March 31, 2010

What is philosophy?

Filed under: Philosophy — Omid @ 10:14 pm
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Athena, the ancient Greek goddess of wisdom

What is philosophy? A Limited Perspective

§1. Introduction

Suppose you say “E=MC2” to a non-hominid primate, such as an ape, which is genetically congenial to us, the Homo sapiens. In all likelihood, the ape would probably do nothing more or less than staring at you. Now, imagine yourself miraculously traveling back to the time of the early Homo sapiens (about 200,000 years ago) and saying to them “E=MC2”. Like the ape, they would not know how to cognize this scientific equation. But, where did the scientific tradition begin? Philosophy—the queen of all the sciences—seems to be the beginning of this tradition. In terms of its genesis, philosophy—as a distinctive activity—is construed as an ancient Greek phenomenon, for it is believed that philosophy had its gradual birth in the city of Miletus, situated in an ancient region of western Asia Minor known as Ionia, which had been occupied by the ancient Greeks since about 1000 BC. Judging by the surviving literature (not just the ancient Greek literature, but also those of the Mesopotamians, Egyptians, and Hebrews), Thales of Miletus (c. 624-546 B.C.)—not in separation from his immediate successors—is construed as the first prototypical father of philosophy in the history of the Western civilization.

In the ancient Greek literature, one of the early appearances of the word “philosopher” is attributed to a fragment of Heraclitus (c. 535–c. 475 B.C.), who was from the ancient Greek city of Ephesus, near Miletus, in Ionia. The fragment reads, “Philosophers must be inquirers into a great number of things.” Another early instance of the word “philosopher”, and “philosophy”, is encountered in the writings of Diogenes Laertius (d. c. 320 BC), conveying an account of what Heraclides Ponticus (a pupil of Plato) thought about Pythagoras (c. 570-c. 495 BC): “Pythagoras first used the term philosophy and called himself a philosopher. . . .” A next occurrence of the word “philosopher” is noticed in the writings of the Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero (106-43 BC), relating Heraclides Ponticus’ account of Pythagoras’ conversation with Leon the ruler of Phlius: “So in life . . . some enter the service of fame and others of money, but the best choice is that of those few who spend their time in the contemplation of nature, as lovers of wisdom, that is, philosophers.” At last, but not least, Socrates (c. 469-399 BC), in Plato’s (c. 427-c. 347 BC) Phaedo, imparted: “The man who has truly devoted his life to philosophia is of good courage when death approaches. . . .”

The word “philosophy” itself may give us a clue as to what kind of distinctive activity it is. The ancient Greek word φιλοσοφία (philosophia) is linguistically composed of two words: φιλο (philo, meaning “love”) and σοφία (sophia, meaning “wisdom”). From the outset, judging purely by the word itself and outside of its Greek context, philosophy seems to imply a “love” that entails “wisdom” as its object, or a “love” in quest for “wisdom”. And, in turn, “wisdom” implies action, activity, or doing something. What would be the value of wisdom that is not actuated or is not thrown into the world? Is pursuit of knowledge worth anything without pursuit of wisdom? I assume knowledge and wisdom necessarily go hand-in-hand, for the latter is an ability to do something with the former. So, let us premise that philosophy, as love of wisdom, consists in doing something. But doing what?

I am going to briefly make an attempt, as futile as it might prove to be, to answer this question by initially looking at the activities, not in content but mainly in principle, of the first Milesian philosophers: Thales (c. 624-c. 546 BC), Anaximander (c. 610-c. 546 BC), and Anaximenes (fl. 585-d. 525 BC).

§2. The Milesian Pre-Socratics: Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes

Judging by their scanty fragments and their doxographers’ accounts that history has passed down to us, the three philosophers were fundamentally preoccupied with the same problems anachronistically formulated as follows:

1. What is the cause (or arche, meaning “principle”) of all things?

2. What is the process (or physis, meaning “nature”) of the world?

3. What is the world made of?

In their novel attempts to answer these questions, they—unlike their Homeric predecessors, the Mesopotamians, the Egyptians, and the Hebrews—gradually and consciously commenced to relinquish the mythopoeic mode of thinking about the physical world and its origin. And, instead, they deliberately and critically cultivated, for the first time in the history of the Western civilization, a naturalistic and rational (as opposed to supernatural and non-rational, respectively) approach in their speculations, not dogmatization, about the nature of the physical world. They dared to envisage the world processes in natural terms. For instance, Anaximenes appears not to hold Zeus (the sky god) and Poseidon (the sea god) responsible for the phenomenon of rain; instead, he conceived of rain in terms of natural processes of rarefaction of water and condensation of water vapor. The Milesian philosophers construed nature as a rational, evolutionary, and hylozoic ontogeny. Consequently, they began to divest cosmogony and cosmology, both of which had not evolved into science yet, of mythical genealogy of the gods—who were gradually being stripped of their ranks and spatiotemporal responsibilities.

