WHAT PHILOSOPHY IS ABOUT
In the SIXTH CENTURY B.C. something stirred into life on the cosmopolitan coast of Asia Minor that has had a profound significance for civilization. Men began to ask questions that had never been asked before. They began to ask what the world was made of and how it originated.
As far as our records show,this kind of speculation was without precedent. Both the Egyptians and the Babylonians had studied mathematics, astronomy, and medicine. They had made surprising progress in these subjects, although the results were expressed in an occult terminology. But such subjects had been hitherto studied by priests in sacred colleges. They had to be fitted into the framework of religious cosmology. For laymen to venture an opinion on these deep matters was an innovation.
There is no evidence that the priestly caste ever debated the question of how the world came into existence. It would scarcely have occurred to them that the problem might be solved by the use of reason. They were satisfied that they knew the answers. They were guardians and interpreters of a sacred canon.
The discovery that the origin and meaning of life were questions that might be solved by rational discussion constitutes a landmark in human history. Only a very few individuals were conscious of it; for the masses in those turbulent times life went on exactly as before. Nevertheless, the first blow for liberation had been struck. Man had begun to ask those questions which not only enriched his own consciousness, but ultimately led to control over the forces of nature.
The search started, not merely for information, but for understanding. "Much learning does not bring understanding," said Heraclitus. And by understanding he meant, "Nothing else but the exposition of the why in which the universe works." Knowledge of this kind could not be derived from traditional beliefs, as most people supposed. "One must not act and talk like those reared with the narrow outlook, `As it has been handed down to us.'"
Thus a rent was made in the blanket of superstition that had hitherto stifled free inquiry. A new wind was blowing across the world. Men were beginning to look at the world with new eyes. They discovered problems that seemed capable of solution by this new and exciting method, by observing and reasoning. Before long this pursuit of wisdom was exalted into the highest possible activity; and those who used the new, intellectual instrument were called "lovers of wisdom"---philosophers.
Naturally, the Ionians made no distinction between philosophy and science. How recent such a separation is may be seen by the fact that we still have chairs of natural philosophy in some of our universities, though the subjects taught are, of course, physics and psychology. In practice, however, philosophy now has a very restricted meaning. It has been the victim of its own success. Starting as an inquiry into the working of the universe, as soon as some branch of the investigation yielded positive results, that field was removed from philosophy and given the name of a special science.
Science is thus the offspring of philosophy; but so far from devouring its parent, as it becomes more mature science turns again to philosophy for guidance. Hence we find that physics, the most advanced of the sciences, is becoming increasingly philosophical. But even if every question about the working of the universe could be appreciated by a particular science, there would still be the question of how science itself works. It has been suggested that science interrogating itself, fashioning a science of science, may well be the last province left to philosophy. But the prospect is merely an academic possibility, because we are never likely to reach finality. The philosopher can be assured of a place as the critic of concepts, though he may have to give up constructing world systems.
It is impossible to give a satisfactory definition of philosophy unless a date is affixed to it. The reason for this is that the tasks undertaken by philosophers have differed in successive periods of historical development. No modern philosopher would have the temerity to tackle the problems that his counter part in ancient Greece tried to solve. If we regard the most valuable part of the Greek contribution as the discovery of Reason as a new instrument, we can make a convenient division into ancient and modern philosophy, with the line of demarcation appearing when the instrument itself began to be critically examined.
There is an inevitable arbitrariness about all such classifications; but some point of departure must be taken, and there was clearly a very great change in the intellectual atmosphere of Europe in the sixteenth century. Once again new questions began to be asked. Once again a new wind was blowing, and great gaps appeared in the traditional picture of the universe. And once again this revolution of ideas took place outside the sacred colleges, and was largely the work of laymen.
During the Middle Ages speculation was practically confined to the monasteries. The trail blazed by the early Ionian Materialists had not been followed. The searchlight of inquiry had been diverted from a free exploration of the universe, and for that Plato must bear some of the blame. The logical tool that Plato and Aristotle had sharpened was used by the Scholastics to give an appearance of sweet reasonableness to their utterly preposterous theological beliefs. Unfortunately it was believed that nearly everything that could be found out about the universe was known. It merely remained to deduce the consequences.
It had been a tremendous leap forward when the Greeks discovered that some problems could be solved by intelligent discussion. The Scholastics, however, blocked any further advance by remaining content with mere discussion--by using logical arguments, as Galileo protested, "like magical incantations to charm the new planets out of the sky." It was argued, for example, that a heavy substance, such as lead, must fall to the ground at a faster rate than a lighter substance, such as feathers. As everyone knows, Galileo put the matter to the test.
