Definition of Philosophy (IntroPhil 101.11)

    /    Sep 15, 2016   /     Mind builder  /    Comments are closed  /    419 Views

You remember we began by calling philosophy human wisdom? That first approach has given us further information as to the nature and object of this wisdom and so we are in a position to attempt a more precise definition of philosophy.

For this purpose we shall take philosophy to mean philosophy par excellence, the first philosophy or metaphysics: what we shall say of it in the absolute sense; will be applicable relatively to the other departments of philosophy.

Philosophy is not a “wisdom” of conduct or practical life that consists in acting well; it is a wisdom whose nature consists essentially in knowing, although knowing can affect practical life. But we may ask; how does philosophy seek to know?

Knowing how?

Knowing 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. The search for causes is indeed the chief business of philosophers, and the knowledge with which they are concerned is not a merely probable knowledge, such as orators impart by their speeches, but a knowledge which compels the assent of the intellect, like the knowledge which the geometrician conveys by his demonstrations. But knowledge with certainty of causes is termed as science: Philosophy therefore is a science.

Knowing by what medium, by what light?

Knowing by reason, by what is called the natural light of the human intellect. This is a quality common to every purely human science (as contrasted with theology). That is to say, the rule of philosophy, its criterion of truth, is the evidence of its object. The medium or light by which a science knows its objects is termed in technical language the light in which it apprehends the object of its knowledge

Each of the different sciences has its own distinctive light which corresponds with the formal principles by means of which they attain their object. But these different principles are alike in that they are all known by the spontaneous activity of our intellect, as the natural faculty of knowledge, in other words by the natural light of reason.

The principles of philosophy are unlike the principles of theology which are by a supposed supernatural communication made to man (revelation), and by the light of faith.

We have now to consider the material object of philosophy.

Knowing what? (The Material object of philosophy)

To answer this question we may recall the subjects which engaged the attention of all the initial philosophers. They inquired into everything: knowledge itself and its methods; being and non-being; good and evil; motion; the world; beings animate and inanimate; man and God. Philosophy therefore is concerned with everything, and so is a universal science.

This does not, however, mean:

That philosophy absorbs all the other sciences, or that it is the only science, of which all the rest are merely departments; Nor on the other hand that it is itself absorbed by the other sciences, being no more than their systematic arrangement.

On the contrary, philosophy possesses its distinctive nature and object, in virtue of which it differs from the other sciences. But that philosophy is something real, and that its problems have the most urgent claim to be studied, is proved by the fact that the human mind is compelled by its very constitution to ask the questions which the philosophers discuss;

These questions moreover involve the principles on which, in the last resort, depend the certainty of the conclusions reached by every science. Therefore philosophising is a necessity: “You say,” wrote Aristotle in a celebrated dilemma, “one must philosophise. Then you must philosophise. You say one should not philosophize. Then (to prove your contention) you must philosophise. In any case you must philosophise.” (This dilemma is taken from a lost work of Aristotle of which only a few fragments have come down to us).

Knowing all, under which aspect? (The Formal object of Philosophy)

But how can philosophy be a special science if it deals with everything? We must now inquire under what aspect it is concerned with everything, or, to put it another way, what is that which in everything directly and for itself interests the philosopher?

If, for example, philosophy studies man: Its object is not to ascertain the number of his vertebrae or the causes of his diseases; that is the business of anatomy and medicine.

Philosophy studies man to answer such questions as:

  • Whether he possesses an intellect which sets him absolutely apart from the other animals,
  • Whether he possesses a soul;
  • If he has been made to enjoy God or creatures, etc.

When these questions are answered, thought can soar no higher. No problems can be beyond or above these.

We may say then that the philosopher does not seek the explanation nearest to the phenomena perceived by our senses, but he seeks the explanation most remote from them, the ultimate explanation.

In philosophical terminology we say philosophy is not concerned with secondary causes or proximate explanations (that is to say, approximating to the particulars of sensible phenomena) but on the contrary with first causes, highest principles or ultimate explanations. Moreover, when we remember our conclusion that philosophy knows things by the natural light of reason, it is clear that it investigates the first causes or highest principles in the natural order.

In conclusion

Thus philosophy, alone among the branches of human knowledge, has for its object everything which is. But in everything which is it investigates only the first causes. The other sciences, on the contrary, have for their object some particular provinces of being, of which they investigate only the secondary causes or proximate principles. That is to say, of all branches of human knowledge philosophy is the most sublime.

It follows further that philosophy is in strictest truth wisdom, for it is the province of wisdom to study the highest causes: sapientis est altissimas causas considerare. It thus grasps the entire universe in a small number of principles and enriches the intellect without burdening it.

The account we have just given is applicable in an unqualified sense only to the first philosophy or metaphysics, but may be extended to philosophy in general, if it is regarded as a body of which metaphysics is the head.

We shall then define philosophy in general as a universal body of sciences whose formal standpoint is firsts causes: whether absolutely first causes or principles, the formal object of metaphysics; or the first causes in a particular order, the formal object of the other branches of philosophy.

And it follows that metaphysics alone deserves the name of wisdom absolutely speaking; the remaining branches of philosophy are only relatively so or from a particular point of view.

Look out for the summary and conclusion of this chapter tomorrow


Written by Kombian SOMTUAKA

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