Why study philosophy?
The power of reason
Philosophy is the art of rational thought. Every branch of knowledge depends upon rational thinking, but philosophy is unique in that the application of reason and logic becomes the very source of knowledge whether employed critically, in the examination of the assumptions underlying a field of inquiry or belief system, or constructively in the search for necessary truths about the nature of reality itself.
Each individual who discovers philosophy repeats in his or her own life the story of the very beginnings of philosophy. The ability to theorise, to derive knowledge by a process of reasoning, struck the earliest thinkers in ancient Greece as an almost magical power. They constructed theories about everything in the universe. Then the doubts set in. Who is to say when one theory is true or another false, and on what grounds? If reason tells us that reality is utterly different from the way it appears to our senses, which are we to follow, our reason or our senses? What is the proper subject matter of philosophy, anyway? Is it the nature of the world, or is it rather the nature of our own selves? Should philosophers be more concerned with what is the case, or with what we ought to do? These questions remain urgent to this day.
All that is needed to be a philosopher is the ability to reason. Yet for philosophy to exist at all something else is required, a faith that is not religious, but rational: faith in reason itself. That does not mean that philosophers have always agreed on the scope and power of human reason. There is a strong current of contemporary thought that holds that philosophy can only exist in a negative form, as a method of criticism, and never as a positive, constructive inquiry or source of 'theories' in its own right. Yet even when thus limited, the scope of philosophy remains vast, ranging over the entire spectrum of human thought and creative activity.
Philosophy is an expression, perhaps the ultimate expression, of human freedom. It is the determined attempt to shake ourselves free from all assumptions and preconceived ideas. Whatever else philosophy may be, it is not a safe activity. For those who become fully involved with it, grappling with the problems of philosophy can never be a mere hobby or pastime, for it enters into every aspect of one's life. Socrates said, 'The unexamined life is not worth living.' To some, that might sound arrogant. But we must remember that in making that claim he was speaking as a philosopher, expressing a discovery that each person makes for themself once they have begun seriously to philosophise. If life seems more problematic for the philosopher, then life without philosophy becomes simply unthinkable.
The nineteenth century philosopher John Stuart Mill, in asserting that it was 'better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied', was not the first to acknowledge that for all its well-advertised consolations, philosophy is not necessarily a path to contentment. For all the progress made in two and a half thousand years in clarifying the problems of philosophy, many such as the definition of truth, or freedom of the will, or the nature of time appear stubbornly to resist solution (although any list of supposedly 'unsolved' problems is likely to raise heated controversy amongst philosophers!).
But who would knowingly strive to be discontented? The philosopher searches for answers, while at the same time seeming to preach that the point of philosophy resides in the search itself, not in any 'object' any secure belief system, or definitive solution to the problems of philosophy waiting to be discovered like the Holy Grail. More often than not the reward for our hard work is merely to see a problem or a paradox with greater clarity than one did before.
All this might sound rather heavy. Is there not a more light hearted approach one can take to philosophy? One of the great virtues of the Philosophical Society of England was that from its earliest days it encouraged the idea that philosophy is for all, and not just the select few. One can admire the philosopher, without aspiring to be one. If, unlike the brain teasers one finds at the back pages of the Sunday newspaper, there is no solution to a philosophical problem at the bottom of the page, still one can enjoy pitting one's wits against some of the greatest minds in history. It is indeed one of the more fascinating lessons of history that faced with the challenge of philosophy, the finest minds have proved all too fallible.
While one is being entertained by the thoughts of philosophers, one can take additional comfort in the thought that one's mental powers are being steadily improved. Philosophy teaches us to argue a case more forcefully, to express our thoughts better, and also to be more flexible and creative in our approach to the problems that face us in our work or our daily lives. Recently, much has been made of the contrast between logical and creative approaches to problem solving, between 'vertical' and 'lateral' thinking. One of the most significant features of philosophical problem solving is the way that both approaches are closely integrated. To make headway in philosophy one needs to see round problems, to treat with suspicion any starting points or assumptions; in other words, to think laterally as well as vertically. The philosopher prizes equally the faculties of logic and vision, yet also learns to appreciate the completely unexpected move, the gift of serendipity.
© Geoffrey Klempner 2002–2020