By appealing to experiment Galileo started a new line of inquiry. Experiments had indeed been made in the classical world, but they had been virtually forgotten. Galileo began the division between experimental and speculative philosophy which issued in modern science. Almost at a stroke, philosophy seemed to lose half its kingdom; but we must remember that it had sought to embrace the whole universe, visible and invisible.
Modern philosophy really dates from this severance. No longer required to show the way in which the visible universe worked, it was driven to search for other riddles. It did not have to look far. The problems of the visible universe were left to Galileo, Kepler, Newton, and their successors; philosophers looked inside themselves, at their own minds. In doing so they were picking up the thread spun nearly 2,000 years earlier at Ephesus, when Heraclitus declared, "I searched myself."
Thus Descartes asked what knowledge man possessed with unshakable certitude, and he made his famous reply --- Cogito, ergo sum: I think, therefore I am.
Bold innovator though he was in some respects, Descartes could not disentangle himself from medievalism. Both he and Leibnitz asked their questions under the watchful eye of the theologian, and they had to make room in their systems for the existence of God and the immorality of the soul.
Locke is in some ways a more truly representative pioneer of what may be called modern philosophy. Locked asked questions that are still pertinent. Locke's questions led to Berkeley's, and such a vigorous opponent as Lenin has expressed the opinion -- endorsed by Bertrand Russell -- that no really new defense of the theory of Subjective Idealism has improved on the arguments of Berkeley.
Berkeley's views gave rise to the skepticism of Hume, who is still such a living force that he is the acknowledged inspiration of the most recent school of philosophy, Logical Positivism. Hume's skepticism so disturbed Kant that a very great deal of Kant's philosophy is an attempt to answer it. After Kant came Hegel, who attempted to answer everyone's's questions at once by claiming to frame a universal philosophy which embraced all that had gone before it. But Hegel was not the end; the most vigorous off shoot of Hegel was Dialectical Materialism,the official philosophy of the Soviet Union. This brings us right into the contemporary world -- and still the philosophers are finding new questions to ask.
HOW PHILOSOPHY PROGRESSES
Philosophy is unique in that its progress can be measured by the kind of questions it asks rather than by the success of its answers. It would be an over-statement to say that the answers do not greatly matter, but obviously they lack the immediate importance of the answers of the scientist. If we look merely at the answers we are confronted by a bewildering variety of theories, and with so little common agreement that the whole subject may seem a futile waste of time. Many histories of philosophy set these theories side by side, like so many wares on a shop counter, and the student may be excused for feeling "you pay your money and take your choice."
Such an approach is, I am convinced, profoundly misleading. It is quite wrong to suppose that a history of philosophy resembles a vast Brain Trust, and that the student must sit back and listen to the opinions of Plato, Descartes, Locke, Kant, and so on, just as though they were being enunciated for the first time and could be judged on their individual merits. This is not history at all, for it leaves out of consideration the passage of time and the change of circumstances.
Philosophers do not live in a timeless vacuum. They see their problems in the perspective of the age to which they belong. The philosophers of the past,no matter how brilliant their intellects, were limited by the
knowledge and vocabulary available. What would be the use of discussing infinity with Zeno if he had to remain ignorant of the mathematics which has solved the paradoxes he propounded? Or, for that matter,how could we usefully discuss absolute space and time with Kant, if no reference could be made to relativity physics?
It is something of an affectation for a modern man to call himself a Platonist or an Aristotelian. The answers that Plato and Aristotle gave may have been the best possible in their day, but the experience that has since accumulated cannot be ignored. We cannot fail to find stimulating suggestions abounding in any of the philosophies of the past,but we must make very big reservations. The most profitable course is surely to note how each philosopher, from Thales onward, propounded some new question, found some fresh twist in argument; and then we can follow the fortunes of the original idea as it is passed down the ages, like a ball, from inquirer to inquirer.
This means that today we have a great advantage. We can tap the experience of centuries. We not only know, for example, what Locke asked, but what Berkeley thought of it, what became of the question when it passed through the furnace of subsequent minds, such as Hume's and Kant's. It is purged of much dross in this historical process. There are flaws in many of the arguments that we would not have noticed ourselves, but which in the course of time, have been revealed.
