What is Philosophy?

Philosophy (from Greek φιλοσοφία, philosophia, literally “love of wisdom”) is the study of general and fundamental questions about existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language. Such questions are often posed as problems to be studied or resolved. The term was probably coined by Pythagoras (c. 570 – 495 BCE). Philosophical methods include questioning, critical discussion, rational argument, and systematic presentation. Classic philosophical questions include: Is it possible to know anything and to prove it? What is most real? Philosophers also pose more practical and concrete questions such as: Is there a best way to live? Is it better to be just or unjust (if one can get away with it)? Do humans have free will?

Historically, “philosophy” encompassed any body of knowledge. From the time of Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle to the 19th century, “natural philosophy” encompassed astronomy, medicine, and physics. For example, Newton’s 1687 Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy later became classified as a book of physics. In the 19th century, the growth of modern research universities led academic philosophy and other disciplines to professionalize and specialize. In the modern era, some investigations that were traditionally part of philosophy became separate academic disciplines, including psychology, sociology, linguistics, and economics.

Other investigations closely related to art, science, politics, or other pursuits remained part of philosophy. For example, is beauty objective or subjective? Are there many scientific methods or just one? Is political utopia a hopeful dream or hopeless fantasy? Major sub-fields of academic philosophy include metaphysics (“concerned with the fundamental nature of reality and being”), epistemology (about the “nature and grounds of knowledge [and]…its limits and validity”, ethics, aesthetics, political philosophy, logic and philosophy of science.

1. Meaning of Philosophy

The term ‘philosophy’ literally means’ ‘love of wisdom’ or pursuit of knowledge. Hence any branch of study was formerly called philosophy. As men were in the lowest stage of their intellec­tual development they could not differentiate the different depart­ments of the universe and consequently the different branches of knowledge.

But with the advance of knowledge they came to distinguish different sciences from one another, and philosophy from sciences, and regarded philosophy as the knowledge of the eternal and essential nature of things. Thus at first, philosophy was not distinguished from special sciences; then it was altogether divorced from them.

But now philosophy, in its restricted sense, means neither the study of any particular department of the universe, nor the knowledge of the eternal and essential nature of things and alone, but that highest branch of knowledge which aims at harmonizing and systematizing all truths and arriving at a rational conception of the reality as a whole, both in its eternal and temporal aspects. Philosophy is the criticism of life and experience.

2. Definitions

Philosophy has three parts:

(1) Epistemology, Ontology and Axiology, Epistemology is the theory of knowledge. Ontology is the theory of reality. Axiology is the theory of values. Ontology deals with matter, life, mind, and God. It deals with their essences and qualities and activities.

But some philosophers lay undue emphasis on epistemology; some lay undue stress on ontology; some lay undue emphasis on the study of the phenomena of matter, life, and mind.

The following definitions identify philosophy with epistemology, and ignore ontology and axiology:

(1) “Philosophy is the science and criticism of cognition” (Kant).

(2) “Philosophy is the science of knowledge” (Fichte).

These definitions regard epistemology or theory of knowledge as philosophy. But epistemology enquires into the nature, origin, validity, and extent of knowledge. It enquires into the conditions of valid knowledge. It is a prior criticism of the organ of knowledge. It is a preliminary step to metaphysical investigation into the nature of the reality.

Ontology is the essential part of philosophy. To regard epistemology as philosophy is to mistake the foundation for a building. Kant was the founder of epistemology. Fichte was his successor who laid great stress on epistemology. But their views are one-sided.

The following definitions identify philosophy with ontology or metaphysics, and ignore epistemology and axiology:

(1) “Philosophy aims at the knowledge of the eternal, of the essential nature of things” (Plato).

The eternal Being cannot be studied apart from temporal becoming. The essence cannot be considered apart from its attri­butes and expressions. To separate them from each other is a logical abstraction. There can be logical distinction between them, but there can be no metaphysical separation of them.

(2) “Philosophy is the science which investigates the nature of Being as it is in itself, and the attributes which belong to it in virtue of its own nature” (Aristotle). This definition removes the’ defect of Plato’s definition men­tioned above. But it identifies philosophy with ontology or meta­physics. It does not recognize epistemology and axiology as parts of philosophy.

The following definitions identify philosophy with sciences. The tendency of contemporary philosophy is more scientific than metaphysical. It identifies philosophy with the aggregate of sciences:

(1) “Philosophy is the science of sciences” (Gomte).

