"What Is Philosophy?"
August 25th, 2011
Philosophy is the study of the fundamental structure of the universe. How’s that for not burying the lead? Actually, defining philosophy, like defining any complex subject, is challenging. It’s challenging partly because it’s been around so long but also because it has many parts. But plenty of people have attempted to define the discipline and I’m going to take a stab at it here.
Some stuff defies definition. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in 1964 couldn’t define pornography to anyone’s satisfaction, “But I know it when I see it.” he said in his opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio. But in general, any time we use a word to refer to something, the definition of that word not only singles out what the thing is but it also implies what the thing isn’t. A dog isn’t a cat. By calling something a dog, we’re implying it has stuff that cats don’t. That’s partly why we don’t call it a cat.
So in defining philosophy, I’ll describe what I think it is and also what I think it isn’t. If you’re reading ahead, you may get the sense that I’m already in trouble. In order to describe what philosophy isn’t, I must assume that my reader understands all these other things I’m comparing philosophy to. It’s wholly unhelpful to say philosophy isn’t x if you don’t know what x is.
So I’ll admit up front that my assumption is that you, dear reader, don’t have a good working definition of philosophy but that you do have some understanding of what these other things are. If that’s true, then by comparing what you don’t know to what you do know, you’ll know that what you don’t know isn’t what you do know and that will help you come to know what you don’t know. Make sense?
What Philosophy Isn’t
Philosophy is not science. Philosophy is a kind of science in the general sense of that term (as philosopher Bertrand Russell noted in the introduction to his famous A History of Western Philosophy): there are procedures to follow, hypotheses to test, outcomes to work towards, and experiments to run. By saying philosophy is not science, I mean that philosophy doesn’t study the things the hard sciences—chemistry, biology, some disciplines in physics—studies. The methodology might be similar in some respects but the objects of study are different.
Philosophy is not psychology. One of my graduate school professors frequently would ask people what they think philosophy is. One of his favorite answers was, “psychology misspelled.” The more philosophy I study, the more affinity I see between it and psychology. Both are generally focused on the mind and what it does, both worry about how the mind relates to the world around it, both are interested in behavior. But philosophy focuses less on how to live in the world as a thinking thing and spends more energy on what it means to be a mind. Philosophy also studies the mind’s contents--ideas or concepts. Psychology helps humans to understand why things go wrong and how to make them right again (and what that means) while philosophy is concerned with understanding the structure of things like beliefs, a moral behavior, and sense experience.
Philosophy is not linguistics. This one may be a bit controversial since philosophers spend a lot of time with words. Philosophy isn’t really about the structure of language but it is does focus on the content of words. Put differently, philosophers don’t care too much about why there should be number agreement between nouns and verbs in English sentences or why the nouns in Latin-based languages have a gender. But they do care what the definition of “existence” means and the difference between believing “God exists necessarily” and “Necessarily, God exists.”
Philosophy is not theology. Thomas Aquinas famously stated that philosophy is the handmaiden of theology. While I certainly would not want to attempt to cross intellectual swords with someone like Aquinas, I respectfully see things the other way around. The study of questions like, “Is there a god?,”What is good and evil?,”Do humans have a soul?” have all been studied by theologians but those theologians have been doing philosophy. Theology is particularly concerned with the nature of God (assuming God exists—a question philosophy tries to answer) and his relationship to the universe. Philosophy tends not to deal with such questions (though some philosophers play around in this space) and is concerned with whether a being like God is an idea that makes sense given everything else we think we know.
What Philosophy Is
Philosophy is the foundation of all subjects. When my kids were younger, they would yell “jinx!” when one or more of them said the same word at the same time. Often, they would all yell “jinx!” at the same time which would demand the necessary “double-jinx!” Simultaneous “double-jinx!” obviously meant they’d need to race to the “triple-jinx!” “Quadruple-jinx!” is beyond the pale so finally one would squeak out more quickly than the others: “jinx! to infinity!”
A philosopher saying philosophy is the foundation of all other subjects may sound at first like a “jinx! to infinity!” – a small-man's way of saying, “my discipline is the most important!” But saying philosophy is at the root of everything else we study isn’t so much a race to top as it is an observation. Philosophy studies concepts and the relations those concepts have to one other. It studies the meaning of terms, and the structure of the world around us. In this sense, all other disciplines must assume some framework before it can begin (philosophy, of course, does too and philosophers study that!). Whenever you start asking questions about the foundation of what you’re studying, you’ve entered the wide world of philosophy. Thomas Nagel once wrote, “We couldn’t get along in life without taking the ideas of time, number knowledge, language, right and wrong for granted most of the time; but in philosophy we investigate those things themselves.” (Nagel, What Does It All Mean?) That’s the general idea.
