What Philosophy Is

"Any clever man may sometimes see the truth in flashes; any scientific man may put some aspect of the truth into technical words; yet all this hardly deserves the name of philosophy so long as the heart remains unabashed, and we continue to live like animals lost in the stream of our impressions, not only in the public routine and necessary cares of life, but even in our silent thoughts and affections."

-- George Santayana, "Ultimate Religion" (1932)


I. Excerpt From The Encyclopedia Of Philosophy

II. Short Article From The Columbia Encyclopedia, 1946 Edition.

III. Excerpt From Will Durant's The Story Of Philosophy

IV. A Brief Article From Durant's Website

V. Durant: "What Is Wisdom?"

VI. The Relevance Of Philosophy

VII. Philosophers On Philosophy

I. Excerpt From The Encyclopedia Of Philosophy:

"PHILOSOPHY. The Greek word sophia is ordinarily translated into English as "wisdom," and the compound philosophia, from which "philosophy" derives, is translated as "the love of wisdom." But sophia had a much wider range of application than the modern English "wisdom." Wherever intelligence can be exercised -- in practical affairs, in the mechanical arts, in business -- there is room for sophia; Homer used it to refer to the skill of a carpenter (Iliad XV, 412). Furthermore, whereas modern English draws a fairly sharp distinction between the search for wisdom and the attempt to satisfy intellectual curiosity, Herodotus used the verb philosophein in a context in which it means nothing more than the desire to find out (History I, 30). Briefly, then, philosophia etymologically connotes the love of exercising one's curiosity and intelligence rather than the love of wisdom. Although philosophers have often sought to confine the word "philosophy" within narrower boundaries, in popular usage it has never entirely lost its original breadth of meaning."

II. The Columbia Encyclopedia, 1946 Edition.

"Philosophy. To the Greeks, who coined the word, philosophy was primarily the love of wisdom. Socrates, a master of philosophers, did not profess to have wisdom or knowledge, but he sought them. His philosophy was always a quest, never a body of knowledge or doctrine. Some Greek philosophers, less modest than Socrates, taught what they believed to be truth. What they taught came to be known, like the quest for truth, as philosophy. The Greeks were not fond of definitions and did not impose sharp limitations on philosophy. It did not include manual skill or such occupational learning as that of the farmer, the sophist, the physician, or the priest. It comprised the body of disinterested learning. The word is still used in this sense in the title, doctor of philosophy.

"In the medieval university there were typically four faculties: the faculty of philosophy and the professional faculties of theology, law, and medicine. The body of disinterested learning once generally known as philosophy had been differentiated, especially in the 19th and 20th centuries. The latest branch of learning to be split off from philosophy is psychology. An earlier loss was physics, formerly called natural philosophy. What is now known as philosophy in the narrower or technical sense is a residuum of the body of learning that formerly included mathematics and the natural and social sciences. Still comprised under philosophy are various branches of learning that have not much in common and may yet be split off as distinct disciplines. These include logic, metaphysics, ethics, and aesthetics.

"The history of philosophy is largely the history of metaphysics, the science of being, or of human experience of being. Many peoples, probably all, have had their philosophies. The Chinese philosophy, associated especially with Confucius, is an honorable example. Peoples of European stock trace their philosophies back to Greece. The Greek genius for philosophy may be seen in the earliest Greek literature, as in the poems of Homer and Hesiod; but Thales of Miletus is usually considered the earliest Greek philosopher. The greatest names in Greek philosophy are Socrates, his pupil Plato, and Aristotle, Plato's pupil. It is said that still every philosopher is either a Platonist or an Aristotelian.

"There were various schools of Greek philosophy, as the Stoics and the Epicureans. The great philosophical system developed in the Middle Ages is scholasticism. Modern contributions to philosophy begin especially with Francis Bacon. Great philosophers since Bacon's time include Hobbes, Descartes, Locke, Spinoza, Leibnitz, Berkeley, Hume, Kant, J.G. Fichte, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Comte, Emerson, J.S. Mill, Herbert Spencer, Nietzsche, William James, Bergson, Dewey, and Santayana. See C.F. Lavell, A Biography of the Greek People; A.W. Benn, Ancient Philosophy and Modern Philosophy; H.O. Taylor, The Mediaeval Mind; J. Royce, The Spirit of Modern Philosophy; Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosphy."

