Reclaiming the Forgotten Trove of Wisdom
Etymologically, philosophy is a derivative of philosophia, which combines two Greek root words – Philos and Sophia – with the former meaning love and the latter denoting wisdom. Thus, philosophy refers to love of wisdom or love of knowledge. Pythagoras, a philosopher of ancient Greece, is said to have used the word philosophy for the first time. It is often contrasted with “sophistry” that roughly translates into a ‘sage man’. Sophistry reflects the rhetorical fixation with knowledge as a symbol of status. Conversely, philosophy is about the unaffected urge for knowledge.
What constituted the breadth of the body of its knowledge originally included the whole expanse of the speculative thought. In the beginning, philosophy was the same as science, meaning it sought to look for natural explanations for the philosophical questions. As a matter of fact, the discipline of philosophy was born out of the instinctive strivings and ponderings of man to find answers to the very fundamental questions concerning the universe, the world, the society and man himself.
To question is the trademark engraved on the human nature. It is an inborn instinct of people to have curiosity to question things around rather than be resigned to the simplistic answers to the way things are.
Philosophy concerns with the questions of what kind of things exist and what is their essential nature (Metaphysics); how one should live (Ethics); what it means to know, if it is possible to know at all, and what counts as genuine knowledge (Epistemology); and what are rules and regulations of correct reasoning (Logic).
It is, thus, the study of the ultimate nature of existence, reality, knowledge and goodness, as discoverable by human reasoning. It is the critical inquiry into the basic questions related to the fundamental nature of the world; nature, validity and scope of human knowledge; and evaluation of the principles of human conduct.
In other words, when we are focused on the basic yet deep questions pertaining to life especially such phenomena of life that elude the sensory experience and meaning of life, universe, God, normative precepts of action, value, beauty and the like, we are actually thinking philosophically.
Philosophy is the essence of all the forms of knowledge having settled as distinct disciplines.
Unexaggeratedly, philosophy is a ‘Mother having three Daughters’:
1) Natural/physical sciences;
2) Biological sciences; and
3) Social sciences and humanities.
There are quite many subfields covered by the broad discipline of philosophy. However, five of them have commanded quintessential significance as the nucleus of the field of philosophy:
1. Metaphysics – Reality and Being (Ontology)
2. Epistemology – Knowledge
3. Ethics – Morality
4. Aesthetics – Art and Beauty
5. Politics – Government, Sovereignty, Legitimacy, etc.
Philosophy studies reality in its entirety; at the core of man’s philosophical odyssey has lain since time immemorial the quest for wholeness and unity. The well-studied method(s) it adopts to engage with reality is/are by means of problematizing and questioning anything and everything.
Philosophy also involves the study of justification(s). For instance, how do you know whether there is a physical world? There is a God, how to know? By what standard can we appreciate beauty and goodness?
Philosophy relates to the treatment of various concepts, say, causes, numbers and abstractions such as justice, honesty, etc.
One thing merits careful attention here. We will also differentiate between two forms of philosophy with the first being scientific; and the second moral. The scientific form is more cognitive and more theoretical, whilst the moral form is practical concerned with proper way of acting rather than an abstract set of theoretical truths. It is more formative than informative.
Philosophy focuses on universals, and not on particulars. It addresses general laws that furnish rational explanation of anything. For example: is it justifiable to administer euthanasia to a suffering patient?
Having seen what philosophy is, now we shall turn to see what it is not.
1. Such questions as may be empirically answered, say, through senses: hearing, seeing, smelling, etc. do not fall within the domain of philosophy.
2. Statements of ordinary perception are outside the subject-matter of philosophy. For example: Earth’s surface is covered with water.
3. Scientific questions are far removed from those of philosophy, because they involve empirical evidence, observations, and experiments through the scientific equipment.
4. Historical questions viz., questions about what happened in the past are never philosophical questions. For instance: who lived on the earth billions of years ago?
5. Future questions are not philosophical questions either.
6. The questions of mathematics and arithmetic are beyond the scope of philosophy.
Philosophy primarily began with the earlier Greek thinkers posing the question: what everything is made of (metaphysics and cosmology)? The ancient Greek natural philosophers were preoccupied with what is called the ‘cosmic riddle’, that is, origin and structure of universe. It prompted some Greek sages to argue that a single substance was at the heart of the universe (monism). Among the material monists, as they were called, were the philosophers belonging to Milesian School: Thales of Miletus believed that the essential principle of everything was water; Anaximander proposed that the constituent of all that exists is apeiron, that is, the infinite and the boundless that encompasses all the worlds; and Anaximenes held that air was the arche. Contrarily, others proposed the idea that reality was essentially two-faceted, that is, it has two parts: physical and non-physical (Dualism). Of the two notable pre-Socratic philosophers, Heraclitus concluded that nothing stays the same; everything instead is in a state of constant flux. The opposite was the idea asserted by Permenides who believed that nothing changes; reality is eternal; and that the change we perceive in the world is a mere illusion.
As regards Epistemology, which is the theory of knowledge, there are two predominant epistemological schools, the first being that of Rationalism that contends that it is reason, e.g., our ability to think, which is the source and test of all knowledge; the second is that of Empiricism which states that knowledge comes primarily from sensory experience. The noted rationalist thinkers include: Plato, Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz. Accordingly, the chief proponents of empiricism are Aristotle, Locke, Berkeley and Hume.
The writer is a researcher and author of the book “Dream to Disillusionment”.