Lesson 2    The Different Faces of Philosophy




We now have somewhat clearer an idea of what kind of character the philosopher is and of the philosophical attitude, yet this still does not tell us exactly what we are looking for in Philosophy. What we have just shown could lead us to think that philosophy is some sort of subjective knowledge, since it is personal and relates to life.  It is hard to think of it as a science if by science we understand the objective approach of highly specialised knowledge of the kind we encounter in physics or in biology.


Nevertheless, if a branch of knowledge is purely subjective, is it worth one’s while to devote be it a single hour to it? Would this not condemn philosophy to limit itself to intellectual ruminations on what the “truth” might be? A purely subjective philosophy, meaning here individual, would be a contradiction in terms.  Philosophy is universal or it is not, because truth is not concerned with our individual preferences.  Therefore it is not justified to oppose it to science. Is it not possible then to think differently of philosophy?  In its ideal of a universal truth it comes close to being a science, yet as a journey it is a personal quest.  In fact philosophy is Life’s own self-understanding as a totality.  This is what we shall be considering now, asking ourselves: What is philosophy?


*    *



A. Love, wisdom and knowledge

     It may be that the ancient Greek were right when they held that there is wisdom in words.  The word philosophy is one that can teach us much, if only we pay a little attention to it.  In Greek philosophia is broken down into philo, the verb ‘to love’ (I love), and sophia, which can be translated as wisdom or as skill in art and science.  Summing up, we could say that philosophy is the love of knowledge and the love of wisdom.  It is not by chance that in Greek the same word can imply both knowledge and wisdom.  In traditional thinking to know the truth is the same thing as attaining wisdom.  It is one and the same process.  Truth is then of course not thought of as a skill in the technical sense this word has today.  To know the truth is not to know this or that particular fact, Napoleon’s date of birth or what DNA is made of.  Nor is it knowing everything about everything, which would be absurd.  It is knowing the essential about whatever there is to know.  Philosophy is the procedure which takes the mind to the essence and leads it back to what is essential.


This identification of learning with wisdom makes knowledge more humane and integrated to an art of living also called wisdom.  Nevertheless, what we have today is the separation of knowledge, in the sense of objective knowledge, and learning, in the sense of a knowledge integrated to life.


How did this dissociation of knowledge and wisdom occur? The Greek thought of philosophy as the beautiful totality of a knowledge which never loses sight of life’s self-comprehension and of a wisdom aspiring to both universality and to absolute objectivity. Totality of Being is echoed by the total knowledge of Being. Modern thinking has put these two side by side.  By way of a caricature, we can say that the knowledge giving mastery over Nature is the business of science, while the wisdom of a life in accordance with nature pertains to philosophy. Hence the totality envisaged by the Ancients has been dissected through the development of modern science in as many areas as there are sciences.  Consequently, subject matters that were once thought of as so many branches of philosophy have broken off and gained their independence.  Thus we have seen mathematics, logic, astronomy, biology, physics and so on go their own separate way.  At the same time it would seem that the “area” covered by philosophy has been gradually shrinking away. In the epic of Western science knowledge has come to resemble a fragmentation bomb, these bombs that on exploding split into many smaller bombs.  As a discipline which keeps subdividing, knowledge today is now so fragmented that a specialist can no longer embrace the full extent of his field. Hence one says that one does research in cellular biology or in fluid thermodynamics, not that one knows “the” biology or “the” physics of one’s time.  This however does not mean that one would have ceased to equate knowledge with science.  In the 19th century, in the days of Auguste Comte’s positivism, it was held that science alone is capable of yielding valid knowledge.  If philosophy survived, it was as an accessory, a reflection on science.  It might also possibly concern itself with the study of morals, religion and wisdom: one has to find this poor philosopher something to do! Any field that can gain a positive status (in the sense of positivism) is classed as a science.



This at least is what one might think if one mistakenly believes that philosophy can concern itself with so fragmentary an object as the sciences.  Yet we are all aware of the necessity to go beyond fragmentary knowledge and consider knowledge in a more global way.  We also need a type of knowledge which speaks to us about ourselves as subjective beings.  We know that Thinking cannot do without a crossroad common to all.  It has been the traditional task of philosophy to play that part.  However philosophy today must take yet a few more steps in that direction.  Our vision of knowledge simply has to mature so as to take us back to the ideal of a knowledge-wisdom which at once aims for both the understanding and the expansion of life.


