An Attempt to (Briefly) Define Philosophy

At the end of the last post I asked, “What is philosophy?” a question that is important but also problematic. It is important because, as French philosopher Maurice Riseling has said, “Sooner or later, life makes philosophers of us all.” What exactly he means by that (along with why the question “What is philosophy?” is problematic) will become clear at the end of this post. Hopefully.

So what is philosophy? The quick answer is that it depends on who you ask, but that answer doesn’t really answer the question. At least, not really. When philosophers themselves attempt to answer the question, it is interesting to note that each of their answers is a bit different, and, perhaps ironically, some philosophers even disagree on what it means to do philosophy, leading one to wonder if anyone knows the answer. But of course, the words the answer at the end of that last sentence assume that there is one answer, though I admit that there may not be only one answer to the proposed question. Whatever. For now, I would like to discuss two different but still useful answers. The first answer comes from where the word philosophy comes from, and the second comes from the questions that are asked when we study philosophy.


Plato and Aristotle detail from Raffaello Sanzio’s The School of Athens)

The Word
Our word philosophy comes from the Greek word philosophia. This word is made up of two parts: philos and sophiaPhilos means love or love of, while sophia means wisdom (think of our word for sophisticated). Hence, philosophia originally meant love of wisdom, and philosophers were lovers of wisdom. Personally, I like to broaden the word wisdom to include knowledge and truth. From this perspective, then, anyone who loves wisdom is a philosopher. And yet, note that the active word is not having wisdom or knowing wisdom, but loving it.

Love is a significant emotion. It is an emotion that causes us to see the world differently (usually more optimistically) than other emotions sometimes do. We desire what we love, and we tend to be happier when we are full of love.

There are different kinds of love, however. But there is only one kind of love which I’m talking about. God is love, 1 John 4:16 says, and the kind of love that God has trumps all other emotions. It has to, because it equals God. Hence, the love I am talking about is a prerequisite to spirituality, which spirituality, philosopher Robert Solomon says, is having the right emotion, at the right time, for the right reason, towards the right person or object, and to the right degree. Solomon also defines love as the expansion of the self to include the other.

The Questions
While “love of wisdom” is a valuable and helpful way to define philosophy, not everyone thinks of philosophy that way. Typically, philosophy tends to be divided up into 5 areas: metaphysics, epistemology, logic, ethics, and aesthetics. Each of these areas asks certain questions, a few of which I will list below . Notice that while these 5 categories seem to be separate, they are often mutually inclusive, as we’ll see below.

Metaphysicsask about the nature of reality and truth. Also, questions of metaphysics also include questions of what it means to be. The smart-sounding word for questions about being is ontology. Questions of metaphysics ask these questions:

·         What is truth?

·         What is the nature of reality? What is real?

·         What is the nature of existence?

·         What is space and time? What is cause and effect?

·         What does it mean to be?

·         What is the origin of the universe?

·         Does existence have a purpose?

·         Is there a God?

·         Can God be known?

That last question overlaps with epistemology, since epistemology asks questions that deal with knowing.

·         What is knowledge?

·         How can something be known?

·         How do we know what we know?

·         Can everything be known, or only some things?
·         What are the limits of knowledge?
Logicdeals with questions of proof and argumentation especially formal proof and argumentation.

·         What is valid reasoning?

·         How does a person discern a fallacious argument?

·         What is proof?

·         What kinds of things follow from a set of premises, maxims, or axioms?
Ethicsdeal with questions of right and wrong. Questions of ethics also tend to be closely connected with questions of politics.

·         How should one live?

·         What is right? What is wrong?

·         How should one act in a specific situation?

·         What does it mean to say that something ought to be done?

·         How should human beings interact with one another?

·         What is the best way for human beings to get along together?

·         How should human beings be governed?

·         What is the best form of government?

Aestheticsdeal with questions about the arts, however broadly or narrowly we interpret the arts.

·         What is art?

·         What is good art?

·         What is the purpose of art? What is art for?

·         Why do we produce art?

·         Does art influence us or teach us (is it didactic?) or is it merely self-expression or just a form of entertainment?

Looking at the above questions, note how often they shade into each other. In other words, how can we ask what art is unless we also understand the nature of reality and what it means to be? But, furthermore, before we know what the answer is to that question, we first have to know what it means to know! This is why a study of philosophy is often confusing. It is confusing because to ask one question we must presuppose the answer to the other questions! So, we can’t answer any questions without assuming answers to all of the questions. (Bertrand Russell once said that the value of philosophy is in the questions it asks, not in the answers it gives.) See how confusing this gets? Now read what Scott Soames has to say:

Philosophy has become a highly organized discipline, done by specialists primarily for other specialists. The number of philosophers has exploded, the volume of publication has swelled, and the subfields of serious philosophical investigation have multiplied. Not only is the broad field of philosophy today far too vast to be embraced by one mind, something similar is true even of many highly specialized subfields. (Philosophical Analysis in the Twentieth Century, vol. 2, p. 463.)

Yeah. It’s confusing. It makes it hard to start, because we want to start right so that we can continue to go right. Whereas if we start wrong, there’s no point in continuing because if we really are lovers of truth and wisdom, we want to make sure we’re going right and talking about things that are true. If I’m doing a math problem and I start at the wrong place, I need to go back to the beginning to start it right. I can’t keep going from the wrong place because I will never get the right answer. Joseph Smith once wrote, “If we start right, it is easy to go right all the time; but if we start wrong we may go wrong, and it will be a hard matter to get right” (History of the Church 6:303).

So while to some degree, we can’t start without answering or assuming an answer to the questions posed above, we have to start someplace. We have to start because the answers to those questions are valuable. We need answers to those questions because those answers help us live our lives. Not only that, but if we do not consciously and deliberately answer those questions, we end up going about our lives assuming an answer to those questions without taking full responsibility for the answers that our acts assume. We need philosophy because philosophy is how we live our lives. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson have written,

Philosophy matters to us . . . primarily because it helps us to make sense of our lives and to live better lives. A worthwhile philosophy will be one that gives us deep insight into who we are, how we experience our world, and how we ought to live. (Philosophy in the Flesh 551)

When Riseling says that “Sooner or later, life makes philosophers of us all,” he recognizes that we all assume our own answers to the list of questions above.

So let’s go back to where we began. What do I mean by philosophy? Do I mean the answers given by really smart dead (or mostly dead) people to the questions I’ve listed above? Do I mean that “love of wisdom” thing I talked about at the beginning of this post? My answer is yes and no. An undesirable answer, but a typically philosophical one, nonetheless. Whether the answer is yes or no depends on what we mean by “love of wisdom” and what those dead smart guys’ answers were (to what degree were they right, and to what degree did they start right?). So how will we judge the standard by which we agree with what they say? And how do we start right? The answer is we’ll necessarily judge them by the standard of truth.

But, wait! I’ve already assumed the answer before I’ve “defended” the answer! Surprise, surprise. But that’s where belief (faith?) comes in. We can’t start anywhere without belief. And that will be the subject of the next post.

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