Dr. Bob Zunjic
(Based on "The Value of Philosophy" by B. Russell)
is philosophy?" is a reflexive
question in the threefold sense: it is about philosophy, it
is raised by philosophers themselves and, last but not least,
it represents an old and difficult philosophical problem. This
multiple reflexivity is the reason why trying to find out what philosophy is
inevitably becomes not only a way of dealing with philosophy but actually
the way of doing philosophy. Once we start discussing philosophy we
cannot escape its intellectual grip. Even an explicit denial of philosophy
remains within its spell - it is a kind of self-refuting philosophy
at best, an un-reflected act of theory hatred (misology) at worst. In this
sense one can talk about the inescapability
of philosophizing independent from its potential benefits.
Note: Notice that this kind of reflexivity
and self-involvement does not occur in other disciplines. (For instance:
"What is mathematics?" is not a mathematical question.)
||If the question "what
is philosophy?" represents a vexing philosophical issue
it should not come as a big surprise that it resists any attempt to
be answered in a definitive manner. Philosophical issues and reflections
are notorious for their inconclusiveness.
This is particularly true of the question "what is philosophy?".
In fact, it is virtually impossible to give one universally accepted
definition of philosophy. All philosophers will not agree even
upon some general formal characteristics, for instance that philosophy
is a discursive activity of our intellect. Widely circulated definitions
of philosophy are either too general or too one-sided to be considered
as anything better than useful hints about the character of philosophical
thinking. In that respect philosophy is a unique discipline. No other
subject in the curriculum has to agonize with a similar problem of
an elusive self-definition.
It Is So Difficult To Define Philosophy?
||1) Philosophy does
not have any specific subject matter and hence cannot be defined
with regard to any particular area of investigation. It may
deal with every dimension of human life and can raise questions in
any field of study or endeavor (owing to this circumstance we have
a variety of philosophies-of discipline and philosophies-of-subject).
Hence trying to tie philosophy exclusively to one or any specific
sphere would be an unjustified limitation of its reach.
||2) Philosophy pursues
questions rather than answers. The responsibility of
philosophy is not so much to answer our questions as to question given
answers. It is not an exaggeration to say that a philosopher is someone
who can make a riddle out of any answer. A true philosopher is not
bound by any particular "truths" that set limits to his/her
urge to continue asking questions. Hence philosophy cannot be defined with
recourse to some accepted tenets, beliefs and established class of
||3) Philosophy changes
historically both in respect to its content and its character. Over
the centuries it has assumed very different forms (wisdom, science,
art, piety, critique, analysis, linguistic game, literary genre)
and has been practiced in very different settings (market place,
temple, monastery, studio, university, institute, conference, the
Internet). The only overriding notion that could encompass all
these manifestations of philosophy is something like "mental activity",
but it is too general to give an informative definition of what philosophy
is. Thus we cannot find a definition of philosophy that would be both
essential and sensitive to its historical variety.
are many other activities that are of mental nature too. One may be
tempted to say that philosophy deals with concepts (which is true)
but many sciences do the same.
Side Approach to Philosophy
||In view of the above difficulties
philosophers tend to refrain from giving any object-related definition of philosophy
and by rule are very reluctant to single out one exemplary form of
philosophizing. We are on a much safer ground if we choose instead
to demonstrate what philosophy is not (negative way) or (at
best) what distinguishes it from other intellectual pursuits (dialectical
way). While we cannot commit ourselves to one single definition
of philosophy we can formulate many pertinent determinations of philosophizing.
Rather than by defining its object (field) or the supposed
permanent core essence) the nature of philosophy
could be (better) determined by making reference to its attitude,
source and objective.
The very meaning of the
word philosophy (derived from the Greek compound philo +
sophia) points at once to a special attitude of a philosopher and her/his objective. According
to this etymology, "philosophy" is "a love of wisdom", which means
that it combines both cognitive and emotional dimension of our mind.
"Love" is named first and it is not knowledge - it is a craving and striving to attain the object of love. But striving
to learn precedes knowledge. We need the passion of love to start and keep
questioning the things that are either too familiar or too removed
from everyday concerns. The continuation of this striving points
to the essence of wisdom. Its posture is a passionate search for
wisdom, not the possession of it. Nothing great has ever been accomplished without passion. Thus knowledge
proves again less defining for philosophy than its posture. In
western tradition it is not possible to attain wisdom as a final
equilibrium. Consequently, philosophy is a state
of mind (inquisitive) rather than a particular kind of knowledge.
||State of Mind
||The main source
of philosophic questioning is the sense of wonder, a childlike
wonder just about everything. Philosophy starts with bewilderment,
astonishment, amazement about the world, life, and ourselves. Philosophy arises from the workings of an inquisitive mind which is bewildered by seemingly common things or by those that appear to be entirely impractical. It emerges out of readiness
to follow the call of human intellectual curiosity beyond common sense
acquaintanceship with the world. The same idea is expressed
in the old saying that the business of philosophy is to deal with
the things supposedly familiar, but not really known and cognized. Philosophy reveals the illusion of knowledge where none in reality exists.
