Philosophy: introduction

“Freedom begins between the ears” – Edward Abbey

What is philosophy?

Philosophy is a difficult topic to define, but here are a few attempts – it’s:

  • the love of wisdom
  • the investigation of ideas
  • the opposite of small talk
  • examining life (Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living)
  • thinking critically
  • a tool for defining purpose – trying to work out what we’re here for
  • combining intelligence, imagination and values; imagination produces ideas that can be judged by our intelligence and values
  • using the most complex thing we’ve discovered anywhere (until now) – the human brain
Thales of Miletus, 624-547BCE: the first person to reject myths as a way of explaining existence

Thales of Miletus, 624-547BCE: the first person to reject myths as a way of explaining existence.

For a more technical definition see Wikipedia.

Philosophy is something that, on this planet at least, only humans can do. Other species excel at different things – birds fly; fish swim; cheetahs are excellent sprinters; hunting dogs are good at distance running. But philosophy is a very human activity.

It’s about stepping back to see the bigger picture. It’s not about the everyday – work, family, socialising, small talk. It’s about the nature of existence, and our place in it – right back to basics. Philosophy asks the ‘why’ questions – it looks for meaning. It’s not about facts or knowledge (although they can be used in its service); it’s about wisdom.

Gautama Buddha, 563-483BCE: each individual has to strive to understand the nature of the universe

Gautama Buddha, 563-483BCE: each individual has to strive to understand the nature of the universe.

There are lots of different -isms within philosophy, but you don’t have to subscribe to any of them. Philosophy is about exploring, with a child’s sense of amazement. Children ask the most profound philosophical questions, like ‘but if God made everything, who made God?’ Try to answer that one and suddenly you’re in at the deep end of metaphysics, the branch of philosophy that looks at existence. It’s speculative, and parts of it slowly turn into physics, but we’ve hardly begun. Metaphysics gives us options that can be explored in different ways, including scientifically.

Another very common question that children ask is ‘how do they know that?’ Indeed – how do they? That’s epistemology, the branch of philosophy dealing with knowledge and the nature of evidence. And the classic ‘why do I have to do it?’ and you’re into explaining ethics to them – the human questions, the ‘how shall we be and what shall we do?’, that Tolstoy claimed is the most important question for humans.

Socrates, 469-399BCE: moved the focus of philosophy from nature to humans and ethics

Socrates, 469-399BCE: moved the focus of philosophy from nature to humans and ethics.

Thales started it all around 600BC (before the Buddha, Confucius or Lao Tzu) in Asia Minor, when he became the first person we know of to say ‘I refuse to accept a mythical explanation of existence any more’. He wanted to use his brain to try to work out what the universe (i.e. everything) is and how to live in it. At least some humans have been doing that ever since. But when it comes to understanding the universe, has science taken over from philosophy? No, because science can’t tell us anything about values. Science answers the ‘how’ questions, not the ‘why’ questions. Philosophy isn’t about making scientific discoveries, it’s about deciding what to do with those discoveries.

Where are women in the history of philosophy? As with other subjects, they were mostly kept out by men until the late 20th century. The future of philosophy will be more female, which can only be a good thing. The more perspectives as regards gender, race, profession, age and religious, political or sexual orientation the better. A philosophical heritage built by old, white males is a limited one.

Here is the first of our 15-part brief history of philosophy. Further parts can be found in the right-hand column.

Plato, 428-348BCE: there is a heavenly realm of pure forms; plus, our leaders must become philosophers or philosophers must become our leaders

Plato, 428-348BCE: there is a heavenly realm of pure forms; plus, our leaders must become philosophers or philosophers must become our leaders.

What are the benefits of philosophy?

  • it’s good for you – you can learn a lot, increase your understanding, hone your mental powers, discover things that can help in real-life situations and it’s an antidote to the the mind-numbing superficiality of mass culture
  • it generates new ideas – and we certainly need them. There are some big problems looming, concerning ecology, conflict, artificial intelligence, cloning and nanotechnology to name just a few. For these kinds of issues, the best and possibly only way to come to good decisions is via philosophical debate, and really, philosophers need to be leading those debates, not the people who are actually leading them – business people, financiers, politicians and the military
Aristotle, 384-322BCE: moved the focus back to nature, but with observation and logic rather than speculation

Aristotle, 384-322BCE: moved the focus back to nature, but with observation and logic rather than speculation.

  • make no mistake, philosophy can influence the real world; the two major powers of the twentieth century, the US and the Soviet Union, were based on the thinking of Paine and Marx, who were influenced in turn by philosophers who came before them in a thread leading back to Thales
  • as Foucault said, only philosophy can expose the power structures that are used to control us, and come up with structures that reduce the risk of domination and exploitation
  • the philosophical approach is the perfect balance between the obsession with materialistic idiocy that blights our world today, and the reversion to magical thinking that many seem to believe is the appropriate response to it
Plotinus, 205-270: revived Plato - focus on the spiritual rather than the material world

Plotinus, 205-270: revived the ideas of Plato – focusing on the spiritual rather than the material world.

