The Nature of Philosophy

As is the case with most cultural pursuits which hearken back into the dark recesses of history, philosophy has no universally-agreed upon definition.  Even in academic circles, the definitions of the enterprise called “philosophy” is likely to be as numerous as the number of philosophy department chairs one asks.  This is a phenomenon[1] that vexes many analytic-minded[2] philosophers, given their obsession with necessary and sufficient conditions[3].

While I write and think very much like an analytic, I do not feel that it should be absolutely crucial to assign a definition to philosophy which outlines necessary and sufficient conditions.  At the same time, however, I am not inclined to do as postmodern[4] and continental[5] thinkers tend and simply hand-wave the issue and say “it’s a family of activities that generally resemble each other”.  The only remaining option, then, is to make an attempt at crafting a heuristic[6] for identifying philosophical activities as opposed to any other activities within the scope of human intellectual experience.

Looking at the historical context of philosophy, one may get a feel for the “family resemblance” of philosophical activities.  The helps one create a genealogy of philosophy.  This genealogy begins with ancient thinkers were predominantly concerned with “living the good life” as well as understanding how the world worked.  One of the tools that was of utmost importance to the ancient thinkers and has maintained its utility (at least, up until the point where the postmodernists have taken over) is logic.  In the middle ages of Europe and comparable periods of time in locales such as India and Japan, there was a burgeoning attempt to ascertain the fundamental qualities of existence; admittedly, this was universally in a religious or theistic context of some form or another, but that does not negate the contributions made.

In the more modern eras, from the enlightenment[7] to today, the philosophical enterprise has been a predominantly directed at understanding the manner in which man interacts with reality, from the nature of sense experience to the nature of knowledge and its acquisition.  Additionally, there has been a lot of emphasis on the manner in which the individual interacts with mankind at large and how that interaction ought to be conducted.

Depending on one’s definitions and motivations for constructing a narrative, philosophy can be seen as the progenitor of, handmaid to, or companion of nearly other activity in human intellectual life.  Modern scientific methods are the product of ancient natural studies and enlightenment-era epistemology[8].  Computer science is predicated on mathematical principles and linguistic theories which have been formed through philosophical discourse.  Theology is, by and large, the application of philosophical tools to puzzles related to spiritual revelations and religious doctrines.  Economics[9] is the result of a-priori[10] reasoning in conjunction with philosophical tools of introspection and observation.  These relationships cannot be ignored, but the exact nature of these relationships is at the heart of many lively debates.

I can (and have) gone on a much more rigorous exploration of the necessary and sufficient conditions for something to be considered philosophy, but that sort of exercise is better suited for a longer, more exhaustive, procedural work.  For now, I think it would be most prudent to do a quick breakdown of the etymology[11] of the word “philosophy”.  The word, itself, hails from ancient Greek and effectively means “love of wisdom”.

Of course, nothing in Greek translates so directly into English.  For example, ancient Greek has at least four words for love (arguably, there are a few more).  This particular root, “-philia”, would be most appropriately used in the context of a dispassionate desire for (non-sexual) intimacy, such as that of close friends.  Additionally, “sophos” is a Greek word the denotes a wide array of practical and virtuous skills and habits regarding wisdom, rather than just the sterile modern English concept of knowing a lot or having advanced experience.

The best I can do to describe the Greek root of the term is to say that it is “an actionable desire to develop intellectual virtue and put it into practice in the world at large”.  This takes many different forms, as demonstrated by Socrates and Diogenes relentlessly badgering their neighbors concerning how wrong their ideas of how the world worked really were, while Aristotle, Pythagoras, Epicurus and Zeno started schools and lectured ad-nauseam.  Later in history, the general attitude of a philosopher had largely homogenized into academic bookishness and the writing of essays and long-form treatises.  The exact nature of each essay and treatise may be radically divergent with regards to content, method, and end, though.

Ultimately, taking into account all these diverse enterprises and the influence of postmodern thought, I believe that any human enterprise directed at creating an internally consistent, logically sound, empirically viable, and universal worldview which possesses ethical actionability, utility, and (ultimately) Truth can be rightly considered to be “philosophy”.[12]

In order to attempt to construct a worldview that correlates to reality, there are a great many prerequisites that must first be met.  For example, there is the assumption that there is a reality to which a worldview can correlate.  Another example would be establishing the fundamentals of logic in such a way so as to be certain of their utility[13].  Yet another assumption would be that one is capable of constructing a worldview at all.

Rather than dragging my readers through the most meticulous and technical aspects of post-enlightenment thought, I’d like to discuss the general methodology of philosophy and, if my readers are so inclined so as to investigate these problems in their fullness, I can recommend some starting places.[14]  These problems of philosophy are quite significant, and I believe that these issues ought to be examined, but they are not issues for beginners or the faint of heart.

