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Philosophy is the oldest form of systematic, scholarly inquiry. The name comes
from the Greek philosophos, “lover of wisdom.” The term, however, has acquired
several related meanings: (1) the study of the truths or principles underlying
all knowledge, being, and reality; (2) a particular system of philosophical
doctrine; (3) the critical evaluation of such fundamental doctrines; (4) the
study of the principles of a particular branch of knowledge; (5) a system of
principles for guidance in practical affairs; and (6) a philosophical spirit or
All of these meanings of philosophy are recognizable in the intellectual
traditions of ancient Greece. The pre-Socratics (see PRE-SOCRATIC PHILOSOPHY)
sought to find fundamental, natural principles that could explain what
individuals know and experience about the world around them. The pre-Socratics
and, later, PLATO and ARISTOTLE tried to develop a comprehensive set of
principles that would account for their knowledge of both the natural and the
human world. In developing philosophies, these early thinkers saw that their
reflections could be used as a means of criticizing and often refuting
popularly accepted mythological views as well as the thoughts of their
predecessors and contemporaries. SOCRATES, at his trial, proclaimed a basic
philosophical premise, that “the unexamined life was not worth living.” By this
he meant that if people do not examine and critically evaluate the principles
by which they live, they cannot be sure that worthwhile principles exist. As
the Greek thinkers codified their pictures of the world, they saw that for each
science or study of some aspect of the world there could be a corresponding
philosophy of this science or study, such as the philosophies of science, art,
history, and so on. Each of these involves examining the fundamental
principles of a discipline to see if they are logical, consistent, and–most
important–true. Because ancient philosophers questioned the various ways of
life by which people live and sought the most satisfactory one, they developed
their philosophical attitudes and theories as guides to practical living. From
Socrates down to 20th-century thinkers like Bertrand RUSSELL and Jean Paul
SARTRE, a major element of the philosophical enterprise has been devoted to
trying to designate what constitutes the good life for humans both as
individuals and as social and political beings.
This kind of concern has contributed to the image of the philosopher as
standing aside from and impervious to all the ups and downs of everyday
existence. Michel de MONTAIGNE declared that “to philosophize is to learn to
die,” indicating that the philosopher can be philosophical even in the face of
death. The Stoic thinkers (see STOICISM) are usually seen as the epitome of
this sense of philosophy. They maintained their philosophical attitude of calm
reflection in the face of all sorts of temporary disasters.
Because the term philosophy has various meanings, the nature of the field can
be most easily grasped by examining the kinds of problems and questions the
field deals with. In the beginnings of Western philosophy, the pre-Socratic
thinkers dealt primarily with a metaphysical question: What is the nature of
ultimate reality as contrasted to the apparent reality of ordinary experience?
They tried to determine whether some ultimate constituents of the world would
be the real and basic elements, whereas everything else would be ephemeral and
merely a surface appearance. If such a reality existed, would it be permanent
and unalterable, or would it be subject to change or alteration like everything
else? The pre-Socratics generated some of the basic problems involved in
defining reality, that is, in finding something so basic that it cannot be
explained by anything else. They found their attempts to present logical
explanations of their metaphysical theories ran into paradoxical results.
Could a permanent, unchanging reality account for a changing world? ZENO OF
ELEA became famous for working out his paradoxes, which claimed nothing could
really change or move. Some of his paradoxes and some of those connected with
the Greek ATOMISM still play a role in modern theoretical physics.
Over time, some aspects of the attempt to delineate reality became separated
from the metaphysical quest and became the subject matter of the various
natural sciences. This development has accelerated since the 17th century.
The areas of study that have been peeled off from philosophy and assigned to
the natural sciences include astronomy, physics, chemistry, geology, biology,
psychology, and others. An example of this process may be seen in the
consideration of a major metaphysical question, the relationship of mind and
body. Originally, Platonic metaphysics claimed that the body and the mind were
two separate and distinct entities. Plato, in fact, claimed the body was the
prison house of the soul or mind. In the 17th century, Rene DESCARTES
contended that mind and body were two separate and distinct substances that had
nothing in common although they interact. Several Indian schools of philosophy
hold a similar view. In the West this problem was gradually taken over by
psychologists and neurophysiologists. The present tendency is to reduce mental
phenomena to brain phenomena and thereby reduce the problem from a mind-body
problem to a body problem.
Another constant philosophical question, from Greek times up to the present,
has been to try to establish the difference between appearance and reality.
Once people learned about sense illusions, the question arose of how to tell
what seems to be from what really is. Skeptical thinkers have pressed the
claim that no satisfactory standard can be found that will actually work for
distinguishing the real from the apparent in all cases. On the other hand,
various philosophers have proposed many such criteria, none of which has been
universally accepted. Another type of question raised by philosophers is:
What is truth? Various statements about aspects of the world seem to be true,
at least at certain times. Yet experience teaches that statements that have
seemed to be true have later had to be qualified or denied. Skeptics have
suggested that no evidence would be able to tell, beyond any show of doubt,
that a given statement is in reality true. In the face of such a challenge,
philosophers have sought to find a criterion of truth, especially a criterion
of truth that would not be open to skeptical challenge.
