by Jonathan Ekene Ifeanyi
Most modern philosophers always rejoice to assert that philosophy has “no universally accepted definition” — and take this statement as a licence to try divorcing the discipline from what it really is. Hence they have diverse — and quite contradictory — opinions about what philosophy is. William James, leader of Pragmatism and of the psychological movement of functionalism, says “philosophy in the full sense is only man thinking, thinking about generalities rather than particulars”; John Dewey, founder of Pragmatism, a pioneer in functional psychology, and a leader of the progressive movement in education in the United States, says it is “thinking which has become conscious of itself”; Ludwig Wittgenstein, of the analytic school, says it is “The logical clarification of thought”; Martin Heidegger, the ontologist, says it is “the correspondence to the being of being”; Alfred J. Ayer, the leading representative of logical positivism, says “Philosophising is an activity of analysis”; Bertrand Russell, the logician and founding figure in the analytic movement in Anglo-American philosophy, says it is “...the attempt to answer ultimate questions, not uncritically as we do in ordinary life and even in the sciences, but critically after exploring all that makes that such questions puzzling and after realising all the vagueness and confusion that underlie our ordinary ideas.”, and so on.
Well, there is nothing wrong about any philosopher defining his discipline from his own perspective. Scholars in other disciplines do the same — and there is no problem. But the point here is that these definitions must reflect what the discipline in question really is. The assertion that “philosophy has no universally accepted definition” may have some elements of truth, but to give the impression that philosophy has no original, universally known, definition — as some modern scholars often do — is false. There is nothing in this world that has no common definition, or at least a common idea. Even nothing has a common, well known, definition — namely “something that does not exist.” The word “philosophy” is even onomatopoeic, that is, it defines itself. The word philosophy is a combination of two Greek words: Philein — “to love” — and Sophia — “wisdom”. (φιλοσοφία, philosophia). Hence philosophy literally means “love of wisdom” — a true philosopher is a lover of wisdom. “In ancient times a lover of wisdom could be related to any area where intelligence was expressed,” writes Dallas M. Roark in his piece What is Philosophy? “This could be in business, politics, human relations, or carpentry and other skills. Philosophy had a "wholeness" approach to life in antiquity. In contrast to this, some modern definitions restrict philosophy to what can be known by science or the analysis of language.” (Emphasis mine).
And the origin of the word? St. Augustine writes:
“As far as Greek language is concerned (and the Greek language has the highest international reputation), there is a tradition of two types of philosophy: the Italian, deriving from the part of Italy which used to be called Magna Graecia, and the Ionian, which flourished in the countries still called by the name of Greece. The Italian school had as its founder Pythagoras of Samos, who is credited with the coinage of the actual name of ‘philosophy’. Before his time, the title of sages was given to those who stood out from the rest of mankind by reason of the kind of quality of life which merited praise. But when Pythagoras was asked about his profession, he replied that he was a ‘philosopher’, that is, a devotee, or lover of wisdom; it seemed to him to be most presumptuous to claim to be a ‘sage’.”—“Quantum enim attinet ad litteras Graecas, quae lingua inter ceteras gentium clarior habetur, duo philosophorum genera traduntur: unum Italicum ex ea parte Italiae, quae quondam magna Graecia nuncupata est; alterum Ionicum in eis terris, ubi et nunc Graecia nominatur. Italicum genus auctorem habuit Pythagoram Samium, a quo etiam ferunt ipsum philosophiae nomen exortum. Nam cum antea Sapientes appellarentur, qui modo quodam laudabilis vitae aliis praestare videbantur, iste interrogatus, quid profiteretur, philosophum se esse respondit, id est studiosum vel amatorem sapientiae; quoniam sapientem profiteri arrogantissimum videbatur.” (De Civitate Dei, Liber VIII, 2).
Thus when we go back to the beginning, we see that although philosophers also disagreed among themselves at that time, virtually all understood that philosophers are those who seek the truth or wisdom. That was — and still is — the original, common definition, universally known. Hence in virtually all dictionaries you will always see — among other diverse definitions — something related to the above definition. The dictionary in my computer says — among other definitions — that philosophy is “(a): pursuit of wisdom (b): a search for a general understanding of values and reality by chiefly speculative rather than observational means...” “In the ...sense in which the term came to be used in Greece in the latter part of the 5th c., philosophy meant the endeavour to understand and to teach how to live well and wisely, which involved the holding of right opinions about God, the world, man, and virtue. It combined religion, morals, and metaphysics”, writes late Paul Harvey in The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature. (London: Oxford University Press, 1962, p.324).
