It could be said that there is no field of study that has generated such mixed reactions among the general public than the discipline of Philosophy. Some people have a negative attitude towards the very mention of the word philosophy. For some others, it is associated with mysticism; while for a few others, it is the fountain of all knowledge, the lack of which deprives man of a true, meaningful and well- informed existence. Still for others, philosophy is empty, confusing, misleading, destructive and useless. This unit is set to give you a sense of what Philosophy truly is.
The objectives of this unit are to open you to the study of theology and the very idea of philosophy. By the end of this unit, you should be able to:
- analyse the notions of philosophy
- identify the etymology of philosophy
- define of philosophy.
3.0 MAIN CONTENT
3.1 The Notions of Philosophy
To study philosophy is to take a risk – a risk of not being able to explain oneself to an average man in the street. If a man introduces himself as a Lawyer, one would easily know what his work is. So also other professions like Mathematician, Economist, Engineer, Accountant, Anthropologist, Physician, etc. But to say that one is a Philosopher, is to cast a spell on a common man who wonders what Philosophy is, in the first place. The man-in-the-street is probably familiar with the word philosophy as it is used in the day-to-day living. But we cannot rely on such for an adequate understanding or definition of philosophy. On the other hand, we cannot change the day-to-day application of the term philosophy.
For example, when one says of a man: “His philosophy of life is honesty”, the word philosophy here could be replaced with the word attitude. Again, a political party’s philosophy may be liberal or conservative, the word platform could easily take the place of philosophy. Or think of a business venture that uses service as its philosophy when it could as well use policy. These are various usages of the term philosophy. In themselves, they are not wrong, but they do not explain the meaning of philosophy. In addition to these, we also have various philosophies, for example, Philosophy of Science, Philosophy of Education, Philosophy of Law, etc. Again the application of the word philosophy in the above senses is different from the real meaning of philosophy, thus creating more puzzles as to what philosophy is all about.
The most unfortunate of all these seem to be the fact that even philosophers themselves do not have a significant agreement on the definition of philosophy. Each philosopher defines or applies the word philosophy to suit the method or the approach that he or she has adopted. Sometimes this is done with explanation, at other times it is done arbitrarily. More often than not, a philosopher may not concede or accept an opposing definition as true or sound as that might weaken his own concept of philosophy. Some definitions of philosophy are too broad that they remain vague. For example, to say that “Philosophy is a quest for a good life” or that “it is the pursuit of truth.” Some others are too narrow as to render philosophy meaningless. For example, to assert that “philosophy is the clarification of meanings.” Some definitions have words and concepts that are either erroneous or are themselves in need of further definitions.
For instance, if one says that philosophy is “the construction of theories about the nature of the universe” or saying that it is “the rational defense of faith propositions.” The divergence in the use of the word ‘philosophy’ makes its definition difficult. But we shall attempt at a possible working definition in order to give you a sense of direction.
The word philosophy is said to have been invented by Pythagoras (c. 575 – 505 BC). Philosophy is derived from two Greek words – philia (love) coined from the verb philein meaning to love and sophias meaning wisdom. Simply, philosophy means the “the love of wisdom.”
For Pythagoras, wisdom means the most comprehensive and profound knowledge of things. Consequently, wisdom in this sense was the privileged possession only of the gods. Therefore, no man could possess wisdom or could justify to call himself wise in this deep and profound sense. This was the reason why Pythagoras described the philosopher as the “lover” or the “seeker” of wisdom. This is not wisdom merely of good conduct or of practical life that consists in acting right. It is rather a wisdom whose very nature consists essentially in knowing. “Knowing”
as Jacques Maritain observes, “in the fullest and strictest sense of the term, that is to say, with certainty, and in being able to state why a thing is what it is and cannot be otherwise, knowing by causes” (p.76). However, Pythagoras’ position was provoked by the Sophists (sophos – wise or learned) who claimed to be wise using sophistry as a tool.
