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What is philosophy? (2)

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Moving further on the subject matter of philosophy, some prominent logical positivists, notably Rudolf Carnap, maintain that the core function of philosophy is the clarification of language, particularly the language of science. David Papineau submits that the discipline involves “thinking hard about the most difficult problems that there are…[and] requires an untangling of presuppositions: figuring out that our thinking is being driven by ideas we didn’t even realise that we had.” Thomas Pogge agrees with the classical definition of philosophy as the love of wisdom, in the sense of “understanding what really matters in the world.” The radical feminist, Janet Radcliffe Richards, brings a methodological twist into the definition of philosophy: she regards it as a mode of inquiry rather than a particular set of subjects.

According to Richards, philosophy is about how our ideas “hang together.” Philosophical questions arise in a lot of subjects, and some of these questions can only be answered using the philosophical mode of inquiry. Michael Sandel conceives philosophy as the critical reflection on the way things are, “which includes reflecting critically on social and political and economic arrangements. It always intimates the possibility that things could be other than they are. And better.” For Julian Savulescu, philosophy is “gaining knowledge through the use of reason and conceptual tools, a priori reason, and by reflecting about oneself and the state of the world. It employs the empirical sciences, but it’s not a version of science.

It’s gaining knowledge through rational reflection.” Walter Sinnot-Armstrong posits that the discipline involves the search for a coherent and justified overall world-view. He advises philosophers to stop looking at little issues in the corner of our lives and endeavour to “see how things fit together; how psychology fits with philosophy, how the mind fits with the body, how aesthetic value relates to economic value and justice.”

On his own part, Barry Smith thinks that philosophy is “thinking fundamentally clearly and well about the nature of reality and our place in it, so as to understand better what goes on around us, and what our contribution is to that reality, and its effect on us.” Paul Snowdon states that philosophy is the name “we give to a collection of questions which are of deep interest to us and for which there isn’t any specialist way of answering,” while Kate Soper avers that one of the most important things philosophy is trying to do is to respect both the cultural relativity and historicity of our ideas while at the same time tease out what might be more trans-historical, trans-cultural truths. Finally, Keith Ward approaches the issue from a traditional, “almost Indian” point of view. He says that philosophy is the pursuit of wisdom, and that includes spiritual wisdom. This means asking questions about the nature of the human self and the nature of reality, and how this will affect one’s life in practice.

From the definitions presented in the preceding discussion, it is clear that any attempt to formulate a universally agreed definition will not succeed. Indeed, philosophers like Karl Popper do not bother about the definition of philosophy. Rather, they focus attention on the most pressing philosophical problems of the day and make efforts to resolve them. In spite of the diverse approaches to philosophy, however, no philosopher can seriously dispute the fact that from the very beginning of the subject in ancient Greece over two and half thousand years ago philosophers have always scrutinised our ideas and knowledge-claims about the universe and ourselves to determine whether they are rationally defensible or not.

In every society all over the world, there are many ideas and information about the human and natural world. Nevertheless, only a small number of thoughtful individuals in each society have ever considered whether these are important or trustworthy. We tend to accept and assimilate uncritically certain traditional beliefs, reports of scientific discoveries and technological breakthroughs, and a broad spectrum of views based upon our personal experiences. Yet the philosopher, true to his calling, must insist on subjecting all this to rigorous ratiocinative scrutiny to ascertain if the claims and beliefs are based on sufficient evidence, and if a reasonable person may be justified in accepting them. In a nutshell, critical thinking, the willingness to get to the bottom of things intellectually, is the centre of gravity in philosophy.

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But the question now arises: who are philosophers? According to Richard Popkin and Avrum Stroll, the occupations of philosophers have been as varied as their aims or interests. Some have been lecturers, often university professors, such as late C.S. Momoh and S.B. Oluwole, who taught courses in philosophy at the University of Lagos. Others have been leaders of religious or political movements, often taking active part in the affairs of their organisations, like Bishop George Berkeley, who was the Bishop of Cloyne, Ireland, in the eighteenth century, or Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe and Chief Obafemi Awolowo, who were political philosophers of the first rank and participated actively in Nigerian politics.

Sometimes philosophers engage in ordinary occupations, such as Baruch Spinoza, who made a living by grinding lenses. John Locke was a physician while J.S. Mill was a columnist for magazines and Member of Parliament for a short period. A significant percentage of the most eminent philosophers have been scientists and mathematicians, whereas others had at some point in their lives had careers that insulated them from the quotidian details and crises of everyday existence. The point to note here is that, no matter the career or profession, anybody can be a philosopher so long as the person consistently manifests the attitudes of wonder, critical thinking, and indefatigable commitment to truth.

Classically, there are four branches or quadrivium of philosophy, namely, logic, metaphysics, epistemology, and axiology (ethics and aesthetics). There is another branch of philosophy called the philosophy of the infrastructure of disciplines which comprises, as indicated in last week’s essay, the explicatory role of philosophy as the foundation and crowning glory of all disciplines. Aristotle, who is widely regarded as the father of logic in western philosophical tradition, sees logic both as a tool or instrument for philosophising and as a subject in its own right.

Logic is sometimes defined as the science of reasoning or the science of the laws of thought. These definitions are largely correct. But they are inadequate because some aspects of psychology can also be described as the science of reasoning or science of the laws of thought. Irving Copi formulates a better definition to the effect that logic is the study of the methods and principles used in differentiating between good (or correct) reasoning from bad (or incorrect) reasoning. Because logic deals with the fundamental principles that determine the validity or correctness of arguments, it is indispensable in all domains of our intellectual pursuits.

From my own experience with new students the word ‘metaphysics’ sounds so abstract and esoteric to a neophyte or beginner in philosophy. Sometimes it is linked to the occult, the paranormal or supernatural, or the magical. But that is a misconception. As a branch of philosophy, metaphysics deals with the question of reality, of “what is” in its most general outlines. Some of the questions that form the substance of metaphysical inquiry include: what is reality? What is the ultimate constitutive element(s) of the universe? Is ultimate reality one or many?  Ontology, which is often regarded as a branch of metaphysics, deals with the question of being, of existence in general.

It also examines the most general conceptual architectonic of any discipline whatsoever. Epistemology, or theory of knowledge, is a very important branch of philosophy. It deals with beliefs and knowledge-claims. Throughout the history of philosophy, philosophers have endeavoured to identify the sources and scope of our knowledge, and the criteria for justifying our knowledge-claims. Oftentimes we are cocksure about the truth of what we claim to know concerning the universe and hardly question how we obtained such knowledge and its reliability. Once in a while, we are surprised to find out that what we claim to know for certain is either dubious or false. That is why epistemology is essential: it enables us to scrutinise everything concerning knowledge so that we will be in a better position to differentiate genuine knowledge from mere opinion or cherished beliefs. Axiology, which deals with value, is also a significant branch of philosophy. It comprises ethics, the normative science of morality, and aesthetics, which deals with the fundamental issues concerning our experience of beauty and art in general.

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