III. Excerpt From Will Durant, The Story Of Philosophy (Introduction):

"There is a pleasure in philosophy, and a lure even in the mirages of metaphysics, which every student feels until the coarse necessities of physical existence drag him from the heights of thought into the mart of economic strife and gain. Most of us have known some golden days in the June of life when philosophy was in fact what Plato calls it, "that dear delight"; when the love of a modestly elusive Truth seemed more glorious, incomparably, than the lust for the ways of the flesh and the dross of the world. And there is always some wistful remnant in us of that early wooing of wisdom. 'Life has meaning,' we feel with Browning -- 'to find its meaning is my meat and drink.' So much of our lives is meaningless, a self-canceling vacillation and futility; we strive with the chaos about us and within; but we would believe all the while that there is something vital and significant in us, could we but decipher our own souls. We want to understand; 'life means for us constantly to transform into light and flame all that we are or meet with'; we are like Mitya in The Brothers Karamazov -- 'one of those who don't want millions, but an answer to their questions'; we want to seize the value and perspective of passing things, and so to pull ourselves up out of the maelstrom of daily circumstance. We want to know that the little things are little, and the big things big, before it is too late; we want to see things now as they will seem forever -- 'in the light of eternity.' We want to learn to laugh in the face of the inevitable, to smile even at the looming of death. We want to be whole, to coordinate our energies by criticizing and harmonizing our desires; for coordinated energy is the last word in ethics and politics, and perhaps in logic and metaphysics too.

"'To be a philosopher,' said Thoreau, 'is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live, according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust.' We may be sure that if we can but find wisdom, all things else will be added unto us. 'Seek ye first the good things of the mind,' Bacon admonishes us, 'and the rest will either be supplied or its loss will not be felt.' Truth will not make us rich, but it will make us free...

"Philosophy seems to stand still, perplexed; but only because she leaves the fruits of victory to her daughters the sciences, and herself passes on, divinely discontent, to the uncertain and unexplored.

"Shall we be more technical? Science is analytical description, philosophy is synthetic interpretation. Science wishes to resolve the whole into parts, the organism into organs, the obscure into the known. It does not inquire into the values and ideal possibilities of things, nor into their total and final significance; it is content to show their present actuality and operation, it narrows its gaze resolutely to the nature and process of things as they are. The scientist is as impartial as Nature in Turgenev's poem: he is as interested in the leg of a flea as in the creative throes of a genius. But the philosopher is not content to describe the fact; he wishes to ascertain its relation to experience in general, and thereby to get at its meaning and its worth; he combines things in interpretive synthesis; he tries to put together, better than before, that great universe-watch which the inquisitive scientist has analytically taken apart. Science tells us how to heal and how to kill; it reduces the death rate in retail and then kills us wholesale in war; but only wisdom -- desire coordinated in the light of all experience -- can tell us when to heal and when to kill. To observe processes and to construct means is science; to criticize and coordinate ends is philosophy: and because in these days our means and instruments have multiplied beyond our interpreation and synthesis of ideals and ends, our life is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. For a fact is nothing except in relation to desire; it is not complete except in relation to a purpose and a whole. Science without philosophy, facts without perspective and valuation, cannot save us from havoc and despair. Science gives us knowledge, but only philosophy can give us wisdom."

VI. The Relevance Of Philosophy

"Of what possible use can this be to me in later life?" many a college student has wondered. "What is philosophy other than a prolonged head trip? Years after graduation I would have long forgotten about Aristotle and Kant. And then what?" The lament has a certain appeal. After all, one doesn't "need" philosophy to earn a living, start a family, become wealthy or famous, have fun or even learn about the world. And many can get along quite fine without being too serious or curious or reflective. Socrates was probably speaking for a minority of the human family when he said the "unexamined life is not worth living."

But experience has a way of leading even the most pragmatic men and women into the arms of philosophy. Someone suddenly loses a best friend or spouse to cancer and is stricken with grief. The person wonders how it's fair, or why a benevolent deity could allow such awful tragedies to occur; or she ponders the loss and sees clearly how ephemeral life really is, and how so very little -- not least one's relationships -- can be taken for granted anymore. The questions are of course philosophical ones, and the pensive mood occasions many thoughts about justice, love, religion, truth, and the meaning of existence. A little perspective at that point is worth all the money one has saved up and all the success one has enjoyed.

Many of us will work hard all our adult life, build up a retirement account, achieve certain professional distinctions, but inevitably ask if "this is all there is." When boredom hits, when reason informs us that there must be something deeper in life than merely acquiring things and padding the bank account -- when life feels empty, even meaningless -- where do we turn? Popular culture has little to offer in the way of profundities and insights. It can distract us, titillate us, even throw a salve on an aching heart, but cannot offer a searching mind what it is looking for or what it hopes to find. Religions tell us that assent should precede understanding, and that faith is a wonderful surrogate for knowledge. They ask us to accept certain texts as precious and holy, even though such texts were written by ordinary men, fallible just as the rest of us are fallible, susceptible to culture-determined notions just as the rest of us are. For some of us, mere faith isn't enough: we want to know; we want the naked truth; we would much prefer an ugly truth to a soothing falsehood, and would rather stand with the lonely truth than with popular illusions and myths. It is philosophy to which we must then turn, for better or worse.

