What is Philosophy Anyway?

Philosophy: What the heck is it?

Update: 1-April-2014

My brother recently asked me…is a Zebra white with black stripes or black with white stripes? Here is my reply:
There are two types of Zebras. A white one has black stripes and a black one has white stripes. As with most things in this world. …. Lau Kean Lee, 29-March-2014

399px-Paris_2010_-_Le_Penseur : What is Philosophy
This photo is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license, by Daniel Stockman.

Have you at some point in your life waxed lyrical over a seemingly profound statement or article? And did that P word, “Philosophy”, come to mind? In my case, my first brush with a profound idea must have been the time (when I was 12 or 13 years old) I saw a picture of a “thinking man”; a bronze sculpture by Auguste Rodin of a naked man sitting on a rock with  his chin resting on a hand, deep in thought. The caption on that photo read, “I think therefore I am”, by René Descartes. “Wow, that sounds pretty deep, but what did it really mean?”

“I think therefore I am” – René Descartes

I thought to myself. And that started a life-long journey to understand and make sense of this thing called Philosophy.

Most people, and I am one of those, would just go through life without really digging deeper into Philosophy and just take whatever small doses that may come along in our day-to-day living. Sometimes it comes in the guise of comedy, as when Charles M. Schulz made his Linus character in Peanuts say, “I love Mankind; it’s people I can’t stand!”. Or sometimes it gets splashed in my face as when watching my favourite SciFi, Star Trek and Spock spoke the memorable line, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”. And in later life, one finds that spirituality is steeped in profound ideas, as this website’s by-line ascribed to the Buddha, “Thousands of candles can be lit from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.”

I am now making an effort to actually understand what exactly is Philosophy. In my library, I found three books to educate myself on this nebulous subject.

1. The Story Of Philosophy – Bryan Magee

The Story of Philosophy
The Story of Philosophy by Bryan Magee

Prof Bryan Magee from the Oxford University was also a Fellow of the Yale University. He wrote this surprisingly readable book on a difficult subject.
In just four pages, the prelude “An Introduction To Philosophy” pages 6-9, the meaning of Philosophy shone with clarity. In any field of human activity, we can question the fundamentals normally taken for granted. Prof Magee introduced the concept gently by giving simple examples in diversed subjects or disciplines, like when one asks what is Freedom and what is Equality and are they in conflict, as in politics (Political Philosophy); or when one asks what is Justice in law and is that the same as social justice (Philosophy of Law); or when one asks is there perfect health, and if not what is the meaning of cure (Philosophy of Medicine).

“What is the nature of whatever it is that exists?” “How, if at all, can we know?”

While this demonstrates that there can be a philosophical discourse in any subject, the greatest philosophers go deeper than that and questioned the most fundamental aspects of our existence and our experience. The two fundamental questions at the heart of Philosophy are: “What is the nature of whatever it is that exists?”  (ontology) and “How, if at all, can we know?” (epistemology). Prof Magee then rounds off his introduction to philosophy by stressing that Philosophy, Science and Art are not at odds with one another. All three confront the mystery posed by the two fundamental questions to try to achieve a deeper understanding. All three rely on inspiration and criticism and make their findings public to be shared. And yet because they follow different methods and different paths, they appeal to different temperaments. (Note: this last word, “temperament” makes for interesting reading by itself… ref: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_temperaments). The rest of the book then delves into the different great philosophers and their respective era.

2.  The Dream of Reason – Anthony Gottlieb

A History of Philosophy
The Dream of Reason by Anthony Gottlieb

Anthony Gottlieb was from Cambridge University but he was a professional journalist having served as Science Editor and Executive Editor of The Economist even though he was also a Visiting Fellow at Harvard University. So it is interesting to read Anthony’s take on Philosophy from a journalist’s approach, viz. “…to rely only on primary sources, whenever they still exist, to question conventional wisdom, and … to explain it as clearly as possible.”

And so you find in “The Dream of Reason” (A History of Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance), a readable journalistic account of philosophers’ stubborn or obstinate effort to think clearly.

I found his Part 3, Chapter 13, “Three Roads to Tranquillity: Epicureans, Stoics and Sceptics” particularly interesting.  Alexander the Great’s death in 323 BC marks the start of a new era, the “Hellenistic age”.  It means that Alexander’s former domain became Greek-ish rather than purely Greek. It brought a new era in philosophy as well, with three main schools of thought; the Epicureans, the Stoics and the Sceptics. If an Epicurean said one thing, a Stoic would say the opposite and a Sceptic would refuse to commit either way. How interesting!