Philosophy is a framework. This means that philosophy is an approach to questions rather than a bunch of answers to the questions themselves. Logic, a sub-discipline in philosophy, gives us a way to frame ideas so we talk about things more orderly. For example, if I said, “I’m not voting for that politician.” You could reasonably ask why. Suppose my response was, “I don’t know, I’m just not.” You would know that I probably wouldn’t be voting for the politician but you wouldn’t know much else. You wouldn’t know whether my claim was reasonable or not or if you shouldn’t vote for that politician. If I want to convince you that something is true, I offer reasons to support the thing I want you to believe and you can either accept my reasons or offer some reasons for a different conclusion. This method of “argumentation” is a framework for discussion and has formed the basis of rational discourse since recorded time. This framework is based in philosophy.
Philosophy is practical. This one may surprise you a bit but I’ve found philosophy to be immensely practical. Humans exist in a sea of ideas and concepts. We live and die by them. We discuss them and work on problems involving them. We exchange ideas at work, at home, in relationships, and politics. We are constantly trying to bridge communication gaps and refine ideas and get more precise about them. In short, humans existence is wholly dependent on ideas (jinx! to infinity!). Philosophy, as a discipline that is all-consumed with better understanding ideas, affects every area of life. The better we can get at framing and discussing ideas, the better and more precise our definitions, the clearer we can become about the limits of our knowledge and the importance (or unimportance) of the things we believe, the better we might be at living. That seems pretty practical to me.
Philosophy is truth-conducive. Sorry about the technical term (I need it to maintain my ‘philosophy is’ list). “Truth conducive” simply means that philosophy can help get us nearer to what is true about the world. When I say that to people who aren’t professional philosophers, I typically get a raised eyebrow and a smirk. After all, aren’t philosophers still studying the problems that Plato was dealing with 2500 years ago? Yes and that’s partly why I used the phrase nearer to what is true. Philosophers attempt to study the structure of the world and insofar as we make progress on that task, we learn stuff about how the world works. For example, philosophers study beliefs. We want to know what a belief is, how it works, how it relates to other things in the world and so on. When philosophers chip away at that problem and come up with some good ideas about it, we are actually uncovering facts about the world that we otherwise would not know.
Disciplines in Philosophy
In this section, I describe a handful of sub-disciplines in philosophy to give you an idea of the areas of study professional philosophers focus on.
Epistemology – this is the study of the scope, limits, and possibility of knowledge. Epistemologists wrestle with questions like, “what can I know?,” “what is knowledge?,” “what are the limits of what I can know?,” “how do beliefs work?,” and “how are beliefs related to other things in the world?”
Metaphysics – metaphysics has taken on a kind of new age meaning in modern society. But metaphysics in philosophy is generally the study of the structure of the world. For example, metaphysicians study the nature of existence. Have you ever wondered what it means for something to exist? Can “square circles” exist? If not, why not? Can you understand what it would mean to exist without a body (is this even possible)? What is a physical object as opposed to other types of objects?
Metaphysics tackles these questions.
Philosophy of Mind – here we attempt to look at what it means to say something has a mind. Philosophers of mind also wrestle with topics like whether the mind and the body are distinct things or whether other animals like fish or “inanimate” things like computers have minds. You most likely have opinions about these questions and in philosophy of mind, you create a framework for those opinions and are able to test them.
Ethics – ethicists study the nature of the good and how humans should live based on how the good is defined. Talk about practical.
Philosophy of Religion – philosophers in this discipline attempt to tackle questions like, “does God exist?,” “is there life after death?,” “is any religion true?” and “how can we believe in a good God with so much evil in the world?”
Logic – Logicians study arguments and the relationship between ideas.
As you probably notice, each of these disciplines relate to each other and there is a lot of overlap. That’s partly why philosophy can be so time consuming and difficult. But I hope you also get the idea that the payoff for investing time in these subjects can be immense.
"What Is Knowledge?"
September 22nd, 2011
Studying knowledge is something philosophers have been doing for as long as philosophy has been around. It’s one of those perennial topics—like the nature of matter in the hard sciences--that philosophy has been refining since before the time of Plato. The discipline is known as epistemology which comes from two Greek words episteme (episthmh) which means knowledge and logos (logoV) which means a word or reason. Epistemology literally means to reason about knowledge. Epistemologists study what makes up knowledge, what kinds of things can we know, what are the limits to what we can know, and even if it’s possible to actually know anything at all.
At first this might seem like one of those topics that gives philosophy a bad name. After all, it seems kind of silly to ask whether we can know anything since is obvious we do. It's even more silly when you consider that to even ask the question, you must assume you know something! So why have some of the greatest minds the world has ever produced spent such a great deal of time on the subject? In this article I’ll consider this question.