Looking very far back, we can also see--what was by no means evident at the time-that philosophy emerged from a background of religion. Just as religion itself, when it emerged from animistic magic, retained some of the conceptions of the lower level, so philosophy retained certain religious conceptions. It was some time before the cutting-power of of Reason was properly appreciated. The instinct of the early philosophers was to set up
a system as dogmatic, in its way, as a religious cosmology. As Professor Cornford writes: "The charm of the early Greek philosophers lies in the fact that, to a large extent, they did not trouble to invent bad arguments at all, but simply stated their beliefs dogmatically. They produced a system as an artist produces a work of art. Their attitude was, `That is how the world is to be'; and the system itself, as distinct from any argument that may be constructed to buttress the fabric, is thrown out, like a statue or a poem, as the expression of some thought or emotion that lies within and will have utterance." (From Religion to Philosophy.)
This oracular method was pursued by many great philosophers. They constructed vast and complicated systems which only rivaled the religious accounts but made the science of the day seem very piecemeal and humdrum in comparison. These systems were claimed to be deductions from principles that were supposed to be self-evident. Consequently they seemed to offer a royal road to knowledge quite independent of the trial - and - error methods of science. They now litter the historical route of philosophical inquiry like the bones of extinct mammoths, and it seems improbable that we shall see many more such attempts.
This kind of philosophy is sometimes called "Metaphysics," and it was doomed when science took over the study of the working universe. The test of time has shown that it could not compete with the experimental armchair. Nevertheless there are highly important studies that undoubtedly can be conducted from an armchair. Mathematics is one of them; philosophy, as it is widely understood today, is another.
THE MODERN PROBLEM
How is philosophy generally understood today? What shift of meaning has occurred in our use of the word? To answer this question adequately we must trace the adventures through history of those ideas thrown out by past philosophers. We shall see, I think, that progress has been made, albeit of an unusual and unexpected kind. We shall see that the principal gain has been framing clearer and more subtle questions and so increasing our understanding of what we are actually doing.
Subtle as the questions are, the subject matter is close at hand. We need not leave our armchairs to study it. We need not make philosophy our profession. Some of its finest achievements have been due to the brilliant amateur. It started its career as a series of speculations made by intelligent laymen in their spare time; it was continued by slaves, soldiers, and statesmen, and at least as important work has been done by those who had some other means of livelihood--by doctors, opticians, school masters, and civil servants-as by the professionals.
It would be absurd for an amateur to express an opinion on, say, the Quantunm Theory; but it is still possible for an amateur philosopher to say something of importance. Professional scientists often say very important things in their capacity as amateur philosophers; but they often say foolish things, as Susan Stebbing showed in Philosophy and the Physicists. To defend the amateur philosopher does not mean that anybody can sit down at any moment and say something worthwhile about philosophy. Referring to Eddington, for example, Dr. Stebbing comments: "His lack of philosophical training (which I deduce from his writings, not from any private information as to his reading list) has made it possible for him to slip into pitfalls that he might otherwise have learnt to avoid."
Many who rush so eagerly into the fray have not troubled to consider how the questions that move them so deeply have been dealt with in the past. Without knowing it, they have used arguments that were long ago exposed as fallacious, and they ask questions that have long been improved upon by careful amendments. To ignore the rich legacy of the past is surely presumptuous. The merchants of Miletus who pondered about the constitution of the universe several thousand years ago looked on much the same universe as we ourselves do; their senses gave them the same data, their minds were at least as keen as the best modern minds. But they started with a blank page. There was no "reading list" to help them, not merely to solve their problems, but to restate them in such a form that they were capable of solution.
Some of the problems which baffled philosophers in the past have been partly, if not entirely solved. They have been taken over by the scientist. But the advance of science has disclosed fresh problems; hence the spectacle of modern physicists turning their attention to philosophy instead of scorning it, as some of their predecessors were once tempted to do, because of the apparent paucity of results. They have turned to philosophy because it has now learnt to formulate more accurately questions that are of fundamental significance. When, in the seventeenth century, philosophy and science separated, the one turning to the analysis of experience, the other to physical experiment, the way was made clear for a new problem to take shape.
If anyone asks, therefore, what sort of questions philosophers are trying to answer today, a brief reply would be that they are mainly concerned with the terms in which we express what we experience. This should not be taken to imply that modern philosophy is necessarily subjective. Some, indeed, maintain that what we experience only exists in the mind; others would deny it, though they might still be content to call what they analyze, Experience. The problem is to state what is meant by such terms as Experience, Mind, and Existing.
