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PHL 103
Instructor: Dr. Bob Zunjic
 

WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY?


(
Based on "The Value of Philosophy" by B. Russell)

An Outline

Defining Philosophy

Reflexive Question: "What 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.)
Elusiveness: 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.

Why It Is So Difficult To Define Philosophy?

Subject Matter: 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.
Questioning: 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 propositions.
History: 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.
Note: There 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.
   
  A Side Approach to Philosophy
   
Three Regards: 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.

Philosophic Attitude

Striving:

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.

Love Wisdom
Emotion Cognition
Striving Accomplishment
Attitude State of Mind

 

The Source of Philosophy

Wonder: 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

Insight:

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.

   
        Philosophic Questioning
   
Questions 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
Asked by
Answered by
Little Questions All Human Beings. Common Sense,
Everyday Experience.
Big Questions Scientists,
Experts,
Technocrats.

Collecting Data,
Analyzing Facts,
Advancing Hypotheses, Providing Explanations.

Fundamental Questions Children,
Curious Individuals, Philosophers.

Analyzing Concepts,
Assessing Consistency,
Suggesting Alternatives,
Reexamining Framework,
Evaluating Standards,
Raising New Issues.

Inconclusive Results 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:
Answered Questions:

(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.

Unanswered Questions (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.
Insoluble Questions: (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 Destination
Definitely Answered Questions Science
In Principle Answerable Questions Science
Currently Unanswerable Questions Philosophy
In Principle Unanswerable Questions Philosophy

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
Futility
Reasons
Outcome
Apparent Answered Questions Removed from Philosophy = Residue of unanswered questions
Real Unanswered Questions Repeatedly Asked No Results in tackling unanswerable questions
Productive 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.
Anamnesis 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:

A Screening of Philosophy

PHILOSOPHY Traditional Phrasing Modern Phrasing

 

Source

Wonder

Amazement

Suffering

Curiosity

Perplexity

Doubt



Attitude

Loving

Contemplative

Questioning

Investigative

Reflective

Critical

 

Objective

 

Wisdom

Truth

Tranquility

Insight

Enlightenment

Understanding

 


Comparison 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

(1)

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 reference.
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.

  Note: 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

(2)

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.

 

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.

  Note: 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/Theology - Philosophy

(3) 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.
  Note: 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

(4)

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.


Discipline
SCIENCE
ART
RELIGION
EASTERN
TRADITION
PHILOSOPHY
Means
Explanation
Expression
Illumination
Enlightenment

Understanding
Form
Knowledge
Creation
Revelation
Wisdom
Insight
Goal
Mastery
Fulfillment
Salvation
Tranquility
Truth


What does Philosophy know?

Knowledge: 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 ways:

(a) The knowledge that gives unity and system to the body of science (this is what we would nowadays call the methodology or philosophy of science).
(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).
Truth: 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 existence.
Union Note: 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).
Objectivity 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 being.
Unity:
Contemplation
Action
Emotion
Impartiality
Justice
Love
   

Is Philosophy Impractical?

 

Ineffectiveness:

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)

Maladjustment: Consequences: 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.
Negative Attitudes:

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),

and

(B) The influence of practical affairs (in fact of pragmatistic, philistine consciousness).

 
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.
Misconceptions:

Russell is convinced that both attitudes espouse a superficial view of philosophy based on some misconceptions. These misconceptions pertain to:

(a) the ends of human life, and (b) the goods of philosophy.

 

Misconceptions Formed Under Influence of (A) Practical Affairs: (B) Science Correct Conceptions of Life Ends and Goods of Philosophy:

 


 

(a) Ends of Human Life

 

Wealth, Possession



Power, Fame


Pleasure
Gratification

Know-How



Calculation, Control


Application, Utility

Self-Knowledge


Self-Realization


Self-Contentment



 

(b) Goods of Philosophy

Mind Game


 

Annoyance



Waste of Time

Arbitrariness

 

 


Speculation

 

 

Ineffectiveness

Understanding and Reflection
(Giving Unity to Human Knowledge)

Critical Insights
(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 /
on

Sciences

Philosophy



Students

 

(In)direct Impact on Personality

 

Direct Impact on Personality

 


Humankind


Obvious, Tangible Impact

(through common applications)


Indirect Impact

(through some individuals)

 

Impact of Science:

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.

Impact of Philosophy:

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)
Uncertainty: 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.
 
Apparent Uncertainty Real Uncertainty
Scientific Progress appropriates Philosophic Achievements

Unascertainable
Non-Demonstrative
Knowledge

Value

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.

Correlation
Common Sense
Philosophy
Definite Answers
Unascertainable Knowledge
Certainty
Uncertainty
Confidence
Shattered Convictions
Prejudices
Critical Scrutiny
Dogmatism
Skepticism
   
Compensation 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.
Reversal 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 distorted before.
Comparison 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:
Two Styles
Kind of Person
World
Life
Instinctive Man
Definite
Finite
Obvious
Narrow
Enclosed
Feverish
Philosophic Man
Open
Infinite
Strange
Inclusive
Free
Calm
   
Benefits: 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.
Psychologically and personally: 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.
  If studying 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:

While studying 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:
Transferable Skills  
 
General Problem Solving
Communication Skills
Persuasive Powers
Writing Skills
Ability to Conceptualize
Anticipatory Capacity
  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.)

Philosophical Lexicon

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?).


Doing Introduction To Philosophy:

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 task.

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 shape.

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?


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