What is Philosophy?

by Nonjohn   Copyright 2003


Popular usage of the word, “philosophy” to mean something “impractical” does not do justice to pointing out the profound contributions and importance of philosophy to shaping the direction that our world has taken and will take.  To be "philosophical" does not necessarily mean to be impractical, but rather can mean being practical in the most comprehensive way imaginable.

To some, the word "philosopher" suggests the stereotype of an impractical egghead sitting in an armchair, pontificating in an ivory tower.  When I say that I am a "philosopher," I do NOT mean to suggest that I am such a person.  Rather, I strive to be a highly pragmatic person of action who uses philosophical discourse to help me decide how to direct my energies.  Philosophy allows for an ultra-practical, systematic search for truth through any and all methods by which truth may be ascertained.  Except for emergency situations, it is almost always more helpful to think BEFORE taking any major action.  Such intelligent action stands the greatest chance of securing lasting good, yet all too often, people act on fear, rather than reason.  The methods of philosophy help us to cut through bullshit and think outside “boxes” to get at the truth.  Thus, most logic and reasoning courses at universities are found in philosophy departments.

My day-to-day definition of “philosophy” is:  “Philosophy is the study of how to think rationally about any topic of which you might be interested.”  Thus, no matter who you are or no matter what your interests are, philosophy is helpful.  The principles of logic and reasoning taught by philosophers can be applied across all disciplines.

Philosophy literally means "love of wisdom."  It is derived from the Greek words “philo,” meaning “love” and  “sophia,” meaning “wisdom.”  The word philosophy is believed to have been coined by Pythagoras.  When asked if he were a wise man, Pythagoras replied, "No, but I am a lover of wisdom."  Philosophy is also occasionally defined as the “study of truth.”

Webster's 3rd International Dictionary defines “philosophy” as “a love or pursuit of wisdom:  a search for the underlying causes and principles of reality:  Investigation, inquiry.”  This broad definition is more appealing than a secondary definition (also in Webster's 3rd International Dictionary) that defines philosophy as “a quest for truth through logical reasoning rather than factual observation.”  This secondary definition (sometimes used in popular circles) conveys the idea that philosophy is non-empirical.  However, nothing could be farther from the truth!  Empiricism (including scientific and observational methods) is but one of many “schools,” subdivisions, approaches, or KINDS OF philosophy.  Science (or Empiricism) is only one of many ways in which truth can be apprehended.  The idea that “science” is a separate field from philosophy is a common misconception.  Francis Bacon was one of the early pioneer's of the Empiricist (A.K.A. scientific) school of philosophy.  Given the multiple schools of philosophy, philosophers are not necessarily biased into thinking that science is more valid than other modes of thought in ascertaining truth.

Louis O. Kattsoff (in his 1968 article on philosophy for the World Book Encyclopedia) stated:

“Philosophy has two important aims.  First, it tries to give a person a unified view of the universe in which he lives.  Second, it seeks to make a person a more critical thinker by sharpening his ability to think clearly and precisely.  The American philosopher [and physician] William James defined philosophy as ‘an unusually stubborn attempt to think clearly.’  A philosopher is an ordinary person who thinks more deeply and obstinately than other people.”

“Philosophy has great value in our complicated world.  Many persons have no real foundations or sets of beliefs.  Philosophy can provide them with a reasoned framework within which to think.  By accepting a particular philosophy, a person can begin to seek certain goals and to direct his life’s behavior.  For example, a Stoic tries to remain master of his emotions.  An Epicurean seeks happiness through pleasure.  A Rationalist attempts to gain knowledge through reason.  A Christian strives for salvation through the grace and teachings of Jesus Christ.  Each set of beliefs leads to a particular way of thinking and behaving.”

“Philosophy also examines the foundations of other studies.  It asks the social scientist what he believes to be the nature of man.  It asks the physical scientist why he uses the scientific method.  Philosophy seeks to organize the results of the various sciences to show the many ways in which they are related.”

In emphasizing philosophy’s synthesis of learning, Henry Sidgwick said, “It is the primary aim of philosophy to unify completely all departments of rational thought.”

Science, logical reasoning, and intuition represent only a few philosophical approaches to discovering truth.  In reality (like most things in reality), no one approach to discovering truth is mutually exclusive of any other approach.  For example, some of the best ideas for scientific experiments have occurred intuitively.  When deciding which experiments to conduct, good scientists will often rely on intuitive feelings that a particular hypothesis is more likely to turn out to be true, despite any concrete evidence to suggest the truthfulness of that hypothesis.  Also, Kekule’s dream in which he visualized the structure of benzene is an example of knowledge that arrived intuitively, was then scientifically testable, AND turned out to be TRUE!

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