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What is philosophy, anyway?

THE LAYMAN'S VIEW OF PHILOSOPHY is hazy at best and proves to be the greatest conversation stopper at a party. Many think it has something to do with the clergy or religion. They are not quite sure of what it is, but they are certain that it is an abstract subject.

Indeed, the story is told of a philosopher who lived next door to a family with lots of children. He had a cement driveway put onto his property but, before it dried, the kids were all over it with their handand footprints. Going to the father of those kids, the philosopher complained about their mischief. "What's the matter, Mr. Philosopher?" asked the father. "Don't you like children?" Replied the philosopher,

"Yes, I like children, but only in the abstract--not in the concrete." There is no question that philosophy has its abstract moments, but we must acknowledge that the world in which we live is run not so much by machinery as by ideas. Witness the influence of Buddha, Plato, Jesus, Karl Marx, Adolf Hitler, and a host of others.

In our age where disciplines are increasingly specialized, philosophy acts as a counter in that it is the "speciality of the general." Principally, philosophers are reflective individuals. They may not be doers, as are ranchers, factory workers, storekeepers, or moguls of industry, but they seek knowledge--nay, they seek wisdom--and the difference is palpable. No human problem is foreign to them.

Philosophy had its beginnings around 600 B.C. in a Greek colony near Turkey. What marked its birth was the attempt to explain things in terms of reason and experience, rather than through myth and religion. These first philosophers sought to deduce the basic building blocks of the universe. Thales, an early thinker, said that water was the fundamental principle. Ridiculous, you might say, but we must give him credit for thinking things through. After all, everything in the universe is a liquid, solid, or gas, and water takes on any and all of those forms.

From the colonies, we move to Athens where Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle held court in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. Socrates was the teacher of Plato and the latter the teacher of Aristotle. Socrates was interested in ethical matters, especially the nature of virtue and whether it could be taught. The aim was to produce the moral citizen. Plato started where Socrates left off and went into political theory, hence his masterpiece, The Republic. Aristotle had many fields of interest; he invented logic, for example, studied the physical sciences, came up with an ethics whose motivation was happiness, and inquired about the nature of reality, namely, what it is "to be." Discussing humans, he called them "animals that have reason," distinguishing them from the rest of creation. He mused that philosophy came about not because of curiosity but because of wonder. One can see that philosophers are bent on making distinctions. As the saying has it. "Never deny, seldom affirm, and always distinguish."

Philosophy is not for weak souls, as it strives to be intellectually honest and let the chips fall where they may. It seeks the difference between the good life and the life of good times, and between the world of appearance and that of reality. Philosophy touches all bases and is involved in everyday life. As a matter of fact, to be a human is to be a philosopher of sorts. Each of us has to formulate an overview or philosophy of life. I might add that most are afraid to do so, for ideas have consequences, and many want to follow someone else's ideas, so as to blame them for mistakes. In a way, the philosopher is an intellectual hero.

Philosophy is a highly adaptable discipline that lends itself to the role of giving guidelines and playing the role of critic. There is a philosophy of education, for instance. It raises the issue of whether the student simply is an input-output machine or a person, and what that latter term means and implies. There is a philosophy of business which deals with the issues of a just wage, a fair profit, and what benefit there is to the common good. A philosophy of art or aesthetics is concerned with whether the object d'art is beautiful or merely technically proficient. It asks whether beauty is objective or only in the eye of the beholder.

A philosophy of literature concerns how such writing reveals the human condition. The theme of great literature usually involves a philosophical dilemma. Herman Melville's Moby Dick fundamentally is a symbolic attempt to portray the straggle between good and evil between the great white whale and Captain Ahab. In his Lord Jim and The Secret Sharers, Joseph Conrad searches for the meaning of life.

A philosophy of history, rather than accumulation of mere facts and dates, may give us the view that history is cyclical--the Greek myth of eternal return--or linear. The Marxists opt lot the latter, claiming that history is directional and its goal a classless society. Christianity also sees history as linear and refers to it as salvation history, the goal being the winning of heaven.

A philosophy of religion examines the premises and claims of religion. For example, what is the difference between saying, "God spoke to me in a dream," and claiming, "I dreamt God spoke to me"? If there be a totally good God, can there also be a totally evil supreme being? Furthermore, what does one mean by God?

A philosophy of law deals with whether law is a product of intellect or will. Must law be in accord with reason to be law? Need an unjust law be obeyed, or is law the raw Machiavellian power of the strong imposed upon the weak?

We'll end with the three most important questions posed by the great 19th century thinker, Immanuel Kant: What can I know? What must I do? What can I believe? Being hounded by questions like these, you may be converted to the truism that philosophy is like a private itch that cannot be ignored.

Gerald E Kreyche, American Thought Editor of USA Today, is professor emeritus of philosophy; DePaul University Chicago.
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Author:Kreyche, Gerald F.
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Date:Mar 1, 2006
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