(2) “Philosophy is the sum total of all scientific knowledge” (Paulsen).

(3) “Philosophy is the unification of all knowledge obtained by the special sciences in a consistent whole” (Wundt).

(4) “Philosophy is completely unified knowledge—the gener­alizations of philosophy comprehending and consolidating the widest generalizations of science” (Herbert Spencer).

These definitions identify philosophy with completely unified scientific knowledge. Sciences are partially unified knowledge. Philosophy systematizes, organizes, and unites them into a unified system. To unify all the sciences into a unified system is too ambi­tious to, be realized at present, especially in view of the wonderful discoveries of the modern sciences. Moreover, sciences hover over the surface of reality.

Even if they adequately explain all, physical, biological, and mental phenomena, yet an unexplained residue will be left behind, which is beyond their grasp. Besides, philosophy is, concerned with intellectual, moral, aesthetic, and religious values, which satisfy our deepest aspiration. Sciences are not concerned with values but with facts, events, or phenomena only.

Therefore, philosophy cannot be defined as the sum total of sciences or as the completely unified scientific knowledge. Philosophy goes beyond facts and values, and seeks to explain them, and interrelate them by an all-comprehending reality, which is impenetrable to the sciences.

It estimates their value, worth, meaning and significance. It evaluates facts, and probes into the meaning of the universe. Logical, Positivists seem to regard philosophy as the sum total of Sciences and deny the possibility of metaphysics.

3. Origin of Philosophy

Wonder is said to be the origin of philosophy. The Greek thinkers, wondered at the phenomena of the world and tried to explain them by a fundamental principle or principles. Thales (600 B. C.) looked upon water as the primary stuff of the world.

Anaximander regarded the infinite atmosphere as the fundamental reality. Anaximander regarded air as the generative principle of things. Heraclitus conceived of fire as the only reality. Empedocles (450 B. C.) thought of earth, water fire, and air as the permanent substances. Thus the Greek philosophy originated in wonder.

The Vedic thinkers also wondered at the grand and sublime aspects of nature, and conceived of the sun, the moon, the sky, the wind or storm, the rain, and the like as animated by spirits. They thought of a large number of nature-Gods, who gave men rich crops, cattle, health, wealth and victory in battles. They gradually conceived of the world-architect who created the world.

Then they conceived of Brahman or the infinite Spirit pervading the universe and guiding the human souls. Thus Indian philo­sophy also sprang from wonder. Later philosophical speculation in India sprang from a deeper craving for the attainment of the highest good.

Achievement of liberation is the supreme goal of Indian philosophy. Its goal is not merely theoretical knowledge of the reality, but attainment of the Summum bonum of life.

Modern western philosophy sprang from doubt. Descartes, the father of modern western philosophy, started with doubt. Sense-perception may be illusory. Reason may be so constituted that it may lead to error. Authority is tin- reliable. Experience, reason, and authority or traditions are doubt­ful. But- the fact of doubting is undoubted. To doubt is to think. To think is to exist. ‘I therefore I exist’. Cogito ergo sum.

Therefore, the existence of the self is undoubted. There is the innate idea of God in the mind. Therefore God must exist. He must be the author -of the innate idea of God, the infinite, eternal, and perfect Being. God is truthful. We have clear and distinct ideas of material things.

Therefore, they must exist. If they did not exist, their distinct ideas would be false, and God would be untruthful. Thus Descartes started with universal doubt, proved the existence of the self, God, and the world, arid removed the original and provisional doubt.

The present age also is one of doubt and perplexity. Tradition and authority have lost their hold on the human, mind. Religion is dissolving and losing its grip on the human mind. Fundamental notions of science are being revolutionized.

The concepts of matter, time and space have been profoundly altered. The deepest layers of the mind are being discovered. Political, economic, social, and religious theories are breaking down.

Unfathomable mysteries of matter, life, and mind are being revealed. Man has become the master of the forces of nature; yet he is unhappy and discontented. He has lost faith and vision. He has lost sense of moral values. He is a prisoner in the prison of his scientific inventions. Man has mastered nature but enslaved himself. He has become sceptical, cynical, selfish, and rapacious.

Atom bombs, hydrogen bombs, ballistic missiles, etc., invented by the diabolical human brain threaten humanity with destruction. To save humanity from extinction we require a true perspective, a human outlook, and a true philosophy of man, a faith, and a vision. A true humanistic phi­losophy solvent of the universal doubt, perplexity, chaos and unsettlements prevailing at present.

