Notes from fall of 1987: Some Reflections on Philosophy I

By | December 11, 2011

By Juan Bernal


Traditional Philosophy (sometimes called “speculative philosophy”) is similar to some forms of religion in these ways:

1) tries to achieve a synoptic view of reality (i.e. attempts to view reality as a whole);

2) deals with questions concerning the significance of human existence;

3) takes up questions of value and attempts to define the highest good.


The more admirable type of philosopher is one who attempts to live and teach in accordance with the Socratic principle that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

The better part of philosophical wisdom discloses that the examination of human existence is lifelong enterprise, and that there is no assurance that we will ever achieve knowledge, much less achieve spiritual fulfillment or peace of mind.


Religions claim to teach “higher truths”. They purport to teach about the spiritual aspect of reality, the significance and purpose of human existence, and the spiritual-moral obligations that apply to humanity. Religion –more than other institutions– assumes the role of telling us how we ought to live our lives (..also how we can deal with such aspects of reality as ageing, suffering, and death).


Ch. 2, Why Explore Philosophy? (Making Sense of Things, Troxell & Snyder) approaches introductory philosophy by asking how people attempt to make sense of the world.

An attempt to make sense of things?   Maybe philosophy should be seen as simply being an attempt to make rational sense of our world, of both natural and social phenomena that we experience.  Of course other disciplines come into play here: the natural sciences, social sciences, history, ..So after we touch on the sciences and historical inquiry, what is the contribution of philosophy?  Can we say that it is an attempt to make sense of those aspects of our world not treated by the sciences and by history?

Do we …

Sort out, analyze and interpret the findings of the sciences (?)

Evaluate our claims to knowledge and justified belief (?)

Attempt to make sense of our experience and existence (?)

Analyze and clarify such concepts as knowledge, truth, reality, justice, moral evil, etc. (?)

Analyze the notions of moral value and human freedom. (?)

Evaluate such traditional problems as that of mind/matter, freedom/determinism; knowledge/skepticism; existence or absence of a deity; problem of evil. (?)

State the value or dis-value of religious faith (?)

Sometimes we just try to make sense of existence, both at the social and personal levels.


We should distinguish between a philosophy of life (viz. a personal outlook on things), on the one hand, and philosophy as a discipline (the study of philosophy), on the other hand. These are two distinct things, although in some cases there can be a relationship between them.  For example, as when my study of philosophy results in my adopting a particular outlook on reality.


Questions sometimes arise regarding the value or desirability of a specific law, a set of laws, or even an entire legal system.

Suppose that we find ourselves arguing for or against a specific law: e.g. laws of apartheid in South Africa, segregationist laws in the U.S., or laws that require participation in a war even when this is contrary to the individual’s conscience. Could we say that in such a context philosophical considerations become relevant, even crucial?

Similar questions may be raised concerning other institutions: e.g., forms of government, economic systems, religions, technology, consumer-materialistic values, etc..

Arguments bearing on issues such as these would presuppose certain “deeper” values and assumptions. Undoubtedly, philosophical critiques and re-constructions would come into play here.


Most likely, the world that we confront every day is a reality open to philosophy. Understating it, we might say that philosophical values do not predominate.

How should a philosophically-minded person deal with this situation?  Should one be heroic and try to follow the Socratic model?



What is the Socratic model?

Socrates took the position of “one who does not know,” or one who makes no claim to knowledge; then he proceeded to expose others as being mere pretenders to knowledge; i.e., as really not knowing what they claimed to know (e.g., not really knowing what “virtue” is, or “courage”, etc.).

By exposing pretense and ignorance, Socrates was laying the groundwork for a genuine pursuit of truth.  Supposedly, he showed us that one cannot advance in the direction of truth until one has cleared away error, ignorance and pretense. In so doing, he also showed us how very difficult the pursuit of truth is.

 ”The destroyer of weeds, thistles and thorns is a benefactor whether he soweth or not.”   Robert G. Ingersoll


“What we’re destroying is nothing but houses of cards, and we are clearing up the ground of language on which they stand.”                           Ludwig Wittgenstein

Here the philosophical spirit is found working to clarify things, to sweep away confusion and error, ….all as a prelude to the mind’s journey toward knowledge, understanding and truth.

“We cannot pursue the lady called wisdom until we clean up our mess and learn to walk straight” .—- Pale Moon

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