§2.1. Order and Human Reason

In their fascination about the natural world, the Milesian pioneers of philosophy were of the conviction that the apparent randomness and disarray of the physical world around them withholds an underlying order: a unitary order that is the outcome of impersonal and non-anthropomorphic forces of nature, as opposed to mythical beings such as the gods or the demigods. They conceived of the order as subsuming all natural phenomena. And, it seems that they conceived of this order in a concrete or material way since the art of abstraction was in its infancy. They boldly postulated that there is one thing (or, according to Aristotle, “material arche” or “material principle”) that was the cause of everything else. This one thing was concretely depicted by Thales as “water”. His successor, Anaximander, refuted Thales’ assumption, after showing the logical inconsistencies thereof, and set forth the one thing as “apeiron”, which means the boundless, limitless, or indeterminate. Next, Anaximander’s successor, Anaximenes, disapproved of his apeiron, after demonstrating the logical inconsistencies it entailed, and posited “air” as the one thing.

The three philosophers attempted to reduce the complexity and multiplicity of the world into simplicity and unity. According to this unprecedented and paradigmatic vision, the workings of the visible world are inherently rational and intelligible, that the causes of natural phenomena are to be sought within the borders of this world. And, most important of all, they deemed the human reason as an adequate instrument in understanding the physical world. This was the genesis of a branch of philosophy (as the precursor of the sciences) that later became knows as “natural philosophy”, which included more than just physics and which eventually gave rise to another branch of philosophy dubbed “metaphysics”, which is, roughly put, the study of the fundamental and concealed (or transcendental) nature of the ultimate reality that informs and sustains the physical reality. The Milesian philosophers were simply curious about the nature of the physical world, the processes which changed and shaped it, and its physical composition. And, they trusted rational human reason to satisfy their insatiable curiosity in understanding the world.

§2.2. Hypothesis and Theory

What qualifies these men as the first pioneers of philosophy is the distinctness and novelty of their activity: their mode of thinking in relation to the way they observed the natural world. Perhaps, it would be a mistake to think that this philosophical tradition was generated in a vacuum, for the Mesopotamians and Egyptians had already made and documented many observations of natural phenomena (such as motion of stars, cycle of seasons, movement of tides, and so on) for mainly utilitarian purposes (such as navigation, agriculture, religious rituals, and so forth). However, what the ancient and classical Greek philosophers did with such observations was unique and unprecedented: they correlated raw data of observations into what came to be known as “hypotheses” (ὑπόθεσις, hypothesis, meaning “standing under” or “supposition”) and “theories” (θεωρία, theoria, meaning “seeing”, “speculation”, or “contemplation”) or “natural laws” that were open to criticisms and revisions. In this pursuit, as has been said, the Milesian philosophers were not driven by practical or utilitarian motives, but by curiosity or “knowledge for its own sake”. And, add to this what Aristotle wrote: “History supports this conclusion, for it was after the provision of the chief necessities not only for life but for an easy life that the search for this intellectual satisfaction began.” In other words, as Thomas Hobbes eloquently stated, “Leisure is the mother of Philosophy; . . . Where first were great and flourishing Cities, there was first the study of Philosophy.” (One wonders if lack of such leisure, coupled with the labor conditions and exaggerated material and commercial concerns that devour solemn concerns, is one contributing factor to the growing anti-intellectual sentiment in the United States.)

Indeed, the ancient and classical Greek philosophers, ahead of everybody else, inaugurated, in their own particular ways, the art of building hypotheses/theories, not fanciful beliefs. From this point onward, the Greek philosophers began to posit statements—in argumentative, rational, and logical forms—that possessed no dogmatic immunity to open criticisms, revisions, and rejections based on their internal consistency. From now on, instead of decreeing dogmas, the Greek philosophers would build hypotheses/theories based upon down-to-earth observations and scrutinization of their predecessors’ hypotheses/theories. This also means that they would rule out assumptions based on their logical inconsistencies and/or not corresponding to observed natural phenomena.