Indeed, everything touched by philosophic bewilderment miraculously
changes its character from a known to an unknown. B. Russell
resuscitates the same idea in claiming that philosophy "keeps alive
our sense of wonder by showing familiar things in an unfamiliar aspect". As soon as we begin to philosophize, we find
that even the most everyday things lead to confusing problems while
those initially "impractical" issues often prove very significant
even for our mundane needs and certainly for our self-understanding.
The Aim of
Philosophy does not stay by pure bewilderment and amazement. Philosophers articulate
their initial amazement by formulating questions
(mostly what- and why-questions) that guide their
curiosity toward comprehension of the problem. This does not mean that they seek a simple formula for all the puzzles of the world (the
proverbial "philosophic stone"). Philosophy aims at
understanding and enlightenment rather than shorthand answers. While
striving to bring some light into the complexity of human life and
the universe it pursues the old longing for the truth about the
whole. Philosophy is absolutely committed to the truth, "the
whole truth and nothing but the truth". However, the truth of philosophy is never given and
complete as we cannot definitely close out the totality it strives to capture
(as Lacan says: I always speak the truth but only partail). Therefore the search for truth is rather like perpetual striving for
more insight than for the final word on the matters of life and
the world. Whenever one is engaged in philosophizing the chances are that things will become more complex and difficult than before.
||Man is a questioning being. But our questions could be of very different kinds. Some are simple and casual, some very difficult and complex, some mindboggling or even obscure.
Type of Questions
||All Human Beings.
Advancing Hypotheses, Providing Explanations.
Curious Individuals, Philosophers.
Raising New Issues.
||When we look at the history
of philosophy it appears that philosophy never attains final conclusions about anything.
Even though philosophy takes its subject-matter both from our everyday
experience and the sciences, it constantly remains on the level of
conceptual analysis, critical examination, new ideas, and so time
and again fails to produce definitive "positive results". Russell
admits that philosophy is not very much successful in providing "definite
answers" to its questions but explains the apparent inconclusiveness of
philosophic answers partly as deceptive, partly as inevitable:
(a) "Those questions that are already capable of definite
answers are placed in the sciences, while those only to which, at
present, no definite answers can be given, remain to form the residue
which is called philosophy." Thus philosophic questions can turn into scientific truths
as soon as hey are answered. In other words, many scientifically established truths have started as philosophic questions, but once they received definite answers they get moved to the realm of science.
If one is not familiar with the historical development of science
and does not know that its many questions originated in philosophy
s/he may think that philosophers have been doing
philosophy over two thousand years without being able to produce
anything valuable ("positive results"). But this impression of perpetually continuing futility would be a very deceptive impression.
||(b) There are also many interesting questions both in science and philosophy that are currently unanswered. Sometimes it is difficult to predict whether and when they will be answered. Hence they could be pursued both by philosophy and science (just think about the cosmological questions regarding the origin, size and future of the universe, or the questions about the neurological foundations of our thinking and value judgments). If it becomes clear that these questions are definitely answerable philosophy will deal with their general implications while relegating them to the sciences.
||(c) Philosophy does not
deal only with the questions that currently do not allow complete answers.
It studies the questions that are in principle not answerable. "There are many questions - and among them those that are of
the profoundest interest to our spiritual life - which, so far as
we can see, must remain insoluble to the human intellect unless its
powers became of a quite different order from what they are now."
In other words, there are questions that are in principle insoluble
although very important and interesting. For instance, the questions like "What is the meaning
of life?", "Does God exist?", "Does the universe
have a final purpose?" resist definite answers by their very nature. Typically these unanswerable questions
tackle either Cosmology (pertaining to the whole of the universe) or Theology (pertaining
to the transcendent of the visible world). Philosophy is interested in these two realms but it cannot encompass the whole of the
universe as a given object nor conclusively prove or disprove the
transcendent content of religious beliefs.
Note: There have been many philosophers, from st. Thomas Aquinas to Descartes and Leibniz, who were convinced that the content of religious belief could be proved to be true "by strict demonstration". That was the ambition of Descartes'
Meditations that purported to prove the existence of God and the immortality of the soul. Based on his epistemological and logical studies Russell came to the conclusion that we must renounce any hope in any valid proof of that kind.
|Status of Questions
|Definitely Answered Questions
|In Principle Answerable Questions
|Currently Unanswerable Questions
|In Principle Unanswerable Questions
Why philosophy appears to be a futile undertaking? For one, people overlook the positive answers reached by philosophers but transferred to the sciences. For another, philosophy does keep asking unanswerable questions.
|Futility of Philosophy
||Answered Questions Removed from Philosophy
||= Residue of unanswered questions
||Unanswered Questions Repeatedly Asked
||No Results in tackling unanswerable questions
||If philosophy is just "a
residue" of unanswered questions or a pursuit of unanswerable
questions why should we keep doing it? One may ask, why bother with
problems we can not solve? The answer is simple: just dealing with the puzzle increases
our understanding of the problem and the difficulties involved in
it. Moreover, without philosophic curiosity displayed in this way many important
issues would have been overlooked or forgotten a long ago. Thus by continuing to raise
questions and studying their implications, as Russell points out, we
keep theoretical interest alive no matter whether it can yield positive
results or not. This is a pretty rational strategy as many questions that are now unanswered could turn
one day into new areas of study. Those that are unanswerable in principle
are still meaningful and important both intellectually and humanly.