Do We Know Stuff?
In order to answer that question, you probably have to have some idea what the term “know” means. If I asked, “Have you seen the flibbertijibbet at the fair today?” I’d guess you wouldn’t know how to answer. You’d probably ask me what a flibbertijibbet is. But most adults tend not to ask what knowledge is before they can evaluate whether they have it or not. We just claim to know stuff and most of us, I suspect, are pretty comfortable with that. There are lots of reasons for this but the most likely is that we have picked up a definition over time and have a general sense of what the term means. Many of us would probably say knowledge that something is true involves:
Certainty – it's hard if not impossible to deny
Evidence – it has to based on something
Practicality – it has to actually work in the real world
Broad agreement – lots of people have to agree it's true
But if you think about it, each of these has problems. For example, what would you claim to know that you would also say you are certain of? Let’s suppose you’re not intoxicated, high, or in some other way in your “right” mind and conclude that you know there is a computer in front of you. You might go further and claim that denying it would be crazy. Isn’t it at least possible that you’re dreaming or that you’re in something like the Matrix and everything you see is an illusion? Before you say such a thing is absurd and only those who were unable to make the varsity football team would even consider such questions, can you be sure you’re not being tricked? After all, if you are in the Matrix, the robots that created the Matrix would making be making you believe you are not in the Matrix and that you’re certain you aren’t.
What about the “broad agreement” criterion? The problem with this one is that many things we might claim to know are not, and could not be, broadly agreed upon. Suppose you are experiencing a pain in your arm. The pain is very strong and intense. You might tell your doctor that you know you’re in pain. Unfortunately though, only you can claim to know that (and as an added problem, you don’t appear to have any evidence for it either—you just feel the pain). So at least on the surface, it seems you know things that don’t have broad agreement by others.
These problems and many others are what intrigue philosophers and are what make coming up with a definition of knowledge challenging. Since it’s hard to nail down a definition, it also makes it hard to answer the question that heads this section.
So, What is Knowledge?
Okay, a definition is tough to come by. But philosophers have been attempting to construct one for centuries. Over the years, a trend has developed in the philosophical literature and a definition has emerged that has such wide agreement it has come to be known as the “standard definition.” As with most things in philosophy, the definition is controversial and there are plenty who disagree with it. But as these things go, it serves as at least the starting point for studying knowledge.
The definition involves three conditions and philosophers say that when a person meets these three conditions, she can say she knows something to be true. Take a statement of fact: The Seattle Mariners have never won a world series. On the standard definition, a person knows this fact if:
1. The person believes the statement to be true.
2. The statement is in fact true.
3. The person is justified in believing the statement to be true.
The bolded terms earmark the three conditions that must be met and because of those terms, the definition is also called the “tripartite” (three part) definition or “JTB” for short. Many many books have been written on each of the three terms so I can only briefly summarize here what is going on in each. (I will say up front though that epistemologists spend most of their time on the third condition.)
First, beliefs are things people have. Beliefs aren’t like rocks or rowboats where you come across them while strolling along the beach. They’re in your head and generally are viewed as just the way you hold the world (or some aspect of the world) to be. If you believe that the Mariners never won a world series, you just think that the Mariners really never won a world series. If you read that last sentence carefully, you’ll notice I wrote “you just think.” For many philosophers, this is important. It implies that what you think could be wrong. In other words, it implies that what you think about the world may not match up with the way the world really is and so there is a distinction between belief and the next item in our list, truth (there are some philosophers--notably postmodernists and existentialists--who think such a distinction can’t be made but I’ll need to cover that in another article). Some philosophers argue that a good test for showing what you really believe is to look at how you behave. People will generally act, they argue, according to what they really believe rather than what they say they believe—despite what Dylan says.
Something is true if the world really is that way. Truth is not in your head but is “out there.” The statement, “The Mariners have never won a world series” is true if the Mariners have never won a world series. No, I didn’t just repeat myself. The first part of that sentence is in quotes on purpose. The phrase in quotes signifies a statement we might make about the world and the second, unquoted phrase is supposed to describe the way the world actually is. The reason philosophers write truth statements this way is to give sense to the idea that a statement about the world could be wrong or, more accurately, false (philosophers refer to the part in quotes as a statement or proposition). Perhaps you can now see why beliefs are different than truth statements. When you believe something, you hold that or accept that a statement or proposition is true. It could be false that’s why your belief may not “match up” with the way the world really is.