The three Milesian philosophers, for the first time, commenced an ongoing, accumulative, and self-revising tradition wherein the quest for rational simplification and unification of reality became an enduring fascination of the human race. In fact, the modern quantum physics’ quest for the “unified theory”—that is, basically, formulation of a mathematical equation that can fundamentally explain the universe—is a direct corollary of that very audacious moment in the ancient Greek history. Our quest for the unitary “theory of everything” is a Greek vision. Our endless voyage in search of logos in contrast to mythos, concepts in contrast to percepts, abstractions in contrast to concretions, universals in contrast to accidentals, form in contrast to matter, simplicity in contrast to complexity, unity in contrast to diversity, and monism in contrast to pluralism—is part of our Greek odyssey.

§2.3. The Sense of Wonder

In contrast to the ancient Greeks, the ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians did not seem interested, as has been said, in “knowledge for its own sake”, but for the sake of practical purposes, such as building pyramids, measuring plots of land, navigating the seas, predicting position of stars or planets for religious purposes, and so on. However, this characteristically ancient Greek pursuit of knowledge for its own sake seems to be puzzling. What is practical about knowledge that is for its own sake? What is the value? Could it be the sense of wonder, man’s insatiable curiosity? According to Plato, Socrates insisted that “philosophy begins in wonder”.

Philosophy is a historical and cultural development. By the time Pythagoras (c. 570-c. 495 BC) and the Pythagoreans appeared on the scene, philosophy underwent a gradual change of disposition: it incrementally began to widen its scope to include a spiritual and practical way of life besides the theoretical concerns about cosmogony and cosmology. Generally, the Pythagoreans believed that in contemplating the “cosmos” (kosmos, meaning “order”), one becomes “cosmic” (kosmios, meaning “orderly”) in one’s own soul. Hence, for them, philosophy became a way of purification and salvation of human soul. Under Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans, philosophy acquired a dimension that was more abstract and mathematical and less physical. The Milesian study of the primordial stuff of the world had already paved the way for the Pythagorean study of form. The Pythagorean ideal of purification and salvation of human soul was contingent upon rational human reason in assimilating to the divine. Therefore, they viewed theoretical philosophy as a bridge to a spiritual and practical way of life in a cosmos that is expressive of a mathematical or geometrical equality or commensurability between man and the divine.

§3. The Classical Period of Western Philosophy: Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle

Thereafter, the Greek sense of “wonder” reached new shores, which can be characterized with the Socratic dictum: “Unexamined life is not worth living.” The classical era of philosophy—with Socrates (c. 469-399 BC), Plato (c. 427-c. 347 BC), and Aristotle (384-322 BC)—reached a new frontier: from physics, through metaphysics and Parmenidean ontology, to ethics. This was the turning point in history of Western philosophy: the “ethical” concerns of man in contrast to the investigation of the physical world wherein man resides. For this new breed of philosophers, the everyday affairs of common man, his conduct, his cultural activities, his social institutions, and his political organizations—became vital issues to consider. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle incessantly asked and probed into nature of justice in the state, justice in the soul, virtue, excellence, truth, good life, moderation, goodness, happiness, courage, love, beauty, and so on. In addition to the developments in the sphere of ethics, they developed a new facet of philosophy known as “epistemology” or “theory of knowledge”: What is knowledge, and how do we know what we know? Moreover, for the first time in the world history, Aristotle articulated, not invented, rules of logic, which is generally the science that studies, builds, and evaluates arguments.

For Plato, philosophy always comes alive in the everyday life. In this sense, philosophy is natural and something that is bound to happen. Being mindful of how his teacher, Socrates, applied philosophy to his own daily life and the life of the polis (Greek city-state), Plato insisted that it is possible to live and bring philosophy, as a conscious employment of reason which for Plato distinguishes humans from other animals, into our daily lives and social affairs in a manner that it is not a mere logical and theoretical exercise, but a way of dealing with everyday issues.

Throughout the subsequent centuries, Greek philosophy gradually gave birth to what we know today as science (which etymologically means “to know”). Generally, science is empirical while philosophy has retained its purely speculative or theoretical dimension. Often, where science does not dare to trespass (or to speculate on an issue that directly defies observation and experimentation), philosophy steps in. Before detachment of the umbilical chord between the mother (philosophy) and the child (science), philosophers such as the Persian and Arab thinkers (who capitalized and built upon Greek philosophy), Roger Bacon (c. 1214-1292), Francis Bacon (1561-1626), and René Descartes (1596-1650) had already commenced the formulation of what came to be known as the “scientific method”. They partly laid down the rational and empirical foundation for the modern science. Moreover, the British empiricists, namely John Locke (1632-1704), George Berkeley (1685-1753), and David Hume (1711-1776) made important contributions to the foundation of science.