Therefore, despite the fact that philosophy does not provide definitive
answers it is not a futile activity of human mind. It can achieve
very profound and very significant insights into the world and the
nature of human condition. We just need to understand the special nature of philosophic questions, very different from everyday and scientific inquiries.
||If we piece together both
the old and modern determinations of philosophic attitude and put them along those
of the source and the objective of philosophy, we obtain the following
table of its main features:
With Other Intellectual and Spiritual Pursuits
Philosophy does not emerge out of nothing nor does it
live in separation from other disciplines and subjects. On the contrary,
it is in a constant interaction with them receiving intellectual stimuli
and challenges both from within and without. Therefore trying to explain
the relations philosophy bears to science, art and religion, could tell
us more about the nature of philosophy than any handy definition which
takes it in isolation from other areas. While many common links, points
of contact and even overlaps make it sometimes difficult to ascertain
whether we are dealing with philosophy or some cognate disciplines, overall
and in principle we can distinguish philosophy from the following four
areas of human endeavor.
Science - Philosophy
Science is the methodical study of the universe in its various
aspects (physical, chemical, biological, social, mental). Science
deals with questions that can be decided by experiment and
observation. Consequently, it can attain a "definite body of
truths" ("positive results") at least in some domains. Says Russell:
"If you ask a mathematician, a mineralogist, a historian or
any other man of learning what definite body of truths has been
ascertained by his science, his answer will last as long as you
are willing to listen." Wherever science is effective, it achieves
not only "well defined" but accurate and valid
knowledge as well. Scientific knowledge advances by accumulation
constantly superseding its previous historical stages. Scientific
language is univocal and its propositions have unambiguous
However, science has its limits. It cannot tell us what is beautiful,
good or just, what is the meaning of life, and what we can hope
for. Science does not provide evaluative and interpretive knowledge.
Moreover, science does not include full knowledge about itself.
As Russell points out, the sciences cannot attain the unity of
scientific knowledge by themselves. For that purpose they need
to turn into a meta-study, which surpasses their methods and competence
and leads to philosophy.
Philosophy deals with those fundamental questions
that underlie everyday notions or lay ground for scientific concepts.
Examples: Who am I? Where I am coming from? What is the meaning
of life? Does the history of mankind lead somewhere (or anywhere)? What is time?
"Has the universe any unity of plan or purpose, or is it a fortuitous
concourse of atoms? Is consciousness a permanent part of the universe,
giving hope of indefinite growth in wisdom, or is it a transitory
accident on a small planet on which life must ultimately become
impossible? Are good and evil of importance to the universe or only
to man?" (Russell) These questions are as important as the big
questions of science dealing with the structure of matter or
the evolution of organic life. They are about meanings and ends,
not simply about facts.
Facts are relevant to philosophic study
as well, but they alone cannot resolve philosophic questions.
The latter both precede and transcend scientific procedures. Although
philosophic questions receive different answers throughout history,
the cognitive effort of philosophizing is not futile. If previous
answers are seen to be inadequate this means that we can learn from
them which is a strong indication that past philosophies do not become obsolete by the
mere flow of time. On the contrary, the history of philosophy is
itself an area of intensive philosophic study that constantly reveals new insights and brings old ideas in new light.
It seems that in this early work (written
in 1912) Russell views the historical relation between philosophy
and science as a development from "speculation" to "positive
knowledge". Philosophy and the sciences were one at the beginning
of Western culture but that unity fell apart for the benefit of scientific
progress. A remnant of the initial unity is the practice of calling
philosophy a science or treating physics and mathematics as theoretical
philosophies. As Russell indicates, well into the 18th century the
natural sciences were regarded as a variety of philosophy, the fact
which is reflected in the title of Newton's work Philosophiae
Naturalis Principia Mathematica (= The Mathematical Principles
of Natural Philosophy). There is no other reason why we should still
apply the Ph.D. (= Philosophiae Doctor) title to as
different disciplines as mathematics or chemistry. As time passes
by the emancipated sciences strip away more and more of the original
body of philosophic knowledge. It is likely that some currently puzzling
philosophic questions will be resolved with the new advances in neurology,
physiology, and physics. But many will remain for ever in that "residue
which is called philosophy". This means that "positive knowledge"
will never entirely replace philosophy, and "speculation"
will never become absolutely pointless.
Art - Philosophy
Art is a very diverse phenomenon which resists any simple
and exhaustive definition. Like philosophy, the concept of art is
also an open one both historically and in terms of its possible
current applications. Hence, different definitions only stress different
dimensions of art: formal signification, emotional expressiveness,
intuitive character, meaningful organization of interrelated parts,
etc. We are on the safe ground if we say that art is a creative
activity aimed at producing objects of appreciation. No matter what
is its form or content, art is oriented more toward subjective expression
of views, unconscious desires, and emotions than toward argumentation,
cognition or transmission of information. It emits powerful messages
but the language of art is more visual, acoustic, metaphorical,
allusive and therefore more ambiguous than the language of
Philosophy, in contrast, is rather a theoretical
than productive activity. It seeks to find some inter-subjective
methods of inquiring truth and to establish the standards
of evidence and norms for evaluating our beliefs, ideas and arguments
(Russell). It aims at rational knowledge and uses discursive methods
in dealing with the views drawn from experience, history, work,
or any other realm of human life. Its language is conceptual although
not so standardized as scientific terminology. Philosophical
language is very often equivocal and its references cannot
be easily (if at all) checked by observation and experiment. But
its ideas are organized according to more rigorous procedures that
are bound to the truth and not only exposition of our opinions.