If the seed of knowledge is belief, what turns belief into knowledge? This is where justification comes in (some philosophers use the term “warrant” to refer to this element). A person knows something if they’re justified in believing it to be true (and, of course, it actually is true). There are dozens of competing theories of justification and there is little consensus about which is the right one. It’s sometimes easier to describe when a belief isn’t justified than when it is. In general, philosophers agree that a person isn’t justified if their belief is:
a product of wishful thinking (e.g. I really wish you would love me so I believe you love me)
a product of fear or guilt (e.g. you’re terrified of death and so form the belief in an afterlife)
a product of guesswork formed in the wrong way (e.g. you travel to an area you know nothing about, see a white spot 500 yards away and conclude it’s a sheep)
a product of dumb luck (e.g. you randomly form the belief that the next person you meet will have hazel eyes and it turns out that the next person you meet has hazel eyes)
Justification is hard to pin down because beliefs come in all shapes and sizes and it’s hard to find a single theory that can account for everything we would want to claim to know. You might be justified in believing that the sun is roughly 93 million miles from the earth much differently than you would be justified in believing God exists or that you have a minor back pain. Even so, justification is a critical element in any theory of knowledge and is the focus of many a philosophical thought.
[Incidentally: while JTB is generally considered a starting point for a definition, it by no means is the final word. Many philosophers reject the JTB formulation altogether and others think that, at the very least, JTB needs to be “fixed up” somehow. Regarding this latter category, a small paper written by a philosopher named Edmund Gettier really kicked off a brouhaha that made philosophers doubt that JTB was sufficient for knowledge. Gettier’s paper was roughly two and a half pages long (almost unheard of in philosophy) but has become so important that the issues he raised are known as The Gettier Problem. I’m writing a series for Philosophy News in which I attempt to tackle some of Gettier’s challenges. You can read those articles here (these are not for the general reader but if you skim the first couple of articles, they may help frame some broader issues in epistemology).]
People at the Center
You might notice that the description above puts the focus of knowing on the individual. Philosophers talk of individual persons being justified and not the ideas or concepts themselves being justified. This means that what may count as knowledge for you may not count as knowledge for me. Suppose you study economics and you learn principles in the field to some depth. Based on what you learn, you come to believe that psychological attitudes have just as much of a role to play in economic flourishing or deprivation as the political environment that creates economic policy. Suppose also that I have not studied economics all that much but I do know that I’d like more money in my pocket. You and I may have very different beliefs about economics and our beliefs might be justified in very different ways. What you know may not be something I know even though we have the same evidence and arguments in front of us.
So the subjective nature of knowledge partly is based on the idea that beliefs are things that individuals have and those beliefs are justified or not justified. When you think about it, that makes sense. You may have more evidence or different experiences than I have and so you may believe things I don’t or may have evidence for something that I don’t have. The bottom line is that “universal knowledge” – something everybody knows—may be vary hard to come by. Truth, if it exists, isn’t like this. Truth is universal. It’s our access to it that may differ widely.
Rene Descartes and the Search for Universal Knowledge
A lot of people are uncomfortable with the idea that there isn’t universal knowledge. Philosopher Rene Descartes (pronounced day-cart) was one of them. When he was a young man, he was taught a bunch of stuff by his parents, teachers, priests and other authorities. As he came of age, he, like many of us, started to discover that much of what he was taught either was false or was highly questionable. At the very least, he found he couldn’t have the certainty that many of his educators had. While many of us get that, deal with it, and move on, Descartes was deeply troubled by this.
One day, he decided to tackle the problem. He hid himself away in a cabin and decided to get to the bottom of it. He resolved to doubt everything of which he could not be certain. Since it wasn’t practical to doubt every belief he had, Descartes decided that it would be sufficient to subject the foundations of his belief system to doubt and the rest of the structure will "crumble of its own accord." He first considers the things he came to believe by way of the five senses. For most of us these are pretty stable items but Descartes found that it was rather easy to doubt their truth. The biggest problem is that sometimes the senses can be deceptive. And after all, could he be certain he wasn’t insane or dreaming when he saw that book or tasted that honey? So while they might be fairly reliable, the senses don’t provide us with certainty—which is what Descartes was after.
Next he looked at mathematics. If certainly is to be found, it must be here. He reasoned that the outcome of mathematical formulas and theorems hold both in dreams and in waking so at the very least, it fares better than the senses. But he developed an argument from which he could not spare math. Suppose there is an evil genius, he thought, that is “supremely powerful and clever” and was bent upon deceiving Descartes and developed mathematics as a device to carry out his evil deceptions (the popular movie, The Matrix should be coming to mind about now). Descartes found there was no way to rule this possibility out. Whether it’s highly unlikely or not isn’t the point. Descartes was looking for certainty and if there is even a slim possibility that he’s being deceived, he had to throw out mathematics too.
