Saturday, April 14, 2018

(8) The question "what is philosophy?"

The question which we here deal with is clearly important and fundamental when considering the possibility and outline of a Christian philosophy.  Unfortunately, we will not easily find a satisfactory answer; certainly not one that will satisfy everybody.  It has been well said that the question “what is philosophy?” is itself a philosophical question and one that has received many different answers.

Let us at least begin with some common ideas without yet making any judgement about them.  Firstly, philosophy involves and is about thinking.  The twentieth-century philosopher Martin Heidegger at the end of his career even preferred to speak of “thinking” rather than philosophy, meaning by it a special and deep kind of thinking, and provocatively claimed that ‘science does not think’. In this way he stressed the difference between philosophy and science.  Others have seen science as the very pinnacle of human thought about reality so that philosophy is left with the task of clarifying the concepts and arguments we use both in science and in everyday life.  In this way philosophy becomes a specialised kind of thinking related to logical analysis.  So called “analytic” philosophy which is the predominant form of philosophy in universities today tends to follow this line.  The well-known Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga is a leading figure in analytic philosophy and once described philosophical reflection as “not much different from just thinking hard”.  Philosophy has also been said to start with a feeling of wonder, as Plato has it in the Theaetetus (155d)[1] and as Aristotle repeated (Metaphysics A 982b10)[2] – and also to involve reflection that goes deeper than usual thinking.  Let’s explore these ideas a bit further.

That people were struck by a feeling of awe at the world around them, and drawn by such a feeling to wonder at the origin of it all, certainly predated the beginnings of philosophy in 6th century BC Ionia.  This is clear from the many myths that describe the birth of gods and of human beings.  From its inception, usually identified with Thales of Miletus, philosophy had an ambiguous relation to these myths.  It is quite possible that the importance of Miletus as the birth of philosophy, being home also to Anaximander and Anaximenes, was due to its importance as a trade-route with the older cultures of Babylon, Egypt, Lydia, and Phoenicia.  Contact with such cultures would have confronted the Greeks with creation myths quite different from their own. The early philosophers both drew on these myths for inspiration and ideas, as Thales did in identifying water as the ultimate element, but also showed a critical attitude – as far as we know Thales made no link to the gods and gave a more ‘naturalistic’ and structural account of reality.  Often the critical attitude has been emphasised and from this we get the idea that philosophy is in tension with religion as well as the idea that philosophy must be a kind of thinking that is critical. 

Then we should consider the term philosophy itself which derives from two Greek words philos and sophia which together mean the “love of wisdom”.  Here we can find the notion that philosophy can help us discover the meaning of life and show us how to live a good life.  Early on in the history of philosophy, ethics took an important role such that for many it became a kind of alternative religious way of life for intellectuals.  We could think of the religious cult that grew up around the legendary Pythagoras or later when Plato spoke of philosophy as a conversion of the soul from darkness to light, from the world of change to reality itself which is understood to be a divine order. As the philosopher comes to know this changeless order he becomes divine so far as is possible for a mortal (Republic 518c-d and 500c-d).  While this view became less common with the advent of Christianity, in our increasingly post-Christian age it is experiencing something of a revival as the likes of Luc Ferry and Alain de Botton try to show us how to live a good secular life with the help of philosophy.  Finally, and possibly the most important and pervasive idea about philosophy is that it has to do with reason and being rational.

[1]"I see, my dear Theaetetus, that Theodorus had a true insight into your nature when he said that you were a philosopher, for wonder is the feeling of a philosopher, and philosophy begins in wonder."
[2] “The fact that this science is not productive is also clear from those who first engaged in philosophy.  For human beings originally began philosophy, as they do now, because of wonder”

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