Changes in the course of History do not prejudice truth in any way.  It would be rather naïve to think that we, the people of today, would be in possession of a more adequate idea of what is philosophy.  History justifies nothing.  On the contrary we might well have lost the true sense of philosophy.  This point must be examined.


Right now, one single thing matters: that the term wisdom has no precise meaning in today’s culture, it is looked upon as obscure.  We shall have to find another manner in which to define philosophy, one better able to speak to our time.


2)                   Let us spend a little more time on the expression love of knowledge. Love is a feeling of the heart, an attraction to what is loved and a desire to be united with it.  There is no love without union.  Philosophy, as love of knowledge, presupposes the desire to know, together with the uplift that comes with love. The desire to know partakes in the nature of desire.  It supposes at once a lack of and an aspiration to fulfilment.  It also supposes the imperfection of the one who desires and his movement towards more perfection.  In the Symposium Plato says just this of philosophy.  Effectively, we do not know.  If, like the gods, we knew everything, we would have no desire to learn, there would be no reason to philosophize.  “No god philosophizes or desires knowledge, since he has it already, and in general, if you know, you do not philosophize.”  The one who knows does not need to undertake a journey to discover.  There is no gap to fill. Philosophy can therefore be defined as a quest which has to go through the experience of a shortfall.  Must one then be completely ignorant in order to start philosophy?  No.  The thickest ignorance could not give rise to the desire to learn.  “The ignorant do not either philosophize and do not wish to learn; for there is this irritating side to ignorance, that when someone has neither beauty, goodness or knowledge, he believes he has them all. And, when you do not feel deprived of something, you do not desire it.”  When you do not even notice how ignorant you are, you are not in any way aware of your shortcomings.  He who believes he knows, who, imbued with his opinions, thinks of himself as sufficiently learned, does not philosophize.  This belief makes him intellectually deaf and numb as a log.  In this state a desire for learning, an impetus to greater knowledge, will not arise.  Thus extremes meet and join.  Neither complete knowledge nor complete ignorance could give birth to the desire to know.


            The answer lies in an intermediary stage.  Ignorance has to have awoken      to become aware of itself as ignorance for the quest for knowledge to begin.  In this way, it is no longer inert, it is awake and in this waking state a sincere desire for knowledge can arise.  One can then say: “ I don’t know, but I want to learn”.  Sometimes a chock is required to produce this awakening.  Socrates’ irony plays that role.  It is the gadfly stinging one’s pride and complacency.


This intermediate stage is of great metaphysical importance.   It means that as humans we are a mixture of knowledge and ignorance, of light and darkness.  The human condition is midway between finite and infinite, time and eternity.  It cannot be reduced to the rigid inertia of a thing – a stone say -, and, unlike the life of the gods, it is not perfect.  It oscillates between these two poles, it is man’s spiritual evolution in the making.  Philosophy is a bridge the purpose of which is to connect man to the divine.  Confined within the limits of human condition, it does not exist beneath or above it; there is no philosophy in ignorance or in so thick an unconsciousness that thinking could not penetrate it; nor is there any philosophy in the fully accomplished life of a sage, a divine life.  At that stage, which achieves the unity of life and knowledge, philosophy turns to wisdom. Hence philosophy expresses the dignity of the human condition, of man as devoted to learning.  Knowledge is man’s birthright and the privilege setting him above the animal.  So much for clarifying the desire to know.  Let’s consider now the philosophical knowledge of life and what this might be.

B.  Philosophy and Human Experience.


The desire to learn acts like a force that sets man in motion; he becomes a Seeker for the knowledge of Being or Reality. Our first contact with Reality is in the phenomenon of experience.  It is experience which connects man to the world he lives in, to the world of things and people.  Knowledge is the thought-act which establishes the connection between the subject and the object, by means of  representations.  Hence knowledge and experience must be closely related.  Isn’t knowing always knowing something and experiencing that thing?  If the knowledge has no object, then it has no content, or else it is limited to the empty forms of some shallow ideas that do not refer to anything real.  With this in mind we can now give an acceptable definition of philosophy.


