More “knocking about” on the notion of philosophy

By | June 25, 2011

For some of us (fortunate ones or otherwise) there is a tension in our thoughts about philosophy: We vacillate between the idea that filosofía is our most important possession and the contrary idea that most of the work of philosophers is irrelevant to the important concerns of life. We suspect that philosophy is mostly a pastime for the privileged, well-to-do, class; and of little use to those who must struggle for economic and political survival.

Consider another point of tension: whole peoples suffer mass extinction (Jews in Nazi Europe, the victims of Stalin’s purges in the USSR (1930′s), Africans at the mercy of the slave traders and slave masters, native people of America’s in face of European invasion, 1970′s genocide in Cambodia, periodic famine and political killings in Africa, oppression and mass killings in former Yugoslavia, and so on. Then ask:

What good are philosophy, ethics and moral philosophy, religion, poetry, music and other sides of the higher culture when entire populations are annihilated, tortured and repressed? What good the religious culture and “high morality” of advanced nations?

How do our moral philosophers, religious and political leaders explain the great suffering and injustice that are part of the day-to-day reality for millions around the world?

We have a tension and paradox here, but hopefully we won’t have to throw away our beloved philosophy. Maybe there’s some saving grace here. (Maybe or maybe not.)

The term “philosophy” is a general, vague term that can mean different things. There is not any one thing that alone counts as ‘philosophy’ to the exclusion of everything else. Any attempt to give the final, over-arching definition of philosophy is bound to fail; the best that one can do is to stipulate a working definition of philosophy.

Let us say that there is a family of activities (related in certain ways) called philosophic work; imagine a loose network of activity such as study, research, analysis, writing, teaching, socio-political work, religious thought. Some of this work will turn out to be important to those who attempt to build and sustain a democratic society, and some important to those among us who desire to develop our intellectual, moral, creative and religious capabilities.

Corresponding to our loose family of activities, there will be a class of individuals practicing philosophy in some way and who are sometimes referred to as “philosophers.” There will be great variety among these people and very different views as to the nature of their work.

9/20/91: Here we have one attitude [an echo of the character, Thrasymachus, in one of Plato's dialogues]:

“Philosophy”? What does it mean? It is a word, that’s all.
There are ways of thinking, certain studies and interests. We call some “philosophy.”

“Justice”? There is little justice in the world, practically none. I challenge the churchman, moralist, or philosopher to demonstrate that justice found in any significant degree in our world. I challenge anyone to show me that the cause of justice drives much of people’s actions or thinking.

There is little or no justice. Some people enjoy lives; most people suffer great deprivation. … That’s all there is to it. That’s how the world is.

The term “philosophy” simply refers to certain ways of talking and thinking, mostly limited to the privileged classes. But the term doesn’t play a significant role in the lives of most people.

Thrasymachus was correct. All that matters are power, the attainment of wealth and material comfort. All that matters is getting your share of the goods and holding on to it. …making your share grow and produce more wealth.


Only a fool, ignorant of the development of philosophy in the West would deny that Rene Descartes played a very significant and positive role in that development. However, it is also true that in several important ways, Descartes influence has been unfortunate; one might even say that Descartes has misled many philosophers in Western culture in three important ways.

1. The idea that knowledge requires absolute certainty, such that any possibility of doubt precludes knowledge.

2. The idea that the starting point for gaining knowledge about our world is the individual thinking mind with nothing but its own ideas.

3. Dualism: the idea that the human person is comprised of two substances, the corporeal and the mental.

(Of course, these did not originate with Descartes, but in Western thought Descartes gave these ideas significant expression.)

Apr. 2000

The critical philosopher’s work is to sort out and interpret the theories and discoveries of natural science, interpret and criticize the doctrines and ideas of his culture, and by so doing come out with some statements regarding the reality and activity of human beings.

Does the scientist (the theorist) discover order in nature, or does he impose order with his theories? I find this to be a philosophically significant and profound question. How much of the work of theoretical physicists, astrophysicists and scientific cosmologists are acts of discovery? How much are they creative work?

The critical reflection on human existence and experience that philosophy encourages is relevant to the outlook of secular humanism. (Here I’m talking about a critical evaluation of our cultural myths, beliefs, presuppositions, values and so on.)

To a large extent, our experiences (our growth, training, learning, suffering, tragedy, successes, failures, wealth, poverty, health, love, indifference, illness, etc.) determine our philosophical outlook and values. But often our stated outlook is conformist, habitual and lacking in any meaningful reflection.


Science and mathematics are creations of the human mind, itself a result of biological evolution, the evolved nervous system (brain, sense faculties), and culture.

Presumably, science and mathematics are the tools for discovering the laws of nature. Or are they merely the way that scientific human culture maps reality?

Experiments, testing, verification, prediction … leading to some control over aspects of nature and to successful technology are supposed to imply something about the objective features of nature. How confident are we that the natural sciences and applied mathematics disclose the objective laws of nature?

Raising such questions may lead some to conclude that science is simply one way, among many ways, of describing reality. But this would be a mistake. For it is misleading to say that science is merely one way of looking at the world, on a par with religious myth. (Let us not lose sight of this simple truth.)

After all, some ways of mapping reality are much better than other ways. Science is our best way of gaining knowledge of our natural and social environments. To survive and be successful in the evolutionary struggle we need to apply a reality factor.

History has shown that myth and fiction can have practical value; but they will, at best, only take us a part of the way. And often they have taken us in the wrong direction.

Yet, the use and exploitation of myth and fiction can be profitable. Consider the enduring strength and success of established religions.

Should philosophers strive to be scientific? Maybe not completely, since they’re philosophers and not scientists. But a philosopher ignores the sciences at his/her own peril.

Leave a Reply

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