What is philosophy?
Answer by Tony Fahey
Hi Tom, whilst this is a question that is put to the panel of Ask A Philosopher from time to time, it is nonetheless one that is worth clarifying for anyone coming to the subject for the first time.
Philosophy means ‘love of wisdom’. In its truest sense it is a desire to challenge, to expand and to extend the frontiers of one’s own understanding. It is the study of the documented wisdom — the ‘big ideas’ — of thinkers throughout the history of humankind. However, even in our most respected institutions, Philosophy is often presented as theology, psychology, spirituality or religion. Indeed, many exponents of these respective disciplines seem to have no difficulty in identifying themselves as ‘philosophers’ when in fact they are ‘dogmatists’ (sic). What can be said, however, is that Philosophy is all of the above and none. ‘All’, in the sense that it will certainly engage with the views advanced by the exponents of these disciplines. ‘None’, in the sense that Philosophy can never be constrained by views that do not allow themselves to be examined, challenged, deconstructed and demystified in the realisation that ‘wisdom’ or ‘truth’ is not something that can be caught and grasped as one particular ism.
For those really interested in Philosophy, it is important to draw a distinction between ‘a philosophy’ and ‘Philosophy’ itself. There are abroad today many colleges, institutions, societies, schools of philosophy, groups, cults and sects promoting the view that they ‘teach’ Philosophy, where in fact what they are doing is promoting a particular worldview that they claim is superior to other worldviews or ‘philosophies’. What has to be said is that when a body claims that its philosophy has the monopoly on other worldviews it cannot be placed under the rubric of Philosophy — it is dogma. It is for this reason that those institutions that promote a particular religious ethos cannot, by their very nature, be said to teach Philosophy in any real sense: they are constrained by their own ‘philosophical’ prejudices from treating other worldviews impartially — particularly where these other approaches run contrary to their own. Moreover, by indoctrinating their students into a mindset that holds that it is their way or no way, these institutions show that their interest is not primarily in that which is best for the student, but that which is best in ensuring their own perpetuity. This approach (of using others as a means to one’s own ends), as Kant reminds us, is repugnant to Philosophy — the search for wisdom.
What this means is that Philosophy cannot condone any body of knowledge that advocates a closed view on wisdom or truth — one cannot take an a la carte approach to Philosophy. As the Dalai Lama, in the prologue to his book The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality advises, where scientific discoveries are made that expose weaknesses in long held traditional beliefs, these beliefs should be abandoned, and the new discoveries embraced (would that all spiritual leaders or ‘philosophers’ were so open minded!). Philosophy, then, must operate on the premise that its conclusions should ever be open to what Karl Popper calls, ‘the law of falsification’. That is where its conclusions are found to be questionable, it is imperative that these views are revisited, re-evaluated and, where necessary, either re-formulated or abandoned. Unfortunately, as history shows, many systems of belief either will not entertain such an approach, or, if or when they do, it is often so far in time removed from the initial discovery that much harm has occurred in the interim.
What should be realised is that the wisdom to which Philosophy aspires is not attained by the practice of uttering self-hypnotising mantras or prayers, nor by being initiated into some select group, sect or cult that promises that its ‘road less travelled’ is the one true road. Philosophy is not love of ‘a truth’ or ‘some particular approach to wisdom’, but a love of truth and wisdom. However, this wisdom or truth does not come pre-wrapped and packaged as one ism or another, rather it involves the courage and preparedness to engage with, to challenge and to expand the boundaries of one’s own knowledge and experience — one’s own wisdom.