§4. Modern Philosophy

By the time we arrive to the era of modern philosophy, beginning with French philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650), the spirit of the time and the historical circumstances had radically changed the philosophical attitude. While the Greeks philosophized dialogically and outdoors in public, Descartes (and many subsequent philosophers) philosophized monologically and indoors away from the public view. Modern philosophy begins with Descartes, with the self thinking in solitude, becoming conscious of the false and doubtful ideas one has accepted so far in life, and deciding that the time has come to overthrow all of one’s beliefs. The historical conditions of the time, when the Church was authoritative and intolerant, had no mercy on free, Geek-style thinking; hence, philosophy took refuge in the safety of seclusion. Nonetheless, the philosophy that Descartes fostered in privacy—has practically, yet subtly, shaped many aspects of the modern world. In addition, the philosophy of Descartes, the father of analytic geometry, partly laid the groundwork for the classical physics of Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727).

§5. Age of Enlightenment

Later on, during the Age of Enlightenment, French philosophers known as the “philosophes”, such as Voltaire (1694-1778) and Jean Jacque Rousseau (1712-1778), employed philosophy in an innovative manner: as a social force to reform or remove the dominance of the Church and the absolute monarchy in France, and to institute new social and political orders based upon the Enlightenment philosophy of the truths of science and of the natural rights of mankind. Rousseau wrote, “Man is born free but everywhere he is in chains” while Voltaire wrote, “Crush the infamous thing”, referring to the Church and the oppressive monarchy. The French Revolution (1789-1799) that ensued was in part inspired and fueled by the philosophical ideas of the Age of Enlightenment. German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) summed up the essence of Enlightenment as follows: “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of another. . . . Sapere aude! [Dare to be wise!] Have courage to use your own understanding!”

§6. German Idealism

By the time we reach the “German idealism” chapter of philosophy, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) unprecedentedly developed a historical understanding of philosophy, a discipline today known as “history of philosophy”. In his account of history of philosophy, Hegel emphasized that, like all reality, philosophy is “organic” in character and function—that it must be understood as the evolving cultural and historical developments, with all their necessary and conflicting stages in the developmental process. For Hegel, the history of philosophy is philosophy; inasmuch as, the meaning of philosophy can be sought in its historical development. He compared the history of philosophy to a living and growing plant, whereby different philosophies are akin to various stages of organic growth: the seed, the stem, the branches, the leaves, the buds, the blossoms, and the fruits. In this manner, each individual philosophy is viewed as a necessary stage in the organic development of the whole. As he put it, when the buds develop into blossoms which, in turn, recede to prepare the way for the fruits to come forth, we don’t look at the buds and the blossoms as false and unnecessary phases, or we do not think of the fruits as more correct than the buds and the blossoms, but as necessary and unitary stages of organic growth. Hegel also applied his approach of organicism to understanding of history. Besides Hegel’s development of historical understanding of philosophy (history of philosophy), he also developed a novel philosophical understanding of history (another discipline today known as “philosophy of history”), which later became a wrecking ball in the hands of Karl Marx (1818-1883), who ushered in the “inevitable fall of capitalism”.

Our next philosopher, German thinker Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), also known as the “prophet of pessimism”, basically deemed philosophy as astonishment at our own existence—because it is going to end! “But undoubtedly,” he wrote, “it is the knowledge of death, and therewith the consideration of the suffering and misery of life, that give the strongest impulse to philosophical reflections and metaphysical explanations of the world.” Hence, he thought that man’s sorrowful condition, within religion, creates a need for redemption, and, within philosophy, a need for metaphysics. It was, as Schopenhauer put it, “the suffering and misery of life”—not caused by visions of inescapable death, but by economic or material conditions—that inspired German philosopher Karl Marx to write: “The philosophers have so far only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.”

§7. Philosophy of Existence

For Danish philosopher Søren Aaby Kierkegaard (1813-1855) and German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844-1900), the fundamental problem of the modern Western societies is not collective in nature, that the rudimentary problem facing the Western cultures is not, for instance, that of economics or politics. For both thinkers, the modern problem is much more basic and subconscious than that. They diagnosed the modern problem, at root, as existential and individual: alienation from the self. Kierkegaard attributed this issue to the lack of “inwardness” or “passion” in our lives, while Nietzsche attributed it to the crisis of meaning and “values”—which he metaphorically equated with “the death of God”. In his own peculiar and thought-provoking manner, Kierkegaard wrote,

“Our age is essentially one of understanding and reflection, without passion. . . . In fact, one is tempted to ask whether there is a single man left ready, for once, to commit an outrageous folly. Nowadays not even a suicide kills himself in desperation. Before taking the step he deliberates so long and so carefully that he literally chokes with thought. It is even questionable whether he ought to be called a suicide, since it is really thought which takes his life. He does not die with deliberation but from deliberation.”

