Truth in Philosophy

Article excerpt

Can a Philosophy be True?

I WILL HERE ADVANCE SOME IDEAS in the field of meta-philosophy. What I want to explore is whether there could be any truths in philosophy.

The question of the nature of truth itself is at the crux of most philosophical systems and methods. However, when a reader first encounters philosophy, usually many philosophical positions will be presented. This is unlike in other fields. Thus, the question of the possible truth of these various positions on numerous topics arises quite naturally. Is there freedom of the will or can none of us help what happens to us? is nature composed of matter alone, or, if not, is it entirely spiritual? Is pragmatism or subjectivism or empiricism the correct epistemology? What about ethics--is altruism, utilitarianism or egoism right? should we take pleasure as our highest goal or should we serve the will of God? Is communism, socialism, feudalism, the welfare state or libertarianism the correct political solution for human beings?

Encountering so many different, often contradictory ways of thinking about the world can be discouraging, even disturbing. It should awaken most of us to the realization that often we do not know where we stand. The resulting perplexity might lead one to the view that philosophy is useless and possibly even destructive, so why not cast it aside and attend to more manageable matters? This view is itself a position within philosophy, so we are back to the same puzzle again: what is right or true in philosophy?

It is pointless to wait for the "united association of philosophers" to come out of hiding and settle the issues. In other fields of inquiry we seem to find it acceptable enough to come up with answers that are both perfectly sound and quite open to revision, modification, and updating. It is best not to expect from philosophy something that cannot be promised in any other area, namely, a final settlement of a problem. Instead, one would probably do well to take up the task alone, with help from those who have been doing work in the field over the centuries, and ask in earnest whether there are any right or nearly right answers to the questions raised in philosophy. Reading all the books in philosophy will not do the job. Yet, even after a brief survey one might attend to the task just for a little while. To assist in this endeavor, I will suggest where I have ended up thus far in my own investigations concerning the matter of truth in philosophy.

The Subject Matter of Philosophy

The proper, valid subject matter of philosophy is the basic features of reality and our essential relationship to them--not, however, the various special domains studied in other fields of inquiry. Metaphysics studies basic facts; epistemology asks what knowledge is; ethics considers how human beings should live; and politics addresses the problem of how human communities should be set up. These, briefly, are the central issues treated within the various branches of philosophy. Among the many branches and sub-branches of human inquiry it is philosophy that considers these issues; however, they pertain to us all.

To make some headway toward coping with the issue of whether there can be truth in philosophy, it will help to consider that the purpose of philosophy is not itself a philosophical issue, although many philosophers discuss it. The knowledge of what philosophy studies is not philosophical knowledge--to be more precise. In any area of study the field must be well enough known; it must be distinguished from other fields and assimilated into the broader categories, such as sciences, arts, and humanities, before work can begin in it. This is a gradual process in human evolution, but when we think the matter through for ourselves, it is noticeable enough that whatever philosophy amounts to, this is not itself the consequence of philosophical inquiry. That would amount to having things upside down. …