Thursday, September 23, 2010

What Is Philosophy?

When I chose to become a philosophy major at the beginning of the fall semester in 1992, I felt that I was striking out on a lonely road. Far from the madding crowd of people pursuing careers in business or some other respectable profession, here I was seeking to find... what? What exactly is it that philosophers do?

There is an old tale about Thales, the earliest Greek philosopher we know of. According to this legend, Thales was walking along one day, so wrapped up in his philosophical musings that he stumbled and fell into a hole in the ground, and found himself the object of a pretty young woman's laughter and mockery. This story serves as an illustration of how many--perhaps most--people view philosophers: absent-minded, their heads in the clouds, spending their time thinking about abstruse ideas and abstract questions, utterly impractical, oblivious to the real, everyday world in which everybody else lives.

Little wonder that I gravitated toward philosophy... I was a philosopher by nature!

But is philosophy really so remote from ordinary earthly concerns? The view of philosophy I have just described makes it sound as though philosophy consisted of nothing but intellectual games, like the creation of castles in the air or solving mental puzzles as a pastime. And indeed, this is the opinion that many people throughout the ages have had about philosophy: that it is impractical and frivolous, producing nothing but a bunch of fancy notions and esoteric ideas that bear little or no relevance to real life.

Even as I felt myself setting out on a path far less traveled, I also had a sense that philosophy mattered. Of course I thought so: why would I choose to major in something so impractical (in terms of getting a job) if I didn't believe in its inherent value? From the very first steps of my philosophical journey, I felt an instinctive conviction that philosophy was related to real life in a significant way.

But to be able to explain this to people who do not share my passion for philosophy (which is to say almost everyone), I must first explain what philosophy is. And don't feel dumb if you aren't sure: philosophers themselves aren't even sure, and debate the definition of their own discipline as much as they debate anything else. I can give you my own personal understanding of what philosophy is, but ask a dozen other philosophers and you'll get a dozen other definitions to choose from.

Philosophy is many things, but for a basic definition, what I consider to be the very essence of philosophy, I fall back on the etymology of the word: it derives from the Greek word philosophia, which means "the love of wisdom". I think it's important to note that philosophers don't necessarily claim to be wise, that is, to have already attained wisdom. They only claim to love wisdom, and to seek after it as one would a treasure, considering it more valuable than worldly goods. One of my favorite personal metaphors of the philosopher is also an old, familiar one: the person who sets out on a solitary journey up the mountain, leaving behind the material concerns of village life in order to seek some ultimate truth about the world, some deep wisdom about life. The mountain is a good metaphor, I think, both because of the idea of solitude (even if it is just intellectual solitude, not always physical), and because of the notion of perspective, achieving a transcendent view of things, lifting one's eyes from the mundane details to the big picture.

Of course, in the real world, philosophers too must eat, and since not many Fortune 500 corporations are willing to pay someone a handsome salary with full benefits to sit there and contemplate the meaning of life (nor should they), philosophers must earn their living in some other way. For one thing to understand about philosophy is that it is not really a profession. It is one of the liberal arts, which properly belong in the realm of leisure, free from economic attachments. Of course, there are such things as philosophy professors, but they are being paid to teach philosophy. One might argue that they are also paid to publish philosophical papers, but this is different from being paid simply to philosophize, and is not even the same thing as being paid for writing philosophy, which many people, including many great and famous philosophers, have done without making so much as a dime, and without being in the employ of the academy. Socrates, perhaps the king of all Western philosophers, didn't even write a single word as far as we know. He basically just hung around town and bugged the crap out of people by asking too many abstract questions, such as "What is justice?" or "Do the gods love the good because it is good, or is the good good because the gods love it?" And he did this without having a PhD!

So philosophers love wisdom. You might say they are aspiring wise men (or aspiring wise women... even though philosophy is a rather notoriously male-dominated pursuit, there have since ancient times been a fair number of female philosophers). But what is wisdom?

Ah, grasshopper... by asking such questions, you have already started on the philosopher's path.

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