Virtually all definitions offered by ancient thinkers, such as Aristotle’s “knowledge of the truth”, are related to Wisdom — Truth and Wisdom have the same goal, and a seeker of truth is a man of wisdom. Hence, among some of the modern definitions mentioned above, Heidegger is on point in asserting that philosophy is “the correspondence to the being of being.” Heidegger was an ontologist. Ontology is the philosophical study of being in general, or of what applies neutrally to everything that is real. It was called “first philosophy” by Aristotle in Book IV of his Metaphysics. The Latin term ontologia (“science of being”) was felicitously invented by the German philosopher Jacob Lorhard (Lorhardus) and first appeared in his work Ogdoas Scholastica (1st ed.) in 1606. It entered general circulation after being popularised by the German rationalist philosopher Christian Wolff in his Latin writings, especially Philosophia Prima sive Ontologia (1730; “First Philosophy or Ontology”). Wolff contrasted ontology, or general metaphysics, which applied to all things, with special metaphysical theories such as those of the soul, of bodies, or of God.
However, whereas in the Medieval Period, St. Thomas Aquinas, who followed Aristotle, identified “Being as Being” with God, Heidegger refrained deliberately from asserting that being of being is God, an attitude simply common to virtually all modern intellectuals and not just philosophers only — the name of God appearing in anyone’s work is considered an embarrassment. This attitude, of course, is understandable. Although Heidegger was raised in a Catholic home, he had some negative influences while a young man both from intellectuals of his day and from bad books. In particular, his study of classical Protestant texts by Martin Luther, John Calvin and others in 1916 led to his spiritual crisis, the result of which was his rejection of the religion of his youth, Roman Catholicism. Heidegger completed his break with Catholicism by marrying a Lutheran, Elfride Petri, in 1917, and he ended up growing increasingly doubtful of the capacity of philosophy to articulate the “truth” of Being. More and more, he tended to regard Western metaphysics as hopelessly riddled with errors and missteps rather than as a useful point of departure. Instead he became enamoured of the power of poetry, especially that of Johann Christian Friedrich Hölderlin and Rainer Maria Rilke — non-philosophers — to unveil the mysteries of Being!
It is good to note that even the title of ‘sages’ (meaning wise men) which the earlier thinkers before Pythagoras were called also has a connection to wisdom. My same dictionary says a sage is “(1): one (as a profound philosopher) distinguished for wisdom (2): a mature or venerable man of sound judgment.” St. Thomas Aquinas (c. 1224–75), George Berkeley (1685–1753), and Søren Aabye Kierkegaard (1813–55), all saw philosophy as a means to assert the truths of religion and to dispel the materialistic or rationalistic errors that led to its decline,—which also has a connection to the original definition—whereas some of the above definitions by modern thinkers—as well as their activities—absolutely have nothing to do with the seeking of truth or wisdom, but rather are clearly conscious efforts to divorce philosophy from its own original meaning. Bertrand Russell may also be on point in asserting that philosophy is "..the attempt to answer ultimate questions", but whether philosophers are sincere in seeking answers to these "ultimate questions", as men of wisdom do, is another issue!
“We are awash in a sea of knowledge,” writes Justarius in his article, Philosophy: Love of Wisdom. “We are told every day what we want, what we need, and what we should do. Yet without context or connection, knowledge means nothing. Knowledge is not equivalent to wisdom. Wisdom cannot be told to you. It cannot be found on the Internet. It can only be gained through a personal quest to acquire it. Philosophy is that quest.
“Others may define it otherwise, but to me, wisdom is the synthesis of knowledge and experiences into insights that deepen our understanding of the meaning of life. Both are required because theories without experiences can prove false, and experiences without theories can fail to be universal. Once you begin to gain wisdom, two remarkable things can occur: 1) you begin to understand your purpose and how to achieve it, and 2) you begin to connect your wisdom to that of other people across space and time. Patterns emerge like stair steps and, as you climb up, you will begin to experience the unity of all things.
“...Wisdom and knowledge are not the same thing. With the Internet, it is relatively easy to be knowledgeable today; however, knowledge is just a tool. Unless you know how to use it effectively and how it relates to the other tools in your box, knowledge may be either useless or meaningless. Wisdom is not a thing that you can give or be given. It is a by-product of the personal quest for truth and meaning. Philosophy can be understood as the story of people continually asking how and why and what they discovered. Each of them tried to organize their thoughts into a system that would enable them to understand their place in society, the world, and the cosmos. Fascinating, you think. What could be better?
“Well, many people think that modern philosophy is useless or at least impractical. This is partly because they think only of academic philosophers, pondering the five major disciplines of aesthetics, metaphysics, ethics, political philosophy, and epistemology in their ivory towers. What they don’t realize is that if you walked into the ancient bookstore, there would basically be only two categories: philosophy and religion (and religion contains a fair bit of philosophy too). Philosophy once included all of the sciences (once called “natural philosophy”), much of the humanities (literary criticism, social science, history, etc), and even the entire self-help and business sections (rhetoric, psychology, etc). What happened?”
