St. Justin Martyr

What Philosophy is not – and what it is

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 well get three conflicting answers. In fact, one of them may very well have doubts as to whether philosophy as such still exists! The layperson may ask why any university would finance a department with such an identity crisis. However, one way to clear our heads about this may be to approach the matter from the negative side. That is, what isn’t philosophy? Here perhaps we will find more consensus.

I will confidently claim that there are five things that philosophy, as commonly understood since its birth in ancient Greece, is not. I will draw the boundary lines according to the following criteria: mode of exposition, range of subject matter, method of discourse, human faculty employed, and ultimate purpose. Using these criteria, I will maintain that philosophy is not simply proverbial wisdom; is not among, nor is it a sum of any of the modern sciences; is not mythology; is not one, nor any ensemble, of the arts; and, finally, is not religion.

1 – Etymologies do not usually hold final sway over meaning. In Scholastic language, the former: impositio nominis (the lexical origin of the name) is distingushed from the latter: significatio nominis (the meaning of the name in actual use). But in the case of philosophy, some semblance of lovable wisdom – that is, a sophia that attracts philia – should be made evident in its fruits, if the very word is to hold its own. Proverbs, aphorisms, adages (there are many words for these bite-size words of wisdom) are typically brimming with insight, and we love to quote them. It might, however, be the brevity that we love, rather than the philosophy in which they were gestated, or that they may in turn generate. The best of deep sayings and truisms will be the fruit of lengthy pondering, on the one hand, and serve as seeds, on the other, for new enquiries. Philosophy is known for treating matters at length, even if often generated by and generative of proverbial wisdom. But in the main, philosophy properly so-called is rarely proverbial, but typically, and ofttimes maddeningly, discursive.

2 – Notable attempts to reduce one modern science to another (chemistry to physics, or biology to chemistry, for example, or logic to math, or math to logic), 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 clear delimitation of their subject matter. 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 has at times been cognitively ambitious (Plotinus, Hegel), or distinctly modest (Kant, Wittgenstein), but there is always something all-embracing in its suggested horizons. Not aiming at knowing everything about something (as in the sciences), the philosopher wishes to know something (however modest) about everything. Accordingly, as regards its subject matter of study, philosophy aspires, in some robust sense, to be universal.

3 – But there already exists a discourse that often claims to deal with matters of wisdom and address issues of universal import, and it is something that predates philosophy. It is simply what we call mythology. Although philosophies and mythologies often run parallel, and may even find themselves inseparable in many a human discourse (as in Plato), they are also programmatically, and famously distinct. And the distinction lies in the method of their discourse. Myths are narrated, or told; philosophy is reasoned or argued.

*** Excursus: Also in virtue of this 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, but it cannot be reduced to this alone. It is quite possible to have a worldview without performing the philosophical act in a disciplined way. Myths and religions normally include or presuppose such a vision, but without rational argumentation they remain in the mode of narration, imagination, and in the case of religion, personal transformation.  ***

4 – Yet another potential contestant comes to mind. 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 interacting with 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, imaginative or affective activity, but one that is decidedly 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 (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 do exist ambiguities here, many of which will be addressed by philosophy in its metaphysics, and by religion in it fundamental theology. 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, or at least to a religious quest. And 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 initial aim and purpose, its raison d’être, are seen to be, by its very nature, cognitive.

* * *

The negative constraints here outlined have already led to some positive hints, 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. As I look back at my own decades of philosophizing, and observe what the best of philosophers seem to be doing, I cannot escape the following 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 – to the extent that it is possible – of sighting its most embracing and founding principles in regard to the cosmos, human reality and the question of 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 exhibit the true philosophical trademark by affirming these qualifications of all knowledge, not just some. They too are synoptic in scope.

Good philosophy, in my view, 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. Whatever knowledge we gain 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 explore origins regarding our ancestors, and do 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 even further. 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 dedicated philosophers different – different, not better – is that they are unable to simply set aside those queries regarding origins, destinies, universes and freedom. Their minds are forever and incurably teased by questions surrounding the true, the good and the beautiful. These questions will typically 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 committed practitioners will find no rest until they have won at least a few more rays of light regarding primordial causes, ultimate ends, transcendent “worlds” around us and above us, and, finally, the ultimate source of that freedom that both haunts and taunts us all.

Causes, consequences, contexts and conscience are not just parameters of pragmatic living for the philosopher; 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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