Instead, I recommend familiarizing oneself with the fundamentals of philosophical methodology and begin exploring this new way of perceiving reality, first.  Even though it has taken many different forms throughout history and our contemporary academic landscape, the fundamental methodology of philosophy has found no better expression than that of the trivium and quadrivium of the middle-ages in Europe.  Although these fields of study were crafted in a theistic environment and are, therefore, often ignored or denigrated by modern (leftist) scholars, the methodology they present are still quite valid, even if they may have been used to reach illicit conclusions.

The trivium consists of three stages of thought: the logic, the grammar, and the rhetoric.  Initially, these stages of thought were applied exclusively to language (hence their names).  The logic was the basis of linguistic thought; it contained the a priori principles such as the law of identity[15], the principle of non-contradiction[16], and the resultant laws of induction.  The grammar demonstrated the rules of language which reflected the logical principles outlined earlier; subject-object relations and other syntax relationships are important to maintaining fidelity to the logical principles underlying that communication[17].  The rhetoric refined the above skill sets so as to aid a thinker[18] in convincing others of the facts which he had uncovered through the application of logic and grammar.

Since its inception as a linguistic methodology, the trivium quickly expanded into a philosophical methodology.  This is partly due to the close relationship that language and philosophy has always held and partly due to the axiomatic nature of the trivium lending itself to the inquiries of philosophy.  In essence, a thinker must first establish the furniture of the world (the fundamental principles and objects of those principles), then explore the relationships between those objects, and then must find a means by which to express those relationships.  For example, the “Socrates is a man” syllogism I referenced in the footnote on this page contains material that isn’t merely linguistic.  For example, the categories “Socrates”, “man”, and “being” are assumed to correlate to realities in the observable world.  Additionally, the grammar of the statement establishes a relationship to those categories which are assumed to correlate to the observable world.  This trend is maintained through the rest of the syllogism:

Socrates is a man,

All men are mortal,

∴ Socrates is a mortal.

At each level of the syllogism, new categories and relationships are assumed or established.  On a linguistic level, logic serves as the structural framework for the grammar to populate with the symbols for Socrates, man, etc. and the rhetoric is the manner in which one would express this syllogism to others and defend the validity of the syllogism.  On a philosophical level, the logic serves as the source for the objects Socrates, man, etc. the grammar denotes the relationships between those symbols, and the rhetoric serves as the means by which these ideas move from my mind to the page for your mind to reassemble[19].

This quick introduction into the methodology of philosophy will be expounded upon in the next chapter, as we explore the role of philosophy in daily life or, as the ancient Greeks put it, “how does one live the good life?”

[1] Phenomenon (n): The object of a person’s perception or discussion; an event of which the senses or the mind are aware.

[2] Analytic Philosophy (n): A school or tradition of philosophical thought predominantly populated by English-speaking philosophers which emphasizes procedural methodology and strict definitions and application of logic.

[3] Necessary and Sufficient Conditions (n):  The requirements of any given subject to meet a definition; necessary qualities are qualities which, if absent, preclude subjects from being defined as such and sufficient qualities are qualities that, if present, allow a subject to be defined as such.

[4] Postmodern (adj): Relating to a school of thought which maintains certain attitudes such as indefinability, plurality of reality, and subjective narrative ontologically trumping objective reality.

[5] Continental (adj): Relating to a school or tradition of philosophical thought predominantly populated by thinkers from mainland Europe which emphasizes meta-philosophical influences on philosophy such as culture and economics.

[6] Heuristic (n): A method or system of interpreting ideas as they are presented.

[7] Enlightenment Era (n): A period in European philosophical history, commonly accepted to be from as early as the 16th century to the end of the 18th century; the era is marked by a sudden surge in scientific advance, political upheaval, and sheer number of philosophical schools of thought.

[8] Epistemology (n): The study of knowledge, the manner and mechanisms by which one knows.

[9] Austrian Economics.  This will be discussed in Chapter 4: Political Philosophy and its Discontents.

[10] A priori (adj): A logical justification for a claim based on syllogisms, moving from given premises to their necessary conclusions.  This is often set in opposition to a posteriori or “empirical” reasoning.

[11] Etymology (n): The study of the meaning of words and the changes of those meanings throughout history.

[12] There is a good amount of jargon in this proposed definition; as these terms appear later in this book, they will be defined in more detail.

[13] Utility (n): The capacity for a thing to provide or contribute to accomplishing one’s end, usually in the context of alleviating discomfort.

[14] “The problems of Philosophy” by Bertrand Russell, “Cartesian Meditations” by (((Edmund Husserl))), and (for the preeminent masochist) “Critique of Pure Reason” by Immanuel Kant

[15] Law of Identity (logic): A=A (A equals A), A≠¬A (A does not equal not-A)

[16] Principle of Non-Contradiction (logic): The logical principle that something cannot both be and not be in the same mode at the same time. (Abbreviated as PNC)

[17] For example, in the over-used case of the “Socrates is a man” syllogism, if you were to mistake the subject-object relationship, you can end up with things like “Man is a Socrates” which is not only incorrect, but it is nonsensical.

[18] i.e. The philosopher

[19] There are deeper epistemic realities hidden in this discussion of the trivium method, but those will be addressed in the coming chapters of this book.