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What is Philosophy?


Philosophy is a way of life. Philosophia is ancient Greek and means love of wisdom. If you are a philosopher, then, you have a commitment to seeking out and attaining wisdom. How do you do that? Western philosophers have historically used Socrates as a model. Socrates used this method: Find a self-proclaimed expert on some topic: knowledge, piety, or virtue, for example. Ask them to define what it is. Examine and criticize each element of the definition. Repeat as needed. Then pick up the pieces.

Socrates of Athens was famous for saying that he was the wisest man in Athens, not because he knew a lot of stuff, but because he at least did not pretend to know what he did not know. Philosophy itself can seem like that at times: very good at presenting what cannot be true, but often not leaving us with very definite positive answers. But don’t underestimate how valuable it is to know what one does not know!

Another valuable philosophical skill not to be underestimated is to withhold judgment. The skeptics thought you should do so until you are sure you know what you’re talking about. They also thought we couldn’t really know anything, so there was a lot of withholding! We are told that some skeptics would be led around by their servants because they refused to trust what they saw. Since many of us don’t have servants, this is now impractical. This means that we have got to question the right things at the right time. Many philosophers like to do so from the safety of armchairs, though personally I prefer a sofa.

But, seriously, it pays to examine our pre-existing ideas, our impressions of how things are, and our feelings. Unless it doesn’t, of course. The philosopher’s urge to question, explore, and make up her own mind based on what she finds puts her at odds with those who rely on tradition and dogma. Socrates was famously sentenced to death by his fellow citizens in 399BCE, because he did not recognize the gods of the city, introduced his own, and corrupted the youth.

Socrates probably did not believe in the Greek pantheon of lustful, quarrelling, and power-hungry gods, but in a good, wise, and truthful deity. He also introduced many noble Athenians to philosophical query, which often involved questioning established authorities. But even after he was condemned to death, Socrates insisted that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” We have no indication that he regretted his commitment to seeking wisdom.

Socrates is by no means the only martyr of philosophy. Hypatia of Alexandria, the leading authority on astronomy, mathematics, and neoplatonic philosophy at the time, was martyred by a Christian mob in 415 because of her intellectual pursuits. Giordano Bruno was burnt at the stake by the Catholic Church in 1600 for believing that the universe was infinite and that Earth wasn’t its centre. These were people who would not simply accept religious dogma, but insisted on exploring the phenomena for themselves. I take this to be the heart of philosophy: free and independent inquiry of any matter under (and over) the sun. I am happy to report that few, if any, philosophers are martyred these days.

Philosophy is not simply a practice for professionals. Everybody has an inner philosopher waiting to come out, if it’s not out already. Take, for instance, Missouri. This is the Show Me state. Why? Because anybody can tell tall tales, but unless they can back up what they say, they should not be believed. Sometimes you can literally show me what you are talking about. Yes, there really is a moose on the lawn outside. Look! Other times you can present me with more indirect evidence. However you want to do so, please be prepared to defend your claims. Help me see why you are saying what you do. A Missourian questions. She is in touch with her inner philosopher; particularly if she goes on to explore these questions further.

The great thing about philosophy is that it can be practiced by anyone anywhere. The curiosity about who we are, what the world is, and how we began to think about such things in the first place is universal.


Prehispanic thinker. The quest for knowledge is universal.

Photo: H.L. Maibom: Museo Raffino Tamayo, Oaxaca, Mexico 2018.