For Bertrand Russell, modern philosophy is neither metaphysical nor subjective. He writes: "It has been generally regarded as the business of philosophy to prove the great truths of religion. The new realism does not profess to be able to prove them, or even to disprove them. It aims only at clarifying the fundamental ideas of the sciences, and synthesizing the different sciences in a single comprehensive view of that fragment of the world that science has succeeded in exploring. It does not know what lies beyond; it possesses no talisman for transforming ignorance into knowledge. It offers intellectual delights to those who value them, but it does not attempt to flatter human conceit as most philosophies do. If it is dry and technical, it lays the blame on the universe, which has chosen to work in a mathematical way rather than as poets or mystics might have desired." (Skeptical Essays).
Whitehead has more sympathy with metaphysics, but he is opposed to the subjective view, although he is satisfied to speak of making an analysis in terms of Experience. "Speculative philosophy," he writes, "is the endeavor to frame a coherent, logical, necessary system of general ideas in terms of which every element of our experience can be interpreted." And to make this clearer, he continues: "Every science must devise its own instruments. The tool required for philosophy is language. Thus philosophy re-designs language in the same way that, in a physical science, preexisting appliances are re-designed." (Process and Reality)
It took many centuries of hard thinking before the realization dawned that words were not eternally fixed things, that they could be thrown on the scrap heap and new words minted, that some apparently insoluble problems were due to difficulties of expression, that the accident of the grammatical form of a particular language itself created artificial problems that were unconnected with the subject under consideration. Today the philosopher is confronted by his experiences-or, if you prefer to call it so, the Given-and he is free to make up any words he pleases, to invent whatever categories he finds convenient, in order to sort out these experiences and classify them. He himself, for example, makes the class which he calls Illusion; and he makes another class which he calls Reality. There is no limit to the number of concepts he can construct-Matter, Mind, Life, Substance, Events, Cause, Law, etcs.
But I am anticipating. The whole story cannot be told yet. For the moment I merely wish to draw attention to an important difference between modern and ancient philosophy. That the modern attitude was latent in by gone controversies-Nominalism, for example-is, of course, true enough; but the view that language is a tool of the interpretation of experience, and that the tool can be re-designed, is wholly new in its thorough-going application. Science, religion, literature, and even philosophy itself, must be expressed in language; and so the criticism of language, because it is a criticism of the very instrument of thought, is fundamental.
"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less."
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean different things."
Broadly speaking we can say that, for most ancient and medieval philosophers, words were the master; and this is what one would expect to find in a view of the historical emergence of philosophy from religion, with its quasi-magical attitude toward names. For most modern philosophers words are instruments, and although this attitude is held by widely divergent schools, it is one of the positive gains that have accrued from centuries of disputation.
To understand its importance, however, we must first study what has led up to it. No one, however gifted, can open a book by a contemporary philosopher and understand what he reads without any previous acquaintance with the history of philosophy. No one ignorant of the great controversies of the past could understand the simple quotations I have taken from Russell and Whitehead. The English is clear enough, but the dictionary meaning of the terms tells us nothing of their associations and the battles fought over them. For example, what is meant by Realism? What is meant by Subjective, Objective, Coherent, Necessary, Interpretation?
The Ionians would not have understood what was meant by re-designing language in order to interpret experience -devising a sort of net of abstract terms in which to fish among the chaos of the Given and arrange the catch in same kind of order. Nor can we ourselves understand what is meant by such a statement unless we know something of the process that the Ionians started and which gradually led up to the modern situation.
Our journey will take us far back into history, and we shall follow the progress of ideas along their tortuous routes; we shall run into culs-de-sac and often have to retrace our steps; but all the time we shall be witnessing the most fascinating adventure of the human spirit as its consciousness deepens and it becomes aware of its own creative power. Such a journey, among the best thoughts of the best minds, is surely worth while if only for the intellectual delight it gives. It should help us to clarify our own ideas and think a little more correctly; and it should make us humble when we see how blind even great men can be, and tolerant as we realize what differing views of the universe it is possible to entertain.
From: An Adventure in Ideas: Philosophy For Pleasure by Hector Hawton.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION: These are to be answered from the context of this reading, but also your own thought and speculation should be included as you consider these questions.
1. What was the basic reason for the emergence of Philosophy? How were the Greeks of Sixth Century Asia Minor different from those people who had come before them.
2. What is the relationship of philosophy to science and science to philosophy? In what context should philosophy be viewed as it progresses? In another sense, what is the difficulty in attempting to define what is philosophy?
3. What is the importance of history and language to the understanding of philosophy? What then may possibly be the chief goals, aim, or purpose of philosophy?