What Is “Philosophy”?

[As my first official post on this now re-opened blog, I offer the following non-scholarly meditation on the question "What is Philosophy?" This is part of a short textbook I am presently writing for a 7th grade humanities class I will be teaching this coming Fall.]

The term “philosophy” comes from two Greek words, philos (love of) and sophia (wisdom), so it means literally “love of wisdom.” Philosophy begins with asking questions. When we start to reflect upon – that is, to think seriously about – ourselves and the world that we live in, we quickly realize how BIG everything is and how SMALL we are. We realize that we do not know very much at all, and that certainly we do not know as much as we like to think we know!

Something you will come to appreciate as you get older is the saying “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I still don’t know.” At any rate, once we realize that we do not know very much, we are in a position to start asking questions about the things that we do not know.

Many people believe that Socrates (469 B.C.–399 B.C.) was “the father of philosophy.” Socrates was famous for saying that true wisdom consists in knowing that you do not know, and in then spending your life trying to find out. He was also famous for saying “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

According to Socrates, most people do not know most of what they think they know. In fact, most of what they think they know consists of prejudices that they have not exposed to the light of inquiry on the basis of reason. According to Socrates, most people regularly confuse appearance (what only seems to be the case) with reality (what actually is the case). By asking questions and exploring them to try to find answers, Socrates encouraged people to think philosophically – to seek true wisdom rather than just what seemed to be wisdom.

Philosophy does its work by means of reason. Philosophy starts with our ordinary, daily experiences, asks questions about them, and tries to logically figure out the answers to the questions. Philosophy is, therefore, concerned with matters that we can figure out for ourselves – matters that we do not need special guidance from God to figure out.

Books about philosophy, about philosophical topics, can get very complicated very fast, and many very smart people spend their whole lives “doing philosophy.” Usually they write long sentences full of big words that are difficult to understand without a great deal of education.

It does not have to be this way, however. If we take Socrates as our model (and you will read a lot of Socrates before this year is over!), philosophy can be defined very simply by three statements:

• “Know yourself.”
• “Nothing to excess.”
• “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

When you really start to “know yourself,” you will know (like Socrates, and also like all the wise men of the Bible!) that you are not much at all. You will know, with Job, that a human being is “Like a flower he comes forth and withers. He also flees like a shadow and does not remain.” (Job 14:2)

You will also realize the truth of what God said to Job about how pitiful Job’s knowledge was: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” (Job 38:4) Recognizing the fundamental fact about yourself that you do not know puts you in a frame of mind to learn things, because you do not think that you already know. This is the beginning of a philosophical way of thinking. It is also what Scripture teaches: “The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know” (1 Cor. 8:1).

When you know that you do not know, you will also be prepared to live your life avoiding excesses. Philosophy can help teach you to understand the difference between the mere appearance of Good and the reality of Good.

You will very often find in your life that what appears to be Good to you the first time you look at it is not what really is Good. More often than not, the things that only appear to be Good will be excesses of one kind or another, while the thing that really is Good will be something moderate.

Lastly, philosophy teaches you to live your life with an attitude of examining everything to see whether it is true or false. This is not just a dictum of philosophy, though. The Bible tells us the same thing:

• Philippians 4:8 – “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.”

• 1 Thessalonians 5:21 – “examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good.”

One of the things you will encounter as you become more mature in your faith is the large issue of how to relate philosophy (which does its work by means of reason) with your religious beliefs (which you hold by faith).

This is a difficult task, and you need to remember that Christians very often disagree with each other about how to do this. In the things that they say in their essays, the writers of the Omnibus present you with one way to do it. You need to know that there are other ways, and that this is an issue on which Christians have disagreed with each other from the very beginning of our Faith.

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