What Philosophy Is (And Why Merriam-Webster Isn’t Exactly Right).

Since the application of philosophy to every-day life is the theme of this blog, I thought it would be fruitful to begin with an explanation of what philosophy is. In our culture today, it is especially important to discuss this subject because of the many contradictory definitions of the term “philosophy” that one often hears.

Merriam-webster.com defines “philosophy” in the following ways:

: the study of ideas about knowledge, truth, the nature and meaning of life, etc.

: a particular set of ideas about knowledge, truth, the nature and meaning of life, etc.

: a set of ideas about how to do something or how to live

These definitions raise several questions.

First, if philosophy is “the study of ideas about knowledge, truth, the nature and meaning of life, etc.,” does this include all such ideas? If so, is the study of world religions, such as Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, etc., part of the study of philosophy?

Second, if philosophy is “a particular set of ideas about knowledge, truth, the nature and meaning of life, etc.,” what is the point of studying this set of ideas? Shouldn’t we be paying more attention to practical matters, such as how to earn a living, how to have good relationships, and how to find happiness, instead of wasting our time studying a bunch of people’s arbitrary ideas?

Third, if philosophy is “a set of ideas about how to do something or how to live,” then are self-help gurus and motivational speakers engaging in a kind of philosophy?

These are not easy issues to untangle. I wrote an entire 200+ page book that provided what I think was  adequate answers to them, which you can find here. However, I think I can also provide a shorter, summary set of answers for those of you who haven’t read the book.

Philosophy first arose in ancient Greece, and was an attempt to understand the nature of the Universe, of human beings, and of human beings’ relationship to the Universe, through reason.

This latter part of the definition, this idea of “reason,” is the most important distinguishing characteristic of philosophy. Prior to philosophy, there were many ideas about knowledge, truth, and the nature and meaning of life. However, all prior systems of thought relied upon faith to justify their assertions.

There were many different world religions and many different ideas about the best way to live one’s life. There was no way to determine which one of these systems of thought was true or even which aspects of a particular one should be accepted and which should be discarded. As a practical matter, most people simply accepted without question the religion of their particular culture or nationality. This left anyone identifying with more than one culture or nationality wondering what to believe.

Philosophy changed all of this by taking the deepest questions of human existence and subjecting them to sense-experience and logic. The first philosophers, men such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, took questions about the nature of reality, knowledge, and life, and constructed theories to answer them. They then subjected these theories to criticism in the form of arguments. These arguments, in turn, were subjected to the science of logic, in order to determine whether they were sound or not. This gave human beings an independent method of determining what the truth was, without having to rely on cultural or national prejudices.

Although not all philosophical questions were resolved, there came to be a broad framework of agreement between these thinkers as to what the nature of reality is and how human beings could survive and flourish within it. This broad framework consisted of the following principles:

  1. The chaotic, fleeting world that we perceive with our senses cannot be understood by simply observing it. In addition to observation, human beings must form concepts or abstractions that place the objects of the world into categories that express these objects’ true essence. Plato called these abstractions Ideas, while Aristotle called them Forms. In modern times, they are called simply “concepts.”
  2. Great care must be taken when forming concepts. Objects must be placed in categories in a non-contradictory manner, through the method of logic. If this is not done, human beings will develop faulty abstractions that do not represent reality. If this happens, great harm will come to them.
  3. One of the greatest dangers an individual faces in the process of forming concepts is pressure from other people to conform to their incorrect ideas. An individual must always rely on nothing more than experience and logic to determine what the truth is. It is hard work to discover the nature of reality, and many people do not want to do this work. For this reason, an individual who does not rely on his own mind, but instead accepts the arbitrary opinions of others as the truth, is putting himself at the mercy of the weaknesses of others.
  4. If concepts are formed correctly, and reason is followed no matter what, human beings can not only learn how the Universe functions, but also how to survive and prosper within it. When they do so, they will achieve “eudaimonia,” which is also called “happiness” or “flourishing.”
  5. In order to achieve these goals, individuals must be left free to form their own ideas and make their own decisions. If they are threatened or killed by their government for disagreeing with the majority, as happened in the case of Socrates, they will not be able to benefit from the principles of philosophy.

Hopefully, this answers some of the questions about philosophy that I stated earlier. As you can see, although religions share some characteristics with philosophy, there are also important differences. In addition, there are also important differences between self-help gurus and philosophers. While religions and self-help gurus often claim to have the answers to life’s deepest questions, their claims are not ultimately based on any kind of logical argument. They simply expect you to believe whatever they say, based on either their supposed “expertise” of the subject or on “faith.”

This is not to say that there is no value in reading the works of self-help gurus or religious teachers. The ideas of both groups may turn out to be valuable even though they do not know how to prove them. But in order to know that they are valuable, an individual must rely upon reason. That is, an individual must rely upon philosophy.

In answer to the question, “shouldn’t we be paying more attention to practical matters, such as how to earn a living, how to have good relationships, and how to find happiness, instead of wasting our time studying a bunch of people’s arbitrary ideas?” the conclusion you should reach is that you need to study ideas precisely in order to do these practical things, and that you need to make sure that the ideas you hold are not arbitrary.

Philosophy in it’s purest form practically disappeared in the world around 2,000 years ago, as it came to be replaced in the Roman Empire, and thus in the Western World, by Christianity. Over time, what came to be called “philosophy” was instead a technical subject practiced only by university professors, that dealt with understanding the language of science.

However, the original meaning of the term has come to be revived in recent years, due to the popularity of the teachings of the novelist Ayn Rand, whose philosophy of “Objectivism” bears many resemblances to the views of the ancient Greeks.

In my next post, titled “What Objectivism Is (and what it isn’t, despite what you might hear otherwise),” I’ll discuss this contemporary idea of philosophy.

If you would like a more in-depth explanation of these issues, please do read the book. Here is the link again, in case you missed it the first time: Philosophy: What It Is and Why We Need It.

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