Justarius says one way to think of it is that philosophy is always on the cutting edge of human thought; that once something becomes explainable or observable, it ceases to be philosophy and become a field in itself. That is true. But I disagree with him that “As these fields mature (that is, the disciplines he just listed), they are beginning to answer old philosophical dilemmas such as free will, consciousness, and the mechanics of morality. Philosophy then is left with the impossible or difficult to answer questions. “What is beauty?” (aesthetics) “What is reality?” (metaphysics) “What is ‘the good life?'” (ethics). These questions may not be “useful” in our materialistic modern world, but they are meaningful. Who wants to live in a world without beauty? Or ethics?”
The truth is that those old philosophical problems have in no way been treated — and in no way can they be treated using the tools of secular disciplines such as psychology, sociology, etc.! Instead, those problems have actually been abandoned in our too-materialistic-modern-world!
St. Augustine writes, in De Civitate Dei:
“...it is sufficient to mention that Plato defined the Sovereign Good as the life in accordance with virtue, and affirmed that he only can attain to virtue who knows and imitates God, — which knowledge and imitation are the only cause of blessedness. Therefore he did not doubt that to philosophize is to love God, whose nature is incorporeal. Whence it certainly follows that the student of wisdom (which is the meaning of ‘philosoph-er’), will then become blessed when he shall have begun to enjoy God. For though he is not necessarily blessed who enjoys that which he loves (for many are miserable by loving that which ought not to be loved, and still more miserable when they enjoy it), nevertheless no one is blessed who does not enjoy that which he loves. For even they who love things which ought not to be loved do not count themselves blessed by loving merely, but by enjoying them. Who, then, but the most miserable will deny that he is blessed, who enjoys that which he loves, and loves the true and highest good? But the true and highest good, according to Plato, is God, and therefore he would call him a philosopher who loves God; for philosophy is directed to the obtaining of the blessed life, and he who loves God is blessed in the enjoyment of God.” — “Nunc satis sit commemorare Platonem determinasse finem boni esse secundum virtutem vivere et ei soli evenire posse, qui notitiam Dei habeat et imitationem nec esse aliam ob causam beatum; ideoque non dubitat hoc esse philosophari, amare Deum, cuius natura sit incorporalis. Unde utique colligitur tunc fore beatum studiosum sapientiae (id enim est philosophus), cum frui Deo coeperit. Quamvis enim non continuo beatus sit, qui eo fruitur quod amat (multi enim amando ea, quae amanda non sunt, miseri sunt et miseriores cum fruuntur): nemo tamen beatus est, qui eo quod amat non fruitur. Nam et ipsi, qui res non amandas amant, non se beatos putant amando, sed fruendo. Quisquis ergo fruitur eo, quod amat, verumque et summum bonum amat, quis eum beatum nisi miserrimus negat? Ipsum autem verum ac summum bonum Plato dicit Deum, unde vult esse philosophum amatorem Dei, ut, quoniam philosophia ad beatam vitam tendit, fruens Deo sit beatus qui Deum amaverit.” (De Civitate Dei, Liber VIII, 8).
This frequent mentioning of God — or Wisdom and Truth which God is sometimes also called or associated with — common to ancient thinkers, is actually what appears to modern secular thinkers to be a real “crime.” Hence they often rejoice to announce that philosophy has no universally accepted definition — an assertion which gives them the licence to choose their own definitions radically unconnected to God, or to Truth, or to Wisdom.
If you turn to Aristotle, as we have already mentioned, you see a definition similar — or rather connected — to that of St. Augustine. He writes, in his Metaphysics (ΤΩΝ ΜΕΤΑ ΤΑ ΦΥΣΙΚΑ):
“It is right ...that philosophy should be called knowledge of the truth. For the end of theoretical knowledge is truth, while that of practical knowledge is action (for even if they consider how things are, practical men do not study the eternal, but what is relative and in the present).
