St. Justin Martyr

What Philosophy is not – and what it is (update 08.21)

No other area of knowledge suffers so much controversy over what exactly it studies as does philosophy. The natural and (even more) the social sciences may harbor ambiguities in their methods and details of analysis, but there tends to be little serious dispute as to what they are investigating. Not so with philosophy. Ask three philosophers what it is they look into as philosophers, and you may get three answers so diverse – in fact, one of them may very well affirm that philosophy no longer exists! – that the layperson may ask why any university would finance a department dedicated to such confusion. One way to clear our heads about this may be to approach the matter negatively. That is, what isn’t philosophy? Here perhaps we will find more consensus.

I will confidently claim that there are five things that philosophy is not, according to the following criteria: mode of exposition, range of subject matter, method of discourse, human faculty employed, and purpose. Using these criteria, I will maintain that philosophy is not proverbial wisdom, is not a modern science, is not mythology, is not one of the arts, and is not religion.

1 – Etymologies do not hold sway entirely over meaning, but in the case of philosophy, some semblance of lovable wisdom – that is, a sophia that attracts philia – should be spotted in its fruits if the word is to hold its own. Proverbs are typically brimming with wisdom, and come packaged in bite-size phrases. It might, however, be the brevity that we love, whereas philosophy is known for treating matters at length. In the main, philosophy is rarely proverbial, but typically (and ofttimes maddeningly) discursive.

2 – Notable attempts to reduce one modern science to another (chemistry to physics, biology to chemistry, for example), have usually been notable failures. Most of the triumphant sciences of today hold their ground admirably, but do so only by fencing it off and insisting on the limits of their objects. In contrast, philosophies, of whatever stripe, have always aspired to some kind of overarching vision, either by mediating between other areas of knowledge, or by transcending them altogether. Such generality may be cognitively ambitious (Plotinus, Hegel), or distinctly modest (Kant, Wittgenstein), but there is something all-embracing at work in its ambitions. Not aiming at knowing everything about something (as in the sciences), the philosopher wishes to know something (however modest) about everything. As regards its ultimate object of study, philosophy wishes to be, in some robust sense, universal.

3 – Now there already exists a discourse that often deals with wisdom and concerns issues of universal import, and it predates philosophy. It is called mythology. Although philosophies and mythologies often run parallel, and may even find themselves inseparable in many a human discourse, they are also programmatically – and famously – distinct. The distinction lies in the method of their discourse. Myths are narrated (or told); philosophy is reasoned (or argued).

*** Supplement: Also in virtue of its argumentative character, philosophy is not a mere “vision of the world” (Weltanschauung). I say it is not merely this because it does indeed include a vision of the world; however, it cannot be reduced to this alone. It is quite possible to have a Weltanschauung without performing the philosophical act in a disciplined way. Most myths include or presuppose a vision of the world, but without rational argumentation remain in the mode of narration and imagination.  ***

4 – Some may suspect that pursuits of wisdom and overarching inquiry need more than myth and argument, and may turn for this to the open horizons of the arts. Music, drama, literature, painting, architecture, dance, and today cinema, may appear to promise more topical expanse and metaphysical depth than treatises of Aristotle and Heidegger, or dialogues of Plato and Hume. But here again, although often inseparable from the arts, philosophy has typically remained distinct. This is due to the dimensions of our makeup that are exercised by the arts, namely, our senses, emotions and imagination, and only in ancillary mode our reflective thought. Philosophy is just the opposite. The human faculty in the foreground is our pondering mind, in both intuitive and inferential modes. Philosophy is not first and foremost a sensorial or affective activity, but one that is mental, or, in more traditional terminology: intellectual.

5 – But what is it all for? Philosophy’s end and purpose may seem quite exalted at times, and a few of its practitioners have not shied away from conflating it with religion (the Pythagoreans, some Neo-Platonists, the bizarre religio-philosophy of Comte come to mind). Buddhism, often called a religion, is considered by some a philosophy. So there are ambiguities here. But by and large, religions place the goal of personal transformation in the foreground, and without it would have no reason to exist. Philosophy may indeed provide insights which ultimately consummate in such a metamorphosis, but often enough it will do so by dispatching its “graduates” to a religion. What is to be learned and practiced in that new home will be seen as something quite distinct from, and ultimately transcending rational cogitations. Despite recent apologists for philosophy as a “way of life,” or even a spirituality (Hadot and company), the majority of philosophers have identified their goal less as an existential transformation, and more, quite simply, as a kind of knowledge, or a distinctive habit of thought. Its aim is seen to be, by its very nature, cognitive.