Unfortunately, this left Descartes with no where to turn. He found that he could be skeptical about everything and was unable to find a certain foundation for knowledge. But then he hit upon something that changed modern epistemology. He discovered that there was one thing he couldn’t doubt: the fact that he was a thinking thing. In order to doubt it, he would have to think (he reasoned that it’s not possible to doubt something without thinking about the fact that you’re doubting). If he was thinking then he must be a thinking thing and so he found that it was impossible to doubt that he was a thinking being.
This seemingly small but significant truth led to his most famous contribution to Western thought: cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am). Some mistakenly think that Descartes was implying with this idea that he thinks himself into existence. But that wasn’t his point at all. He was making a claim about knowledge. Really what Descartes was saying is: I think, therefore I know that I am.
The story doesn’t end here for Descartes but for the rest of it, I refer you to the reading list below to dig deeper. The story of Descartes is meant to illustrate the depth of the problems of epistemology and how difficult and rare certainty is, if certainty is possible—there are plenty of philosophers who think either that Descartes’ project failed or that he created a whole new set of problems that are even more intractable than the one he set out to solve.
So What, Who Cares?
Well most of us aren’t like Descartes. We actually have lives and don’t want to spend time trying to figure out if we’re the cruel joke of some clandestine mad scientist. We can get by just fine, thank you, without having to think about all this stuff. But we actually do actually care about this topic whether we “know” it or not. A bit of reflection exposes just how important having a solid view of knowledge actually is and spending some focused time thinking more deeply about knowledge can actually help us get better at knowing.
Really, knowledge is a the root of many (dare I say most) challenges we face in a given day. Once you get past basic survival (though even things as basic as finding enough food and shelter involves challenges related to knowledge), we’re confronted with knowledge issues on almost every front. Knowledge questions range from larger, more weighty questions like figuring out who our real friends are, what to do with our career, or how to spend our time, what politician to vote for, how to spend or invest our money, should we be religious or not, to more mundane ones like which gear to buy for our hobby, how to solve a dispute between the kids, where to go for dinner, or which book to read in your free time. We make knowledge decisions all day, every day and some of those decisions deeply impact our lives and the lives of those around us.
Next year (2012) in the United States voters will be asked to choose a president. Assuming you’re an American citizen and you’ll vote, you probably already have made a bunch of decisions that will influence your choice. Each of those decisions are based on conclusions you’ve drawn about certain facts related to the health of the country, the role of government in both domestic and foreign affairs, the role and extent of law, the honesty of politicians, the role and accuracy of the media, the impact of your vote and so on. Each of these involves a knowledge decision—actually a set of interrelated knowledge decisions (if you don’t trust the media, you may not trust the information you get about politicians and that will influence how you think about the candidates and the like). You draw the conclusions you do based on what you believe is true and false and your beliefs are formed by decisions you have made about how to get to the truth.
Many passionate voters not only believe they have arrived at the truth about these matters but also believe their choice is the right one. An implication of that belief is the cousin belief that a choice for any other candidate is the wrong one and that is most likely grounded on a belief that the voters who choose the other candidate(s) don’t know the truth. If they did, they would vote the way you have. The same dynamic exists in a great many other social scenarios like religion, science, economics, and even the arts.
So all these decisions we make about factors that effect the way we and others live are grounded in our view of knowledge—our epistemology. Unfortunately few spend enough time thinking about the root of their decisions and many make knowledge choices based on how they were raised (my mom always voted Republican so I will), what’s easiest (if I don’t believe in God, I’ll be shunned by my friends and family), or just good, old fashioned laziness. But of all the things to spend time on, it seems thinking about how we come to know things should be at the top of the list given the central role it plays in just about everything we do.
Fun with Knowledge
Here’s an exercise that may help you think more deeply about how you think about knowledge. I do this with my introductory philosophy students and it’s always an enlightening experience (and makes for some great discussion). On a piece of paper (or do it in your head if you feel funny about writing it out) make three columns. In the first, write “Faith,” in the second, write “Belief,” and in the third write “Knowledge.” Now spend a few minutes filling out the the columns. What are the things you have faith in but wouldn’t want to say you believe or know? What about the things you believe? What comes to mind when you hear that word? Use your intuition as you fill out each column. Don’t think too deeply about where you’re putting things just yet; you want to go with your initial thoughts on these.
When you’re done, slow down a bit and examine the columns and ask yourself why you placed items where you did. Here are some questions to get you started.
Why did you put a certain item in the belief column and not in the knowledge column?
What are your beliefs lacking (or what do they have) that makes them different from the items in your knowledge column?
Why would you claim to know the things in your knowledge column?
Do you have or have you ever had any doubts that you know them?