To confront the crisis of values, Nietzsche called for a new breed of:

“Philosophers; there is no choice; toward spirits strong and original enough to provide the stimuli for opposite valuations and to revalue and invert ‘eternal values’; . . . To teach man the future of man as his will, as dependent on a human will, and to prepare great ventures and overall attempts of discipline and cultivation. . . .”

Furthermore, the new philosophers must be courageous enough to go, as Nietzsche put it, “beyond good and evil”—not allowing conventional ideas about good and evil to prejudice their thinking. For Nietzsche, a major point of philosophy is not just having beliefs, but courageously and honestly challenging them, wrestling with them. In this respect, Nietzsche also wrote, in his own peculiarly bewildering style,

“Philosophy, as I have hitherto understood and lived it, is a voluntary quest for even the most detested and notorious sides of existence. . . . ‘How much truth can a spirit endure, how much truth does a spirit dare?’ . . . Such an experimental philosophy . . . wants rather to cross over to the opposite of this—to a Dionysian affirmation of the world as it is, without subtraction, exception or selection. . . . The highest state a philosopher can attain [is] to stand in a Dionysian relationship to existence—my formula for this is amor fati [the love of fate]. It is part of this state to perceive not merely the necessity of those sides of existence hitherto denied, but their desirability. . . , as the more powerful, more fruitful, truer, sides of existence, in which its will finds clearer expression.”

And, expressing his unorthodox view (not his only view) of knowledge, Nietzsche wrote,

“And knowledge itself: let it be something else for others . . . —for me it is a world of dangers and victories in which heroic feelings, too, find places to dance and play. ‘Life as a means to knowledge’—with this principle in one’s heart, one can live not only boldly but even gaily, and laugh gaily too.”

§8. Phenomenology

Our next philosopher, perhaps one of the most eccentric philosophers, German thinker Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), had an exceptionally different approach toward philosophy. He tackled the same issue as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche did, but from a purely ontological vantage point in his book Being and Time. While Kierkegaard and Nietzsche were interested in the alienation of the human self, Heidegger’s interest was much more primordial and rudimentary: the “Being” (or “Dasein”, as he called it) of the human self. And, he viewed the human alienation in terms of the difference between being “authentic” and “inauthentic”. Heidegger often construed philosophy not as a body of beliefs or a worldview. For him, philosophy has to be lived out as an activity that persistently questions “Being”, of which a worldview is a frozen representation in time. Heidegger stated, “I have no philosophy at all”, because he did not think of it as something that one can possess, but as something that one does.

The last philosopher to be briefly entertained here is the French existential thinker Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1980). For the young Sartre, in an age of demise of traditional values, a key project of philosophy can be characterized as an activity wherein one first “exists” and then “defines” oneself. As Sartre stated, “existence precedes essence”, meaning that, there is no omnipotent and omniscient factor, such as a god or God, to endow human life with all the innate essences, meanings, and values that predetermine who we are. Unlike a rock or a watch, we choose and define who we are. And, according to Sartre, those who fail to realize that we are “condemned to be free” in a Godless world, will suffer “bad faith” (cf. “alienation” and “inauthenticity”). For the later Sartre, this “existence precedes essence” and the “condemnation to be free” evolved into a hard-core life of social and political activism. He insisted that if you recognize that there are social problems in your society, and you realize that you are able to grapple with those issues—you would be a coward if you sit and do nothing.

§9. Conclusion

So, considering the foregoing paragraphs, as brief, sketchy, and fragmentary as they are, what is philosophy? In the preceding paragraphs, I personally refrained from defining philosophy in a subject-predicate proposition, categorically affirming or denying what it is or what it does. Instead, I opted to thinly and summarily demonstrate philosophy as it has been manifested in action throughout its history. My personal conviction is that one cannot answer the question of “what philosophy is” in separation from what philosophers have actually done thus far. The history of philosophy reveals philosophy as an ever-growing human enterprise. Each age has framed and portrayed its own peculiar philosophy in its own peculiar language and under its own cultural and historical circumstances, with a common thread running through them all. Suppose I define philosophy as follows: Philosophy—as love of wisdom and as a cultural and rational pursuit, along with its analytic and speculative functions—is critical and reflective thinking and evaluation of the thinking that generates a body of beliefs or knowledge that is open to criticism, revision, and rejection based on its logical consistency. While this definition gives one a degree of acquaintance with philosophy, it does not capture its cultural and historical character and significance, which I tried to express above.


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