What is Philosophy?

Like most normal people, I have my days when I bounce out of bed in the morning enthusiastically eager to discuss the origin, nature, and uses of philosophy.  If today happens to be one of those days for you, you’re in great good luck because the origin, nature, and uses of philosophy are by chance the very topics of this exquisite blog post.  How happy you must be now!

A few months ago, I was discussing the origins of philosophy with someone, and they insisted that philosophy dates back some 4,000 or more years to a certain Egyptian whose name I have sadly forgotten now, but who wrote a book of wisdom literature.

They were quite sure that particular gentleman had created philosophy because they had read about it on the internet.  Of course I have nothing against ancient Egyptian wisdom literature.  (“Dost thou not spit upon the Pharaoh’s face, my son, unless his beard be upon fire”.)  But in my view of things, wisdom literature — no matter how good and wise it is — is not necessarily philosophy.   In fact, most wisdom literature even today has absolutely nothing to do with philosophy at all.  Absolutely nothing!

Unless.  Unless we are defining “philosophy” the way many of us commonly do define it.   For many of us, the word “philosophy” is almost synonymous with the word “opinion”,  and especially an opinion that might be seen as wise. “My philosophy about people is that if you treat them with the respect and decency they deserve as humans,  then it’s far easier to snooker them into giving you the money you wish to cull from them.”   I call this kind of philosophy “street philosophy” or, when I’m trying to be fancy-pants about it, “informal philosophy”.

Street, or informal, philosophy should not be confused with academic, or formal, philosophy.  The latter is philosophy as practiced by such great and polished minds as Heraclitus, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein, Sunstone, and  a host of others.  I’ll have more to say about the distinction between the two kinds of philosophy later.  For now, it is sufficient for us to recognize that formal philosophy is quite distinct from mere opinion, no matter how wise that opinion might be.

The origin of formal philosophy is traditionally assigned to one man, Thales, a Greek who once lived in what is now Turkey.  About 2,500 years ago, Thales somehow came up with the-radical-for-its-time-notion that natural events — such as thunder,  an eclipse of the sun, or a good harvest — can always be explained in terms of natural causes discernible to human reason.

Put a bit differently, Thales insisted that whatever happens in nature has, not a divine or supernatural cause (or at the very least, not just a divine or supernatural cause), but a natural cause.  Then he went a step further to also insist that we can figure out what that natural cause is via our ability to reason about things.  So, for instance, instead of simply supposing that thunder is caused by a god, we can sit down, reason about it, and perhaps figure out what is the natural cause for thunder.

This was an entirely radical new idea. You can read one ancient text after the other, and no one else anywhere in the world before Thales is trying to explain all nature events in terms of natural causes discernible to reason.  Not in pre-Thales Sumerian writings.  Not in pre-Thales Egyptian writings.  Not in pre-Thales Indian writings.  And not in pre-Thales Chinese writings.  Instead, everywhere it is commonplace to assume that natural events can and do have supernatural causes, unless some natural cause of them is quite obvious.

That is, while you might be aware even before Thales that the arrow you shot through the heart of a deer caused the deer to die — because the cause of the deer’s death is immediately apparent to you — you would not before Thales assume that any and all natural events have natural causes.  If the natural cause of a natural event was not immediately apparent to you, you would most likely guess that the cause of the natural event was something supernatural, or at least mythical.

Even more importantly, before Thales, people did not assume that the natural causes of any and all natural events could be figured out via reason.

As Thales’ influence began to spread outward from his home in Asia Minor, people began to increasingly demand rational explanations for how natural processes made things happen.  And, eventually, this mode or way of thinking about things not only got philosophy off to its start, but also in the end gave rise to the sciences.

So, formal philosophy got started about 2500 years ago with one man, Thales, who somehow came up with the radical notion that natural events have natural causes, and that human reason can discern those causes.  Isn’t it exciting to know that?  I’m excited; I hope you’re excited!

Are you excited yet?

