Updated: Apr 30, 2021
“If we ought to philosophize we ought to philosophize, and if we ought not to philosophize we ought to philosophize; in either case, therefore, we ought to philosophize. For if philosophy exists we ought certainly to philosophize, because philosophy exists; and if it does not exist, even so we ought to examine why it does not exist, and in examining this we shall be philosophizing, because examination is what makes philosophy.” [Aristotle, Protrepticus]
Philosophy, Aristotle said, 'begins in wonder'. But we don't merely wonder about things. We are compelled to continually search for meaning. We try to understand what happens within us and around us. Why? Is it because, at bottom, our experience tells us that the cosmos is simply indifferent to human yearnings and suffering? Is this why we ‘philosophize’? Is philosophy, in some sense, an expression of faith or hope? But faith or hope in what?
Could it be faith or hope in the fact that our philosophical beliefs and convictions matter to us even in the face of radical uncertainty and an indifferent, amoral cosmos? Could philosophy be just a kind of obstinate refusal to allow apathy, radical uncertainty, ignorance, indifference, meaninglessness or nihilism to wholly define us? Can the wisdom of the sage, the spiritual mentor or the philosophy teacher help us here? Can the latter really guide us beyond the threshold that separates everyday opinions and individual perspectives from the domain of critical thought? Is there a difference between opinion and justified belief?
It seems often that conversation is not about listening and responding to what is said, but waiting until someone is finished talking so you can ‘have your say’. I think philosophy can help us to get beyond this—it can help us to listen more attentively to the voice of the other, and understand things at a deeper level. The practical person asks whether philosophy just endlessly multiplies questions that can never finally be answered. The philosopher responds: That is because we live in an answer-oriented world and philosophy is disquieting and disturbing because it is restlessly questions and is unsatisfied with pat answers. It does not seek termination in an answer but wants instead to continue the dialogue, reframe the question and open up new paths of understanding. Life's questions are endless because life and human existence is puzzling, complex and filled with ambiguity and confusion. The scientist asks whether philosophy advances knowledge or progresses. The philosopher rejoins with the questions: What is knowledge? Progress toward what?
Despite all we know and have learned about the world—what the sciences have disclosed to us—deep questions always remain: How is knowledge distinct from belief and opinion? Why there is something rather than nothing? What is it to 'be' in a world? Does God exist? What is good; what is evil? What is justice? What is the nature of politics? What is law? What is virtue? What is the experience of loneliness, belonging, solidarity, happiness, sorrow or anger? What is the nature of rights? Philosophy continues to attract us not because it gives us answers, but, rather, because it compels us to think again in a world that often discourages thinking.
The word philosophy derives from the Greek words ‘Philia’ (love) and ‘Sophia (Wisdom)’: ‘love of wisdom’. However, ‘love’ as ‘philia’ is more closely akin to what we might describe as ‘friendship’. Friendship is not a passive state of mind but rather an active sharing with and openness to others. We care about our friends; we want them to do well for their sake not for ours. In a similar way, as philosopher’s we are ‘friends of wisdom’ in the sense that we love philosophy for its own sake—not because it solves our personal problems, explains away the great mysteries of existence or makes us rich and powerful. In fact, the study of philosophy can be disruptive and unsettling—it can take our comforting and consoling opinions and convictions and turn them on their head! It asks us to risk our opinions, our cherished beliefs and our self-assured convictions, often leaving us with a sense that we really do not know as much as we thought we knew. However, the wager of thinking, of philosophy, is not that we will discover the 'answers' to life's mysteries or that we will arrive at a final Truth. What we begin to realize through reflection and philosophical dialogue with others is that our opinions and way of understanding were demolished or shattered not by the truth, but by our own impatient initial grasp of things.
As an academic discipline or subject taught in a university setting, philosophy is typically oriented around four traditional questions: 1. ‘What ‘exists’ or what is the nature of existence’? (Metaphysics); 2. ‘What is knowledge and what are the limits of knowledge (Epistemology); 2. ‘How ought we to act or live’? (Ethics); 3. ‘What are the fundamental principles of thinking and reasoning’? (Logic)
Philosophy has also been described as ‘thinking about thinking’ or ‘critical thinking’. To think critically is not to morally disapprove of or condemn some idea or person. Rather, it is about developing a capacity to assess the soundness and validity of arguments, beliefs, ideas, convictions. This will involve things like checking for deductive validity; assessing the strength or soundness of empirical claims; identifying false statements, contradictions, non sequiturs, and informal fallacies; bringing into relief the premises, hidden premises, assumptions and conclusions of any proposed argument, idea, belief or conviction. It will also, crucially, involve checking for our own biases, prejudices, dogmatic beliefs and presuppositions. The unique advantage of philosophy over other academic disciplines is that it is not just about critical thinking but critical self-understanding. It asks me why do I believe what I believe; why do I think what I think; why do I value what I value.
