Tuesday, September 30, 2008

What is Philosophy?

I spent four years studying philosophy at the University of Alberta. Whenever strangers, acquaintances, or relatives found out I was studying something as superfluous as philosophy I was asked all encompassing questions like “what is philosophy?” or “what is your philosophy?” When I was younger I am sure that I carried away prattling off about the search for higher truths, pure reasoning… mostly stuff that you couldn’t pin me down on. I was a moving target. School provided me with no logical paradigm of what philosophy was on a whole scale. As far as I could critically reach—the more complicated the text was, then the more ephemeral and cryptic truths it contained. This type of model leads to many conceptual mistakes. It was only when I was out of school that I developed the humility to ask my self these daunting, yet amazingly simple questions. Here is a simple version of what is philosophy.

The five branches of philosophy

Metaphysics; the study of what is real

One of man’s first thoughts must have been something like— what is this? What is that? Do I exist? What is real? What is reality? Metaphysics is where everyone’s favourite philosophical question comes from— if a tree falls in the forest and nobody is there to hear it, does it still make a sound? Two answers are available here. The first claims yes there is a sound, because the tree is real and exists independent of our minds perception of it. The second answer is more sceptical. Since the only way the sound is validated is through sensory perception; thus the sound does not exist independent of the mind. One school says the world exists independent of our minds the other claims the world only exists because of our minds.

Epistemology: where does knowledge come from? Is it possible to gain real knowledge or is all knowledge tainted by the bias of our minds? Aristotle believed man’s mind was his weapon at deciphering the world. Aristotle believed in science, and that our mind could be used to formulate truths and physical laws. Plato thought the mind was more complicated, that it deceived us and that true knowledge was unattainable. All we could hope for were imperfect recreations and representations of perfect ideas and objects that were based on perfect forms. Because Plato’s metaphysics were otherworldly, the mind in its limited physical relations was of little use in learning the highest truths. Here one has to ask themselves— does knowledge come from mystical experiences, sudden intuition, meditation or does it come from sensory information and rational conception?

Ethics: How aught one act, what is right and what is wrong. Once our first thinker has decided what is real and what is not real, and then come to realize how we gain knowledge and what use knowledge has to a human’s survival, the next logical question is— what is right and what is wrong. How aught one act? Ethics is the first of the normative branches of thinking. What ought to be done. Philosophy 101 treats all of these subjects individually—abortion, death penalty…. Etc. Some philosophers think all human constructs are meaningless (nilhism) and that morals are for the weak. Others believe ethics are duty implied (Christians). The main point to remember here is that what you believe metaphysically and epistemologically will have a large impact on your ethical values.

Politics; Once you have decided how the individual ought to act in a moral context the next great normative question is—how should society be organized? Once again we can have a wide arrange of conclusions. They key is now to investigate the premises on which those conclusions rest. For example a man that believes reality exists independent of us (metaphysics), and that our tool for survival is his mind (epistemology), will certainly advocate for a political system in which a man is free to act upon the conclusions that his minds has come. Communism would not be his cup of tea, because a collective political structure invalidates and individual’s right to act upon his conclusions.

Art: Art is the climax of the philosophical paradigm— why does man create? Plato would claim mystical inspiration. Aristotle would probably believe that men create to understand what they have learned? Once again your prior philosophical premises will determine how you view art.

Objectivists helped simplify what philosophy was for me and I hope this breakdown will do the same for someone else.


At 3:20 PM, Anonymous gerry said...

Interesting, and useful, summary. When I taught an introductory philosophy class the definition I used was more closely aligned with philosophy being about how to think correctly which meant a heavy dose of logic in order to grasp common errors in expressed thoughts. All the branches of philosophy necessarily are founded on some notion of what correct (and I don't mean political correctness but logical) thinking is within their framework.

At 4:56 PM, Blogger Linda said...

One of my all-time favorite books to nurture the philosopher in all of us is Another Sort of Learning by Rev. James V. Schall. If I suddenly came into an inheritance or something I'd be taking my Masters in Political Philosophy under his tutelage in a heartbeat.

From one of the reviewers (I'm being lazy here - I agree with him though!):

To begin with, any book which, in its preface, seamlessly links Eric Voegelin, E. F. Schumacher, and Mad Magazine deserves attention. James V. Schall has written a delightfully odd, but profound book (in fact, "Oddness and Sanity" is the title of one of his essays) for folks like me who got all the way through college without managing to get "educated" (and digging into the difference between the two is only one of the book's many virtues).

The whimsical subtitle captures the essence of the book perfectly: 'Selected Contrary Essays on How to Finally Acquire an Education While Still in College or Anywhere Else: Containing Some Belated Advice about How to Employ Your Leisure Time When Ultimate Questions Remain Perplexing in Spite of Your Highest Earned Academic Degree, Together with Sundry Book Lists Nowhere Else in Captivity to Be Found'.

The book contains 21 thoughtful (and thought-provoking) essays on an eclectic range of topics. From my own experience, though, the best feature of this book is the book lists at the end of each essay - 37 lists in all, composed of 290 books (not accounting for titles appearing in multiple lists). I consciously took Schall's advice on maybe a dozen books or so, but in reviewing it recently, I was surprised at how many more I've read since then. One could do a lot worse than following Schall's advice.

(I need a bigger bookcase!)

At 1:19 PM, Blogger angryroughneck said...

Linda, I will check out the book. I'm a little worried that it is new age. It was hard for me to tell for certain.

At 1:37 PM, Blogger Linda said...

No - it's definitely not new age - Rev. Schall is as orthodox as they come (sadly, an admitted rarity among Jesuits these days).
You can sample his work here.

At 3:19 PM, Blogger angryroughneck said...

I just placed mt order! Maybe the good reverend will place an order for my book now.. or not.


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