The Nature of Philosophy

Introduction

The topic of philosophy has intimidated many throughout modern history.  Many believe that it is reserved for the intellectually superior; that it is a discipline studied by a club of exclusive members of academia, with little or no practical value to the general masses or everyday life.  In reality, many people simply do not know what philosophy is and how it applies to them.

The purpose of this article is to define and explain philosophy.  It will also discuss some of the main issues of philosophy and the questions that it seeks to answer.

Philosophy

God made man with intellect.  Because of this intellect man is inquisitive. He has a desire to know and understand.  Philosophy is the natural outworking of that God given desire.  It is the analysis of fundamental concepts of human inquiry.  Philosophy provides a description about how humans do, as well as how they ought to function.[1] Traditionally, philosophy looks at the underlying principles of art, morality, religion, or the physical universe and then attempt to provide an outlook on life based upon the discovery of broad and fundamental principles.[2]   It involves the rational reflection on things we already know and seeks to take our understanding of empirical or scientific data and develop a fundamental understanding that brings them together.  It attempts to look past individual instances of discovery, toward a broader understanding and ask questions such as “what are the underlying principles that tie all of these instances together?”

There are two major approaches to philosophy, analytical philosophy and speculative philosophy.  Analytical philosophy is primarily concerned with concepts and defining terms.  Before one can find the underlying connection between the general and the specific, the terms themselves first need to be defined.  For instance, when we talk about reality, we need to understand first what is meant by reality before we can begin an investigation into what is ultimately real.  Analytical philosophy is concerned with analyzing the foundations of knowledge.  On the other hand, speculative philosophy is more concerned with weaving together the concepts from analytical philosophy and forming a system of reality.  It attempts to formulate a cohesive system of religious, moral, and aesthetic values.[3]  Both approaches work together and are even necessary.  Once we understand the concepts, then we can apply them to a philosophical system.  As an example, we must first understand concepts such as “good” before we can pursue a philosophical system aimed at the good of humanity.

Philosophy is not relegated to those brilliant intellectuals who do nothing but sit around and contemplate the nature of things.  It also has practical uses; it helps us to determine guidance from existing principles.  For instance, God is both moral and rational and His commands are not the result of arbitrary will.  Scripture does not give specific guidance for all of our actions.  Philosophy can be very useful in this instance. [4]  Since we know that there are underlying principles by which God acts, we can discover these through the aid of contemplation and systemization inherent in philosophy.  Furthermore, God is truth and all truth is God’s truth.  And since the goal of philosophy is to discover truth, it should inevitably bring us closer to understanding God and His creation.[5]

Philosophy also serves to liberate us from faulty reasoning.  Logic is a discipline within philosophy, and it is through logic that we are able to identify valid and invalid arguments.  It gives us the ability to apply rules and test certain assertions, allowing us all to better understand, accept, and reject faulty ideologies.

The main questions that philosophy deals with are ethics, political philosophy, aesthetics, logic, metaphysics, and epistemology.  Ethics deals with the principles of conduct.  Political Philosophy deals with how human beings can live in an orderly society.  Aesthetics deals with the nature of beauty.  Logic, as already mentioned, deals with arguments: whether they are valid or invalid and how to recognize and avoid faulty reasoning.  Metaphysics deals with the question of reality.  What is reality and what does it mean to exist:  in fact what is existence itself?  Finally, epistemology is that branch of philosophy which deals with knowledge and asks such questions as how do we know, or can we know.

Metaphysics

Metaphysics is a major discipline within philosophy and deals with the questions of reality.  It seeks to discover what is real.  How can we differentiate something that is real from something that is not? Something may only appear to be real and turn out to be an illusion, like the mirage of an oasis in the desert caused by the hot rays of the sun.  So what is the nature of reality?  What is the nature of man?  These two arguments have been the topic of metaphysics for thousands of years.