Russell does not explicitly discuss the relation between philosophy
and art, but his critique of subjective urge to subsume the universe
under the self indicates that he repudiates artistic approach to the
world if it is supposed to provide more profound cognition than science
or philosophy. He rejects the "view which tells us that Man is
the measure of all things, that truth is man-made". For him,
this is a kind of subjectivism which is determined solely by "the
here" and "now" of our own self - which is by definition
limited and cannot encompass the universe from within itself. In contrast,
he thinks that a "free intellect will value more the abstract
and universal knowledge" than the knowledge "brought by
the senses, and dependent, as such knowledge must be, upon an exclusive
and personal point of view and a body whose sense-organs distort as
much as they reveal". Translated to our comparison, art is a
great source of emotional satisfaction, but its products are cognitively
inferior to objective study and cannot replace science and philosophy.
||Religion and its
conceptual articulation (theology) are grounded on a revealed
truth. The former preaches certain beliefs that make a claim to
a privileged truth, the latter tries to make these beliefs
understandable and believable by explaining rationally the content
of the main tenets. The attitude of all religions is well represented
through the self-proclamation of Jesus: "I am the truth." This identification
between the Person and the truth is essential for religion and cannot
be overcome without losing the tautological mystique of religious message. If you ask God who is He the only appropriate answer
would be the biblical one: "I am who I am." Man cannot get
more than this about God. Religious beliefs cannot and do not need
to be derived from controlled experience, let alone proved by strict
demonstration (Russell). Their certainty is based on personal acceptance
of religious tradition and authority. The common aim of both religion
and theology is to strengthen our convictions and to give us an overarching
sense of life and the universe.
||Philosophy, by contrast,
is a critical (sometimes even skeptical) activity of
human mind based on the ability of natural reason to understand and
follow logical implications. Its aim is not to uphold any set of beliefs
but rather to undermine everything that tends to get inculcated in
the mind. It is Pontius Pilate with his skeptical response "What is
truth?" who assumes a philosophical stance, not Jesus. In general,
philosophy is a systematic effort to avoid any kind of dogma or cliché
that can arrest our questioning and suspicion. This is why philosophy
often challenges faith and dogmatic tenets offering instead only doubt
and uncertainty. On the other hand, in regard to the intelligibility
of the universe, it prefers the audacity of human mind over religious
epistemological modesty. However, while striving to capture the the
essence of the universe philosophy does not construe extemporized
theories but attempts to provide inter-subjectively acceptable reasons
for proposed hypotheses.
Russell recognizes that both philosophy and religion arise from the
concern for fundamental questions of meaning and purpose. As he puts
it elsewhere, they both emerge from the insight that the whole and
infinity transcend our finite self. However, religion accounts for
the quality of infinity by invoking the idea of other (true) world,
whereas philosophy "does not divide the universe into two hostile
camps"and in fact combats the religious doubling of the world.
It strives to achieve more impersonal ("impartial") and
more comprehensive contemplation of this world in its totality. Its
goal is to enlarge our own self by contemplatively partaking in the
infinity of the universe (this is a kind of "objective Platonism"
which negates the subjective moment as a distortion of the truth).
In this sense philosophy, for Russell, is "a contemplative vision"
or "speculation". (Russell uses the word "speculation"
without any negative connotation because he takes it in its Aristotelian
sense of "sightseeing adventure for its own sake".)
Later on (in the forties) Russell started to regard
the allegedly "residual character" of philosophical questions
as an unavoidable consequence of philosophy's placement "in-between"
science and religion. According to this view, philosophy is a neglected
and uncertain area ("No Man's Land") stretching between
the certainties of science and theology.
Eastern Wisdom - Philosophy
Eastern Thought, has different forms ranging from Taoism
to Zen-Buddhism and Transcendental Meditation; despite some practically
oriented strains (Confucianism), it is mostly intuitive, directed
toward the Self and introspection; its insights come from our inwardness that needs
to be emptied from all external influences; the Self is meditative, with ready
made precepts for the resolution of all life problems; this is why
so many self-help books draw on this tradition; Eastern sage is
balanced, poised, silent; his/her prototype is the Buddha. The
findings of Eastern wisdom are not fully communicable which prevents it from being entirely discoursive and argumentative.
Philosophy as practiced in the Western tradition also tackles
the Self but it, as Russell notes, believes that the Self must be
enriched by embracing the outside universe. Otherwise it is regarded
as void and worthless. Philosophizing in the manner of Western thought means
engaging ourselves in a discursive activity of our intellect, rather
than divining the blank slate of the supposed Self; Western philosophy
is also reflexive but more methodical and analytic; a Western philosopher
is extrovert, talkative, suspicious, relentless in the quest to
think things through; his/her model is Faust = expanding knowledge even at the cost of our soul.
