We're beginning a new year, and a new course of studies on philosophy here at the philosophy department. So today I want to talk a little bit about what philosophy is. I'll be approaching this question from a historical perspective, and my training is mostly in western philosophy. So a lot of what I say about philosophy will be coming from my own western perspective. But I think that most of what I will say applies to Chinese philosophy and other contexts as well.
So what is philosophy? The easy answer is that “philosophy” is the “love of wisdom.” This is, after all, the literal meaning of the word “philosophy.” It comes from two Greek words: philo means love, and sophia means wisdom. Philosophia, then, is the love of wisdom. I think it is just as accurate to say that philosophy is the love of knowledge.
But what kind of wisdom or knowledge does philosophy concern. Is philosophy the love of any kind of knowledge? No. In particular, philosophy is not a kind of practical knowledge. It is not a knowledge of how to do things. Philosophy is not a love of skill. We can see this by looking at how Socrates discussed the craftsmen in Athens. Socrates loved to question people to find out what they knew. And when he questioned the craftsmen, he found that they knew many things about their crafts. But they didn't have knowledge of other kinds of things; they didn't know about the things that Socrates cared about. Knowing how to make a sword or a saddle is a useful skill, but that's not the kind of knowledge that philosophers care about. That's not wisdom.
So, what kind of knowledge does the philosopher love? They love knowledge about the world. Philosophy isn't concerned with knowledge of how to do things. It's concerned with knowledge of what the world is like. Knowing what the world is like, without any concern for whether this knowledge is useful for any purpose, has been controversial for a long time. Socrates was accused of concerning himself with things that are in the sky and below the earth. This was supposed to be a bad thing – things that are under the sky or under the earth are no possible use for us. Philosophy is often attacked for removing its adherents from worldly concerns. Here's an old story: The pre-Socratic philosopher Thales was staring at the sky as he walked, trying to figure out the mysteries of the heavens. When he was watching the sky, he wasn't watching the road. And so he fell into a well.
But here's another story about Thales: He was the first person to successfully predict a solar eclipse. And here's another story about Thales: He understood the weather well enough that he could predict that there would be a very good crop of olives one year. Knowing this, he bought all the olive presses in the city. When the harvest came, and everyone had lots of olives that they needed to press into olive oil, Thales made a fortune.
The lesson is clear. Philosophy is not knowledge of how to do things. But by coming to better understand the world around us, we can learn how to do many useful things.
But wait – aren't I describing science, rather than philosophy? No. There's a common idea that “science” and “philosophy” are two completely different things. But this is just wrong. People who do what we would now call “science” - people like Thales – were called philosophers. Science was, for thousands of years, known as natural philosophy. The word “physics” comes from the Greek word for “nature.” Science became its own discipline only after the discovery of the scientific method, by Francis Bacon. Bacon, of course, would have considered himself a natural philosopher in the tradition of Aristotle. “Scientist” is just a shorthand way of saying “Baconian natural philosophers.”Scientists are natural philosophers who use Bacon's method.
But perhaps there are facts about reality that we can't discover using Bacon's scientific method.
Here's another fun story. Aristotle didn't write books. He had a huge series of notes that were used for instruction in his school, the Lyceum. After Aristotle's death, his followers took those notes and organized them into books. The things that he wrote about natural philosophy were collected into a book called Nature, or (in Greek) Physics. But there were other writings that concerned the natural world that were about more difficult topics that couldn't easily be studied by observing the world. These were put into a separate book that went after the book on nature. That book was called, unimaginatively, “After Nature.” Or, in Greek, Meta Physics. That's where the word “metaphysics” comes from.
So if we understand science as Baconian natural philosophy, I suggest that we should understand metaphysics as any investigation of the world that doesn't use the scientific method. With this definition, we can see that much of theoretical physics is really metaphysics. The emphasis on the mathematical beauty of theories in much of contemporary theoretical physics shows that Pythagoras is as relevant today as ever.
Why might we think that metaphysics is impossible? Perhaps because the scientific method is our only way of discovering things about the natural world. This brings us to the realms of epistemology and philosophy of science. Epistemology studies what knowledge is, or what evidence is. Epistemology can help us understand why the scientific method is a good way of coming to know things. It can also help us understand whether we could ever come to know about things by methods other than the scientific method.
Perhaps the scientific method is the only way of coming to know things. If so, then Baconina natural philosophy would be the only kind of natural philosophy worth doing. But instead of merely asserting that the scientific method is the only way of coming to know things, as today's Baconina natural philosophers often do, we need some reason to think that the scientific method is the only way of coming to know things. This is what makes epistemology so important.
Philosophy also traditionally covers ethics – how we should live our lives. My view is that ethics is far too difficult! More fundamentally, we need to get an understanding of the metaphysics and epistemology of ethics. What is virtue, and how do we know about it? It seems a little silly to try to figure out what the virtuous life is if we don't know what we're talking about, or if we don't have even the slightest idea of how the questions of virtue can be investigated. It doesn't look like we can figure out what a good life is by using the scientific method. No experiments can show us what our duties are. No statistical regression can reveal what really matters.
So what is philosophy? Philosophy is the study of the world around us. Understood in this way, we can easily dispel the mistaken idea that philosophy is useless or makes no progress. To the contrary, Baconian natural philosophy has answered many important questions. We've also made substantial progress in epistemology, as the discovery of the scientific method was itself a concrete advance in epistemology, and has refined our understanding of what knowledge is and how we get it. Neoplatonic theories about our soul receiving wisdom that radiates from God are, at this point, dead and buried. And for good reason.
Perhaps the most difficult questions still concern ethics. How we should live our lives, and what it even means to have a good life? We still don't know the answer, and we're still unsure how to find the answer. Somehow, this seems appropriate.