Just what is Philosophy, anyway?
Here as a set of concluding remarks. I offer a view of what Philosophy itself is and what it isn't. We'll start with what it isn't and attempt to dispel some common misunderstandings and misuses of the word.
Philosophy is not a "Way of Life". Every person does not have his or her own "Philosophy". Philosophy is not simply a theory about something. Nor is Philosophy a belief or a wish. Philosophy is an activity: a quest after wisdom. Philosophy is an activity of thought. Philosophy is a particular unique type of thought or style of thinking. Philosophy is not to be confused with its product. What a philosopher provides is a body of philosophic thought NOT a Philosophy. A philosopher enacts a Philosophy, a quest after wisdom.
Philosophy is not a picking and choosing what body of thought one would like to call one's own or would like to believe in; a choice based upon personal preferences or feelings. Philosophy is a pursuit. One can choose to be philosophical. One can choose to be a philosopher. One can NOT choose a Philosophy. Philosophy, insofar as it may be correlated at all to a "way of Life", is a form of thinking meant to guide action or to prescribe a way of life. The philosophic way of life. if there is one, is displayed in a life in which action is held to be best directed when philosophical reflection has provided that direction; e.g. SOCRATES the paradigm of a philosopher.
Philosophy is an activity of thought, a type of thinking. Philosophy is critical and comprehensive thought, the most critical and comprehensive manner of thinking which the human species has yet devised. This intellectual process includes both an analytic and synthetic mode of operation. Philosophy as a critical and comprehensive process of thought involves resolving confusion, unmasking assumptions, revealing presuppositions, distinguishing importance, testing positions, correcting distortions, looking for reasons, examining world-views and questioning conceptual frameworks. It also includes dispelling ignorance, enriching understanding, broadening experience, expanding horizons, developing imagination. controlling emotion, exploring values, fixing beliefs by rational inquiry, establishing habits of acting, widening considerations, synthesizing knowledge and questing for wisdom.
Philosophy as a process functions as an activity which responds to society's demand for wisdom, which is bringing together all that we know in order to obtain what we value. Viewed in this way Philosophy is part of the activity of human growth and thus an integral, essential part of the process of education. Philosophy and education have as a common goal the development of the total intellect of a person, the realization of the human potential.
What type of thought is Philosophy?
Philosophy is thought which is critical and comprehensive
analytic and synthetic
practical and theoretical
logical and empirical
Philosophy is thought which is CRITICAL, i.e.
i)it attempts to criticize assumptions, meanings, word usages, beliefs, and theories.
ii) it attempts to develop clear definitions and formulations of propositions and to retain maximum precision in expression.
iv) it holds the EMPIRICAL criteria of adequacy and applicability
adequacy- that all that is given in experience is
accounted for within an analysis or explanation.
applicability- that there does not exist anything in the
explanation that has no referent to some element in
v) it is COMPREHENSIVE in attempting to address social and human problems reflective inquiry must come to bear on a wide range of affairs with a critical eye that is unwavering.
As on issue leads into another, as reality as experienced is One, so too is thought about such actual human affairs revelatory of the interconnection of issues and the underlying unity. Such thought attempts to show how the principles of explanation and basic categories of any conceptual schema are applicable throughout the breadth and depth of human experience. Such Philosophic thought at its most abstract levels reveals the basic insights into every area of life.
vi) Philosophic thought is SYNTHETIC insofar as it attempts to relate and coordinate all the knowledge the sciences provide with the values revealed in the production of the humanities. Such philosophic thought attempts to develop a concordance of ideas, values and distinctions in order to answer fundamental questions and to present the most critically formulated conceptual framework and world-view with which all subsequent thought would work and help to evaluate and reformulate.
vii) Philosophy is PRACTICAL, insofar as the method of inquiry can be put to use solving practical questions but even more so it is practical when the practice one seeks to activate is solution of problems that have resulted from the inadequacies of the practical-common sense approach to life. It is at such times that the most truly practical thing to have is a theory. Theories help to analyze, explain, and assist in planning. At such times it becomes practical to question assumptions, beliefs, current presuppositions, common sense, ideas and the efficacy of current practices and it is only from the perspective of philosophic thought that such an inquiry can take place.
viii) Philosophic thought is SPECULATIVE in pursuing questions that do not bear directly on practical matters AT FIRST SIGHT. It is speculative in considering problems which only highly abstract thought presents. It is speculative in developing truly presbyopic perspectives and concerns. It is speculative in considering ultimate metaphysical issues, pursuing the most critical formulation of principles held to govern thought and action, and furthering mathematical and logical inquiry in its attempt to further the progress of human thought and the improvement of the human condition.
Philosophy and Cultural Differences
Different individuals have different perspectives. Existing within a definite time-space location, they share in the basic wealth of a given culture. They participate in the process of civilization. They have been in part determined in what they will think and do by what is at their disposal to work with and what has gone before to make them what they are. Individuals add to their inheritance their own uniqueness which is centered in their valuational acts.
Philosophers are no different from others in regard to their cultural perspectives. Philosophers differ in their conclusions. They build upon what has come before. They react to it and criticize it. They draw from the total wealth of their given civilization and all others they have knowledge of. Philosophers differ in what they end up with, however, they share in a common pursuit and they do so by their attempt to pursue inquiry in a definite manner, i.e. a critical and comprehensive approach.
