Having finished one year`s course in philosophy, here is a question I asked myself last weekend – what is philosophy for me? It is a state of mind and an approach to life, I responded to myself. Having an engaging dialogue with oneself is completely acceptable in philosophy. Deep, broad and well-argued thoughts are welcome. In my happier moments, philosophical state of mind takes me on intellectually stimulating journeys. In my sadder moments, philosophical approach to life brings consolation and a feeling of belonging. To the human condition.
In both happy and sad times, philosophy is a manifestation of the human condition. To be a human is more than finding creative ways of survival and adaptation, although that too is a trait the scale of which endows us with an unequal competitive advantage over many of our fellow animals. Yet, for me, to be human is to ask fundamental questions in the search for meaning. What is the meaning of this world and all that goes on in it, what is my place in it, what is the meaning of existence, what does it mean to live a good life, and how can I know the meaning of anything? The pursuit of these thoughts and efforts to find relevant answers is the essence of the human condition. Search for meaning.
Philosophy is one of the paths a person can take in the search for meaning. It is a path of the ‘love of wisdom’ (that is how the word philosophy translates from Greek). The way I see it, wisdom is the fundamental understanding of true meaning. Behind all appearances and particular instances. Love of wisdom is putting the value of true understanding over and above any other authority. Not hiding behind a facade of false or unreflected values. Not denying one`s human condition for the sake of the comfort of a golden cage or the safety of a numbed mind. To love wisdom is not easy and it may even be dangerous at times (just think of Socrates and his death sentence). But it is illuminating.
With all this richness in view, I do not want to reduce philosophy or its value merely to an analytical tool of rational inquiry. Although, of course, it is a part of what philosophy can offer. However, being a manifestation of the human condition, philosophy is not limited to purely mathematical, logical settings. The foundation of philosophy is the human search for meaning. This is where the roots are. Whatever you choose to focus on – the whole tree that grows out of those roots or just some of its branches – it will be a part of the love of wisdom path. A path that will require of you an open, honest and curious mind.
Being an academically trained philosopher is not a mandatory requirement to be a philosopher. If you want to pursue it like a profession, then appropriate education is necessary. However, philosophy as such is more than a profession. In fact, practitioners of all sorts of professions can be and are philosophers. For me, philosophy is a reflection of our natural state of mind. It is not the only type. The other two major manifestations of our search for meaning are faith (and, more formally, religion) and science. Philosophy stands between them. It is younger than human faith and remains on a broader conceptual level than modern science. Because of its shared roots with faith and science, and thanks to its critical thinking approach when facing big questions of life, philosophy can serve as a mediator between faith and science.
The traditional four branches of philosophy are metaphysics (what is real?), epistemology (how can I know anything?), logic (what is the best structure of reasoning?), and axiology (what is value and beauty?). However, in line with the trends of time, also philosophy has undergone increasing specialisation. Today there are philosophers of science, of mind, of language, of history, of politics, of religion, and many more. While the area of focus differs, the approach – the underlying questions seeking true understanding – remains at the heart of all philosophy. This shows two important properties: philosophy is broad enough to successfully include a great variety of focus areas, and it is deep enough to help us find meaning as well as openly engage in dialogues with any other reflections of the human condition.
(end of Part I)
Next week I will finish this essay with Part II where I will address one of the most frequent objections to philosophy many people have: namely, that it is something too abstract, too theoretical, impractical, and, therefore, basically useless. Stay tuned!
Image reference: (1) By Anonymous – Camille Flammarion, L’Atmosphère: Météorologie Populaire (Paris, 1888), pp. 163., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=318054