What can I do?

We can all ‘do’ philosophy in our everyday life. It’s about thinking, and we can all do that. Give yourself some mental space to have the peace of mind to be able to think. Learn to question everything. Try to make sense of existence by approaching it like a child. Be curious, open, keep asking why.

Augustine, 354-430: reconciled Christianity with Plato's world of forms

Augustine, 354-430: reconciled Christianity with Plato’s world of forms.

Metaphysics: speculate on the nature of existence and question the validity of metaphysical speculation. Beware of cults or gurus. Good philosophy isn’t dogmatic. Be your own guru. Remember that metaphysics is speculative and imaginative, but that’s fine – Einstein‘s genius wasn’t in his technical ability, but in his imagination. There have been many, many technically gifted scientists, but only one Einstein.

Averroes, 1126-1198: reconciled Aristotle's logic with Islam (one truth and two paths to it - philosophy and religion). Influenced Aquinas to do the same for Christianity

Averroes, 1126-1198: reconciled Aristotle’s logic with Islam (one truth and two paths to it – philosophy and religion). Influenced Aquinas to do the same for Christianity.

Ethics: check how we’re doing. Are we OK? How many of us are OK? What course of action shall we take? Question whether our economic, social and political structures are the best we can come up with for the future of our species, or whether they should be tweaked or changed completely.

René Descartes, 1596-1650: back to basics - I think, therefore I am

René Descartes, 1596-1650: back to basics – I think, therefore I am.

Epistemology: question extraordinary claims – extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, as Christopher Hitchens was fond of saying.

Mary Wollstonecraft, 1759-1797: the beginnings of feminist philosophy

Mary Wollstonecraft, 1759-1797: the beginnings of feminist philosophy.

It’s not a bad thing to know a bit of history, linguistics, science, maths, psychology, religion, politics, law – they all feed into and are fed by philosophy. But you don’t need to have read a lot of philosophy books – in fact you don’t have to be able to read at all – it’s about what you think. Having said that, reading the thoughts of some of the world’s greatest philosophers is entertaining and inspiring – you don’t have to share their opinions. So on balance, we’d recommend it if you have the time and the inclination. Here are some general and introductory books, after which you can search for the works of individual philosophers who inspire you.

Friedrich Nietzsche, 1844-1900: whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster

Friedrich Nietzsche, 1844-1900: whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.

It’s probably good to keep a balance, in a yin/yang, left-brain/right-brain (if you like) sort of way. A purely rational philosophy could lead to our tying ourselves up in ever-more complex logic, irrelevant to the everyday world; and a purely imaginative philosophy could lead to conspiracy theories, religious fundamentalism, flights of fancy and pseudo-science. Maybe the most fruitful route is to try to balance rationality and imagination.

Michel Foucault, 1926-1984: philosophy is important in exposing power structures that attempt to control us, and in thinking of new ones that don't

Michel Foucault, 1926-1984: philosophy is important in exposing power structures that attempt to control us, and in thinking of new ones that don’t.

Talk to other people. We need small talk to lubricate social interaction – but don’t think that that’s all people want. Often people crave ‘big talk’. But remember:

  • be polite – people may not share your philosophy. Big talk can lead to a ‘spirited’ discussion very quickly. Using ‘maybe’ or ‘I wonder’ can be useful
  • it’s not about proselytising or trying to score points or showing how clever you are. If someone objects to your ideas, don’t take it as a personal affront – take it as an opportunity to explore, learn and grow
  • absolute certainty is beyond humans. We can only be certain that we know anything when we know everything, and that requires a god-like quality that humans just don’t have. But we can use our imagination and our rationality to place ourselves in the universe, to analyse humanity and to choose the direction we move in
  • some people may consider you immature because you question received wisdom or the status quo. But it’s not immature – dominant ideas and social systems change; they always have and they probably always will. Things are the way they are for a reason, but it may not be a good reason, and they don’t have to stay that way
  • some people are just not good philosophers, and they may become angry if their assumptions are challenged. With these people it’s probably best just to smile and change the subject
Slavoj Žižek, 1949-: I secretly think that reality exists so that we can speculate about it.

Slavoj Žižek, 1949-: I secretly think that reality exists so that we can speculate about it.

If you want to get into more serious philosophy, it may be a good idea to gain a basic understanding of:

  1. where we are; to know what solar systems and galaxies are, to have a vague idea of how many there are, as well as science’s current best guesses about the provenance and destination of our universe

  2. the take-home messages of the world’s major religions – because those messages have been very important in guiding our thinking to this point in history

  3. how the world works – where real power lies, and what you think about that

After that, you just need intelligence, curiosity and an open mind. Good philosophy requires a certain amount of intelligence, but an intelligence that includes imagination and values. Humans have values, machines don’t. Ideas are conjured (for want of a better word, currently) by the imagination, and then judged using our values. Can an artificial intelligence ever do that? Today’s machines can’t, but we can’t really predict what’s coming, any more than people 100 years ago could have predicted the internet.


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