Despite many deserved
attempts to integrate Eastern thought (primarily Indian and Chinese)
into Western intellectual tradition the differences are so huge
that it is advisable not to apply the same term "philosophy"
(itself of Western origin) to both.
||A deep commitment to knowledge
is what unites Philosophy with the sciences. Yet the knowledge of
science is not the same as the knowledge of philosophy.
The common origin, kindred procedures and obvious congruencies
cannot conceal big differences between philosophic and scientific
knowledge. Philosophic knowledge is not "demonstrably true"
whereas scientific knowledge seems to be well established and accepted
as truly supported by factual evidence.
|Methodology and Epistemology
||What kind of knowledge
does philosophy boast if it does not consist in "definite"
and "positive" answers? According to Russell, philosophy
aims at the knowledge that could be described in one of the following
(a) The knowledge that gives unity and system to the body of science
(this is what we would nowadays call the methodology or philosophy
(b) The knowledge that critically examines the grounds for our beliefs
(this comes down to epistemology or theory of knowledge).
Are these two realms the only ones that are amenable to philosophic
cognitions? Obviously not. Russell does not say that these two kinds
of knowledge are the only kinds of philosophic knowledge. He mentions
them only as representative examples of philosophic cognition (a tribute to his rationalistic
and scientific preferences).
||If we stayed only by (a)
and (b) our conception of philosophy would be too narrow. Philosophic
knowledge cannot be reduced to the study of sciences or to the study
of reasons for our beliefs. It is a pursuit of truth in a very broad
sense. Philosophy asks border and transcendent questions
with regard to the sciences. It strives to give unity to all human
knowledge - not just the sciences. It is the best rational substitute
for the ultimate truth in the absence of full demonstrability for a whole
range of "fundamental" questions. In order to keep "speculative
interest" in truth alive philosophy is permitted to go beyond "positive
knowledge" and pure demonstration and formulate some ideas and
hypotheses that right now do not possess a sufficient empirical foundation
and corroboration. However, by venturing to go beyond established facts philosophy makes it possible for us
to deal rationally with unascertainable knowledge that would otherwise
remain outside of human reach and interest.
In addition to these speculative concerns, philosophy provides guidance to our evaluations and to
our quest for our personal truth: the meaning and the purpose of our
By the end of his book, Russell makes several remarks about the nature
of "philosophic knowledge" that sound very platonic,
something one would hardly expect from a logically and empirically
minded philosopher. For instance, despite his critique of the tendency
to assert the Self at the expanse of the world he concedes that: "Knowledge
is a form of union of Self and not-Self". This statement goes
counter the main stream of Modern philosophy which conceives knowledge
rather as a process of distinguishing Self from the object that should
be represented as such: to know something means to represent it in
its distinctness from the knower. To take knowing as becoming one
with the object of knowing was an ancient doctrine which has found
its last echo in the Renaissance. But Russell makes it abundantly
clear that this "union" cannot be accomplished by "taking
the Self as it is" and projecting it to the world ("assimilating
the universe to Man"). On the contrary, the Self needs to adjust
itself to the world, to enlarge itself by cognizing the world ("All
acquisition of knowledge is an enlargement of the Self."). Hence
the desired "enlargement of the Self" depends on the full
appreciation of the object, not the other way round. If these lines
still sound idealistic, the sort of idealism one can detect here is
certainly not that which is called the "subjective idealism".
Russell's language (Self, not-Self, Union) should be perhaps linked
to the very similar statements by F.H. Bradley, a British Hegelian
who had influenced Russell before he became a "logical empiricist"
(cf. Bradley's Ethical Studies, 1876).
||Philosophy does not divide the world into two opposing camps: one that suits our personal interest and the other that appears inimical. It studies the whole impartially and objectively - the only "partiality" of philosophy is its insistence on the truth. The desire for truth that
Russell finds in a properly understood philosophic striving for the
enlargement of the Self is not limited to the theoretical realm. If
consistently pursued it stretches into the "world of action and
emotion" where a philosopher seeks non-cognitive counterparts for impartial truth: compassionate love and justice. Thus we obtain a unity of all three dimensions of human
The inability of philosophy to produce positive and applicable
knowledge gives rise to the view that it is a "useless" pursuit.
In comparison with other fields of human knowledge, particularly
applied sciences, philosophy really seems to be deprived of any
practical value and effectiveness. This is generally regarded as
its most serious defect, especially nowadays when everybody values
usefulness and effectiveness. As Einstein has noticed: "People like
chopping wood, because it shows immediate results." For good or
for bad, philosophy does not have any utility of that kind. (Russell)
It is, therefore, widely perceived as a completely otiose activity
in the world of universal nitty-gritty (know-how). In short, it
is worth of nothing. At best it is "innocent but useless trifling,
hair splitting distinctions, and controversies on matters concerning
which knowledge is impossible." (Russell)
Philosophers appear as maladjusted and bungling individuals (for an
illustration of how people typically react to this inability of philosophy
to be "successfully" engaged in world affairs, cf. The story
of Thales and a Thracian maid). Or worse, they are perceived as
a threat for the accepted life routine or the status quo in
society. With its protracted questioning philosophy only complicates
our life and disturbs the peace of our mind. We live in a world of efficiency and effectiveness, not reflectiveness. Making things more difficult
and more uncertain in a culture wherein the ease of living becomes the
law of everyday grooving makes philosophy embarrassing, subversive
and even dangerous.
