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Defining Philosophy and its Uses

The unexamined life is not worth living for man. Thus spoke Socrates through the writings of his greatest pupil, Plato. With this remark, Socrates, who is acknowledged as the first philosopher to direct his attention primarily at ethics in human affairs, might have come as close as anyone ever has in finding the solution to the questions of what is philosophy and how is it used. To him, it is an examination of one’s life. Nevertheless, let us expand on these questions to search for its role in the modern world, in which it is sometimes believed that science and technology have rendered obsolete the “love of wisdom.”

I believe it is de rigueur, when discussing any point about philosophy, to first refer to the twin titans of ancient Greece thought for their opinions on the matter (pun intended)–even if their opinions tend to be somewhat less than credible by today’s standards.

Plato, Theaetetus:

Wonder (Greek: thaumata) is the only beginning of philosophy.” (155d)

Aristotle, Metaphysics:

It is owing to their wonder (thaumata) that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize.” (982b)

They unexpectedly seem to agree on something in this case. To my mind, however, the sense of wonder brought about by pondering the mysteries of nature does not necessarily lead directly to philosophy. Nor does philosophy always begin with this sense of wonder. It could come from, say, doubt, or perhaps insatiable curiosity. As for the uses of philosophy, Plato and Aristotle spend the rest of their respective careers attempting to expound on them. They rarely came to the same conclusions, and today we are unlikely to find much sense in either one, but they both are entitled to the claim of setting the boundaries of philosophy and its subfields.

Martin Heidegger, from the essay What is Philosophy? (1955):

Thaumazein (to wonder or marvel at) is the astonishment wherein philosophizing originates.

There seems to be, in this case, a curious similarity between the Athenian and the Stagirite, and the German. In his essay, Heidegger further explains that “For, to be sure, although we do remain always and everywhere in correspondence to the Being of being, … only at times does it become an unfolding attitude specifically adopted by us. Only when this happens do we really correspond to that which concerns philosophy.” (75) Even if I can try to make myself understand what Heidegger is talking about, it is hard for me to grasp anything meaningful and useful in his abstractions. A definition or description should be, at a minimum, comprehensible (which is a word seldom ascribed to Heidegger). Let’s move on.

Bertrand Russell, from ‘Introduction’ of A History of Western Philosophy (1945):

Philosophy, as I shall understand the word, is something intermediate between theology and science. Like theology, it consists of speculations on matters as to which definite knowledge has, so far, been unascertainable; but like science, it appeals to human reason rather than to authority, whether that of tradition or that of revelation. All definite knowledge-so I should contend-belongs to science; all dogma as to what surpasses definite knowledge belongs to theology. But between theology and science there is a No Man’s Land, exposed to attack from both sides; this No Man’s Land is philosophy. Almost all the questions of most interest to speculative minds are such as science cannot answer, and the confident answers of theologians no longer seem so convincing as they did in former centuries. Is the world divided into mind and matter, and, if so, what is mind and what is matter? Is mind subject to matter, or is it possessed of independent powers? Has the universe any unity or purpose? Is it evolving towards some goal? Are there really laws of nature, or do we believe in them only because of our innate love of order? Is man what he seems to the astronomer, a tiny lump of impure carbon and  water impotently crawling on a small and unimportant planet? Or is he what he appears to Hamlet? Is he perhaps both at once? Is there a way of living that is noble and another that is base, or are all ways of living merely futile? If there is a way of living that is noble, in what does it consist, and how shall we achieve it? Must the good be eternal in order to deserve to be valued, or is it worth seeking even if the universe is inexorably moving towards death? Is there such a thing as wisdom, or is what seems such merely the ultimate refinement of folly? To such questions no answer can be found in the laboratory. Theologies have professed to give answers, all too definite; but their very definiteness causes modern minds to view them with suspicion. The studying of these questions, if not the answering of them, is the business of philosophy.

Why, then, you may ask, waste time on such insoluble problems? To this one may answer as a historian, or as an individual facing the terror of cosmic loneliness.

The answer of the historian, in so far as I am capable of giving it, will appear in the course of this work. Ever since men became capable of free speculation, their actions, in innumerable important respects, have depended upon their theories as to the world and human life, as to what is good and what is evil. This is as true in the present day as at any former time. To understand an age or a nation, we must understand its philosophy, and to understand its philosophy we must ourselves be in some degree philosophers. There is here a reciprocal causation: the circumstances of men’s lives do much to determine their philosophy, but, conversely, their philosophy does much to determine their circumstances. This interaction throughout the centuries will be the topic of the following pages.

There is also, however, a more personal answer. Science tells us what we can know, but what we can know is little, and if we forget how much we cannot know we become insensitive to many things of very great importance. Theology, on the other hand, induces a dogmatic belief that we have knowledge where in fact we have ignorance, and by doing so generates a kind of impertinent insolence towards the universe. Uncertainty, in the presence of vivid hopes and fears, is painful, but must be endured if we wish to live without the support of comforting fairy tales. It is not good either to forget the questions that philosophy asks, or to persuade ourselves that we have found indubitable answers to them. To teach how to live without certainty, and yet without being paralysed by hesitation, is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy, in our age, can still do for those who study it.

I have already written a two-part post based around excerpts from Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy, and this segment is taken from the introduction in which he gives his definition and use of philosophy. It is self-explanatory, and I have nothing to add other than to say that I hope the reader is as inspired by Russell as the author of this website.