What would cause you to doubt that those items belong in the knowledge column?
Are the items in your faith column only religious items? Should they be?
Now look at the number of items in each column. Does your list imply that you know less or more than you originally thought? Write all this stuff out and spend some time reflecting on it. If you spend enough time on this, soon, your definition of knowledge will emerge. You’ll start to see why you make the decisions you make when it comes to things you claim to know. Most importantly, what you’re jotting down may be having an influence on your behavior and that’s worth some time thinking about too.
If you did all this on a sheet of paper, I have another suggestion for you: keep the paper in a safe place and set a reminder on your phone or computer calendar to look at the list 12 or 24 months from now. You may find that some things moved around. You may find that your definition of knowledge has become more crisp based on life experiences or books you’ve read. You may find that you have become a skeptic and maybe your knowledge column needs to be emptied (or you may have become a dogmatist and everything should go in the knowledge column!). At the very least, you’ll think about knowledge again that alone will be a good thing.
I’ve only been able to scratch the surface on this massive but immensely interesting discipline. Much of what I’ve written in this article just sets up the classical investigation into what knowledge is. I recommend that you pick up one or more of the books in the list below to dig deeper. Who knows, maybe you’ll come to know that what you thought you knew you didn’t really know and, perhaps, come to know some new things.
"5 Reasons Why I love Philosophy"
October 25th, 2012
As a die-hard soccer (“football: to those of you on the other side of the pond) fan, I love reading articles about the sport in American, British, Portuguese, and Brazilian publications. There are “must read” features that I go to every week on Football365.com, Soccernet.com, The Guardian, BleacherReport.com, and summaries on the Portuguese League in any of the major Portuguese publications. Reading all of these are enjoyable and it is especially exciting when I find articles with titles like “5 Things We Learned From the Gunners’ Victory” when it follows an Arsenal victory (yes, I am an Arsenal fan). Articles like these contain great insights into both the immediate contest but also soccer itself. Recently, while reading “5 Things We Learned...”, a thought popped in my mind about another personal passion: philosophy. I wondered if I could put together a list of things that I love about philosophy. As a result, I put together my list of “5 Reasons Why I Love Philosophy.”
1. It Makes Explicit what is Implicit in Our Thinking and Doing
Last year, I read Philosophy: The Quest for Truth and Meaning by Dr. Andrew Beards, a British philosopher who teaches at the Maryvale Institute in Birmingham, England. Maryvale Institute is a Catholic distance-learning college for theology and philosophy (as you might expect, Dr. Beards’ philosophical views reflect Catholic philosophical traditions). The book is centered around the philosophy of Bernard Lonergan, the 20th century Jesuit philosopher and theologian. Having heard much about Lonergan, I wanted to know more about his views and I stumbled upon this book. Dr. Beards wrote something that stuck in my mind and correctly points out one of the tasks of philosophy: “What philosophy is often concerned with is to make explicit what has always been implicit in our thinking and acting.” The truth of this statement is the principal reason why I love philosophy. Philosophy teaches us to think about, contemplate, and clearly express the fundamental concepts of life. It explicitly identifies ideas that we have been thinking and living all along.
This brings back memories of my first logic course. When the fundamental laws of logic were presented to me, my first impression was one of incredulity. I thought to myself, “Isn’t the law of non-contradiction, the law of identity, and the law of the excluded middle obvious? Do we really need someone to teach us this?” The laws of logic become obvious to you when it is pointed out to you. You knew these laws but probably could not express it clearly. In other words, what you knew implicitly was made explicit to you. For instance, I knew that both of these statements could not be true at the same time and in the same sense: “There are eggs in the fridge” and “There are no eggs in the fridge.” The law of non-contradiction is easily recognized once it is made explicit. This is such an appealing characteristic of philosophy.
2. Philosophy Begins In Wonder
Aristotle coined the famous phrase that titles this section. This quote expresses a fantastic element of philosophy, namely, that part of its value becomes clear when you begin wondering about what otherwise was always taken for granted. You do not need to be a philosopher to appreciate the beauty of the natural world. When you see a sunset or the expanse of a mountain range, you are overwhelmed with awe at such a sight. However, there are some who do not even wonder what or who caused the objects they are observing or contemplating the nature of these objects. Wonder is like an open door beckoning a special guest: philosophy. The questions arise and this naturally leads to philosophical analysis.
By their very natures, philosophy and wonder have a symbiotic relationship and need each other. Philosophy begins in wonder and wonder bears fruit when it results in philosophical analysis. This relationship demonstrates the fact that everyone who wonders should philosophize. Everyone wonders about something and this naturally leads to digging into the object of that wonder.
