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What in the World is Philosophy?

  • DEACON DOUGLAS MCMANAMAN

Philosophy is literally the "love of wisdom." But what does it mean to love, pursue, and possess wisdom?

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What in the world is philosophy?  The word itself comes from the two Greek words: philia and sophiaPhilia is the Greek word for 'love' (a bond of friendship), while sophia is Greek for 'wisdom'.  Philosophy is literally the "love of wisdom".  But what does it mean to love, pursue, and possess wisdom?

To understand this better, consider that most of us know through experience that not everyone who is knowledgeable is wise.  Some people have a great deal of learning, but very little wisdom.  Clearly there is a difference between knowledge and wisdom.  What exactly is the difference between the two?

Let us begin with knowledge of the scientific kind, since most of us are more familiar with it; for even kids can possess it.  The word "science" comes from the Latin verb scire, which means "to know".  Thus, science has to do with possessing a certain kind of knowledge.  Now some people are under the impression that science is about knowing facts.  But science is much more than that; for everyone knows certain basic facts, such as "leaves are green", or "the sky is blue", or that "people get cancer", etc, but that does not make them scientists.  A person has science, however, when he knows the reason for the fact, such as why leaves are green, or the reason for cancer, etc.  Science is about reasoned facts.  In other words, one has science when one knows the cause of the fact.

Now that which manifests a desire to possess "science" is the act of questioning.  The very word 'question' comes from the Latin querere, which means to quest, to journey, or to search.  To question is to go out on a quest in search of something, namely the cause of a fact, or the reason for it.  That is why science is fundamentally a knowledge of things through their proper causes.

Wisdom is a kind of science, and so it too is a knowledge of things through causes.  But, more precisely, wisdom is a knowledge of the highest causes; it is the intellectual virtue by which a person judges (or sees things) in light of the highest or first causes.  That is why we sometimes find wisdom in older people, for they have had the years of experience to "see the larger picture", so to speak.  They have encountered many kinds of people throughout their lives, they have been deceived before, lied to, have been pleasantly or unpleasantly surprised by things they weren't aware of, they've made mistakes, have had time to reflect upon their mistakes and the mistakes of their friends, associates, and family, and they have come to learn how to distinguish the genuine friend from the false friend, they know something about what marriage really is as opposed to what they thought it was when they first married, they understand what love really is and what it is not, they understand that they knew very little when they thought they knew a lot, and so they know something about human limitations, which they didn't quite appreciate when they were younger, etc.  And so they understand something about human nature and human frailty, and they are able to give us advice about the kind of people we ought to be wary of, whom we can trust, what to expect in the future, etc.

Such people are wise as a result of experience, honest reflection, and the ability to reason.  Not everyone over 50, however, is wise because not everyone over 50 is honest, reflective, or rational.  Moreover, one has no need of a microscope in order to be wise; but one cannot do biology, for example, without a microscope.  And so philosophy, which is the love of wisdom, is not dependent upon technology — some of the most brilliant philosophers in history lived well before the invention of the first telescope, etc.  The reason is that philosophy is the pursuit of first or ultimate causes, and first causes cannot be investigated through the senses; they must be arrived at through reason alone.  Philosophy is the study of the ultimate nature of things; empiriological (or empiriometric) science, unlike philosophy, seeks the proximate causes of things, not their ultimate causes.

A few simple examples may help to clarify these points.  Consider the growth of living things.  The biologist would like to know why things grow, that is, the cause of growth.  Why do cells multiply?  How does cell division work?  When he understands the cause of cell division, he can be said to possess science.  But if he claims to know the cause of cell division, he must be able to demonstrate it.  He can only do so definitively through empirical means (i.e., some sort of experiment, or via the use of something that enhances the sense of sight, such as a microscope).

