What is Philosophy?

By Brother John Raymond

Philosophy, which means to love wisdom, plays a major part in history as well as our own lives. Cultures and societies have been based on certain philosophical theories. One example of this in our present age is Russia. They base their government on the philosophy of Karl Marx. On a smaller scale, people conduct their lives under the assumption of their own philosophical insights. Even a little child often philosophizes when asking questions concerning aspects of the world they are experiencing. So, what is philosophy? To answer this question, we will need to consider the basic definition of it, the four general categories of it, and its relationship to the individual sciences and religion.

Basically, philosophy can be reduced down to the simple art of wondering. It encompasses all we experience. The only way it is possible is because of our ability as humans for reflection. Animals do not wonder what will happen after death. They can not raise their minds above their daily sustenance. On the other hand, some people lead their entire lives with very little wondering. Why is this? One possible explanation is that certain people have to struggle on a daily basis just to survive. Thus, philosophy becomes more applicable to an individual’s life when he has some time for reflection. The slaves who helped the Egyptians build their pyramids had little time to ask themselves what does all this mean. Asking questions can sometimes be dangerous. Many times we hear this phrase, "Don't ask questions, just do it". Socrates, the famous Greek Philosopher, was sentenced to death for asking questions. We are not moved to wondering until we are posed with a problem. Can we wonder or doubt about everything? Fortunately, Saint Augustine was around to give us a starting point. He claimed that we can not doubt our existence. To doubt is to exist. This would seem to leave a very broad area to wonder about. Not only that, but we need some method to draw conclusions to our questions. To philosophize we must engage in two basic tasks. We must analyze our ideas to discover if we truly know them. Also, we must synthesize all our knowledge to find out if we can attain a larger and better view. Thus, the simple act of doubting or wondering is not enough to come to conclusions.

We will have to look at the well known philosophers to see how they put wondering into practice. They begin with a dialogue. Within the dialogue, they ask each other to clarify their

reasons behind statements, give definitions, and pursue the implications of the statements. They reject authority or personal beliefs as reasons for accepting a statement. The method for reasoning which was chosen by philosophers is formal logic and informal logic. Thus, in a dialogue one has to learn how to ask questions and perceive meaningful answers.

Philosophy can be broken down into four general classifications. These are synoptics, activists, antinomians, and analytics. Synoptic philosophers try to understand every event in the largest possible way. Thus, they need a wide range of knowledge to obtain the overview they desire. Knowledge is seen to have a certain unity. All the parts must be understood in relationship to each other. The activists become involved in the world through their philosophy. They can be further classified into prophetic activists, pragmatists, and existentialists. Prophetic activists use philosophy to bring about major reforms in social conditions. The pragmatists contend that ideas only have meaning in relation to the practical results which they effect. The existentialist states that the only reality that is worthwhile is self-experience. Further, one must always concentrate on the present since past or future do not exist. The antinomians are those who deliberately choose to exist outside the accepted norms of society. They contend that anyone concerned about the quality of his existence must withdraw from the world. Finally, the analytics are mainly concerned with the analysis of ideas. They are preoccupied with the problems of clear thinking. Thus, these classifications give us an idea of what known philosophers dialogue about. Now that we have some knowledge of what philosophy is, we can compare it to the individual sciences and religion.

How does philosophy compare with the individual sciences? There has been three schools of thought concerning this question. The first school claims that philosophy is the servant of Science. This relationship can not be true because Science always considers only part of reality whereas philosophy tries to look at the whole picture. Thus, philosophy cannot be contained in science. The second school holds that philosophy presupposes science and then draws conclusions from it. Again, this position can not be held because philosophy presupposes nothing. The last position claims that philosophy is autonomous from science. This would seem to be the most likely relationship between them. This becomes apparent when examining their basic approaches. Science always starts with an empirical fact and explains it with another empirical fact. Philosophy always tries to get at the root of experience by reflecting on it. Nature for science becomes what can be measured. Nature for the philosopher could be the reflection of the Absolute Being. Thus, one can see the differences between the individual sciences and philosophy.

How does philosophy compare with religion? Again, we find different schools of thought on this issue. The first states that religion and philosophy have nothing to do with each other. They say that religious statements can not be falsified or verified. One can not use reason like in philosophy. Apparently, these people have not looked at Catholic Theology. The next school states that religion is a contradiction of philosophy. The next school gets even worse by claiming that philosophy tries to unmask religion. Another school states that there is a unity between religion and philosophy. "I believe in order to understand." The next school claims that religion is a higher philosophy. Only faith leads to true philosophy. Finally, the last proposal is that religion and philosophy are complementary. This position supported by Saint Thomas Aquinas seems to be the best to hold. Against the first three schools of thought, Saint Thomas argues that since our intellect and revelation come from the Same source, they can not contradict each other. The next two schools fall short due to the difference between faith and reason. Since faith transcends reason, it would seem to fall beyond philosophy. Philosophy is a rational science which bases conclusions on experience. Thus, the relationship between philosophy and religion seems to be a complementary one.

In conclusion, philosophy can be better understood in light of its basic definition along with the examples of philosophers. It also becomes clearer when compared to the individual sciences and religion. Thus, philosophy becomes the basic art of wondering. Examples of philosophers come under the four general categories of synoptics, activists, antinomians, and analytics. Philosophy differs from the individual sciences by trying to look at the whole picture, presupposing no method or object, and trying to get at the root of experience through reflection. Philosophy is complementary to religion since both the intellect and revelation come from the same source. They differ due to the fact that faith transcends reason. One can see all the different views of what philosophy is trying to do and its relationship to other disciplines. It has an impact on our individual lives depending on how much we apply ourselves to it. It also has had a major impact on whole cultures both now and in the past. Therefore, we see the need for proper understanding of this rational science which so effects our lives.

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