Now we do not know a truth without its cause; and
a thing has a quality in a higher degree than other things if in virtue of it
the similar quality belongs to the other things as well (e.g. fire is the
hottest of things; for it is the cause of the heat of all other things); so
that that causes derivative truths to be true is most true. Hence the
principles of eternal things must be always most true (for they are not merely
sometimes true, nor is there any cause of their being, but they themselves are
the cause of the being of other things), so that as each thing is in respect of
being, so is it in respect of truth.” — “ὀρθῶς δ᾽ ἔχει καὶ τὸ καλεῖσθαι τὴν
φιλοσοφίαν ἐπιστήμην τῆς ἀληθείας. θεωρητικῆς μὲν γὰρ τέλος ἀλήθεια πρακτικῆς
δ᾽ ἔργον: καὶ γὰρ ἂν τὸ πῶς ἔχει σκοπῶσιν, οὐ τὸ ἀΐδιον ἀλλ᾽ ὃ πρός τι καὶ νῦν
θεωροῦσιν οἱ πρακτικοί. οὐκ ἴσμεν δὲ τὸ ἀληθὲς ἄνευ τῆς αἰτίας: ἕκαστον δὲ
μάλιστα αὐτὸ τῶν ἄλλων καθ᾽ ὃ καὶ τοῖς ἄλλοις ὑπάρχει τὸ συνώνυμον (οἷον τὸ πῦρ
θερμότατον: καὶ γὰρ τοῖς ἄλλοις τὸ αἴτιον τοῦτο τῆς θερμότητος): ὥστε καὶ
ἀληθέστατον τὸ τοῖς ὑστέροις αἴτιον τοῦ ἀληθέσιν εἶναι. διὸ τὰς τῶν ἀεὶ ὄντων
ἀρχὰς ἀναγκαῖον ἀεὶ εἶναι ἀληθεστάτας (οὐ γάρ ποτε ἀληθεῖς, οὐδ᾽ ἐκείναις
αἴτιόν τί ἐστι τοῦ εἶναι, ἀλλ᾽ ἐκεῖναι τοῖς ἄλλοις), ὥσθ᾽ ἕκαστον ὡς ἔχει τοῦ
εἶναι, οὕτω καὶ τῆς ἀληθείας.” (ΤΩΝ ΜΕΤΑ ΤΑ ΦΥΣΙΚΑ, 993b, 19-30).
In sharp contrast to Aristotle, we have already quoted John Dewey, founder of Pragmatism, as asserting that philosophy is just “thinking which has become conscious of itself.” You wonder what he means? Here is it: From Dewey’s book The Quest for Certainty (1929), Later Works, vol. 4 (quoted in the article, The Alexander Technique: Dewey's Philosophy in Action?):
It is false “that what is known is antecedent to the mental act of observation and inquiry ...” ... It is false “that the object of knowledge is a reality fixed and complete in itself ...” (Page 19.)
“The notion that the findings of science are a disclosure of the inherent properties of the ultimate real, of existence at large, is a survival of the older metaphysics.” ... We should “Drop the conception that knowledge is knowledge only when it is a disclosure and definition of the properties of fixed and antecedent [i.e. already existing] reality ...” (Page 83.)
We should accept “the teaching of science that ideas are statements not of what is or has been but of acts to be performed.” (Page 111.)
“... knowing is itself a kind of action, ... which progressively and securely clothes natural existence with realized meanings. ... There are no sensory or perceived objects fixed in themselves.” (Page 134.)
“... known objects exist as the consequences of directed operations, not because of conformity of thought or observation with something antecedent.” (Page 160.)
We should not “persist in the traditional conception, according to which the thing to be known is something which exists prior to and wholly apart from the act of knowing ...” (Page 163.)
“The doctrine that nature is inherently rational was a costly one. It entailed the idea that reason in man is an outside spectator of a rationality already complete in itself.” ... It is false “that knowledge is ideally or in its office a disclosure of antecedent reality ...” (Page 169.)
Reality is not “fixed and complete in itself,” not “ready-made.” In itself it is “unfinished,” “plastic,” “malleable,” “contingent,” “indeterminate.” These adjectives are found throughout The Quest for Certainty and Logic: The Theory of Inquiry.
The mind is not a “spectator.” Knowledge is not “a disclosure of reality, of reality prior to and independent of knowing ... .” (Page 44.)
“The business of thought ... is not to conform to or reproduce the characters already possessed by objects ... .” (Page 137.)
“... we know only after we have acted and in consequence of the outcome of action.” (Page 276.)
Dewey simply maintains that objective reality doesn’t exist, only an indeterminate flux that you — or rather society — moulds into being by your own consciousness — or rather the collective consciousness — through arbitrary actions! Thus he defines philosophy as “thinking which has become conscious of itself”! There are many others out there like him. And what can really be “philosophical” about such characters?
In fact, when we compare the activities of the ancient thinkers to those of the moderns, it would seem that most modern thinkers who identify themselves as “philosophers” are actually doing a radically new discipline, quite alien to what the ancient thinkers did. And really, that is the case. It would be good, then, — in my own thinking — if the moderns choose another name for this new discipline rather than consciously distorting and perverting, because of their personal grudges, the original meaning of philosophy, or concepts of it.