Russell names two main sources of negative attitudes toward philosophy:
(A) The influence of science (it would be more accurate to speak about scientism and technocratic consciousness),
(B) The influence of practical affairs (in fact of pragmatistic,
The former recognizes only definite, applicable knowledge derived
from scientific questions, while the latter values only practical
action as an immediate response to everyday trivial (= little) questions.
The former does not bear the indefinite, uncertain character of
philosophic study, the latter does not tolerate philosophic procrastination
and the ineffectiveness of thinking. Both are insensitive toward the
beneficial effects of the uncertainty philosophers cultivate as their
typical state of mind.
Russell is convinced that both attitudes espouse a superficial
view of philosophy based on some misconceptions. These misconceptions
(a) the ends of human life, and (b) the goods of philosophy.
|Misconceptions Formed Under Influence of
|| (A) Practical Affairs:
||Correct Conceptions of Life
Ends and Goods of Philosophy:
(a) Ends of Human Life
(b) Goods of Philosophy
Waste of Time
Understanding and Reflection
(Giving Unity to Human Knowledge)
(Testing Grounds for Beliefs)
Foresight and Direction
(Keeping Speculative Interest alive)
The first group of misconception identifies ultimate human goals
with acquisition, power or pleasure, whereas the other inappropriately
measures philosophical goods upon the yardstick of positive, tangible
and useful results of other human endeavors. These misconceptions
are only prejudices of the people who are fascinated by material goods and the effectiveness of technology (Russell calls them "instinctive men"). Who are
they? And why are they "wrongly called practical men"?
They are modern philistines who view philosophical questioning as an
idle game played by lazy, intellectual slackers who avoid real
problems of everyday life. These philistines present themselves as advocates of practical needs and concerns. But the philistine notion of useful thinking
is obviously formed upon the model of instrumental thinking ("what
is the utility of this?") and doe s not take into account practical
concerns regarding our personal existence, identity and the sense
of life. And precisely these concerns make up the realm of the traditional
"practical philosophy" which deals with the problem of "good
life" and "just community". In view of this, the notion
of "useful" practicality in the sense of immediate and everyday
"utility" is very narrow. This is the reason why
Russell indicates that in fact it is wrongly called practical (it should be perhaps named pragmatistic).
What is the
Value of Philosophy?
|Why it is necessary to consider the question of value with regard
to philosophical thinking? Simply put, because its value is not self-evident.
On the contrary, philosophy is under suspicion of being not only practically
useless but of being deprived of any value. We have admitted that
philosophy is not useful in producing tangible, immediate results.
It is so helpless that it cannot even pull a dog out of its house
(Hegel). The fact is that philosophical questions do not bring income,
do not fix broken gadgets, do not help us attract the person we may like.
But they are not worthless for that matter. They satisfy intellectual and spiritual needs (the "needs of the mind"). They achieve their value indirectly, through
their effect "upon the lives of those who study" philosophy.
A comparison with the sciences as to the respective impact on people gives the
following picture (after Russell):
Impact of /
(In)direct Impact on Personality
Direct Impact on Personality
Obvious, Tangible Impact
(through common applications)
(through some individuals)
The impact of the sciences on mankind could be described as "direct"
only if we accept technology as an immanent extension of science,
which is a very plausible supposition for modern science. Technology is the realm where scientific discoveries find their practical applications. But what
about the impact of science on those who study it? That Russell believes it exists
follows from the phrasing that "the study of physical science
is to be recommended not only, or primarily, because of the effect
on the student". This must mean there is some impact on those who study and do science. This effect could be either external (mentally absorbing
or materially rewarding for the student) or of a more cognitive nature
(enlarging their knowledge, influencing their current scientific
views). But if we have in mind the potential influence of the content
of the study on the personality and the general outlook of the students,
then it is difficult to see how it could be anything else but "indirect". What shapes the identity, the character, the attitude and the views of a scientist is not what he does as scientist but what he experiences as a human being.
While the impact of philosophy on mankind must be viewed as only
"indirect", coming through those who study it, its impact on
students themselves must be recognized as "direct".
By critically examining the grounds for our beliefs and convictions philosophy inevitably influences our identity and stature (we are by and large what we believe). Owing to the ability of philosophy to influence our individual existence
in this manner, its value does not have to be measured in terms of positive
material gains. Philosophizing is not like gambling which makes sense only if we are winning. It is a worthwhile
activity even if you are not wining (or solving the problems for that matter). It is
desirable for itself not because of some prize that should result
from it but because of the potential to autonomously shape and guide our lives.
|Food for the Mind
||The needs of the mind are no less important than the needs of the body.
"Each of us has an intellectual dimension to his experience. we need ideas as much as we need food, air or water. Ideas nourish the mind as the latter provide for the body. In light of this, it's clear that we need good ideas as much as we need good food, good air, and good water." (Tom Morris, If Aristotle Ran General Motors, 1997)
||Philosophy may be very embarrassing in shattering our beliefs but it could be no less liberating in releasing us from the bondage of prejudices. It can keep spurring human
mind to new intellectual adventures against any kind of dogmatism
and prejudices precisely because it is not bound to any set of doctrines
and the demand to abide by accepted beliefs and customs.