Philosophy and other forms of Thought
While the Philosophical mode of thought exists along side of those of Religion, Science and Art it is distinct from them and influences each of them and in part responds to developments within each of these fields or dimensions of human experience. While Religion offers a comprehensive view of all aspects of human life. it is a view which is uncritically formulated and does not itself encourage or tolerate criticism of the fundamental tenets of faith or the principle applications of those basic beliefs to the affairs of everyday life. Science, on the other
hand, is quite critical in the evaluation of hypotheses and theories but it lacks the comprehensive nature of philosophic thought. The various branches of scientific inquiry have not as yet demonstrated that they are capable of being welded into a single comprehensive view of all reality built upon a single coherent set of basic principles or laws. Art remains as a discipline capable of demonstrating, representing and encouraging values but it is not a discipline of thought at all least of all one that is characterized by the critical and comprehensive features of philosophical thought.
I hope that you have been able to detect these features of philosophic thought although there are obstacles that most of you have encountered such as (1) the brevity of the treatment given each philosopher examined during this semester, (2) the rather small number of passages and works read and (3) the inexperience of class members with reading and analyzing philosophical treatises. Even so each student should have come to appreciate that Philosophy as an activity and a tradition of thought involves a good deal more than the common usage of the term in popular discourse would intimate.
Today the term "Philosophy" is often misused. So often in fact that the term itself has been corrupted. Most think of Philosophy as a "way of life", "view of the world", "theory about life", etc. The public has little conscious appreciation for the philosophic tradition.
The future for Philosophy as an intellectual activity has come to be in doubt due to present social conditions: the anti-intellectual and anti-rational tendencies that characterize the current cultural scene and most of the influential and determining social and political movements within it.
There are over 20,000 philosophers in the world. There are more than 6,000 philosophers in thee United States. They are philosophers according to their academic training and degree and their professional affiliations, e.g. membership in the American Philosophical Association. There are Philosophers who participate in different traditions. (1) Analytical Philosophy which was quite popular at the middle of the twentieth century offered an approach to problems through linguistic analysis, in which all problems are seen as problems of language: questions of semantics. This approach alone, while promising much and necessary for inquiry, has not answered many of our most important problems. (2) Social Philosophy in the tradition of Socrates, Plato, and Dewey still has many participants. There are many definite characteristics of this tradition in the works of Marxists, Existentialists, and Pragmatists. (3) Applied Philosophy in the forms of Applied Ethics, Philosophy and Public Affairs and Political Philosophy has a growing number of participants as societies around the globe call upon those skilled in analytical and critical thinking to sort through the confusion wrought by the breathtaking speed of technological developments and the failure of contemporary thought to keep pace with them applying the values held by each society. Finally, there is still if even in only the smallest of numbers (4) speculative Philosophy such as evidenced in this country by Peirce, Whitehead, Hartshorne, and Weiss. Philosophy in the grand style of Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant and Hegel. Philosophy evolving an entire worldview and all encompassing conceptual framework: Philosophy in its most comprehensive form of thought.
Critical and comprehensive thinking continues to be carried on today but toward what end.
Our contemporary world is what it is partly as a result of past philosophical inquiry. Consider the impact and importance of Greek thought for mathematics, modern science and technology.
Much of our world has come to be the way it is as a result of the world-views developed by philosophers and criticized and reformulated by philosophers and most of these thinkers were Hellenized-Christians, in fact DWEM's.
Part of our contemporary dilemma is the inappropriateness of such traditional, even classical, world-views in the light of recent scientific advances in knowledge. In our present state not only the moral ends and hierarchy of values that accompanied such world-views have become dislodged but also the very notion of what thought can do for a society or a civilization. Philosophers have surely contributed to the current situation being what it is and they shall contribute to whatever direction thought is to take in the immediate future as humans continue to grapple with the perennial issues and the most basic questions humans must answer. These issues and questions have been, are now, and, for some time to come, will continue to be associated with Philosophy.
Philosophers spend a good deal of time in reflection upon these basic issues. They produce ideas, at times strange ideas. Over time however, the ideas of Philosophers have changed the course of human events all over the planet. Sometimes their ideas move quickly into the mainstream of human culture and produce consequences in art, politics, religion and the political, social and private lives of human beings. Sometimes their ideas move more slowly and only after centuries do they emerge through the thought and work of others to produce profound consequences. Whether it is Plato and his distrust of the senses and the importance of quantitative measurement or Peirce and his pragmatic approach to meaning and truth their ideas emerge in the foundations of Mathematics and Science and in the post modern movements, respectively. Their ideas have changed the world. Whether it is Socrates refusal to leave prison and to stay and die for principles or Karl Marx and his notions of the classless society, Philosophers have altered the course of human history.
Some say" Philosophy bakes no bread." meaning that Philosophy has no practical relevance or value to the actual affairs of this world. It could be said in response to this critique that were it not for Philosophy little bread would be baked, for bakers need reasons, motives, purposes in their lives. If survival is the only end or purpose then little is accounted for in the history of the human species. We as human beings seem compelled to ask the question "survival for what?" If there are other ends it is in philosophic inquiry that they are distinctly discerned criticized and related to human affairs. Purposes, values may be presented in numerous ways (religion, and art are the best known) but they are understood philosophically. Philosophy seeks after clear enunciation of purpose and values and precise formulation without which human beings encounter a void, feel lost-without purpose or meaning, without a sense of place, without a relation to the rest of the universe.
So, Philosophy is an activity of thought, which may become a way of life. It is primarily a pursuit after wisdom. It is a critical and comprehensive inquiry into the ways in which what we know can be used to obtain what we value. Philosophy is one of the most, if not THE most, distinctive of all human activities, as such Philosophy has been and may continue to be of importance in the live of humans, around the world
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© Copyright Philip A. Pecorino 2000. All Rights reserved. Web Surfer's Caveat: These are class notes, intended to comment on readings and amplify class discussion. They should be read as such. They are not intended for publication or general distribution.