Philosophy as practiced by philosophers is largely unintelligible to me. This is my ‘making sense of philosophy’ page. As such, it aims at a ludicrous level of simplicity, the only approach that might make sense to me. Any, more perceptive, readers may take this ball and run with it to deeper places.
Every day I try to act the way I imagine a philosopher acts. I challenge my own and others’ interpretations. I am never content to learn about an event without inquiring of the cause. My imagination challenges passive observation, say by considering strange things in a familiar light, or the familiar in a different context. In the act of writing, I inquire of myself why a perceptive reader would want to visit here?
How can one approach such a notoriously ill-defined discipline? If we had to describe the spirit of philosophy in a single word, what would it be? I choose wonder, the main activity of the human imagination. Perhaps the word philosophy itself has some connection to the nature of the beast. Its etymology involves a catenation of two Greek words, meaning love + wisdom. Since we seek out what we love, a philosopher likely searches for wisdom. We may be on the right track here, for that is how Socrates analyzed his own motivation.
What is wisdom and why should we love it? The word has deep roots in Germanic languages, and suggests the collection of knowledge, learning, and experience that human minds amass, usually after attaining adulthood. What is it we want to learn? We learn the pragmatic knowledge that will enable us to do useful things and to make correct decisions in our lives. We learn to understand our motivations, and how we acquire a sense of meaning in our lives. We learn strategies for living, and develop a sense of values to guide us in our pursuits. We understand the primacy or our instinctual mind and attempt to moderate its affect on us through the workings of our rational mind. Wow, why doesn’t everyone study philosophy?
Before we get too excited, let’s reflect on the opinion of the eminent scientist, Stephen Hawking, who recently declared philosophy dead. Damn. Once again, it appears I may be late to the party. But wait, there’s a small group of guests remaining, and it appears there is still some good stuff to imbibe. Let’s party on.
Besides, what does it even mean that philosophy died? Clearly Prof. Hawking had something quite specific in mind, and chose to cast it in the broadest terms for greatest impact. We must wonder at his meaning, and criticize his obscure style of speaking. The search for wisdom goes on always, in every corner of our human universe. And this search is partly a search for meanings, in the sense of how actions and interpretations affect us and our world.
Likely, the Professor’s meaning exists within the context of natural philosophy, the ultimate knowing of our reality. Early philosophical arguments regarding the nature of things ultimately condensed, from the hot gas of general philosophic inquiry, into the discrete scientific disciplines. If philosophy had always been entirely limited to the precursors of these disciplines, and if these mature disciplines must now be considered as distinct from philosophy, only then perhaps could philosophy be considered dead. But it is not difficult to see there must be more to philosophy than explanations of real phenomena, and that the scientific disciplines will always inform all of philosophy. No divorce is possible.
In this short intro, we have described philosophy in terms of wonder, love, wisdom, meanings, causes, and behaviors of natural phenomena. In this mix, we sense not a hint of foreboding that something dear to us is about to perish. It seems like a good party that still has some legs.
Beyond the pragmatic philosophy whose purpose and methods are hinted at above, there is an abstract, academic path of classification and analysis, creating a meta-layer by which academics can study and discuss that which the rest of us merely practice. Here, we focus on pragmatics, cutting loose all that confusing meta-analysis. This is the single greatest simplification that we can achieve.
The pragmatic path to philosophy is deeply embedded in human psychology. Again, consulting etymology, psychology means study of the soul, or in a more modern sense, study of mind. The practicum of philosophy, involving learning and knowledge, is inseparable from the workings of mind. We may observe two levels of mind: the rational mind, and the reflexive mind of our distant ancestors. Many of our daily decision points will involve only the latter innate working of mind. The rational mind struggles to control the instinctive mind.
Mind achieves knowledge by studying the what and how of our world. Mind achieves wisdom by positing the why of our world, and the what and how of a better world imagined. Philosophy accumulates wisdom, to provide meanings (what difference will it make) and context (why should we care) for all our decisions. The health of our societies and the health of Spaceship Earth depends on well-informed decisions.
Sometimes philosophy is stretched to encompass theology as well. Religion, a discrete instance of theological thinking, is a type of scripted philosophy, recorded in great good books. A few of the scripted religious tenets are derived from the fabric of universal human morality. But most religious scripting attempts to coerce, via supernatural phenomena and allegory. Thus the bulk of religious scripts are obsoleted in today’s world, of interest only to zealots. Further, zealots’ morality is often a tragicomic distortion of the small truths to be found in their scripts.
The philosophy of this discussion is, of course, areligious, deriving its moral compass not from the divine script, but from human cognition, which reasons the correct path through life, and recognizes the value of fairness in all of life’s dealings, as eloquently prescribed by the Golden Rule.