WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY?

The Philosophical Quest  Revisited Landrum Kelly, Jr., Ph.D.

Philosophy begins and ends with questions.  It never gives definitive or final answers to the questions that are of the greatest importance.  Philosophy does, however, allow one to examine rational intellectual choices and assumptions, and it allows one to see the logical implications of various (often competing) assumptions, as well as the interrelationships between and among those choices.

That is, philosophy proceeds by making certain assumptions and examining their possible implications. Since the most interesting assumptions cannot be verified with certainty,neither by reason nor by observation, philosophy thus has inherent limitations.  It can allow one to examine the coherence of a set of beliefs, but it cannot prove or disprove the truth value of the foundational assumptions upon which belief systems rest.  This in turn means that the final conclusions cannot be evaluated as true or false with certainty.  (In this respect, philosophy differs from the empirical sciences, where assumptions and hypotheses can typically be subjected to experimental test and thus dis-verified.)  This is not to say that
philosophy can refute nothing.  It cannot, however, either prove or refute certain ultimate claims which are of the greatest interest.

Foundational assumptions are generally presumed to be both epistemological and metaphysical.  Since epistemology is the study of knowledge, and since neither reason nor observation can ever suffice as the grounds of true knowledge, philosophy offers a continuing quandary as to how belief systems are to be verified or dis-verified.  

Although metaphysics is currently out of fashion in many intellectual quarters, speculations about ultimate reality persist, and attempts to avoid metaphysical questions are doomed to failure.  Even the setting aside of metaphysical questions is a choice with deep metaphysical implications, for so doing implies a belief that the answers to such questions do not matter, and such a belief can itself be seen to be (or to follow from) a metaphysical belief.

  • Perhaps the most fundamental metaphysical question is the existence or non-existence of God.  If one chooses to assume that God exists, then another question immediately follows:
  • if God exists, then what is God like?  Is God a God of retribution or forgiveness, or both (if that were possible)?  Is God truly omnipotent (all-powerful), omniscient (all-knowing), and omni-benevolent (all-good)?  Does God have gender?  Can God take human form?  Has
  • God taken human form, apart from those elements of the divine that are often believed to inhere in human rationality?

Although such questions can never be resolved definitively using either the methods of science or philosophy, rational persons continue to speculate about them.  This is the reality but also the frustration of philosophy, that it allows one to see choices and their implications, but it does not necessarily impel one to make one choice or another.  The element of choice remains, and it is not clear upon what basis (if any) beyond philosophy one makes the most fundamental choices, the choices that drive all other choices.  At some level, ultimate metaphysical claims seem to rest upon articles of faith, although some persons claim some kind of intuitive or even spiritual knowledge about such things.  Others claim that metaphysical speculations are meaningless, and thus pointless.  Although claims about ultimate reality can be argued for or against, it seems clear that the truth about them can never be known with certainty.  This is not only the frustration that inheres in philosophy, but in the human condition.

In spite of the fact that metaphysical and epistemological claims can never be settled withcertainty, philosophy persists as a human enterprise because it is in the nature of rational beings to want to know the answers to such claims.  The principle of non-contradiction that drives all philosophy worthy of the name implies that it makes no sense to embrace simultaneously both a particular claim and the denial or negation of that claim.  Philosophy thus does at least offer choices, and the principle of non-contradiction does allow specious arguments to be shown to be fallacious.  Again, however, one cannot overemphasize that
philosophy cannot offer definitive and final answers to the questions that persons most desire to answer.  Human reason and the principle of non-contradiction can take one only so far, but no further.

It can be seen that, since the question of the existence of God is so central to metaphysical inquiry, the boundary between philosophy and theology is blurred. Even the atheist has a theology, a metaphysical belief about God’s existence that cannot be proven or disproven.  
Atheism, like theism, remains at its ultimate foundation a matter of faith.

Philosophy traditionally consists of four separate subfields: metaphysics, epistemology, logic, and ethics.  Political philosophy (“political theory” in the discipline of political science) is widely viewed as a branch of ethics, moral philosophy.  The philosophy of science is generally viewed as a subfield of epistemology.  

The term “philosophy” comes from two Greek words that together can be rendered as “the love of wisdom.”  Such a love cannot be granted nor certified through the awarding or possession of an academic degree, and philosophy at its core is a quest that is open to all persons–and virtually all persons engage in some degree of philosophical reflection, whether or not they recognize this fact. Since philosophy is not about possessing wisdom, but about loving it and seeking it, any person who desires to know more than he or she knows is a philosopher, regardless of his or her vocation or academic discipline, if any.  
Philosophy certainly is not the exclusive domain of those persons who populate philosophy departments or of those who call themselves “social and political philosophers/theorists” in the disciplines of political science and sociology, among others.

Indeed, the love of wisdom knows no class or educational bounds, and so it is that the claim of being a philosopher is quite a humble claim.  

Philosophical beliefs tend to change over time.  Many have analogized the philosophica quest to a journey or pilgrimage toward wisdom or enlightenment, implying that philosophy does ultimately “go somewhere.”  Perhaps the coherence of one’s belief system is a possible destination.  Even so, one cannot be absolutely certain that one has achieved anything other than the construction of a coherent fantasy.  One wants to believe that the coherence of a belief system matters, since it seems to be related to the integrity of the self.
Once again, however, philosophy helps to clarify the issues but ultimately proves nothing that one ultimately wants to know with absolute certainty.  Perhaps that is the paradox of philosophy, or perhaps it is a reflection of the limitations of human reason.

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