In the final Chapter 14, we learn that in AD 529, a Christian emperor, Justinian, put an end to the philosophical squabbles by closing down the philosophical schools in Athens in favour of his own imperial university in Constantinople and wanted to ban non-Christian philosophy throughout the Roman Empire. And so philosophy languished in the “haven of piety” for the next thousand years.

“I was struck by the large number of falsehoods I had accepted as true in my childhood.” – René Descartes

Enter the French philosopher and mathematician, René Descartes (1596-1650), who developed the rigorous mechanistic model where he “consider(s) false any belief that falls prey to even the slightest doubt”. This is considered “Rationalism” and Descartes earned the title, “Father of Modern Philosophy”.

Gottlieb intended to write a second volume to continue the tale from Descartes to the present day, but as far as I know, it has not been published until today. Hopefully, it will be witten and published in due course.

3.  Sophie’s World – Jostein Gaarder

The History of Philosophy
Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder

Jostein Gaarder was a Norwegian high-school teacher of Philosophy. He used his teaching capability to write a popular novel which effectively covers the 3,000 years history of philosophy from Socrates to Sartre. Very much like how modern-day management books are written as business fables, Gaarder first published his novel in his native Norwegian in 1991, revolving around a 14-year old girl, Sophie, who progressively learnt Philosophy through a prolonged correspondence with a fifty-year-old philosopher, Alberto Knox. The novel begins with Sophie receiving a mysterious letter with a question,  “Who are you?” and then a second letter with an equally intriguing question, “Where does the world come from?” The third mail came in the form of a postcard addressed to another girl, Hilde, c/o Sophie.

“If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.” – Francis Bacon

What followed were a series of philosophical lessons taught to Sophie by Alberto. How Hilde fit into this story, if told here, would be a spoiler. Suffice to say that in the course of the novel, Sophie and Hilde (and thus we the readers) are taken on a grand tour of the history of Western Philosophy.

Where Gottlieb left off, Gaarder continued from Descartes, Spinoza, Locke and others to The Enlightenment  (the Renaissance) and Romanticism until the Present.

The novel is reputed to have been translated into fifty-three languages, with over thirty million copies in print. In 1997, Jostein Gaarder and his wife, Siri Dannevig, established the Sophie Prize (named after the book), a USD100,000 annual international award for environment and development. Unfortunately, Gaarder found himself embroiled in allegations of anti-Semitism  after he wrote an article in 2006 criticising and condemning certain aspects of Israeli politics and Judaism.
(ref: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jostein_Gaarder)

I was intrigued by Francis Bacon (1561-1626), and read up on him on Wikipedia.

“Bacon has been called the creator of empiricism. His works established and popularised inductive methodologies for scientific inquiry, often called the Baconian method, or simply the scientific method. His demand for a planned procedure of investigating all things natural marked a new turn in the rhetorical and theoretical framework for science, much of which still surrounds conceptions of proper methodology today.”

As it turns out, while Descartes and Rationalism were widely populart in Europe, Francis Bacon’s Empiricism in England can be seen as a counter-point to Rationalism.
Leibniz, a rationalist, said “There are two kinds of truths: truths of reasoning and truths of fact.” While John Locke, an empiricist, said “No man’s knowledge here can go beyond his experience”. It must be noted that Prof Magee wrote that Locke is considered the chief founding father of empiricism.

Related reading:
Rationalism vs. Empiricism

6 thoughts on “What is Philosophy Anyway?”

  1. Why is there disease and death?
    Is this part of the Natural Selection process? That somehow, those who are afflicted with terminal disease are somehow physically deficient in some way?
    If that is so, then Natural Selection will only eliminate the physically deficient ones (whether one is aware of the physical deficiency or not).
    But wouldn’t that leave behind some less than desirable human specimens…those who may be physically perfect but devoid of morals and ethics?
    So for the sake of argument, let’s say that the Natural Selection process somehow is balanced by some Supernatural Selection which gives credit or weightage for a gentler, more loving and compassionate human being.
    That would mean over time, no more aggression, no more wars, no more killings. Now who is to protect us from external threats, say a malevolent alien invasion?

    1. Disease and death on the physical plane is as a result of imperfect creation.
      The physical earth and the inhabitants are created by the first level creation .
      Thus you can say we are the second level creation which is not so perfect.
      In analogous terms , it is like Malaysia trying to make a car (proton), but because
      inherently the technology is not that good yet , the product is still problematic and cant be compared with German cars like Merc, BMW , Porsche etc……

      The true self (the Soul), is at the 2nd sub-plane of the Mental Plane . Far up in the finer dimensions. Thus the physical is not a PRINCIPAL in esoteric terms.Therefore,disease and dying is not of material importance to the higher divine beings . The physical body (the Buddhist called it precious body) is treated as old worn clothes and need to be changed from time to time , to renew , to suit the latest reincarnation and its latest development of that human being. In analogous terms , the soul is the true self and the underwear is the Mental body, the Shirt and trousers is the Emotional Body and the outer jacket is the Physical body.