Philosophers have also traditionally raised questions about values: What is
good? How can good be distinguished from bad or evil? What is justice? What
would a just society be like? What is beauty? How can the beautiful be
distinguished from the ugly? These questions all deal with matters of
evaluation rather than fact. Scientific investigation is of only slight help
in determining if abortion is bad or if Vermeer’s Milkmaid is a beautiful
picture. The values that are at issue are not perceived in the same way as
facts. If they were, much more agreement would exist about the specific
answers to value questions. The philosopher seeks to find some means of
answering these sorts of questions, which are often the most important ones
that a person can ask and which will exhibit the basis of a theory of values.
In view of the kinds of questions that philosophers deal with, what methods
does the philosopher use to seek the answers? The philosopher’s tools are
basically logical and speculative reasoning. In the Western tradition the
development of LOGIC is usually traced to Aristotle, who aimed at constructing
valid arguments and also true arguments if true premises could be uncovered.
Logic has played an important role in ancient and modern philosophy–that of
providing a clarification of the reasoning process and standards by which valid
reasoning can be recognized. It has also provided a means of analyzing basic
concepts to determine if they are consistent or not.
Logic alone, however, is not enough to answer philosophers’ questions. It can
show when philosophers are being consistent and when their concepts are clear
and unambiguous, but it cannot ascertain if the first principles or the
premises are correct. Here philosophers sometimes rely on what they call
intuition and sometimes on a speculative reasoning process. From their initial
premises, philosophers then try to work out a consistent development of their
answers to basic philosophical questions, following the rules of logic.
Irrationalist philosophers, however, such as the Danish thinker Soren
KIERKEGAARD, have contended that the less logical the solution to philosophical
problems, the better. Philosophers such as these sometimes argue that the most
important elements of existence and experience cannot be contained by logic,
which is, after all, an element of experience itself. The part, they argue,
cannot explain the whole.
Philosophy’s relation to other disciplines
Philosophy is both related to most disciplines and yet different from them.
Almost from the beginning of both mathematics and philosophy in ancient Greece,
relations were seen between them. On the one hand, the philosophers were
strongly impressed by the degree of certainty and rigor that appeared to exist
in mathematics as compared to any other subject. Some, like the
philosopher-mathematician PYTHAGORAS OF SAMOS, felt that mathematics must be
the key to understanding reality. Plato claimed that mathematics provided the
forms out of which everything was made. Aristotle, on the other hand, held
that mathematics was about ideal objects rather than real ones; he held that
mathematics could be certain without telling us anything about reality. In
more modern times, Descartes and Baruch SPINOZA used mathematics as their model
and inspiration for formulating new methods to discover the truth about
reality. The philosopher-mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm von LEIBNIZ, the
co-discoverer (with Isaac Newton) of calculus, theorized about constructing an
ideal mathematical language in which to state, and mathematically solve, all
philosophical problems. Similar views have been advanced in the 20th century
as ways of resolving age-old philosophical difficulties. Attempts to
accomplish this have found far from unanimous approval, however.
Philosophy has both influenced and been influenced by practically all of the
sciences. The physical sciences have provided the accepted body of information
about the world at any given time. Philosophers have then tried to arrange
this information into a meaningful pattern and interpret it, describing what
reality might be like. Western philosophers over much of the last 2,500 years
have provided basic metaphysical theories for the scientists to fit their data
into and as the data changed, their metaphysical interpretations have had to be
adjusted. Thus the scientific revolution of the 17th century, encompassing the
scientific work of Johannes Kepler, Galileo, and Newton, was accompanied by a
metaphysical revolution led by such thinkers as Descartes, Spinoza, and
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the prevailing philosophers in
England and France came to the conclusion that the sciences are, and ought to
be, completely independent of traditional metaphysical interpretations.
Instead, the sciences should just try to describe and codify observations and
experiences. This approach has led in the last two centuries to a divorce of
philosophy from the sciences. What has developed in response is a new branch
of philosophy, the philosophy of science, which examines the methods of
science, the types of scientific evidence, and the ways the sciences progress.
A third intellectual area that has been intimately involved with philosophy is
religion. In ancient Greece some philosophers like ANAXAGORAS and Socrates
scandalized their contemporaries by criticizing aspects of Greek religion.
Others offered more theoretical approaches about the evidence for the existence
and nature of God or the gods. Some denied the existence of a deity. When
Christianity entered the Greek world, attempts were made to develop a
philosophical understanding of Christianity. Finally, toward the end of the
4th and beginning of the 5th century, Saint AUGUSTINE achieved a synthesis of
some of the elements of Platonic philosophy with the essentials of
Christianity. Throughout the Middle Ages, philosopher-theologians among the
Jews, Muslims, and Christians sought to explain their religions in rational
terms. They were opposed by antirational theologians who insisted that
religion is a matter of faith and belief and not of reasons and arguments.
After the Reformation, philosophers like Spinoza and David HUME began
criticizing the traditional philosophical arguments used by theologians. Hume
and Immanuel KANT sought to show that all of the arguments purporting to prove
the existence of God and the immortality of the soul were fallacious.
Philosophers sought to explain why people were religious on nonrational
grounds, such as psychological, economic, or cultural ones. The defenders of
religion found themselves estranged from the philosophers, who kept using the
latest results of science and historical research to criticize religion. Some,
like Kierkegaard, made a virtue of this estrangement, insisting that religious
belief is a matter of faith, and therefore not a matter of reason. More
recently, since World War II, a group of theologians who are interested in
recent philosophical developments and in the relationship between religion and
contemporary culture have attempted to discover what religious statements can
be intellectually meaningful. The history of the relation between philosophy
and theology is thus a long and mixed affair, running the gamut from clarifying
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