September 11, 2005

The Meaning of Philosophy

Hi Everybody, Perhaps it's time for a not-so-frivolous post to kick off the year. I will try to answer the question, what is the Meaning of Philosophy? Difficult, yes, but if I just throw out an answer, perhaps it will get some discussion going.

So, Philosophy is "Love of Knowledge", right? Not exactly... It's "Love of Wisdom." What is the difference between Wisdom and Knowledge, one might ask? Well, Knowledge is knowing things, knowing facts, or having an accurate understanding of things as they are. Of course, there are different definitions and criteria for truth, but those don't really change the fact that we know things. The epistemic question of "how" we know is different from the question of if we have knowledge. Science, for example, is one methodology, or "how," which helps us know facts about the physical world, and which has been quite successful. These facts are not, however, intrinsically valuable. Knowledge as a whole is not intrinsically valuable. Since value is only a result of attitudes we take toward the world--our valuations--then knowledge has only the value that it has for us. Yes, we can place a value on knowing the specific location and energy of an atom in a chair on which we are sitting, but why would we? Knowledge for the sake of knowledge (truth for the sake of truth) is misguided.

What, then, is Wisdom, and how is it not misguided in the way that a drive to Knowledge for Knowledge's sake is misguided? Wisdom, it seems, is having the ability to value appropriately, which then leads us to appropriate action ("appropriate" meaning in a manner conducive to life, health, and happiness.... oh, and ignoring our fellow beings--like Bush does--results in an emotional desensitization and disturbance antithetical to these natural, human goals). Wisdom is having the ability to discern between Knowledge that is useful and knowledge that is not, or is even destructive. Knowledge, being merely a tool to be used for the fulfillment of our natural goals, is definitely one component of wisdom, but only when properly tempered and understood within the context of it's uses. We can see quite plainly, then, that the central field of philosophy, or "first philosophy" cannot be Epistemology, Logic, or Metaphysics, but must be located within experience and is, if anything, a field such as Ethics or Aesthetics, which orient our values such that Epistemology, Logic, Metaphysics, and even Science do not drift off into meaninglessness or even become destroyers of meaning. For, after all, what each of us truly wants--deep down--is a life full of value and meaning, and the happiness which accompanies such a life even in the face of deepest suffering.

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1 Comments:

Blogger Anthony said...

We MA students seem to have foregone blogging entirely so far this semester (probably better for us academically anyway - damned logic homework), but I'm in a blogging mood, so I'll throw down some ideas in response to your post, Dustin.

Your entire discussion of the meaning of philosophy is grounded on a rather large instance of the etymological fallacy. Philosophy certainly decomposes into the Greek words "philos" and "sophia" (love and wisdom, respectively) - but it's fallacious to assume this in any way reflects the meaning of the word in common parlance. Of course, saying it's a wrong to assume it doesn't mean empirical observation won't show that it does, in fact, reflect our use of the term, but I think it's a hard case to make that what we mean by philosophy (either the academic or the everyday sense of the term) really reflects a love of wisdom. So as a general approach, it's probably more fruitful to try to glean the meaning of philosophy from the way it's discussed and pursued today - both academically and in quotidian life. That's not to say your account of the meaning of philosophy has to be entirely descriptive: you can certainly say that philosophy should be pursued in such and such a way, contrary to the way it's done in academic life. Just don't take the etymology to be the source of the one true meaning.

That said, I'm a person who loves etymologies, and etymological fallacies, so some specific qualms. You draw up a distinction between knowledge and wisdom, defining knowledge as "knowing things ... facts". But of course, "Knowledge for the sake of knowledge (truth for the sake of truth) is misguided." The Greek would have the distinction follow roughly the lines of "knowledge (by observation)" as opposed to "cleverness, skill". This is fairly close to your distinction, with some caveats. By "skill," what's meant is not necessarily "the ability to discern between Knowledge that is useful and knowledge that is not"; after all, the sophists were so called because they were (mis)using their cleverness (sophia) for political and financial gain. By contrast, philosophers were those who strove to understand mathematical and scientific truths for their inherent value. Both Plato and Aristotle (who are philosophers if anyone is) thought that knowing true things was worthwhile because true understanding was an end in itself. (Of course, both also professed views about the value of ethical living, but also subordinated this to contemplative, philosophical life - the highest form of existence).

None of this is to say that we should follow this ideal - once again, don't fall for the fallacy. But even assuming that we take the classical definition, we don't end up with quite the picture you painted.

10/19/2005 01:08:00 PM  

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