What is philosophy?

Carlos asked:

What is philosophy?

Answer by Caterina Pangallo

Philosophy seems to be as far removed from the affairs of ordinary life as can be. But in fact all of us have some philosophical views, whether we are aware of them or not. You really can’t live as a free and independent person without embracing a philosophy.

This should remind you that philosophy was invented by the Greeks. The word is Greek, and it means ‘love of wisdom’. Something we forget is this: the Greks were free and independent people with their thoughts, just like we are. Actually we learnt it from them. So the important issue about philosophy, is that you have to be a free agent. People who live in dictatorships, or tyrannies, or theocracies, usually don’t philosophise because they are told how to live and think.

How we use it everyday is in our attitude to life. This does not mean: how you run your business, or the sport you pursue. It means, what do you wish to get from your life?

Now most people would say they want life to be interesting and fulfilling. That’s already latently a philosophical attitude. A philosophy might come out of it.

Then you might think that you wish to be treated with respect as a person. That’s also philosophical, because the moment you think like this, you will find that you must respect others the same way. As you move on, you might wish also to become insightful about the many things that go on in society. Or you might wish to learn about biology, or physics, or animal husbandry. In all these endeavours you are pursuing some goal that you should be able to formulate.

Once you start thinking this way, you’re on the way to philosophising. This is because such thinking is about you gaining an understanding and making rational decisions.

This is where philosophers can help.

I give you an example. Back in ancient Greece, Socrates used to walk the streets and ask people, what is life all about? He could ask us today the same questions. In the end he always said: the unexamined life is not worth living. This means that life must be lived with a conscious awareness of what is ethical in your dealings with others.

Later Aristotle, who was a systematic thinker, gave us the really golden rule to follow. He said: do everything in moderation, because every exaggeration is bound to make someone unhappy, including yourself. You can do too much good, as well as bad.

What you must not think now: oh, these were big men with big ideas, but they’re still only opinions. If you keep on this road yourself, you will come up against the same issues. And then, if you can’t work them out, these ‘opinions’ suddenly become important, because philosophers argue in depth. They don’t just give opinions.

Aristotle also said that we should watch over the goals we pursue in life. He said that most of us are mistaken about why we love doing certain things (common error even today): namely, we want to get rich, or famous, or powerful, or get married, have a home and children etc. and we think that when we have achieved it, we will be happy. Big mistake! What all of us really want, at bottom, is to be happy. And now he observed that people are really happy when they strive. If you strive for fame, that makes you happy. If you’re in love and are loved in return, you are happy. Once you’ve achieved all the good things you want, you might get bored or depressed, or get a sense of deja vu. Then you will have to start all over again. So, Aristotle says, don’t mistake the end for the means. The means are happiness, the goal is only a temporary station in life.

The only goals that can be permanent, he says, are love and friendship. And he adds, that although it is nice to have plenty of money, love and friendship are more important.

So philosophy makes people think about the basic issues of life – which is really life in society – and about the value of knowledge and beliefs, of love and friendship, of success and failure, and how important each of these may be. It makes us inquire into reasons for what we accept or reject, into the importance of ideas and ideals, as well as our hopes and aspirations. Philosophy is the best way of ensuring that your opinions and convictions will be rational, not just whimsies.

This is just a smattering, of course. People who like to think, will generally go on and study deeper and further. Consider, for example, that science could not work at all, if there was no philosophy underlying it, about what science should investigate. But at the beginning this is aiming to high. The best thing about philosophy in a practical sense is this: that it teaches us how to think and how to be aware.

You only have to look at the three greatest philosophers among the Greeks to see that their first concerns were: the individual, society, politics, ethics. Of course, modern philosophers show the same concerns.

Philosophy is also about knowledge, of course. But this comes later. First, as humans, we must learn to live. And because humans don’t live alone, it means we must learn how to live with each other. All the problems we have in society come about because people don’t think about them. So not having a philosophy is really bad news. There is no philosophy of racism, for example, but people are racists because of ignorance about ‘what it is to be a human being’.

So ultimately, this is what philosophy is. A way of learning to think, to understand and to respect life. We all needs this. Maybe we are in such a bad state today, because we think, we’re so clever and scientific we don’t need to think anymore. Science will solve our problems! But everyone who learns to think philosophically can tell you that this is nothing but a grand delusion. So not having philosophy is like not having any friends, or father and mother, who can tell you when you go off the rails!

Answer by Tony Fahey

Philosophy, as any student of Philosophy will tell you, 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’ (and, for some reason ‘schools of philosophy and economics’), 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 to treat 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 openminded!). 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.

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