When dealing with the nature of reality, one of the main arguments that metaphysicians have dealt with in this area is the notion of the one and the many.  Is all of reality one or many?  If it is one, then how can we account for the many objects we see around us?  If there are many, then how can we account for the appearance of unity that is shared by all objects?  Although we see many distinct objects, is there something that they all have in common?  Is there some common element through which objects receive their identity?  What gives something its identity in the first place?  Is identity based on its material makeup?  Is what makes Frank a person his physical makeup?  If this is the case then what happens when Frank gains or looses weight?  His physical makeup has changed but isn’t it still Frank?  All of our cells die and are replaced every seven years. Yet are we not the same person today that we were seven years ago?  What then makes us who we are?  What are we that transcend all of the changes we undergo?  Early philosophers speculated that this common element was water, or air, or fire, or even a combination of the three.  Clearly we are more than our physical attributes because these attributes change.  You may have less hair today than five years ago.  Yet there is something more than cells, more than our physical characteristics that make us who we are.

Monism is the belief that all of reality is one.  In this system, individual objects are merely illusions-a construct of our mind.  Change is an illusion as well.[6]  Pluralists, on the otherhand, contend that reality is indeed many.  The many different objects we see around us are indeed separate entities.  Different pluralist have proposed varying theories of how there is unity in the diversity of objects.  Atomist believed that reality is made of little pellets of matter of which everything else is composed.  In Platonism, everything can be differentiated from everything else by determining what the thing is not.  For instance, we know a chair because we know that it is not a desk, rock, or anything else for that matter.  Aquinas argued for unity within diversity within being itself.  In this view, God is being, and everything else simply has being.[7]

Another question metaphysics tries to answer is what is the relationship between the mind and the body?  Do both exist?  If so, then what is the relationship between them?  Various perspectives have been proposed over the centuries.  In Materialism, there is no such thing as the soul (mind).  Only the body exists.  In Epiphenomenalism, the mind is simply a by product of matter.  In Idealism, the body does not exist.  Only the mind exists and the body is only an illusion.  In Monism, the soul (mind) and body are two sides of the same thing. The inner is the soul (mind) and the outer is the body.  In Dualism, the soul (mind) and body exists as two separate entities, unaware of each other.  In Interactionism, the soul (mind) and body are two separate substances; the soul intellectual and nontemporal, while the body is temporal and nonintellectual.  In Occasionalism, the rational soul (mind) relates to be body by divine interaction.  In the case of sensory perception, God causes ideas in the mind. In Pre-Established Harmony, the soul and body are synchronized by God and not directly aware of each other.  In Hylomorphism, there is a body/soul unity.  It is the soul that animates the body and gives it life.

Metaphysics is important because it gives us a comprehensible view of the world.  It allows us to determine and understand reality and our relation to reality.

Epistemology

Another major subdivision of philosophy is epistemology which is the study of human knowledge.  Epistemology is concerned with discovering a sure guide to truth.  But what is knowledge?  What is truth?  Each of these questions deserves an answer before we discuss epistemology. So we will first start by defining what we mean by knowledge and truth.

What is truth?  Simply put, truth is that which correspondence to reality.  Truth is the way things really are.

What is knowledge? There are three types of knowledge: knowledge by acquaintance, competence knowledge, and propositional knowledge.  First, we have knowledge by acquaintance.  This is the type of knowledge that requires the direct experience of a person such as “I know the designer of my car.”  Second, there is competence knowledge.  It involves a skill and actually knowing how to do something such as “I know how to drive.”  And finally, we have propositional knowledge.  This type of knowledge is concerned with a statement of fact that does not require direct acquaintance or acquiring a skill such as “I know that my car was manufactured in Detroit Michigan.”  Epistemology is primarily concerned with propositional knowledge.[8]

Now that we know what truth and knowledge are, how do we develop knowledge about this truth?  In fact, can we actually know anything, and if we can, how?  These are two of the major topics with which epistemology is concerned.