      Coming back to that question , it is of no relevance whether a person died of a disease or live to the ripe old age of 100 and die peacefully un-diseased.
      It does not mean that nature is trying to propagate those with stronger bodies
      to out live those who are diseased, and thus build a race of strong bodied human.
      Darwinian theory only points to survival of those who can adapt best and not to those who are strongest . Remember the dinosaurs perished..!!

      But then , Darwinian Theory cannot explain all, as you have cleverly posted another question as if the nature’s progression towards the stronger bodied man then how are we going to improve the world with more peaceful loving humans?

      Progressing in parallel , the spiritual aspect of humans are also being developed
      and improved generations upon generations. This is through incarnating developed souls into the human race to help the basic race . The Divine plane also sends down teachers (through incarnation) to expedite the human spiritual development. Example of teachers are like Gautama , Master Jesus , Gandhi , Martin Luthur King , Confucius , Lao Tze etc …etc

      We are now at the 5th root race (Aryan)progressing to the 6th in near future , The vanguards of the 6th are already appearing in USA , doing work through the mind , ie IT work , people like Bill Gates , Allison , Zulkenberg .If we looked back , we have actually progress quite far from the 1st root race to now . For this mini race cycle , the aim is to complete until the 7th root race . Thus to close this human development work of the Divine . The hope and plan is to have at least 2/3 of the human reaching a passing mark but unfortunately , progress has not been encouraging . Even the Divine plane is looking at 50/50 passing mark now.
      If you look at the news daily , you would understand why. Upon reaching the dividing time-line ,( the Christian called it Judgement day) , those souls who pass
      will be transferred to another more developed planet to carry on more complex work, whereas those who cant make the cut will be posted to another young planet to re-do , re-learn the development process.

      I am only speaking about development of humankind , I have not even talk about development of planets , solar system , constellation , galaxies , universes…

      I would rather stop here . The subject is too wide to cover in a small essay like this . Anyone interested can ask more questions.

      1. Thank you PK, for such a profound response.
        But you have not addressed my question ” Who is to protect a race of gentle and unaggressive species from external threats and aggressors”?

        1. Who is to protect us from from external threats , say a malevolent kind ???

          Firstly , I will deal with Internal threats ……From my article above , once certain fractions of total humanity
          reach a point where the LOVE-WISDOM principle is activated in their soul, ( Buddhist called it Enlightenment)
          and the partition of souls begins (Judgement Day) at the end of the 7th root race, the activated souls are transferred to
          another planet . A good example is the group of stars called Pleiades. The humans there are all loving and kind, because
          they have all attained a certain level of soul development Thus , the beings there do not need to protect themselves from each other.
          To our concept , it is utopia ..!!

          Then what about the souls who failed to make the cut . As I have said , this group will also go to a young planet where the humans
          there struggle and fight it out daily because they have not found the solution through LOVE aspect . ….until the end of another cycle .
          The Divine has infinite patience, waiting for our attainment , our success and our return to the SOURCE. One Bhrama day and night ,
          is trillion of earth years here…..

          An analogy is when we passed away and the Emotional/Mental bodies live in the other dimensions. The good and loving will gather
          together and we call it Heaven . The Jealous /greedy/murderers will also go to a level suitable to their vibrations , which we call Hell.
          Whether Heaven or Hell , solely depends on your own spiritual development . Your religion /teachers can only show you the way and
          advise you , but cannot carry you there. It is only through your own effort that you attain the level you deserve.

          Coming back to External threats it is another matter all together…..

          Getting enlightened , say like Master Jesus , did not stop the Romans from crucifying him . But what did Jesus say ..?
          ‘ forgive them Father , for they do not know what they are doing’…….
          Can we stop Al Qeada from blowing up World Trade Centre??
          Can we stop ISIS from the killings in Syria and Iraq..??
          Can we stop aggressive Alien beings from attacking a kind and loving planet??

          No…we cant …!! Because all the beings in this known universe is of not of similar development level and thus the conflict.

          So there is a great and urgent need for all humanity to realise the DIVINE plan . In our little small human ways , be not harmful , be kind , be loving , love thy neighbour ( not his wife..haha)….

    1. Aiyoh, didn’t realise the date may cause skepticism. It’s a true event. We had dinner on 29-Mar and my elder brother posed the Zebra question to me. Honest!

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