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What do we mean by the word philosophy?

Michael Roberts July 2021 (to be presented at Philosophy of Life and the Individual School (POLIS) Central Coast, NSW Australia

Introduction

What do we mean by the word philosophy? 

What we now call ‘philosophy’ was once called ‘metaphysics’ to distinguish it from what we now call ‘science’.  This distinction was often marked by the labels ‘moral philosophy’ to mean what we now call ‘philosophy’ and ’natural philosophy’ which we now call ‘science.’ 

Philosophy is the enterprise of trying to make sense of ourselves and our world in a way that asks what we  should think and why. Accordingly, it is a continuing activity, not something in which we can achieve final  perfection once and for all. 

The Oxford English Dictionary defines philosophy as “the use of reason and argument in seeking truth and  knowledge of reality, especially of the causes and nature of things and of the principles governing existence, the  material universe, perception of physical phenomena and human behaviour”. In other words, philosophy is high  level thinking to establish what is true or real, given the limits of human thought and senses, and the implications  of this for how we act. 

Plato defined philosophy as meaning “a love of wisdom,” and the Concise Macquarie Dictionary defines it as “the  quality or state of being wise; knowledge of what is true or right coupled with just judgement as to action”. 

This paper will consider four reasons why philosophy is still relevant to our lives and why the study of philosophy  is still relevant to us all. 

1. Philosophy is the foundation of critical thinking, 

2. Science does not have all the answers, 

3. Ancient philosophers continue to influence humanity and 

4. Personal growth and development. 

In this paper I will be relying to a large extent on the writings of the great philosopher Plato as expounded by the  author Rebecca Newberger Goldstein in her book titled “Plato at the Googleplex, Why Philosophy Won’t Go  Away”. 

Philosophy is the foundation of critical thinking 

While we live in a very different society to the founding figures of western philosophy, the questions modern  society must face are just as challenging, if not more so than in days of old. Therefore, the ability to critically  analyse matters is vital to a proper functioning society. Some such issues include: 

• Climate change, 

• How to deal with the recent pandemic and potential new pandemics, including loss of personal  freedoms for the greater good, 

• Wealth distribution worldwide, 

• Treatment of asylum seekers/ refugees such as the recent news story of the Tamil family seeking to  stay in Australia, 

• Euthanasia or assisted killing, 

• Legislative attempts by Governments to increase their powers and those of law enforcement agencies to access data of citizens mainly targeted at criminal organisations. Currently, there are committee  hearings in Federal Parliament regarding a bill called Surveillance Legislation Amendment (Identify & 

Disrupt) Bill which is designed to give Australian authorities power to crack encrypted messaging apps  and the power to penetrate the dark web where the worse of criminal activity occurs and • How to distinguish fake news from real news, the importance of which was proven during and after the  last US Presidential elections 

Philosophy puts critical thinking and problem solving at the forefront in order to make sense of these difficult and  challenging issues. It encourages us to think critically about the world we live in. 

Philosophy uses the tools of logic and reason to analyse the ways in which we humans experience the world. It  teaches critical thinking, close reading, clear writing, and logical analysis: it uses these to describe the world, and  our place within it. 

Students of philosophy are still in demand because philosophy teaches people how to write clearly, how to read  closely with a critical eye, how to spot bad reasoning, and how to avoid it in their writings and work. 

Science does not have all the answers 

Society today relies very heavily on science to solve many of its problems and to improve our lives. Our lives  today are in many ways so much better than those who went before us due to the exponential scientific  advances. Scientific advances in one area such as space exploration can then be applied to other areas of  human existence such as advances in medicine. 

However, science just like every other field of endeavour, does not have all the answers. Science cannot  determine human values. Empiricism cannot determine why we ought to act morally, nor why we ought to value  human happiness over human misery. We cannot create an experiment that tests the nature of truth or the  obtainability of knowledge. However, Plato does contend that whatever can be known by one person can be  known by everybody, just so long as they master techniques for knowing that are most appropriate to a field. 

Blogger David Calhoun adds “At its core, philosophy is a striving towards figuring out what is true and worthwhile,  and what it means to live a meaningful and worthwhile life. That is something off-limits for science, because  science can tell us how things are empirically or hypothetically, but it can’t prescribe how we should live. In short:  science helps us live longer, whereas philosophy helps us live better.” 