But sometimes people ask questions about causes of a different sort.  Cells that are not alive would not divide, and if they divide, they are alive.  So, what is it that makes the cell living in the first place?  That question bears upon a first cause.  Moreover, a cell is not living unless it first exists, and a thing need not be alive in order to exist (i.e., carbon atoms exist, but they are not alive).  Thus, what is the cause of a thing's very existence?  That question too bears upon a first or ultimate cause.  Now every part of the living cell is alive, which is why we are not going to find the cause of its life within some part of the cell.  One cannot say, for instance, that the cause of its life is the DNA, for the DNA is alive in so far as it is a part of the living cell.  One only has to ask what it is that causes the DNA to be living DNA?  If it is a part of the cell, the cause will be the same as the cause of the whole cell's life.  Furthermore, existence is not a part of the cell; for the whole cell exists.  The cause of the cell's existence is not going to be something that you will be able to see under a microscope.  In other words, first causes cannot be investigated via the senses.  And so we have no choice but to reason our way to first or ultimate causes.

Philosophical knowledge is the knowledge of things through their first causes.  Experimental science (investigative) is not a search for first causes, but rather proximate or secondary causes.  The cause of the blue in your eyes is a secondary cause, for you cannot have blue eyes unless you first have an eye which is alive, and you cannot have a living eye unless you as a whole are alive.  The first cause is that which accounts for your being alive, the secondary cause accounts for the blue in your eyes, or the brown in your hair, etc.  A few more examples may clarify this further.

Biology is the study of living organisms (botany, zoology, physiology, neurology, histology, etc.).  The question: "What is the cause of cancer?"  is a question that only a biologist can answer.  Philosophy, on the other hand, does not investigate plant life, or the physiology of an insect, etc.  Rather, philosophy would seek an answer to the question: "What does it mean to be a living thing as opposed to a non-living thing?"  The philosopher is not concerned with the nervous system of a rabbit or the DNA of a frog.  To study these is to study the secondary causes of a frog or rabbit.  Rather, philosophy would like to know what it means to be an animal, or what it means to be a species as opposed to an individual of a species, etc.  All the investigating in the world is not going to tell us what it means to be a species as opposed to an individual of the species.  One has to reason to the answer.

Philosophical knowledge is the knowledge of things through their first causes.

Similarly, the chemist studies the composition, properties and structure of substances (organic chemistry, inorganic chemistry, biochemistry).  And so the chemist wants to know how a metal reacts with a gas, or why iron rusts.  But the philosopher seeks to understand what it means to be a substance.  He asks: "What makes a substance to be what it is?"  Or, "What is the difference between substance and attribute?"  A chemist does not ask such questions.  He takes substance for granted, as a carpenter takes a hammer for granted; the carpenter (scientist) uses the hammer to build houses, but it is the tool maker (philosopher) who studies the hammer.

Physics studies matter and energy and their interactions.  The philosopher studies the ultimate constitution of matter, and so he will seek an answer to the question: "What is matter?"  and "What is time?"  "What is place?"  and "What is motion?"  Psychology studies human behaviour, but the philosophy of human nature studies what it means to be man: "Is there an essential difference between man and brute?"  The lawyer studies existing laws and how they apply in particular circumstances, but the philosophy of law studies the ultimate principles of law: "What does it mean to be a law?"  or, "Are there natural laws?"  Political philosophy asks: "Is anarchy reasonable or disordered?"  Moral philosophy asks: "What constitutes a just law?" and "What is justice?"  Moreover, the mathematician studies numbers and their relations, but the philosopher asks: "What is number?"  "What is quantity?"  "What is a relation?"  "Is mathematical infinity real?"  "What is infinity?"  Such questions cannot be answered using mathematics.

Science investigates specific modes of being in the physical universe, such as living being, chemical being, mobile being, human being, etc.  But metaphysics (the highest branch of philosophy) studies not specific modes of being such as living, chemical, or physical, but simply being insofar as it is being.  Metaphysics would like to know what it means to be and what the properties of being as being are.  And so philosophers ask: "Does non-being exist?"  "Why is there anything rather than nothing?"  and "Is a thing good to the degree that it has being?"  and "What is the cause of all being?"  Metaphysics will concern itself with the question of God's existence in so far as He can be known through the natural light of human reason.

Science investigates the various aspects of the material universe, but philosophy seeks to know the answer to the question: "What is science?", and "What does it mean to know?"  as well as "What does it mean to know scientifically?"  Epistemology is that branch of philosophy that seeks to understand how it is we come to know and what exactly is the content of consciousness.

