The word ‘philosophy’ comes from two Greek words, philo, meaning love, and sophia, meaning wisdom or knowledge. A “philosopher” in Ancient Greece was literally a “lover of knowledge.” Originally, all theoretical studies, from rhetoric to marine biology, were considered to fall under the scope of philosophy. For example, one ancient philosopher, Aristotle, wrote on both of those two subjects, as well as logic, ethics, politics, physics, metaphysics, psychology, theatre, and zoology. It is likely he wrote on mathematics as well, but many of his works are lost to us. If you go far enough into the intellectual history of any theoretical subject you find philosophy and philosophers at its roots.
It was believed by nearly all philosophers in antiquity that a correct description of the self and the world would carry with it an implicit prescription concerning the way one should live one’s life, thus, before the Dark Ages settled over Europe, a philosophy was not a subject one took as an elective while preparing for employment, it was a way of life. Ancient philosophers did not have transitory pupils so much as permanent disciples. After philosophy began to recover in the High Middle Ages, it was firmly subordinated as a subject-matter, first, as a handmaiden to theology, and later, in the Modern Period, as an auxiliary to the sciences. As various disciplines developed their own discursive vocabularies and autonomous decision-procedures, they have branched off from philosophy, and the formal “jurisdiction” of philosophy has shrunk.
Today, academic philosophers sometimes present their discipline as a kind of intellectual accounting: a place wherein one discovers the intellectual “price-tags” of ideas counted in the cost of other ideas one ought to buy into or forgo to avoid logical inconsistency and the cognitive dissonance that attends inconsistency. I don’t want to belittle this notion–I have, until recently, presented philosophy this way myself–but consistency is not enough. Yes, inconsistency almost certainly guarantees that something is wrong in one’s beliefs, but consistency by itself guarantees neither truth nor happiness. (Ralph Waldo Emerson once stated that “a foolish consistency was the hobgoblin of little minds.” What he meant was that you can be consistent and be consistently wrong.) Consistency is not even a guarantee of mental health. Paranoiacs in an asylum might well have some of the most consistent belief-sets imaginable!
As I see it, philosophy occupies a middle ground between religion and poetry, on the one side, and the empirical sciences on the other. Like religion and poetry, and unlike the empirical sciences, philosophy, at its core, always deals with questions of meaning, value, purpose, and priorities. Modern scientific methodology precludes such questions as “teleological,” focusing instead on the improvement of causal descriptions of reality by asking only the sorts of questions that can be answered by testing hypotheses. But more like empirical science, and less like religion and poetry, philosophy attempts to approach questions of value and purpose with a method based ostensibly on impartial criteria of reasoning, rather than upon appeals to authority, the passions, or beauty. (Appeals to “faith” are essentially requests (or demands) for trust, which cannot really be called a “method” in the same sense. Although appeals to logical or empirical evidence may be offered as reasons for trust, one has to always ask, “But what evidence would it take to make you change your mind?” If the answer is, “Nothing!” then the putative evidence is offered in “bad faith” (no pun intended), and the appearance of method is only superficial.)
Since philosophy is supposed to deal with questions of priorities, whatever discoveries its methods may uncover should be expected to have at least a potential to alter our lives. Philosophy in recent decades has failed to capture people’s imaginations, has seemed utterly abstruse and impractical, largely because we academics have lacked the courage to face and test ourselves, and thus lack the courage to promise enough for our discipline. I include myself in this failing: I am “the worse of sinners” in this regard.
Well, I’m promising now: if done right, philosophy can change your life, your whole outlook, your priorities.
Dr. Jeffrey teaches philosophy in Washington state and this article is based on a lecture he’s written for his Philosophy of Human Rights course.