I came to philosophy later in life. It was a discipline that I had heard of but did not think was important. When I began my theological studies, I began to see philosophy in a new light. As I wondered about big questions such as “Does God exist?”, “What is human nature?”, and other complex questions, philosophy grabbed my attention and opened up a whole new world to me. Prior to that time, there were ideas about the fundamental issues of life that I held to dogmatically. However, I no longer hold some of those ideas because I began wondering about what otherwise was always taken for granted.
3. All Those Philosophers Drive Me Crazy!
Think back to Philosophy 101. One of the first topics in class was ancient Greek philosophy. Most likely, you started with Plato and the Socratic dialogues. Very interesting reading! But all those questions from Socrates can give you a headache. Socrates really knew how to get under the skin. Just ask Thrasymachus and Euthyphro. If Socrates’ questions were not difficult enough, they spawned even more challenging puzzles about the Theory of the Forms and the preexistence of the soul. You read the Allegory of the Cave in The Republic and you think to yourself, “Okay, this makes sense. I think I get it.” Not so fast! Here comes Aristotle and his realist view of the Forms. Fast forward to the second week of class and now you are learning about the nominalism of Abelard and William of Ockham. They disagree with Plato and Aristotle. A few classes later have you deep into the complexities of Kant who disagrees with Plato, Aristotle, Abelard, and William of Ockham. These philosophers can drive you crazy! All you want is a clear-cut answer to the problem of universals (and to think: before you took the course, you didn’t even know what a universal was).
Joking aside, I actually love this about philosophy. Let’s face it, we prefer to have answers to hard questions supplied to us without any effort on our part. I get my answer and now I can move on. But we come to learn that life is not simple and philosophy helps both unpack the complexity and provide a way through it. Just reading about the problem of universals and seeing the different philosophical views about it throughout history has given me a greater appreciation for what it means to exist. All these philosophers have sharpened my ability to think by ensuring that I do not get too comfortable with simple answers. Can I still believe in something with conviction? Yes, I can. However, all those philosophers remind me of one thing: even my views that I hold with great confidence can and should be re-evaluated when necessary. Yes, they drive me crazy but that’s a good thing.
4. Philosophy Informs Practice
Contrary to popular belief, philosophy is very practical. Philosophy has significant implications for the conduct of life. All of the branches of philosophy (metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and logic) contribute in their own unique way to how we conduct our lives. How we view the nature of reality (metaphysics) will have a direct effect on the decisions we make about how to live. For example, the theist conducts her life from a worldview which is centered on the existence of a divine being. To the theist, God is ultimate reality and His nature and commands ought to be a fundamental consideration in how she makes decisions. How we come to know (epistemology) has a direct bearing upon our lives. Civil and criminal law rely heavily upon what someone knows and how this affected their actions. How we reason (logic) is essential to interacting with our own and other’s ideas. Reasoning properly is an example of logic in action. It has a direct effect upon our ability to think critically about ideas and situations in life. In addition, logic teaches us about fallacies (improperly ordered thinking) that negatively affect our ability to arrange ideas and determine whether they’re true or false. How we determine right and wrong (ethics) is probably the one field of philosophy which is most associated with practicality. Morality is a daily concern in life. Concerns about right and wrong and good and bad continually occupy our lives. Philosophy is not merely academic as some believe. It is highly pragmatic when applied properly.
5. The Versatility of Philosophy
The skills acquired in studying philosophy are versatile and can serve as a strong foundation in other disciplines. This is a much overlooked feature of philosophy. The reasoning and analytical abilities acquired from analyzing complex ideas and arguments are essential in a number of other of fields. Studying philosophy involves reading about complex ideas and arguments which exercises analytical and reasoning skills. Reading complex writing, a common feature of philosophy, can aid in producing strong verbal and writing skills and provides the student of philosophy with the tools necessary to communicate ideas effectively and clearly. In addition, the study of philosophy can develop problem-solving and argumentative skills. The transferable nature of these skills provides an incredible intellectual versatility to the student of philosophy. You can find philosophy graduates working in the following fields: law, government, journalism, sales, charitable organizations, education, science, and other fields.
Philosophy is not an intellectual magic wand. It can be misused and lead to greater confusion and misunderstanding like any discipline. But when done carefully and when the philosopher, with a fair degree of humility and tentativeness, seeks truth, it can be a powerful part of human intellectual progress. It doesn’t always lead to the right conclusions and philosophers need to be aware of the penchant for self-deception and cognitive biases in order to avoid intellectual pitfalls. And you know what? That’s an important philosophical point.
"The Value of Philosophy"
August 30th, 2011
To many, philosophy* is an obscure and largely outdated discipline that has little relevance in the real world. I’ve taught an introductory philosophy course for many years and many of my students come into the course with the idea that philosophy is little more than opinions wrapped in big words and focuses on topics that have no bearing on practical matters like paying for school or landing a job. So what’s the point? Why do people study philosophy and what, if any, value does it have?