* * *

The negative constraints here outlined have already led to some positive results, inasmuch as multiple contrasts of something with what it is not, already trace an outline suggesting content. Thus, now affirmatively stated: philosophy is discursive, favors universal aspirations in point of view, is in some way argumentative in method, distinctly intellectual in operation and aims at securing a kind of knowledge. Here I will dare to put my finger on its elusive essence. I’ve never heard this said before – although it probably has been – but as I look back at my own decades of philosophizing, and observe what the best of philosophers seem to be doing, I cannot escape a conclusion: philosophy is something in philosophers, a quality we gain which impels us to perform the philosophical act. And that something is:

the acquired intellectual habit of looking at and pondering reality with the tenacious intent of uncovering – to the extent that they are knowable – its most embracing and founding principles in regard to the cosmos, human reality and transcendence. 

The qualifying clause I have inserted allows us to welcome beneath the definition’s umbrella even the cognitive minimalists, from Skeptics to Kantians to Post-Modernists. Even in their bold admonitions against cognitive ambition, they too lay claim to a kind of embracing and founding principial stance. They may radically delimit and relativize our mind’s possibilities, but they tend to affirm these qualifications of all knowledge, not just some. Thus, they too are synoptic in scope.

We are not born philosophers – and mercifully, few will ever become one, since philosophers are a bothersome breed – but good philosophy, in my view, nonetheless builds upon the natural knowledge we all possess simply by being human. That natural knowledge bears within itself, as its sacred secret, the experience of wonder. Our knowledge is always surrounded by unknowing. We quickly discover as children that we come from sources and causes we are hardly aware of, and will never fully understand – in other words, that we are derivative. We also discover that we are always underway, going to some goal or destination. It too is imperfectly understood, even if it be only the next phase of our growth.

Also, while still in diapers, we capably and convincingly ascertain that there is a world around us that is far beyond our ken and control. And not too long thereafter, but still very much a part of our childhood cognitive conquests, we find out that we have to make choices and that all sorts of good and bad things will result from them.

All of us will, to one extent or another, push these boundaries beyond their immediate horizons. For example, beyond our nuclear family we may pursue origins regarding our ancestors, and explore a bit of genealogy; we may wonder beyond our immediate plans about further goals as to where we will go after leaving home, or after college, or after retirement (or after death?). Likewise, beyond our residence and neighborhood we may establish wider context by localizing our city in a state, our state in a country, our country on a continent, our earth in a solar system, that system in a galaxy and that galaxy only one among some two trillion.

And also, by 20 or so, we should attain sufficient command of our freedom to administer our future choices with accountability, and cultivate growing awareness of consequences. However, the vast majority of us will leave it at that, and get on with our education, our vocation, our jobs and our families. Sunday afternoon reveries, or cocktail parties, may allow us to entertain some of the more “ultimate” questions, but we rarely get very far with the long-winded business of unraveling the mysteries they imply.

What makes philosophers different – different, not better – is that, for the life of them, they cannot stop prolonging those queries about origins, destinies, universes and freedom and are teased incurably by the true, the good and the beautiful. These questions will mature into metaphysics, cosmology, philosophical anthropology, ethics, political philosophy and aesthetics, among other disciplines (all monitored by logic – that great servant but fearful master). Their practitioners find no rest until they have won at least a few more rays of light regarding more primordial causes, more ultimate ends, more transcendent “worlds” around us and, finally, the ultimate source of that freedom that both haunts and taunts us.

Causes, consequences, contexts and conscience are not just parameters of pragmatic living for the philosophers, they are summons to intellectual adventures. Truth seeks its foundation; goodness its expansion; beauty its perfection. My ideal philosopher is convinced of this, and joins in the quest.

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