Ancient philosophers continue to influence humanity 

Plato and Aristotle are often credited with shaping future civilizations and their influence is still felt today. They  did lay the foundations of Western culture twenty four centuries ago, and their ideas and insights still dictate  essential features of our world right now, from what we eat to what we see on the internet. Plato’s ‘Allegory of  The Cave’ is a brilliant writing which puts into perspective how we are living as a materialistic and consumer  society. 

People can be ignorant towards seeking more than just what we are force-fed by the government and media,much like the prisoners in the allegory and can become defensive or even hostile when their ideas are  challenged. The cave, the chains, and the shadows all represent elements that control modern humans like it  controlled the prisoners in the cave. The world has not changed much from the written allegory 2400 years ago.  

The work of Confucius is also still relevant today and according to National Geographic, China’s modern  government has modelled much of its ethos on Confucius’ rhetoric such as “obedience to the emperor, hierarchy,  and loyalty”. 

Interestingly, two more recent superhero movies Man of Steel (Superman) and The Dark Knight (Batman) feature  moral dilemmas based on the age-old philosophical issue known as the “trolley problem”. With this in mind, it can  be said that modern life is still governed by ideas developed by ancient Greek philosophers.

Personal growth and development 

It is often said that the study of philosophy will transform you as it will helps one become a better thinker, know  what questions to ask, and how to ask the right questions. One will learn how to debate important issues such as  what is true and good and to distinguish it from what merely appears so. The study of philosophy provides one  with the intellectual tools to evaluate different life-choices so that one will be better prepared to find a meaningful  direction for one’s life. It will also help you understand another’s point of view on an issue which may be  completely at odds with yours. 

Plato often referenced the “life worth living”. What is it – if anything – that makes an individual human life matter?  What must one be or do in order to achieve a life that matters? This existential quandary resonates no less today  than it did in Plato’s time. Many would argue and rightly so that “not one of us is more entitled than another to a  life worth living” but that does not mean that all of us have it in us to achieve that life. Whatever a life worth living  means or is that meaning different for each of us? 

If we use one stream of philosophy as an example, I am hopeful many would agree that the following four Stoic  virtues would make us a better person and have positive societal benefits: 

1. Wisdom as defined here to mean to know what is good, what is not good and what is indifferent, and so  see the world more clearly and acting accordingly, 

2. Courage is the opposing force of cowardice. Courage is not the elimination of fear, desire or anxiety, it  is acting in the right way despite our fear, desire and anxieties, 

3. Justice here means our duty to our fellow man, and to our Society. It is the morality behind how we act,  specifically in relation to our community and the people within it, and 

4. Temperance which we now call moderation. It relates to self- restraint, self- discipline and self- control.  It is our ability to choose long term well-being over short term satisfaction. It is the opposite to gluttony,  greed, instant gratification, addictive behaviour, laziness and procrastination. 

All of these virtues are of course, also expounded in another great book called The Bible. I will conclude this paper with some quotes from the text referred to earlier and attributed to Plato by the author. Quotable quotes attributed to Plato 

• A person is a person, everybody’s life is just as important as anybody elses. Well tell that to the  dictators and other oppressive regime leaders, 

• It doesn’t count as an ethical decision unless there is a principle behind it. Otherwise, it is arbitrary, • There are no original thoughts. All knowledge is recollection, 

• The temptations of power are enormous, 

• Thinking is very hard, 

• It isn’t for me, or for any of us, to approve or disapprove of human nature. It is only for us to try and work  with it, 

• To fear death, gentlemen, is no other than to think oneself wise when one is not, to think one knows  what one does not know. No one knows whether death may not be the greatest of all blessings for a  man, yet men fear it as if they knew that is the greatest evil. And surely, it is the most blameworthy  ignorance to believe that one knows what one does not know. 

Conclusion 

In the world in which we currently find ourselves with pandemics, rising global tensions amongst super powers,  the destruction of our planet which so many people deny is man related, and poverty and unequal wealth  distribution worldwide, how can anyone say the study and understanding of philosophy is not relevant? On these 

and so many other issues, many of us are just like those people shackled in Plato’s ‘Allegory of The Cave’. The  more people who understand and use the skill sets that a knowledge of philosophy provides, the more people  will escape the world of that cave. 

by Michael Roberts LL.B (Hons) 

Solicitor (retired) 

25 June, 2021.