Ludwig WittgensteinPhilosophical Investigations (1953):

Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.” (§ 109)

The work of the philosopher consists in assembling reminders for a particular purpose.” (§ 127)

A philosophical problem has the form: ‘I don’t know my way about.‘” (§123), therefore the aim of philosophy is “to show the fly out of the fly-bottle.” (§ 309)

Ludwig Wittgenstein

I have cited Russell’s brilliant protégé because his position represents arguably the furthest possible development of thought within logical and philosophical analysis. Wittgenstein attempted to prove that all philosophical problems could be attributed simply to problems of language involving grammar and syntax, as shown in his ‘language games’. Here, logic is king and mathematical precision can be used to solve formerly insoluble problems. This conclusion is useful in some respects, but, I think, clearly lacks something substantial. Ethics and politics, for example. In his own life, Wittgenstein was a restless man of action who in a certain sense had no use for his own philosophical conclusions, rather embodying the maxim of primum vivere, deinde philosophari–”first one must live, then one may philosophize.”

Will Durant (1885-1981), from ‘Introduction’ to The Story of Philosophy (1926):

Every science begins as philosophy and ends as art: It arises in hypothesis and flows into achievement. Philosophy is a hypothetical interpretation of the unknown (as in metaphysics), or of the inexactly known (as in ethics or political philosophy). It is the front trench in the siege of truth. Science is the captured territory, and behind it are those secure regions in which knowledge and art build our imperfect and marvelous world. Philosophy seems to stand still, perplexed, but only because she leaves the fruits of victory to her daughters the sciences, and herself passes on, divinely discontent, to the uncertain and unexplored.

Shall we be more technical? Science is analytical description; philosophy is synthetic interpretation. Science wishes to resolve the whole into parts, the organism into organs, the obscure into the known. It does not inquire into the values and ideal possibilities of things or into their total and final significance. It is content to show their present actuality and operation. It narrows its gaze resolutely to the nature and process of things as they are.

The scientist is as impartial as Nature in Turgenev’s poem: He is as interested in the leg of a flea as in the creative throes of a genius. But the philosopher is not content to describe the fact. He wishes to ascertain its relation to experience in general and thereby to get at its meaning and its worth. He combines things in interpretive synthesis. He tries to put together, better than before, that great universe-watch which the inquisitive scientist has analytically taken apart.

Science tell us how to heal and how to kill. It reduces the death rate in retail and then kills us wholesale in war. But only wisdom — desire coordinated in the light of all experience — can tell us when to heal and. when to kill. To observe processes and to construct means is science. To criticize and coordinate ends is philosophy. And because in these days our means and instruments have multiplied beyond our interpretation and synthesis of ideals and ends, our life is “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” For a fact is nothing except in relation to desire. It is not complete except in relation to a purpose and a whole. Science without philosophy, facts without perspective and valuation, cannot save us from despair.

Durant continues by listing the five fields of philosophical study and discourse: logic, aesthetics, ethics, politics, and metaphysics. Logic, though it has been instrumental in improving methods of thinking and research, has been relocated, since the developments of Frege, Cantor, and Russell and Whitehead, into the field of pure science and mathematics. Aesthetics is the most subjective of the five fields, and ultimately finds a better fit in the area of psychology rather than philosophy. According to Durant, ontology (the study of ‘being’) and epistemology (the study of knowledge) are subsets of metaphysics. Epistemology, which must now be considered within the province of neuroscience, was unapologetically neglected by Durant except in the chapter on Kant, and it was, he claims, “largely responsible for the decadence of philosophy” in the 19th century by the followers of Kant. I happily concur with Durant on this point. I also find it more than mere coincidence that one of the few points of convergence between the Analytic and Continental traditions is the insignificance or total irrelevance of metaphysics in modern philosophy.

There remain only two fields of interest, then, that are applicable, in theory and in practice, to the modern, non-scientific but practical-minded philosopher: ethics and politics. The former is “the study of ideal conduct”, which emphasizes especially individual behavior (How should we act?); the latter is “the study of ideal social organization”, and, thus, focuses on the role of individuals within society (What kind of government should we have? What is freedom?).

I have chosen to conclude with the wonderful prose excerpt from Durant because, in this case, on the definition of philosophy and its uses, I agree with his position that philosophy is necessary to synthesize knowledge from diverse areas into something understandable.

Here is a shorter version of the same idea from the article “What is Philosophy?”:

We shall define philosophy as “total perspective,” as mind overspreading life and forging chaos into unity… Philosophy is harmonized knowledge making a harmonious life; it is the self-discipline which leads us to security and freedom. Knowledge is power, but only wisdom is liberty.

And here is an examination of the idea of ‘wisdom’ from the article “What is Wisdom?” (1957):

The first lesson of philosophy is that philosophy is the study of any part of experience in the light of our whole experience; the second lesson is that the philosopher is a very small part in a very large whole. Just as philosopher means not a “possessor” but a “lover” of wisdom, so we can only seek wisdom devotedly, like a lover fated, as on Keats’ Grecian urn, never to possess, but only to desire. Perhaps it is more blessed to desire than to possess.

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3 thoughts on “Defining Philosophy and its Uses

  1. Pingback: Defining Philosophy and its Uses | Philosophers | Scoop.it

  2. Pingback: Will Durant and the Story of Philosophy « Tigerpapers

  3. Pingback: Notes on Continental Philosophy: Martin Heidegger « Tigerpapers

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