We shall say that philosophy is a reflection on all the forms of human experience.  On basis of this simple definition, which embraces the totality of human activity, we can distinguish many areas of philosophy, according to the experience we are considering.  In each heading we can identify authors that have particularly distinguished themselves writing on this aspect and also fundamental works. 


a) Social and political experience.


We are born to a world of complex relations of fact governed by organisation and by rules.  This area of human experience is of immediate interest to political philosophy.  This is the study of man’s place in the State, the structure of governments, the different types of organised societies.  Political philosophy is not the same thing as politics, but a reflection on politics.  It must not be mixed up with the notion of ideology.  An ideology is a intellectual movement which has left the realm of philosophy and become the doctrine behind a plan of action; thus Locke’s political philosophy gave rise to liberalism.  Our main reference in this matter will be J.J. Rousseau’s The Social Contract.   Philosophy of Law examines how justice works within a society and reflects on the foundation of juridical norms.  Philosophy of Law is not the same as the practice of Law, it is a reflection on the principles and foundations of Law.  We will discuss this with the support of Aristotle and the ideas of the advocates for natural rights.


b) Empirical experience.


What is called experience has no meaning except as coming from the senses, as perceptions.  This area of experience philosophy refers to as empirical experience.  This one has given rise to the theory of perception which is a very important aspect of the Thinking of major authors.  Here we must signal the following aspect of scientific experience: the experiment, which is one particular case of quantified experimentation and governed by the imperatives of an objective approach.  One calls epistemology the branch of philosophy which deals with this area of experience.  Epistemology, also referred to as philosophy of science, must of course not be mixed up with the scientific practice.  It is a reflection on this practice, on the result and the purpose of science.  A scientist can very well do without it in his research.  Yet, as a human being, he can be both a scientist and a philosopher. The history of sciences reveals that, towards the end of their life, most great scientists go beyond the technical limits of their enquiry and become epistemologists and philosophers.  However this implies a change of domain.  The part of the philosopher is not to perform experiments, to resolve technical problems, but to think about the value of scientific activity.  Obviously we do not judge the competence of a research scientist in the same light as the statements of a philosopher that go beyond the framework of research.  We shall talk in respect of the works of K. Popper, P. Feyerabend and G. Khün.



c) The aesthetic experience.


The empirical experience may undergo a refinement when it gives rise to the feeling of beauty.  For instance, the emotion we feel on hearing a piece of music is more than the perception of mere noise.  You hear noise, you listen to music. The mind’s experiencing beauty is a moment called the aesthetic experience.  Art creates means that can produce this impression in us.  One calls aesthetics the branch of philosophy which deals with the experience of beauty and the sensory values associated with it.  Heidegger says that the philosopher and the poet live on separate hills.  Both are rising higher but along different paths.  Art finds fulfilment in its own realm, that of aesthetic creation.  In return it gives food for thought.  It is the philosopher’s task to reflect on aesthetic creation, to decipher what is given in art, by the artist and his work.  Artists can of course also dabble in philosophy.  Many works of art also nourish the ambition to give expression to an experience which tends towards the universal.  Nevertheless artistic creation is first of all a concrete representation, while thinking is always with concepts.  The aesthetician, as we have said, can certainly be an amateur of the arts, yet this does not make him an artist.  The theme of aesthetics, which in our days has given rise to an abundance of philosophical writing, will provide us with the opportunity to study texts by Plato, Kant and Hegel.


    d) Moral experience.


We can also experience good and evil, for instance in cases of conscience, when the violence of a situation offends us.  This is a kind of experience which is very different from mere empirical perception and from aesthetic experience.  The area of moral experience is analysed in the branch of philosophy referred to as ethics or moral philosophy, which study the meaning of good and evil, the value of duty and so on.  Ethics is not the same thing as morals, it is a reflection on morals or on specific kinds of moral behaviour.  As human beings we all have a moral.  Sometimes, like moralists, we lash out against the cowardice, greed and vileness of men.  Yet, the purpose of philosophy is not so much to condemn as to understand.  The aim is to understand what duty is, what good and evil are, the meaning of our moral experience, with the result that we sometimes change our personal morality for a more philosophical one.  The philosopher is not a moralist or a preacher, and moralists are often lousy philosophers.  Thus we should take note that Socrates, faced with Callicles’ immoralism, in Plato’s Gorgias, does not lecture him, but takes care to show him the inadmissible contradictions of his dissolute life.  It is said that our present time is one of a decline in moral values.  Sometimes people try to find in philosophy a salvaging moral discourse; however sermonizing has never made good philosophy!  When studying this field we shall read the stoics, Kant and Rousseau.


    e) Psychological experience.