And so, returning to our example of the wise person who understands something about human nature, virtue, love, marriage, relationships, things that matter as opposed to things that do not, etc., what he understands, to a certain degree at least, is the ultimate nature of either the human person, or marriage, or friendship, etc.  As a result of experience, reflection and reasoning, he knows something about the nature of love, for example, that it is more than a feeling, or something about the nature of happiness, that is has an essential connection to virtue, or something about the nature of genuine friendship, for example, that true friendship is founded not so much on utility or pleasure as on good character, and that people of bad character have no real friends and are incapable of being a friend, etc.

Wisdom (philosophy) begins on the level of ordinary experience and ascends upward by means of human reason in order to take in "the whole picture" from a bird's eye point of view, a point of view that is beyond the realm of ordinary experience.  Thus, in philosophy, sensation is at the service of reason.  Experimental science, on the other hand, begins on the level of ordinary experience and descends by means of empirical investigation in order to take in not so much the whole as the parts of the whole that are beyond the realm of ordinary experience.  Thus, in the investigative sciences, reason is at the service of sensation.


Concluding Thoughts

What if a person were to deny that ultimate causes are really distinct from what is referred to above as proximate causes?  For example, what if someone were to assert that the only genuine knowledge we have is that which is, in the end, resolved in sensation (the investigative sciences) and that if a claim cannot be resolved or verified in sensation or experiment (the scientific method), it is not genuine knowledge.

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One can say this, but to be consistent, the one who makes this assertion will have to demonstrate the truth of it through the scientific method, that is, he will have to resolve his conclusion in the realm of sensation.  But he will not be able to do so.  How does one show, through visible and tangible evidence, that the only valid knowledge we have is scientific knowledge?  The assertion is not a scientific conclusion at all, but an assumption. 

Moreover, science takes place on the basis of many principles that science itself cannot establish.  For example, science presupposes the intelligibility of things.  The world is meaningful and can be studied and known, yet science cannot explain why or account for its intelligibility.  Also, there is no science of particulars, only universals.  In other words, anatomy does not study this particular cadaver (which belonged to John Smith, who just died) in order to know this cadaver, but in order to know all cadavers of that species.  But science cannot account for this universality, does not concern itself with it, but accepts the fact as part and parcel of what science is.  Similarly, mathematics depends upon "one" as the principle of number, but it cannot account for unity or oneness, or explain what it is.

What about those who deny truth altogether, and who maintain that all assertions of truth are merely subjective (from the subject himself), and thus conclude that there is no truth, only individual perspectives and that what is true for you may not be true for me?

Indeed, there are many today who maintain this.  But the denial of truth is self-refuting.  If there is absolutely no truth, then the very statement "there is no truth" must be false (because there is no truth).  If the statement "there is no truth" is false, then there is truth, and it is possible to know the truth.  So denying truth only serves to prove that there is truth. 

But take note at this point that we did not resolve this question about truth through sense investigation; our method was not investigative as is the scientific method.  The problem was resolved through reason; our method was philosophical in the strict sense of the word.  Take that as an example of the fundamental difference between philosophy and empiriometric science.

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Acknowledgement

Deacon Douglas McManaman. "What in the World is Philosophy?" Chapter 1 from Introduction to Philosophy for Young People (Douglas McManaman, 2013).

Printed with permission of Deacon Douglas McManaman.

All rights reserved. No part of this work covered by the copyrights hereon may be reproduced or used in any form or by any means — graphic, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, taping or information storage and retrieval systems — without the prior written permission of the publisher and copyright holders.

The Author

mcmanamanwbasmMcManamanaDoug McManaman is a Deacon and a Religion and Philosophy teacher at Father Michael McGivney Catholic Academy in Markham, Ontario, Canada. He is the past president of the Canadian Fellowship of Catholic Scholars. He maintains the following web site for his students: A Catholic Philosophy and Theology Resource Page. Deacon Douglas studied Philosophy at St. Jerome's College in Waterloo, and Theology at the University of Montreal. He is the author of Why Be Afraid?, Basic Catholicism, Introduction to Philosophy for Young People, and A Treatise on the Four Cardinal Virtues. Deacon McManaman is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 2013 Deacon Douglas McManaman
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