Aside from these critical aspects of philosophy there are also what one might call ‘existential concerns’ that go to the heart of who we are and who we wish to be both individually and collectively. Here philosophy looks at issues such as whether we are free and what freedom means; it reflects upon the experience of anxiety, dread, absurdity, being-in-itself or being-with-others, about suffering and death. These kinds of existential philosophical questions and reflections can be disconcerting because they are intimate, often going to the heart of what it means to live a good or authentic life. Existentialist philosophy involves assessing our values and value systems; discovering what it means to live authentically and determining what is involved in good judgement. The great German philosopher Immanuel Kant asked four key epistemological, ethical and existential questions: ‘Who are we?’, 'What can we know?' 'How ought we to act?' and 'What can we hope for'? We continue to ask these questions for one reason: the world is ever-changing. In each new era we discover through philosophical questioning how wrong we were about things, how narrow was our vision, how constricted and prejudicial our thinking.
Rene Descartes believed that the best kind of philosopher began with doubt, and then clarified and distinguished certain claims from uncertain ones through philosophical 'method'. The Vienna positivist school of philosophy maintained that philosophical statements were to be considered cognitively meaningful only when they could be empirically verified or were truths of logic. This more narrow approach to meaning tended to view ethics, aesthetics and existential philosophy as cognitively meaningless, or mere expressions of taste or preference. Some philosophers see philosophy as analytic: breaking down ideas, arguments or propositions into their constituent parts and logically evaluating them. Others see it as synthetic: bringing together and connecting ideas into a coherent whole. Still others see philosophy as a practical and critical enterprise of questioning and ferreting out bias or distortion. The reality is that the best philosophy embodies all of these aspects.
A broader notion of philosophy takes into account the art of rhetoric or persuasion. If you want to argue for or against a perspective, refute a theory or persuade someone of something, you don’t merely cite facts or employ deductive and inductive argument—you might additionally use analogy, metaphor, allegory, irony or humour to tell a better story—a more complete story that not only hangs together in a reasonable way, honours the facts on the ground, but also a story that elicits emotion and sympathy.
Persuasive rhetoric is, in a way, a kind of story-telling that people respond to not merely from a reasoned but also an emotional perspective. A good story persuades us when it rings true in our own thinking, feeling and lived experience. Rhetoric, metaphor, parable, myth, story-telling are all access points to deeper philosophical reflection. So too are literature and poetry--including my own favourite, science fiction! These access points allow us to imaginatively situate ourselves in different worlds of meaning and possibility. They often bring home to us how narrow our own thinking is and encourage us think more deeply about things.
My point in raising these existential and ethical concerns and linking philosophy to narrative, story telling and rhetoric is to emphasize what I take to be a crucial point: that 'doing' philosophy is not simply an exercise in pure abstraction or logic chopping. It is is also a very concrete and constructive reflection, questioning and examination of our lived experience.
Philosophy has been called the "queen of the sciences," because it takes all other disciplines as its subject matter: there is philosophy of art, of education, of history, of science and social science. Why is this important? Mathematicians look for proofs, but they don't ask what mathematics is or why it is a necessary or meaningful endeavour; scientists construct elaborate experiments to test their theories but they almost never ask what a fact or theory is; artists create great works but they never ask what art is or what aesthetic judgement involves; historians evaluate the veracity of their historical interpretations against written and oral testimony, but they do not typically ask what interpretation or history is. What distinguishes philosophy is that it asks all these questions. There is nothing we know or think we know that is exempt from philosophical scrutiny—including philosophy itself!
Finally, in a rather less abstract more intimate way, philosophy can be understood as way of ‘being’ or living thoughtfully in everything one does. This involves close observation of the world and ourselves, conversation and dialogue with others, taking up great works of literature and philosophy, listening attentively to what others say and constructing sound and valid arguments. But most crucially it requires that we reflect and consider, in an ongoing way, what it means to live a ‘good’ life with and among others. To be a philosopher in this sense you do not need to earn a Ph.D. What you do need is time, solitude, patience, humility and courage—and of course a sense of wonder, a love of wisdom and the desire to be more than you presently are!