Yes, in some areas we need certainty and definite answers. But we have other resources to tap from for certainty. Science and mathematics meet
that need effectively and progressively on a very large scale, common sense
supplants certainty in everyday situations. Philosophy would be redundant if it tried to replicate what research, common sense and faith already provide. It has its own objectives and should be judged based on its specific merits.
|Scientific Progress appropriates Philosophic Achievements
Thus the value of philosophy appears to be twofold:
-Overcoming narrow-mindedness by contemplating the whole of the universe impartially.
- Discovering unsuspected possibilities by becoming uncertain about those that are given;
These two aspects separate philosophy both from common sense and religion.
||As Russell indicates, the value of philosophy could
lie precisely in its uncertainty and incompleteness. Its uncertainty is not just a deprivation of scientific, common sense and religious certainty. Its
uncertainty is very stimulating both cognitively and practically (see
below). As Russell says, while diminishing our confidence and certainty
as to what things actually are it immensely increases our ability
to envision them in terms of what they may be if viewed from a different angle or from a more viable standards. Hence "unascertainable knowledge" is worthy
both of the effort and of the name of knowledge, especially if it helps overcome the bondage of prejudices.
||Philosophy is perceived as a
departure both from common sense and reality. It is very often
regarded as their distortion. In a sense it presents a "topsy-turvy
world" of what appears to be real. But if this appearance is itself
an illusion, what philosophy does is in fact a reversal of a
previous inversion and in that sense a recovery of reality that was
||The nature and the quality of our knowledge determines our attitude and our own nature. The world is perceived differently by "practical"
("instinctive") men and those who have "tincture
of philosophy". An open-minded person sees more (and more differently) than the one imprisoned in habitual and un-reflected beliefs. How these postures look like and how their respective world-views differ? The
following chart summarizes Russell's comparison between these two kinds of human existence and attitudes:
Kind of Person
||While philosophy cannot boast many
"positive results", its study is valuable for many reasons that go
beyond an individual's immediate livelihood. Studying or doing philosophy
could be beneficial in many regards out which the following appear to
be the most important ones:
|Educationally and intellectually:
||Philosophy enlarges our understanding
of the world, it expands our intellectual horizons and freedom of
thought. Philosophy releases from the "prejudices derived from common
sense", from the "habitual belief of an age or nation", and from convictions
that have grown up "without the cooperation or consent of (our) deliberate
reason". (Russell) Philosophy may help develop the capacity to look
at the world from the perspective of other individuals and cultures.
Perhaps it is not as effective as science and religion, but it is
the most free and valuable of all intellectual endeavors. (Aristotle)
The old idea of liberal arts survives in the study of philosophy that
liberates from prejudices and creates free spirits. It develops at
once tolerance and critical sense.
|Socially and politically:
||By discussing political
and social issues philosophy raises public awareness and helps in
forming engaged and responsible citizens. By performing critical examination
of current social and political conditions it can enlighten people
as to the shortcomings of the current order. By viewing social practices
from the perspective of a better and more just future it can foster
necessary social change. "While diminishing our feeling of certainty
as to what things are, it greatly increases our knowledge as to what
they may be." (Russell) In this sense, although indirectly, philosophy
can make a difference and even change the world. If the ambition to
change the world is not shared by all philosophers the fact is that
some philosophical theories have practical intent and that some had
ignited the energy for change (think about the Great French Revolution
and the role of Les Philosophes in stirring the masses).
|Morally and practically:
||Philosophy can increase
our sensitivity for universalistic moral values and stimulate our
readiness to stand up for the principles of justice and fairness.
Since it provides tools and opportunity to reflect on our basic values
and concepts, it may prove very practical in defining our choices
and acts. In view of all potential benefits we can argue that studying
philosophy is a very practical undertaking. Philosophy is practical
in the sense that its questions pertain to the value of our personal
existence as well as to our relations with others. Remember: practical
life is not necessarily an acquisitive life, but life focused on self-reflection
and ethical issues.
|| On a personal level, philosophy
can give one self-knowledge, foresight, and a sense of direction
in life. It touches upon our own existence (in a way we are fully
humans only if we are capable to reflect upon our humanness)
and tackles the questions of our personal identity. It can lead to
self-discovery, expansion of consciousness, and self-renewal. Philosophy
nurtures individuality and self-esteem and broadens the range
of things one can understand and enjoy. It enhances one's ability
to understand other disciplines and to perceive the relationship among
various fields of study.
philosophy can bring all these benefits why people do not study it
in great numbers? Why students do not throng around philosophy departments?
The answer is: they are afraid that a degree in philosophy is not
marketable. But even this seems to be a prejudice.
