At the end of the last post I asked, "What is philosophy?" a question that is important but also problematic. It is important because, as French philosopher Maurice Riseling has said, "Sooner or later, life makes philosophers of us all." What exactly he means by that (along with why the question "What is philosophy?" is problematic) will become clear at the end of this post. Hopefully.
So what is philosophy? The quick
answer is that it depends on who you ask, but that answer doesn’t really answer
the question. At least, not really. When philosophers themselves attempt to answer the question,
it is interesting to note that each of their answers is a bit different, and, perhaps ironically, some
philosophers even disagree on what it means to do philosophy, leading one to wonder if anyone knows the answer. But of course, the words the answer at the end of that last
sentence assume that there is one answer, though I admit that there may not be only one
answer to the proposed question. Whatever. For now, I would like to discuss two different
but still useful answers. The first answer comes from where the word philosophy comes from, and the second comes
from the questions that are asked when we study philosophy.
|Plato and Aristotle detail from Raffaello Sanzio's The School of Athens)|
Our word philosophy comes from the Greek word philosophia. This word is made up of two parts: philos and sophia. Philos means
love or love of, while sophia means wisdom (think of our word for sophisticated). Hence, philosophia originally meant love of wisdom, and philosophers were
lovers of wisdom. Personally, I like to broaden the word wisdom to include knowledge and truth. From this perspective, then, anyone who loves wisdom is a philosopher. And yet, note that the active word is not having wisdom or knowing wisdom, but loving it.
Love is a significant emotion. It is an emotion that causes us to see the world differently (usually more optimistically) than other emotions sometimes do. We desire what we love, and we tend to be happier when we are full of love.
There are different kinds of love, however. But there is only one kind of love which I'm talking about. God is love, 1 John 4:16 says, and the kind of love that God has trumps all other emotions. It has to, because it equals God. Hence, the love I am talking about is a prerequisite to spirituality, which spirituality, philosopher Robert Solomon says, is having the right emotion, at the right time, for the right reason, towards the right person or object, and to the right degree. Solomon also defines love as the expansion of the self to include the other.
While "love of wisdom" is a valuable and helpful way to define philosophy, not everyone thinks of philosophy that way. Typically, philosophy
tends to be divided up into 5 areas: metaphysics, epistemology, logic,
ethics, and aesthetics. Each of these areas asks certain questions, a few of which I will list below . Notice that while these 5 categories seem to be separate, they are often mutually
inclusive, as we'll see below.
ask about the nature of reality and truth. Also, questions of metaphysics also include
questions of what it means to be. The smart-sounding word for questions about being is ontology. Questions of metaphysics ask these questions:
What is the
nature of reality? What is real?
What is the
nature of existence?
What is space
and time? What is cause and effect?
What does it
mean to be?
What is the
origin of the universe?
have a purpose?
last question overlaps with epistemology, since epistemology asks
questions that deal with knowing.
something be known?
How do we know
what we know?
be known, or only some things?
What are the
limits of knowledge?
deals with questions of proof and argumentation especially formal proof and argumentation.
What is valid reasoning?
How does a
person discern a fallacious argument?
What kinds of
things follow from a set of premises, maxims, or axioms?
deal with questions of right and wrong. Questions of ethics also tend to be
closely connected with questions of politics.
What is right?
What is wrong?
How should one
act in a specific situation?
What does it
mean to say that something ought to
human beings interact with one another?
What is the
best way for human beings to get along together?
human beings be governed?
What is the
best form of government?
deal with questions about the arts, however broadly or narrowly we interpret
What is the
purpose of art? What is art for?
influence us or teach us (is it didactic?) or is it merely self-expression or just
a form of entertainment?
Looking at the above questions, note how often they shade into each other.
In other words, how can we ask what art is
unless we also understand the nature of reality and what it means to be? But, furthermore, before we know what the answer is to that
question, we first have to know what it means to know! This is why a study of philosophy is often confusing. It is
confusing because to ask one question we must presuppose the answer to the other
questions! So, we can’t answer any questions without assuming answers to all of
the questions. (Bertrand Russell once said that the value of philosophy is in
the questions it asks, not in the answers it gives.) See how confusing this
gets? Now read what Scott Soames has to say:
Philosophy has become a highly
organized discipline, done by specialists primarily for other specialists. The
number of philosophers has exploded, the volume of publication has swelled, and
the subfields of serious philosophical investigation have multiplied. Not only
is the broad field of philosophy today far too vast to be embraced by one mind,
something similar is true even of many highly specialized subfields. (Philosophical Analysis in the Twentieth Century,
vol. 2, p. 463.)
Yeah. It’s confusing. It makes it
hard to start, because we want to start right so that we can continue to go
right. Whereas if we start wrong, there’s no point in continuing because if we really are lovers of truth and wisdom, we want to make sure we're going right and talking about things that are true. If I’m doing
a math problem and I start at the wrong place, I need to go back to the
beginning to start it right. I can't keep going from the wrong place because I will never get the right answer. Joseph Smith once wrote, "If we start right, it is easy to go right all the time; but if we start wrong we may go wrong, and it will be a hard matter to get right" (History of the Church 6:303).
So while to some degree, we can't start without answering or assuming an answer to the questions posed above, we have to start someplace. We have to start because the answers to
those questions are valuable. We need answers to those questions because those
answers help us live our lives. Not only that, but if we do not consciously and
deliberately answer those questions, we end up going about our lives assuming an answer to those questions
without taking full responsibility for the answers that our acts assume. We
need philosophy because philosophy is how we live our lives. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson have written,
Philosophy matters to us . . . primarily because it helps us to make sense of our lives and to live better lives. A worthwhile philosophy will be one that gives us deep insight into who we are, how we experience our world, and how we ought to live. (Philosophy in the Flesh 551)
When Riseling says that "Sooner or later, life makes philosophers of us all," he recognizes that we all assume our own answers to the list of questions above.
So let's go back to where we began. What do I mean by philosophy? Do I mean the answers given by really
smart dead (or mostly dead) people to the questions I’ve listed above? Do I
mean that “love of wisdom” thing I talked about at the beginning of this post?
My answer is yes and no. An undesirable answer, but a typically
philosophical one, nonetheless. Whether the answer is yes or no depends on what
we mean by “love of wisdom” and what those dead smart guys’ answers were (to what degree were they right, and to what degree did they start right?). So
how will we judge the standard by which we agree with what they say? And how do we start right? The answer
is we’ll necessarily judge them by the standard of truth.
I’ve already assumed the answer before I’ve “defended” the answer! Surprise,
surprise. But that's where belief (faith?) comes in. We can’t start anywhere without belief. And that will be the subject of the next post.