, whether the world is eternal or created, and many other issues. We will look at some of these matters in chapters 6-8. Other metaphysical problems will expressed in chapters on the various types of philosophies (chapters 9-l5).
C. Logic. Logic is a term used to describe the various types of reasoning structures, the relationship of ideas, deduction and inference, and in modern times. symbolic logic which becomes quite mathematical. Logic is too technical to consider in the confines of a general introduction to philosophy. There are many excellent texts that may be consulted for a general look at logic.
D. Axiology. Axios, the Greek word of worth, is related to two different areas of worth. There is, first, moral worth, or ethics. Ethics is a discipline concerning human moral behavior and raises the questions of right or wrong. Ethics has generally been the science or discipline of what human behavior ought to be in contrast to a discipline like sociology which is the study of what human behavior is. The second area, aesthetics, is concerned with the beautiful. What is a beautiful work of art? music? sculpture? What makes a beautiful woman? a handsome man? an ugly one? Aesthetics seeks to give some answers to these questions. Ethics will be treated in chapter 16. The general area of values will also be treated in part in chapters 9-l5.
E. “Philosophies of”. Another category of philosophy is called “philosophies of” because of the term being related to various other subjects or disciplines. For example:
philosophy of art
philosophy of biology
philosophy of history
philosophy of law
philosophy of philosophy
philosophy of physics
philosophy of the natural sciences
philosophy of religion
philosophy of sociology
philosophy of science
The “philosophy of” is basically the application of metaphysical and epistemological questions to a certain subject area. It is concerned with the basic structures of the discipline and the presuppositions needed for the study. If the philosophy of a discipline is changed, it changes the outcome of the discipline. As an example, how should one write history? If it is written around the theme of conflict, one gets a certain emphasis; if it is written around a “great man” theme, it will give a different emphasis and interpretation. If history is written from a Marxist view it will come out differently than from a capitalist view. Look at science as another example. Biological science is today based on the idea of uniformitarianism–the idea that change has been slow and gradual in nature. Science used to have catastrophism as its basic philosophy. Catastrophism means that changes in nature came abruptly and are related to Creation and a massive flood. Uniformitarianism leads to the conclusion that the cosmos is very old. Catastrophism can lead to the conclusion that the world is very young. The point is this: if you change the philosophy or structure of a discipline you can change the outcome, but in both cases you use the same facts.
These two examples, history and biology, indicate the importance of the philosophy behind the discipline. One may well ask the question: how should one do psychology or sociology? These are consequential questions for any study. If the student knows the philosophy of the discipline, i.e., how it works, its method and presuppositions, he is in a better position to evaluate and criticize the discipline. It is obvious that the “philosophies of” each discipline are too technical for inclusion in a general introduction. However, there will be some involvement of these ideas in chapter five, Knowledge and Method in Science, Philosophy, and Religion.
We have now dealt with six proposed definitions along with some assessments of them. Moreover, we have taken a brief look at the sub-divisions of philosophy. We can now turn to the first issue in epistemology.
Entry filed under: Philosophy.