"It happens that the stage sets collapse," Albert Camus writes in The Myth of Sisyphus. "Rising, streetcar, four hours in the office or the factory, meal, streetcar, four hours of work, meal, sleep, and Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday and Saturday according to the same rhythm -- this path is easily followed most of the time. But one day the 'why' arises and everything begins in that weariness tinged with amazement. 'Begins' -- this is important. Weariness comes at the end of the acts of a mechanical life, but at the same time it inaugurates the impulse of consciousness."

So even those unlikely to ask about the whys and wherefores of life early on will at some point have to confront them, with more or less sophistication. And for most of us, the questions regularly arise, in some form or other, so that philosophy in some sense is unavoidable and cannot be considered merely an arid mental exercise; questions such as these: Is there or is there not a God? If we believe there is no such entity as God, then does it make sense to speak of "right" and "wrong" anymore? How are moral judgments then grounded? Why does anything at all exist -- anything as opposed to nothing? If the universe began with an explosion, and the result was so much drifting matter, then how and at what point did consciousness emerge out of that matter? Is there a point or plan to the universe? But then what is it, and how can one know?

"Philosophy," Arthur Schopenhauer said, "just as much as art and poetry, must have its source in perceptual comprehension of the world: nor, however much the head needs to remain on top, ought it to be so cold-blooded a business that the whole man, heart and head, is not finally involved and affected through and through."

VII. Philosophers On Philosophy

Arthur Schopenhauer, "On Philosophy And The Intellect": The two main requirements for philosophizing are: firstly, to have the courage not to keep any question back; and secondly, to attain a clear consciousness of anything that goes without saying so as to comprehend it as a problem. Finally, the mind must, if it is really to philosophize, also be truly disengaged: it must prosecute no particular goal or aim, and thus be free from the enticement of will, but devote itself undividedly to the instruction which the perceptible world and its own consciousness imparts to it...How very paltry and limited the normal human intellect is, and how little lucidity there is in the human consciousness, may be judged from the fact that, despite the ephemeral brevity of human life, the uncertainty of our existence and the countless enigmas which press upon us from all sides, everyone does not continually and ceaselessly philosophize, but that only the rarest of exceptions do so. The rest live their lives away in this dream not very differently from the animals, from which they are in the end distinguished only by their ability to provide for a few years ahead. If they should ever feel any metaphysical need, it is taken care of from above and in advance by the various religions; and these, whatever they may be like, suffice."

Henry David Thoreau, Walden: "There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers. Yet it is admirable to profess because it was once admirable to live. To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live, according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically. The success of great scholars and thinkers is commonly a courtier-like success, not kingly, not manly. They make shift to live merely by conformity, practically as their fathers did, and are in no sense the progenitors of a nobler race of men."

William James, Pragmatism: "It is astonishing to see how many philosophical disputes collapse into insignificance the moment you subject them to this simple test of tracing a concrete consequence. There can be no difference anywhere that doesn't make a difference elsewhere -- no difference in abstract truth that doesn't express itself in a difference in concrete fact and in conduct consequent upon that fact, imposed on somebody, somehow, somewhere, and somewhen. The whole function of philosophy ought to be to find out what definite difference it will make to you and me, at definite instants of our life, if this world-formula or that world-formula be the true one."

Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus & Other Essays: "There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest -- whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories -- comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer...Beginning to think is beginning to be undermined. Society has but little connection with such beginnings. The worm is in man's heart. That is where it must be sought. One must follow and understand this fatal game that leads from lucidity in the face of existence to flight from light."

Bertrand Russell, Wisdom of the West: "In itself philosophy sets out neither to solve our troubles nor to save our souls. It is, as the Greeks put it, a kind of sightseeing adventure undertaken for its own sake. There is thus in principle no questions of dogma, or rites, or sacred entities of any kind, even though individual philosophers may of course turn out to be stubbornly dogmatic. There are indeed two attitudes that might be adopted towards the unknown. One is to accept the pronouncements of people who say they know, on the basis of books, mysteries or other sources of inspiration. The other way is to go out and look for oneself, and this is the way of science and philosophy."