Hiraclitus was among the first philosophers of Greece who believed that wisdom does not consist in knowing multitude of facts but in having a unified view of reality. However, it was from Parmenides that philosophy gained its reputation as “severe discipline of reasoned knowledge.” For Plato, a true philosopher is a dialectician, that is, one who is skilled in dialectic – investigation of truth or testing the truth through discussion or logical disputation or argument. According to him, a philosopher is one who apprehends the essences or nature of things. Aristotle, who was Plato’s student, accepted his masters’ concept of true wisdom as consisting in a genuine knowledge of things. But he adds that since the wise man differs from other people by his knowledge of first principles, philosophy as wisdom should seek the first causes of things. Thomas Aquinas was of Aristotle’s opinion. But he further distinguished philosophy as a natural wisdom from sacred theology which is revealed wisdom.
SELF ASSESSMENT EXERCISE 1
- Who invented the word philosophy?
- What are the two Greek words from which the word philosophy is derived?
The above analysis of the etymology of philosophy is to help us to gradually disengage our minds from the various ideas and notions that we might have had of philosophy. On the positive note, the analysis helps us to focus on what we are up to as we engage ourselves in the study of philosophy. You would remember we pointed out earlier that there is no general agreement among philosophers as to a single definition of philosophy. The definitions of philosophy could be as many as philosophy books or as many as photospheres themselves. We shall go on now to state just a few of them.
According to Jacques Maritain (1930, p.80), “Philosophy is a science which by the natural light of reason studies the first causes or highest principles of all things, in other words, the science of things in their first causes, in so far as this belongs to the natural order.” William James (1977, p.3) opines that philosophy “is a habit of mind or a body of natural knowledge that results from a disciplined inquiry and that enables one to explain in a more or less profound way, the sum of human experiences.” Aristotle refers to Philosophy as “the knowledge of truth.” D. O’Connor (1963, p.45) describes philosophy as a “laborious piecemeal effort to criticize and clarify the foundations of our beliefs.” Omoregbe (1990) offers the definition of philosophy in two ways:
- “Philosophy is rational search for answers to questions that arise in the mind when we reflect on human experience.”
- And “Philosophy is a rational search for answers to the basic questions about the ultimate meaning of reality as a whole and human life in particular.”
Harold Titus (1964) in his turn summarized philosophy in the following lines:
- Philosophy is a personal attitude toward life and the universe;
- Philosophy is a method of reflective thinking and reasoned enquiry;
- Philosophy is an attempt to gain a view of the whole;
- Philosophy is a logical analysis of language and the classification of the meaning of words and concepts. There are many more definitions of philosophy.
The Oxford Encyclopedic English Dictionary describes philosophy as: “The use of reason and argument in seeking truth and knowledge of reality, especially of the causes and nature of things and the principles governing existence, the material universe, perception of physical
phenomena and human behaviour.” I am sure you will not let yourself be confused by these various and sometimes contradictory definitions of philosophy. It goes to confirm our earlier assertion that the definition of philosophy depends on who is philosophizing. We shall be contented with the very first definition in this series namely: that philosophy is “the science of things by their first causes, to the extent that it is attainable by the natural light of reason.”
SELF ASSESSMENT EXERCISE 2
- How did Aristotle describe philosophy?
- How many definitions of philosophy do we have?
You may notice that in all these definitions, certain features are outstanding. These include the fact that philosophy is a search for meaning, it is a pursuit for knowledge, it is reflection on reality and the experiences of life. It is an attempt to unravel the mystery of existence and all of this is done by the use of unaided human reason. I am also sure that by now you are already asking questions that are philosophical in nature and that require philosophical answers. In the subsequent lectures you will discover that every man and woman is a philosopher of some sort.
The word philosophy has many senses. But as a discipline, it is a reflection on the deeper meaning of reality and the experiences of life. From its etymology, it is a search for wisdom from the natural light of reason.
6.0 TUTOR-MARKED ASSIGNMENT
- Give the etymology of philosophy and how would you explain
- what philosophy is to a secondary school student?
- What are the other uses and meaning of philosophy?