First, can we actually know anything?  We’ve all been in a situation where we were completely confident of a certain fact only to find out later that we were wrong.  Then how can we know for certain that anything that we claim to know won’t someday be proven wrong?  Can we truly claim to actually, truly, and emphatically know anything?  Maybe everything that we believe is wrong.  Maybe we don’t even exist.  Maybe we live in some type of Matrix like world where all of our knowledge, experiences, and memories are feed to us externally.  Maybe at this moment you are only dreaming and the experiences that you have when you sleep are in fact real.  Is there any way to be absolutely certain that this is not the case?  Although you may be pretty certain that you are a real person, sitting in a real chair, reading this paper, can you be absolutely and positively sure?  These are the questions that philosophers have grappled with for centuries concerning knowledge.  A number of philosophers have even postulated that it is not possible to truly know anything.  Accordingly, we can never be certain, we can only speculate.  This belief is known as skepticism.

There are various types of skepticism:  there are those that believe we can have no knowledge at all; those that claim that we can only have knowledge of our immediate experiences; those that claim we can only have knowledge of certain things such as logic and mathematics; and those that believe we can know in general, and question only the claims of certain type of knowledge, such as metaphysics and theology.

Of those who believe that knowledge is indeed possible, the question then becomes how can we come to know this knowledge?  What separates opinion from true knowledge? How can we examine the source of our beliefs in order to determine if what we believe is reasonable or that it corresponds to reality?  Is it through our sense? If so, then how can we trust our senses?  For instance, how do we know that what we see and hear actually correspond to the events?  Or maybe we are to base knowledge solely on reason and reject sense perception.  On this point, there is also a variety of opinions and theories.  Of these are authoritarianism, subjectivism, rationalism, empiricism and pragmatism.

Authoritarianism is the most common source of our belief.  It is based on the testimony of others.  We believe things based upon their authority; whether that authority is another person, such as a parent, or another authority such as a news broadcast, or book.  Subjectivism states that we come to know by means of personal experience.  Whatever we personally sense and come into contact with is the source of our beliefs.  Rationalism is the theory that the source for our beliefs should be in reason alone.  Rationalism claims to be able to, through deduction, determine all of reality.  In rationalism, we cannot trust our senses or experiences because we can only know our own, internal, conscious experience; we cannot know whether there is a world external to our experience or if this world truly corresponds to our experiences.  For instance, when you see a tree, all you can really know is what your mind perceives-not what actually is.  There is no direct way for you to know, allegedly, if what you perceive and what exists is one in the same object.  Empiricism, on the other hand, is the opposite of rationalism.  It is the belief that all knowledge is based on the senses.  Knowledge is based upon what we can see, hear, smell, and feel.  And although sense experience may not be capable of absolute certainty, it is the best that we can attain.  Pragmatism takes yet a different approach to knowledge.  In this belief system, ideas that work, or are successful are true; those that do not, are false.

How we know is something that we take for granted.  It is something that most of us never ponder, yet the process by which we come to know can have profound effects on whether we actually do know.

Conclusion

As demonstrated, Philosophy is not relegated to the halls of academia.  All of the questions that philosophers attempt to answer are questions that each one of us ponder, although probably not to the same extent.  We all use logic.  We’ve all wondered about the meaning of life and reality.  Philosophers have simply tried to systemize their understanding in order to make sense of it.  In some respect, we are all philosophers.

 

Notes

[1]Norman L. Geisler and Paul D. Feinberg, Introduction to Philosophy: A Christian Perspective [electronic ed] (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980), 17.

[2]David Stewart and H. Gene Blocker, Fundamentals of Philosophy, 3d ed. (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1992), 4.

[3]Geisler, 16.

[4]Ibid., 21.

[5]Ibid., 22.

[6]Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy, vol. 1, Greece and Rome (New York: Doubleday, 1962), 48.

[7] Geisler, 171.

[8]William F. Lawhead, The Philosophical Journey: An Interactive Approach (Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company,2000), 64.