What is philosophy?

catedral metropolitana de buenos aires

Informative and indispensable, interesting but unnecessary, complex and useless; many and varied are the opinions concerning philosophy and its role in our daily lives. This is, perhaps, due to the difficulty we have in understanding just what philosophy is. In any case, with a little reflection we learn that aspects of philosophy are everywhere shaping our daily lives, and, as such, that philosophy really is essential. But why? And for what?

Having your eyes closed without ever attempting to open them; such is living without philosophizing [1]. – Descartes

The word “philosophy” is of Greek origin and means “love of wisdom”, and a philosopher is, first and foremost, someone who loves understanding. With this we can already make an interesting observation: everyone has been a philosopher in at least one point of their lives. No exceptions. This is because everyone was a child once, and the curiosity that is typical of children, and their admiration of the unknown, are the most genuine expressions of philosophy [2]. A philosopher is someone who, in maintaining the curiosity and admiration from his or her childhood, does not conform to the worldview that is imposed by society and refuses to adapt to the realities formed by it.

Though some say they oppose philosophy, it would be difficult to find someone who claims to be opposed to wisdom and understanding and in favour of ignorance instead. Regardless of how misguided a person might be, even the most thoughtless individual has his or her opinions – and convictions! – about what is right and what is wrong, what is true and what is false. This means that in one way or another we all believe ourselves to be philosophers. Descartes’ quote cited above leads us to this same conclusion, for it would be difficult to find someone who lives with their eyes closed, as it were, and is aware of it – someone who lives consciously without philosophizing. Or do you believe your eyes are closed even now, as you look at the computer screen?

Philosophy for what?

Philosophy allows us to see beyond the reality formed by our prejudices and preconceptions so that we may recognize that there are more possibilities than can readily be seen. For instance, if on the one hand society tells us that everything is possible, that with effort and hard work we can realize our dreams and achieve quality of life, on the other it does everything it can to limit our options and instrumentalize us for its own use. In theory, any dedicated person who truly wants to is able to attend a good school, learn another language, have a meaningful job and travel to exotic locations, regardless of their colour, gender or social class. In practice, our options are limited by these dispositions and countless other biopsychosocial factors [3].

What are the chances that a twenty-something year old will go to medical school if both of her parents are successful doctors? What if her mother is a waitress and her father a manual labourer? What if she was born in a poor African village, thousands of kilometers away from the nearest university? What if she was born in New York, but has a physical or mental disability? What is the likelihood that the way of life imposed on each of these individuals is compatible with their interests and capabilities?

Notice that none of these factors are under our control. We don’t choose our parents’ professions or the place where we are born, much less our physical and mental disposition for a particular activity. And yet, these factors significantly shape our lives, regardless of our capabilities and volitions. In any case, what about these capabilities and volitions, which often determine our actions and attitudes more than anything else, do we choose them?

“When an inner situation is not made conscious, it appears outside as fate” [4]. Factors beyond our control will always define our lives, but only to the extent that we allow them to do so. Philosophy lets us change our vision by becoming aware of these factors. The more we expose the mechanisms behind our actions, the less power they have to determine our lives and the more choices we are able to make. It’s no wonder that, historically, philosophy has been banned from public education and philosophers considered to be threatening by those in power. Philosophy kills complacency.

Why philosophy?

To philosophize is to seek understanding by reason, to analyse the fundamental aspects of existence that shape our lives. This is because philosophy is the critical investigation of causes and conditions, and causes and conditions are never as simple as we first imagine. Philosophy, unlike religion, rejects the infallibility of any source of information, like arguments from authority (so and so said so, so it’s true), arguments from faith (I believe it, so it’s true), and other fallacies [5]. Philosophy, like science, proceeds with rational arguments, and its truths are always open to refutation.

Why are things the way they are and not some other way? Behind each and every philosophical investigation is this question, which, because of its breadth, can – and should! – be approached from different perspectives and in different ways. For this reason, philosophy draws on various branches of knowledge, from mathematics and physics to biology and psychology to everything in between. Philosophy finds itself at the intersection of all other fields of study because it was philosophy that first gave rise to them. And though philosophers famously claim to know nothing, they are interested in everything.

When we acknowledge our lack of understanding with regards to some subject matter we feel the need to learn. Unfortunately, only rarely do we recognize that we don’t know or don’t understand something. As the Stoic philosopher Epictetus pointed out, “it is impossible for anyone to begin to learn that which he thinks he already knows”, and so we need to doubt everything, even our own knowledge. It is this that led Socrates, one of the founders of Western philosophy, to declare “all I know is that I know nothing” and to question everything from there. Or maybe he questioned everything until he knew that he knew nothing. I don’t know. But the more we question, the more we (un)learn, and the more philosophy opens our eyes.

Analytic philosophy: an observation

It’s true that, at times, philosophy is broad and abstract, but that doesn’t mean that just anything goes – quite the contrary. Philosophy seeks to explain, to clarify ideas, to define terms and to make distinctions through conceptual analysis, and always constrained by the norms of critical reasoning,  by the rules of logic (of different logical systems) and by empirical facts. More specifically, these are the characteristics of a style of contemporary philosophy known as “analytic philosophy”, developed in English-speaking countries in the twentieth century. Analytic philosophy is different, for instance, from philosophical traditions originating in Europe termed by analytic philosophers as “continental philosophy”.

While this might be a significant distinction in academia, it is unnecessary for the purposes of Conditioned Things. That’s because the main objective of the blog, as well as one of the main objectives of philosophy regardless of tradition, is to identify the presuppositions that form our worldview so that our perceptions may no longer be based on prejudices, whether they come from our childhood, our customs, or even our language. Only then can we arrive at reasonable conclusions that will allow our perspective to better reflect the nature of reality.

[1] Free translation of the beautiful phrase by the French philosopher: “C’est proprement avoir les yeux ferméssans tâcher jamais de les ouvrir, que de vivre sans philosopher”.

[2] Plato, one of the founders of Western philosophy, said: “wonder is the feeling of a philosopher, and philosophy begins in wonder”. And according to Aristotle, a student of Plato: “it was their wonder, astonishment, that first led men to philosophize and still leads them”.

[3] Factors that are not biological or psychological or social, but biological and psychological and social.

[4] An ingenious observation by the founder of analytic psychology Carl Jung.

[5] In philosophy, a fallacy is a pattern of reasoning that is incorrect because its logical structure is flawed or invalid, which is not to say that it is not persuasive. (In fact, rhetoric, used by politicians, religious leaders and others, is the art of persuasive communication, regardless of the validity of what is being communicated).

Bruno Vompean

Bruno Vompean

Many minds think inside my own and I am always wandering: in here or out there. I take pleasure in the details and enjoy the little things. I also take pleasure in challenging worldviews, deconstructing paradigms so that we may transcend to new realities. I’m a philosopher, and there’s nothing I can do about it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Read more

Philosopher’s Walk (short film)

The poem “There is ample metaphysics in not thinking at all” is one of the most popular by Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa. In “Philosopher’s Walk”, Conditioned