Does Philosophy Deserve More Respect than it
Receives in Western Culture? Or Less?
PHILOSOPHY: love of wisdom; the knowledge or investigation of ultimate reality; a particular system of philosophical principles.
Since the modern world began in the sixteenth century, nobody’s system of philosophy has really corresponded to everybody’s sense of reality; to what, if left to themselves, common men would call common sense. Each started with a paradox; a peculiar point of view demanding the sacrifice of what they would call a sane point of view. That is the one thing common to Hobbes and Hegel, to Kant and Bergson, to Berkeley and William James. A man had to believe something that no normal man would believe, if it were suddenly propounded to his simplicity; as that law is above right, or right is outside reason, or things are only as we think them, or everything is relative to a reality that is not there. The modern philosopher claims, like a sort of confidence man, that if once we will grant him this, the rest will be easy; he will straighten out the world, if once he is allowed to give this one twist to the mind.
G. K. Chesterton
All the things we need to be certain about to pursue philosophy can only be accepted as common sense; things like being, knowledge, truth and freedom.
The first requirement of philosophy is that you have to be certain of something; and the first thing you have to be certain of is the possibility of knowledge. If you ask “Can we know something?”—or to put it in philosophical jargon, “Is the primary act of recognition of any reality real?”—you must answer yes. If you answer no, you disqualify yourself for philosophy.
While admitting that doubt is possible with regard to all our common knowledge, we must nevertheless accept that knowledge in the main if philosophy is to be possible at all. There is not any superfine brand of knowledge, obtainable by the philosopher, which can give us a standpoint from which to criticize the whole of the knowledge of daily life. The most that can be done is to examine and purify our common knowledge by an internal scrutiny, assuming the canons by which it has been obtained, and applying them with more care and with more precision. Philosophy cannot boast of having achieved such a degree of certainty that it can have authority to condemn the facts of experience and the laws of science. The philosophic scrutiny, therefore, though sceptical in regard to every detail, is not sceptical as regards the whole.
If science may be said to be blind without philosophy, it is true also that philosophy is virtually empty without science... What confronts the philosopher...is the task of clarifying the concepts of contemporary science. But for him to be able to achieve this, it is essential that he should understand science. If he is incapable of understanding the propositions of any science, then he is unable to fulfil the philosopher’s function in the advancement of our knowledge. For he is unable to define the symbols which, most of all, require to be made clear. It is indeed misleading to draw a sharp distinction, as we have been doing, between philosophy and science. What we should rather do is to distinguish between the speculative and the logical aspects of science, and assert that philosophy must develop into the logic of science. That is to say, we distinguish between the activity of formulating hypotheses, and the activity of displaying the logical relationship of these hypotheses and defining the symbols which occur in them. It is of no importance whether we call one who is engaged in the latter activity a philosopher or a scientist. What we must recognise is that it is necessary for a philosopher to become a scientist, in this sense, if he is to make any substantial contribution towards the growth of human knowledge.
A. J. Ayer (from Language Truth and Logic, 1936)
Philosophy is radically different from the sciences. The questions which science asks can all, in principle, be fully answered, or at any rate they are not unanswerable in principle. A philosophical question, on the other hand, can never be finally answered and disposed of—for instance “what is this, ultimately?” or “what is illness?” or “what is knowledge?” or “what is man?”
Wonder and philosophy are related in a far more essential way than might be supposed from the saying that ‘wonder is the beginning of philosophy.’ Wonder is not just the starting point of philosophy in the sense of a prelude or preface. Wonder is the lasting source as well as the origin of philosophy. The philosopher does not cease ‘wondering’ at a certain point in his philosophizing; he does not cease to wonder unless, of course, he ceases to philosophize in the true sense of the word.
Seen in a certain light, modern philosophy is a machine designed to destroy philosophy, a matter of raising questions and then proving that they don’t exist or don’t matter.
