What is Philosophy? What is it good for? Who does philosophy anyway?

Philosophy is often literally translated as "the love of wisdom". As such, anyone who pursues knowledge in itself, is a lover of the truth. It is in this spirit that the highest degree in many fields of study is the Ph.D., indicating that one has attained a larger perspective of their discipline (be it Psychology, History, Theology, and so on). But the "love of wisdom" is not to be left to graying scholars in ivory towers. We are all "inquiring minds", and we all want the truth... be it in the Inquirer or the National Inquirer. We all develop our personal view on things, whether it is a political, or a spiritual, or an economic or ecologic perspective. If we took the time to spell out and unify all of our various perspectives, we could then say we have a global world-view -- a philosophy of life.

If we then are all "latent philosophers", then why do we bother studying other "professional" philosophers? Indeed, for some, a required Introduction to Philosophy course that studies some of the greatest philosophers of the last 25 centuries can be the most frustrating venture into bizarre speculation about the nature of knowledge, the mind, reality, god, angels and out-of-body experiences, to say nothing of the fields of Value Inquiry, including Ethics, morality, and aesthetics. Of all the academic disciplines, philosophy seems to be one of the most abstract, arcane, and obtuse... if not down-right useless. Especially if the implicit goal of this "love of wisdom" is self-knowledge, and self-improvement.

A quick survey of some of the leading characters in the philosophic tradition will serve to illustrate just how useless philosophy really is. The honor of being the "first" philosopher in the Western tradition goes to a fellow named Thales, one of the ancient Greeks. Legend has it that Thales was so engrossed in his study of the stars and the planets that he accidentally stumbled and fell down a well -- thus began the reputation that philosophers have their "heads in the clouds" and don't know what is right below them. Of course there is the case of Socrates; barefoot, bumbling pest that he was (according to his own admission). Socrates professed ignorance, yet actively set out to show the elite of Athens that they didn't know much either! When this got him into hot water, Socrates refused all practical alternatives to charges of atheism and corruption, and ended up with a capital sentence rather than "pleading the fifth" or copping a plea-bargain arrangement. His student Plato tried to make society better by proposing that "philosophers be made kings" -- it's no wonder his grand Republic was never actually tried out anywhere! In the Middle Ages it was both Plato's philosophy and Christian conversion that lead Augustine of Hippo to the conclusion that he should leave both his wife and his child for some "higher aspiration". In the 18th century the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard did almost the same thing in rejecting the opportunity to marry his beloved Regina -- she being the pick of society, and he being an out-of-work socialite with a hunchback -- go figure! His contemporary, Nietzsche, was even worse: he never married and is said to have died after going insane from the ravages of syphilis... from his one and only encounter with a prostitute. Better than Abelard, the medieval philosopher who was castrated for corrupting his beloved Heloise with his heretical philosophy.

Enough with their love lives (I won't mention that it was Sartre's philosophy that kept him from proposing marriage to his life-long companion, Simone de Beauvoir: she wouldn't have said yes anyway!). If you want just plain strange behavior, philosophy has a closet full. Descartes wrote his most influential work, the Meditations, while trapped in a cabin during a severe snowstorm -- legend has it that when the stove ran out of fuel he crawled in it to keep warm! His contemporary, David Hume, held that there is no such thing as Cause-and-Effect. Another philosopher of the time, an Anglican Bishop, George Berkley, held that if an object or event wasn't perceived by someone, then that object simply did not exist (yes, he's the one who asked "if a tree fell in the woods, and nobody heard it, would it make a sound?")! Of course there's the rather un-godly philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, the Utilitarian who insisted that upon his death, his body would be preserved and displayed at university board meetings. Immanuel Kant had a number of peculiarities, most notably his extremely punctual daily walks, but lesser known were his fears of perspiration, of certain foods, particularly his loathing of oils that are sometimes found in coffee, and, oh yes, his aversion to sex. Kant was followed by a fellow named Schopenhauer who felt that since all life is suffering, we might as well go hang ourselves. In a similar vein there was the early Greek, Parmenides, who hated beans so much that when his enemies were pursuing him, he gave in to their execution rather than cross a bean field!

What can one possibly conclude when faced with this kind of overwhelming divergence of behavior and belief? Is there anything that unifies the madcap mayhem of these practitioners of the love of wisdom? Does this really reflect the uselessness of the pursuit of the Big Questions of reality, truth, goodness and beauty?

Well, there is something here. In each of these, and so many other cases, the actions are either based on their principles which were derived after careful reflection, and in which they felt compelled to remain consistent, or simply because their broad ranged intellect was so freed from ordinary thought, they no longer felt constrained by the same social approbations that often make up most of the rules that you and I live by. Think, in a similar vein, about some of our sorts or entertainment heroes. John MacInroe's "tantrums" stem from an unquestioned pursuit of excellence and fairness in the game of tennis. If we were to judge his ability as a tennis player only by watching news clips of his famous tirades, we would inevitably reach the wrong conclusion. The same is true for philosophers; judging the usefulness of their philosophy would be judging a book by its cover.

What is the use of their philosophies, and why should we study them? Well, Thales was actually the first person to predict a solar eclipse. Socrates is the very model of active citizenship in a democracy, and his refusal to settle for less than full justice and goodness is the paradigm of philosophic idealism. Saint Augustine really thought he was doing the best for both his family and the family of God, and indeed proved to be a bright light in the dark ages. All of these thinkers proved to be critics of the science, the society, or the governments of their time. All of these thinkers tried to articulate views that would lead us closer to the truth and make all of us better than what we might otherwise be. We need to study their tightly constructed views, because, if we cannot both appreciate and critique their detailed world-views, how will be ever begin to construct our own? Unless we want to end up making some of the very same mistakes that they make, it would behoove all of us to give these honored critical thinkers at least as much latitude as an athletic or entertainment legend.

In the end, there is something very useful about the love of wisdom. In simply raising the same questions the philosophers of old have asked and then drawing our own conclusions, and defending them openly while also listening for the positive critiques of others, we will have begun a journey. To ask, "What is it that I think is Real, and would everybody else agree with me?" is a fundamental starting point. To ask, "How do I know I am right, and would my explanation convince anybody else but me?" is an essential follow-up. Then you might be ready for even bigger stuff: "What do I think is right, and why?" or "What really is the best way for society to accept responsibility for its members?" Look to the past for models to answer these questions. Then maybe, and only if we are both consistent and persistent, maybe, we would be on more solid ground when raising issues of Social concern, like Medical, Welfare and Social Security reform. Maybe we would be able to assess a political candidate's holistic philosophy, rather than just finding out where they stand on hot-button issues. Maybe be would be more apt to help then to judge, to analyze rather than dismiss, to pursue the truth rather than settle for appearances.

There's an old saying that, "philosophy bakes no bread." True enough -- philosophy is not a productive occupation in the same sense as a butcher or baker. But that does not mean that it is not valuable in itself, nor does it mean that it is not practical. These days we know occupations by those who "just do it". Politicians do government, Plumbers do the pipes, Psychologists do analysis, developers build buildings, statisticians crunch numbers; all of these are useful things. But who "does philosophy"? Rather, who should do philosophy? All of us. And if we did, if we were all careful, persistent and consistent social critics, then philosophy would be very useful.