States of mind such as desire, fear, thoughts and volitions are an inner experience or psychological experience, they are psychological modes.  One calls rational psychology the branch of philosophy dealing with the analysis of the mind’s own experiences.  The psychologist, in the ordinary sense of this word, deals with the clinical analysis of this or that case with a therapy in view, or in the case of companies, in order to evaluate and recruit human potential.  The philosopher is not a therapist, philosophy is not a tool of selection. The philosophical analysis of the mind is concerned with the clarification of consciousness, of the universal structure of the human mind, rather than with examining this or that mind in particular.  In other words, the analysis of the mind is embedded in the larger and more metaphysical perspective of knowing reality.  To put it otherwise, philosophy directs its attention to the nature of the soul (psuche in Greek).  The matter here is not sorting out minor psychological ailments. Plato will provide us with an example of spiritual psychology.  But we shall also pay attention to Freud’s psychoanalysis in order to extract the essential aspects of his teaching.


    f) Intellectual experience.


In thinking we also have a very specific form of intellectual experience.  Evidence, contradiction, logical sense, paradoxes, are experiences the mind has of ideas. The values of truth and falsehood are in themselves a field of study. Logic examines the formal structure and consistency of speech.  Insofar as it elaborates hypothetical constructions and remains in the technical field of calculus, it is closely related to mathematics. In the West Aristotle is the founder of logics.  The theory of knowledge or gnoseology examines the problems of the conditions in which we can access truth.  What can the mind know and to what extent?  This questioning began with Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Finally, we call metaphysics the domain of the ultimate interrogations of philosophy. Metaphysics is concerned with the fundamental nature of Reality.  All major philosophical systems have a metaphysical aspect.  In the course of these lessons we shall be talking about the metaphysics of Plato and that of Spinoza.


    g) Spiritual experience.


Finally, the memory of mankind has left us tales of experiences by people called mystics. In this section we shall talk of religious experience. We shall refer to as spirituality the examination of inner experience.  Some tough problems arise here; indeed it is the nature of philosophy to remain within the bounds of reason, where experience is possible. Insofar as there is such a thing as an authentic spiritual experience, even if it is not shared, it can be admitted as belonging to philosophy. Traditionally one calls rational theology the philosophical elaboration of man’s relation to the realm of divinity.  All the same, rational theology is not revealed theology, the philosopher is not a theologian at the service of a specific religion.  Philosophy remains philosophy as long as it remains universal and does not depend on a credo or a church.  One must be careful with expressions such as “Christian, Hindu or Buddhist philosophy” because they are contradictory.  Philosophy is the very place where one’s thoughts can be freely expressed and where the sole authority stems from reason and from Truth.  This does not mean that one must exclude all reflection on the Absolute, quite the opposite; it does not even affect the value of great texts.  We find the seeds of a theology in every great philosopher.  Yet it is clear that faith cannot play the same part to the philosopher as it does to the theologian of a given confession.  However, it is a prejudice to think that philosophy is solely “secular” and that it rejects the Sacred as senseless.



*    *




Philosophy is a quest, it is the movement of Thought seeking to attain the Encompassing.  It is intelligence being raised above any kind of fragmentary thinking.  It is in philosophy that all the fragmented aspects of knowledge are integrated.  This is the reason philosophy does not neglect anything.  In philosophy we speak of everything since all things have their place and meaning there. 


More deeply, philosophy would become meaningless should it degenerate into a rigid and dogmatic system.  Philosophy is the friend of wisdom.  It carries within itself the love of a just and moderate life, of a human knowledge which is integrated to life.  Hence we say that philosophy is a reflection on all forms of human experience.


*    *




dialogue : questions and answers

  Home         © Philosophy and spirituality, 2003, Serge Carfantan. Translated by Catarina Lamm