The famous cogito ergo sum—“I think, therefore I am”—does not carry the mathematical certainty that Descartes attributed to it. The sceptical exercises by which he challenged our common-place perceptions and the familiar propositions of our common sense cannot be brought to a halt so easily. If we follow in Descartes’s footsteps, rigorously demanding absolute certainty, we will end with accepting the reality, not of an enduring thinking subject, but of something far “thinner” and much less satisfying—a moment of isolated sensation, of truncated consciousness.
Many philosophers reject the authority of experience (and therefore of common sense) and substitute the authority of thought.
Probably the two most famous philosophers of the twentieth century in the English speaking world were Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein. In 1911 the 39 year old Russell tried to get the 22 year old Wittgenstein to consider the proposition: There is no hippopotamus in this room at present. When Wittgenstein refused to believe this Russell looked under all the desks without finding one. Nevertheless, Wittgenstein remained unconvinced.
Philosophy is the search for truth in the reasonable expectation of finding some.
Thoughts about Philosophy
Bishop Berkeley destroyed this world in one volume octavo; and nothing remained, after his time, but mind; which experienced a similar fate from the hand of Mr. Hume in 1737.
For my part, I find in the most modern thought a corrosive solvent of the great systems of even the recent past, and I do not believe that the constructive efforts of present-day philosophers and men of science have anything approaching the validity that attaches to their destructive criticism.
Both morality and art take their marching orders from philosophy, either directly or indirectly.
It is a great advantage for a system of philosophy to be substantially true.
Every philosophical position has its own difficulties. The question one must decide is not whether the answers to the difficulties of some particular philosophy are completely satisfying, but whether they are more satisfying than the answers to the difficulties inherent in alternative philosophies.
The attempt to establish the truth of any particular philosophy through purely intellectual processes is absolutely hopeless—and for purely intellectual reasons.
In the preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit Hegel tells us that his aim is to do what he can to enable philosophy to cease being called love of wisdom, and become real knowledge.
Philosophy is not a short cut to the same kind of results as those of the other sciences: if it is to be a genuine study, it must have a province of its own, and aim at results which the other sciences can neither prove nor disprove.
Metaphysics is the only thoroughly emotional thing.
G. K. Chesterton
Every philosopher is a man of faith. He needs faith to believe in the foundations of his own philosophy.
No philosophical question can be answered with complete finality.
Philosophy cannot fully comprehend its objects.
One of the chief functions of philosophy is to remind us of the shallowness of our understanding of things and the massive background of our ignorance.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
Philosophy should hinder and resist the natural craving of the human spirit for a clear, transparent and definite system.
A complete and closed ‘system’ of philosophy is not possible. The claim to expound the world in a formula, or to have a system with which to explain the world, is quite simply unphilosophic or pseudo-philosophy.
There is no such thing as a philosophy which does not receive its impulse and impetus from a prior and uncritically accepted interpretation of the world as a whole.
Knowledge came down to us like a flame of light, as a gift from the Gods, I am convinced, brought to us by the hand of some unknown Prometheus from a divine source—and the ancients, being better than we are, and nearer to the Gods, handed this tradition down to us.
There is nothing so absurd but some philosopher has said it.
I create myself: my being by my thought, my thought by thought itself.
Johann Gottlieb Fichte
Nothing is more common than for a philosopher to declare all previous philosophizing outmoded, irrelevant, useless or merely nonsensical.
Philosophy consists largely of one philosopher arguing that all others are jackasses. He usually proves it, and I should add that he also usually proves that he is one himself.
H. L. Mencken
To philosophize means to look at reality in such a way that things are the measure and the soul is exclusively receptive.
When he who hears does not know what he who speaks means, and when he who speaks does not know what he himself means—that is philosophy.
What can be rationally believed depends on one’s philosophy. But a philosophy cannot be founded on purely rational argument; it can only be founded on faith or common sense, where faith and common sense differ in context rather than in kind.
A person who believes in unalterable natural law can’t believe in any miracle in any age. A person who believes in a will behind law can believe in any miracle in any age.
G. K. Chesterton
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