4. Method of Philosophy

The method of philosophy is rational reflection. Philosophy starts with the experience of facts, events, or phenomena of matter, life and mind, and seeks to reduce them to a system by rational reflection upon them.

Its method is empirical and transcendental or speculative. It is not divorced from the world of our common experience, and so its method is empirical. But it makes a hypothesis to explain the world and its relation to the soul adequately.

The hypothesis as to the ultimate nature of the reality must be rational. It is suggested by rational reflection, and is not capable of verifica­tion by experience, or observation and experiment. It is by nature incapable of experimental verification.

But it must be consistent with all facts of experience. It must harmonize them with one another, and reduce them to a unified system. It must be able to harmonize the judgements of facts with judgements of values.

It must explain our life and experience satisfactorily, and not explain them away as mere appearances, it must satisfy our deepest longings and aspirations. It must recognize the reality of intellectual, moral, jest he tic, and religious values and give them a rational basis. The hypothesis of philosophical investigation is capable of verification in this sense.

Thus philosophy resorts to logical or rational reflection on the facts of experience and our intellectual, moral, esthetic, and religious aspirations. Its method is both empiri­cal and transcendental or speculative, It is not entirely empirical and scientific. It is pre-eminently rational or speculative.

Rational reflection is the principal method of philosophical investigation. But it is based upon the experience of facts. It is not unscientific and non-empirical. Philosophy employs rational reflection on the facts of experience in order to explain them adequately by making a rational hypothesis.

It employs the logical method of analysis and synthesis like sciences. But it does not make much use of obser­vation and experiment like them.

The method of philosophical investigation is rational reflec­tion. It is the method of observing facts, interrelating them with one another, arid interpreting them by means of rational hypothesis. It makes use of analysis and synthesis, like science. It realizes its end by the hard method of reason. Its method is empirical and rational. It is pre-eminently speculative and critical.

Though the method of philosophy is reasoned reflection like that of science, philosophy and science differ from each other. Metaphysics deals with the ultimate reality, whereas special sciences deal with particular aspects of it, particular departments of the universe, and leave all ultimate questions aside.

They deal with the phenomena of matter, life, and mind, and explain them by the laws of nature. They do not investigate the nature of the ultimate reality. The mathematical and experimental sciences employ quantitative and numerical methods. But metaphysics investigates the nature of the ultimate reality, and deals with the ultimate problems of existence in a scientific spirit.

It employs reasoned reflection, critical and systematic analysis of popular and scientific conceptions and rational synthesis of them. It does not employ quantitative and numerical methods like the mathematical sciences.

It does not make use of observation and experiment to increase our knowledge of particular facts or events, but merely discusses the way in which they are to be interpreted and made consistent with one another. It investigates the general conditions to which all reality conforms.

The Intellectualists maintain that the intellect is the proper organ of knowledge of the reality. Philosophy depends upon the intellect for, the comprehension of the reality. Its method is rational reflection, logical analysis and synthesis, and framing a valid hypothesis. The reality is amenable to rational comprehension. To deny the capacity of the intellect to comprehend the reality is to make philosophy impossible.

The Intuitionists, like Bergson, on the other hand, deny the capacity of the intellect to comprehend the reality. Bergson main­tains that elan vital, the stream of life, is the ultimate reality. It is perpetual becoming, flow, or flux.

There is no permanent being. It cannot be comprehended by the intellect, which dissects and analyses.it into isolated fragments. Intuition only can com­prehend the reality, which is ever changing and evolving. The method of philosophy is not rational reflection—but intuition.

Intuition is essentially non-rational, but not irrational. It is supra-intellectual or above Intellectual comprehension or discursive reasoning. The view of the Intuitionists is unsound. First, intuitions vary with different individuals, dependent upon different tem­peraments, interests, biases and prejudices. These variable intuitions cannot be the basis of philosophy which demands general accep­tance.

Secondly, intuitionism creates a gulf between science and philosophy, because science makes use of the intellect, while philosophy depends upon intuition or immediate supranational app­rehension. It makes the relation between them unintelligible, and makes the result of scientific knowledge useless to the philosophic enterprise.

Thirdly, the intuitionists prove the validity of their intuitions by rational reflection and intellectual arguments. They discredit the intellect, and prove its incompetence to grasp the reality, by intellectual arguments. They prove the validity of intui­tion by intellectual arguments.

Therefore, intuition alone cannot be regarded as the adequate method of philosophical investigation.

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