What Is Philosophy, Anyway?

By Kreyche, Gerald F. | USA TODAY, March 2006 | Go to article overview

What Is Philosophy, Anyway?


Kreyche, Gerald F., USA TODAY


THE LAYMAN'S VIEW OF PHILOSOPHY is hazy at best and proves to be the greatest conversation stopper at a party. Many think it has something to do with the clergy or religion. They are not quite sure of what it is, but they are certain that it is an abstract subject.

Indeed, the story is told of a philosopher who lived next door to a family with lots of children. He had a cement driveway put onto his property but, before it dried, the kids were all over it with their handand footprints. Going to the father of those kids, the philosopher complained about their mischief. "What's the matter, Mr. Philosopher?" asked the father. "Don't you like children?" Replied the philosopher,

"Yes, I like children, but only in the abstract--not in the concrete." There is no question that philosophy has its abstract moments, but we must acknowledge that the world in which we live is run not so much by machinery as by ideas. Witness the influence of Buddha, Plato, Jesus, Karl Marx, Adolf Hitler, and a host of others.

In our age where disciplines are increasingly specialized, philosophy acts as a counter in that it is the "speciality of the general." Principally, philosophers are reflective individuals. They may not be doers, as are ranchers, factory workers, storekeepers, or moguls of industry, but they seek knowledge--nay, they seek wisdom--and the difference is palpable. No human problem is foreign to them.

Philosophy had its beginnings around 600 B.C. in a Greek colony near Turkey. What marked its birth was the attempt to explain things in terms of reason and experience, rather than through myth and religion. These first philosophers sought to deduce the basic building blocks of the universe. Thales, an early thinker, said that water was the fundamental principle. Ridiculous, you might say, but we must give him credit for thinking things through. After all, everything in the universe is a liquid, solid, or gas, and water takes on any and all of those forms.

From the colonies, we move to Athens where Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle held court in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. Socrates was the teacher of Plato and the latter the teacher of Aristotle. Socrates was interested in ethical matters, especially the nature of virtue and whether it could be taught. The aim was to produce the moral citizen. Plato started where Socrates left off and went into political theory, hence his masterpiece, The Republic. Aristotle had many fields of interest; he invented logic, for example, studied the physical sciences, came up with an ethics whose motivation was happiness, and inquired about the nature of reality, namely, what it is "to be." Discussing humans, he called them "animals that have reason," distinguishing them from the rest of creation. He mused that philosophy came about not because of curiosity but because of wonder. One can see that philosophers are bent on making distinctions. As the saying has it. "Never deny, seldom affirm, and always distinguish."

Philosophy is not for weak souls, as it strives to be intellectually honest and let the chips fall where they may. …

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