I’ve found the study of philosophy to be life changing. This isn’t a slogan for me. Philosophy has proven to be immensely satisfying and valuable. Here are seven reasons why.
It broadens my world
Like the freed prisoner in Plato’s allegory of the cave, studying philosophy forced me to think differently about the world around me. Prior to studying philosophy, the world was simple, dogmatism came cheap, and frankly, the world was pretty bland. Don’t get me wrong, simplicity is great when things are simple. Few of us seek to make life needlessly more complicated. But complexity can actually be quite wonderful when it opens up new vistas. As I’ve aged, I’ve learned to appreciate fine cooking and all the adornments that go along with it (like a good wine and an enveloping atmosphere). As many an epicurean will tell you, the best cooking is generally not simple cooking. Tasting excellent food that has layers of perfectly balanced flavors that were prepared over hours or days and that come alive with the right wine or a hand-crafted bread is among the most enriching experiences one can have. Philosophy does the same for me with ideas. Getting past the boxed mac-and-cheese simple answers to a feast of nuanced philosophy is, simply, wonderful.
It trains my mind
The mind is in many ways like a muscle. It needs to be exercised, stretched, and pushed to the limit to be at its best. Philosophy can be very tough. As Alvin Plantinga has said, “Philosophy is just thinking hard.” Philosophy as a discipline has forced me to think more precisely and carefully. It is teaching me me how to frame problems and where to go to make better sense of those problems. It always pushes me to be a better thinker. For me, there was an unexpected outcome to stretching my mind to my intellectual limits. It makes many of the more mundane, daily challenges I face much easier to handle. Training your body to bench press two hundred pounds makes opening the pickle jar quite a bit easier.
It continually challenges me
This probably goes without saying and is closely related to the point above. Philosophy is challenging not only because it tackles hard problems, but because it unrelenting in its demand for clarity. A friend of mine who was struggling with the question of God’s existence once expressed exasperation with the unsettled nature of the philosophical literature on the question. “If you read a good argument for one position one month, the next month there will be three journal articles with counterarguments that show why the first argument was wrong.” This constant dialogue with no clear end can be very frustrating. But it also forces us to learn how to evaluate what we’re thinking about and synthesize it. This challenge is something I find invigorating. I expect it to last a lifetime.
It makes me careful
One of the greatest lessons I’m learning from studying philosophy is that there are very few easy answers to life’s intractable problems. Philosophy has pushed me to labor over the nuance of a word or phrase. It encourages me to constantly challenge my assumptions and to slow down and be patient while looking for something that might resemble an answer. Finishing a great book in philosophy most of the time means concluding with more questions than I started with. While this can sound frustrating to some, it has brought a great deal of peace to me. I’m learning that when it comes to ideas, the journey is quite a bit more enjoyable than the destination.
It changes my point of view
There’s a popular bumper sticker that reads, “Hire a teenager while he still knows everything.” It’s funny--at least to everyone but teenagers--because with age we come to learn that life is nuanced and requires changing our minds about a great many things. Philosophy provides the means by which I can consider view points I would not otherwise consider and to look in a different way at problems I once thought were solved. Think of where’d you’d be if you still believed all the things you were certain of when you were twelve. Healthy change generally means growth and that’s a good thing.
It tempers dogmatism
I’m learning that dogmatism may partly be rooted in a desire to be secure. While security generally is something to be prized, when it comes to the life of the mind, too much security can actually be a detriment. Because logic is so central to philosophy, it’s natural to think that intellectual problems all have hard-and-fast logical outcomes and the goal is to find those irrefutable conclusions. If this were the case, dogmatism would be hard to avoid. But philosophy, taken holistically, has led me in the opposite direction. The ambiguity of words, the fuzzy nature of our knowledge of the truth of many facts, the influence of the passions and desires, the imprecision of experience, and the obvious limitations of our mind should introduce a great deal of intellectual humility and tentativeness to our worldview. Philosophy as a discipline (and, in my opinion, when done properly) exposes both the power and the limitations of logic. As G.K. Chesterton rightly observed, “The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.”
It puts things in perspective
As I alluded to above, philosophy is teaching me how to understand the relative importance of ideas. It’s all too easy to view every idea as equally important and to want to “go to the mat” for every idea we find disagreeable. But by having to go deep on concepts, I’ve learned that some ideas are worth wrestling with and others are not. There are a lot of very interesting ideas to labor over, argue about, and spend time on. There are a lot of others that aren’t. Philosophy is helping me figure out which are which.