Pragmatic Uses of Philosophy:
philosophy does not help directly one's job search, it has an indirect
impact even in nonacademic fields. Contrary to the wide spread view,
employers prefer candidates with general and flexible skills that
could adjust to new situations rather than high specialists. They
look for and reward many of the capacities developed by the study
of philosophy, for instance, the ability to analyze problems, to organize
ideas and issues, to assess pros and cons, and to boil down complex
data. A report of the American Philosophical Association cites that
majors in liberal arts with philosophy as the core discipline "continue
to make a strong showing in managerial skills and have experienced
considerable business success". A congressman from Indiana has noticed
"that philosophers have acquired skills which
are very valuable to a member of Congress." These skills include:
|General Problem Solving
|Ability to Conceptualize
||These capacities are transferable
skills, meaning - they are applicable in a great variety of ways
and areas. Moreover, they represent basic abilities on which
other skills depend or build. No wonder that philosophy majors score
better than any other humanities major on the LSAT (the law school
admission exam) and the GRE (aptitude test for graduate programs).
Thus, at a closer look philosophical questioning proves both very
useful and effective even in a very pragmatistic sense. (Cf. The
story of Thales' renting all the olive mills.)
Reflection = (from Latin: reflectere = bend back):
the way of thinking which is "mirrored" back to itself; reflexive
thinking is one that takes itself as an object of thought.
Contemplation = (from Latin: contemplari = gaze at
attentively): activity of thinking, theoretical thinking.
Demonstration = (from Latin: de=from, monstrare
= show): indirect knowledge based on the proof that clearly
shows the inferences that lead to the conclusion.
Speculative = (from Latin: speculum = mirror): theoretical
thinking that reflects the totality of objects involved. Speculation
leads thinking from visible effects of a distant cause to the ultimate
(first, most general) principles.
Equivocally = (from Latin: aequivocus = with equal
voice, but different meaning):
speaking ambiguously, using one nominal designation (Latin: vox)
for different things.
Univocally = (from Latin: unus vox, one voice) using
one expression in only one sense, speaking unambiguously.
Scientistic = stemming from uncritical trust into sciences
which are considered to cover the whole realm of sensible questions
(don't confuse with "scientific"!).
Pragmatistic = focused only to immediate useful consequences
(from the Greek pragma, thing): to be distinguished from
the practical in the sense of ethical and political concerns
(Greek praktikos, pertaining to human conduct).
Common sense = ordinary, everyday knowledge of ourselves
and our surroundings.
Little questions = conventional questions that can be answered
by relying on our common sense (what time is it?).
Big questions = questions that require systematic technical
and scientific research (how did the ozone hole come into existence?).
Fundamental Questions = questions that make sense but cannot
be answered by relying on common sense or scientific procedures
(what is time?).
If philosophy is concerned with the "fundamental questions", then its
study obviously cannot be exhausted within the limits set by a single
course of study. One semester is not enough time for more than a beginning
in a realm that is as rich and limitless as human experience. It's a life
However, there are many things we can and have to do - here and now.
First of all, we need to acquire some philosophical skills, like asking
meaningful questions, understanding philosophical texts, discussing issues
at stake and arguing rationally.
Thus we have some long-term and some short-term objectives in philosophy.
The chief long-term task is to introduce ourselves to philosophy as much
as to introduce philosophy to ourselves. Meaning, we should try to expose
our values and convictions to philosophical scrutiny and in that way we
may discover that philosophy can do a lot for us and with us in our lives!
On the other hand, just because we recognize the immense life-value of
doing philosophy, we do not want to hide hypocritically that studying
philosophy has many burdensome and unpleasant sides. There is no royal
way in philosophy. On the contrary, studying philosophy requires a lot
of hard work for class and in the class. The three following aspects
are perhaps the most important in our work:
Philosophical Language: The capacity to understand and correctly
apply fundamental philosophical concepts is of paramount importance in
doing philosophy. A serious student must pay particular attention to philosophical
terminology. One of the earliest and most persistent difficulties
in doing philosophy is the complex language used by philosophers. Philosophers
need to express thoughts that sometimes push the language beyond its limits,
not because they like to be obscure, but because they consider new ideas
and unusual aspects of reality. That is the reason why they often coin
new terms or use already existing words in a new peculiar sense. Nominal
familiarity with some expressions could be very deceptive. Looking up
into philosophical dictionaries has, therefore, to become student's regular
habit. Among other things, philosophy is about words and their meanings.
Reading: We'll try to acquire a workable command of philosophical
language by reading and interpreting selected philosophical texts. As
first understanding of what philosophy is cannot be conveyed by producing
a definition of the word "philosophy", it is essential to become acquainted
with a range of its specimens. To read philosophical texts correctly one
must read slowly and attentively. This goes against the prevailing stream
of our time, which requires quick and often superficial reading. However,
the measure of success in philosophy can hardly be expressed as a fraction
of read pages and a time unit. Successful reading is one that starts with
a careful interpretation of the text and ends up with an examination of
the arguments that support the conclusions.
Writing: Writing is an area of philosophical training equally
important as our oral teaching and in class exercising. Expressing your
thoughts in a written form helps you and your readers better understand
what you mean. It reveals both strong and weak points in your position.
Therefore it is vital that you practice writing as often as possible.
As in all other skills: practicing raises your ability and keeps you in
Did you know?
Celebrities who have studied
philosophy include: Martin Luther King, Iris Murdoch, Angela Davis, Jim
Morrison, Tom Stoppard, The Pope (Karol Voytila), Lewis Carrol, John Ellway, Steve
Martin…Could you continue the list?