To go on: Reason, as you might suppose by now, is the core of formal philosophy.  Or, to be a bit more precise, the core is logical reasoning.

Academic or formal philosophy, then, differs from street or informal philosophy primarily in what constitutes good grounds or good reasons for holding an opinion.  In street philosophy, just about anything goes.  Sometimes, the only criteria for accepting something is that it emotionally feels right to you, or that it makes you feel good.  So, if someone says to you, “The meaning of life is to find your gift”, you say, “Yeah, that’s right” or “Yeah, that’s true”, if the statement feels right to you, or if it makes you feel good to believe that it’s true.

Formal philosophy is very different from that.  It crucially depends on logical reasoning, and — at least, ideally — rejects any notions that can be demonstrated to be irrational.  It is like a game with only one crucial rule:  You can claim pretty much whatever you want to claim as true, but you have got to back up your claim with logical reasoning.  If you do that, then you score.

Of course, if you fail to do it, then your opponents (other philosophers for the most part), who are always on the lookout for flaws in your reasoning, will gleefully reduce your arguments to finely chopped tears-inducing pieces of onion, which they will then saute on high heat before your very own watery eyes — all the while using logical reasoning of their own to accomplish the cookery, and probably cackling to themselves while they do it.  But that’s the game of philosophy.  It’s one crucial rule is that you must back up your truth claims with logical reasoning, the more rigorous, the better.

Now, to be reasonably cautious, that’s a little bit over simplified, but I nevertheless do believe it to be largely true.

Of course, Good Old Thales was wrong about one thing. He believed that reason alone was sufficient to discern the natural causes of events.  And that was the popular opinion for quite a few centuries after him.  But, as we now know, reason alone is not sufficient.

About 500 years ago, Galileo demonstrated by making several discoveries about the natural causes of various things, that logical reasoning requires a partner: Empirical evidence, or observation.  Alone, both reason and observation are each inadequate to reliably discern the natural causes of natural events.  But woven together, they become that powerhouse of knowledge that we know today as the sciences.

It is commonplace to point out that “philosophy never solves anything”, and in a way, there’s truth to that.  Philosophy has a traditional set of problems or issues, such as “Does god exist?”,   “What do we know and how do we know it?”,  “On what ethical principles, if any, can we base our morals?”, and so forth.  And it is true those problems have been discussed by philosophers for hundreds or thousands of years without the philosophers for the most part coming to any ultimate agreements.

Yet, even though philosophy seldom arrives at any ultimate agreements (e.g. “God does indeed exist.”) it often arrives at agreements about what is a rational or an irrational approach to a problem or issue.  For instance, philosophers long, long ago agreed that “I simply feel there must be a god because if there is not,  my life will be without meaning” is not a rational basis for believing there actually is a god.  There might still be rational grounds for believing there’s a god, but everyone now agrees that is not one of them

But, if philosophy is not useful to reliably discern the natural causes of events, then of what good or use is it?  There are a small handful of answers to that question, but perhaps one of the simplest ones is this: Philosophy has worked reasonably well — or even quite well — as a means to asking the right questions.

The crucial importance of asking the right questions was pointed out by Einstein, who said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes”.

Indeed, when Thales insisted all those many years ago that natural events have natural causes discernible to reason, he was in a very effective sense changing the question of what causes things to happen, and in doing so, he  eventually (and fruitfully) opened the door to the scientific investigation of nature.  It is in fact possible to view the whole 2500 year history of philosophy as a dialog conducted over the ages — a dialog whose main benefit to us has been the discovery of the right or most fruitful questions to ask.

There are a few other uses of philosophy, but that seems to me one of the most important.  I hope this essay will be of some use to you in furthering your understanding of philosophy.  If it happens to be so, I should like to point out that grateful donations of cash can be made to me by calling 1-800-SunstonesScam.  On the other hand, if it has not been of any use to you, I should as readily like to point out that I am personally just as surprised as you are about that, and that I have a very strong suspicion some god wrote the whole thing while I was sleeping, and then signed my name to it.

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