1. What is Philosophy?
“The question ‘what is philosophy?’ can perhaps be posed only late in life, with the arrival of old age and the time for speaking concretely. In fact, the bibliography on the nature of philosophy is very limited. It is a question posed in a moment of quiet restlessness, at midnight, when there is no longer anything to ask”.
Deleuze, Guattari: What is Philosophy?
I recently visited several Slovak grammar schools and discussed a number of matters with secondary school pupils, including philosophy. In response to my simple question ‘what is philosophy?’ however, I received no particular answer. Maybe it is the fact that students were ashamed. Maybe they have weak fundamentals of civic studies, or are poorly motivated by teachers. Or, as I think is most likely, responding briefly to the question ‘what is philosophy?’ is a daunting challenge for secondary school students.
Jaspers argues that the question ‘what is philosophy?’ is a matter of dispute. (see: Jaspers K.: Úvod do filozofie, 1996 p. 9). According to Czech philosopher Jaroslav Peregrin, there are several different approaches to philosophy in society. Some people harbour an extreme ← 9 | 10 → reverence for philosophy, almost awe, and believe that philosophy represents something spectacular. For them it is something where we can find answers to the questions: why are things the way they are? And, what is the meaning of everything? (see: Peregrin, J.: Filosofie pro normálni lidi, 2008, p. 11 – 17). Some people in turn disparage philosophy as a useless venture at a time when science can give satisfactory answers to all our questions. Neither of these approaches to philosophy can be accepted. Philosophy should not be confused with a gallery of works of art or original descriptions of the world and its sense. However, philosophy as a critical approach to reality should not be regarded an anachronism and useless. Each era, including this one which we like to refer to as the information age, calls for critical thinking. Popper introduced nine characteristics that philosophy cannot define; these are the sort of prejudices associated with philosophy (often by philosophers themselves). Thus, philosophy according to Popper:
1. Philosophy does not resolve misunderstandings
2. Philosophy does not constitute a gallery of great artistic and surprising descriptions of the world. Philosophers do not only follow aesthetic objectives and cannot be understood as the constructors of systems
3. Philosophy is not the history of intellectual works
5. Philosophy certainly should not serve as a means of demonstration of our wisdom
6. Philosophy is not an intellectual therapy (as perceived for example by Boethius or Wittgenstein)
7. Philosophy is not an effort for more explicit language
8. Philosophy is not an effort to provide a conceptual framework to solve problems
9. Philosophy does not mean the spirit of the times (it is not subject to vogue) (see: Popper, K.R.: Ako vidím filozofiu, p. 70)
Further to this, Russell writes “...philosophy, as well as other studies, directs primarily to knowledge” (1988, p. 90). Solomon’s contribution to this discussion states that “philosophy is not an expertise, profession, an exclusive club with its own rules and passwords. Philosophy is nothing more than thinking about such matters of life as passion, justice, tragedy, death, identity I, of course, philosophy itself, which is not at all an area nor a privilege of some small number of university-educated professionals.” (Solomon, R. C.: Filozofia ako problém? Radosť z filozofie: Abstraktné myslenie a vášnivý život: Večné problémy filozofie, 2004, p. 25)
The therapeutic role of philosophy can be found for instance in Boethius, in the paper ‘The Consolation of Philosophy’. Boethius lets Philosophy console him in the 3rd prose of the 1st book of the file Consolatione philosophiae when he was sentenced to death and waiting in ← 11 | 12 → exile. Boethius personifies philosophy in this paper; he leads a healing dialogue with it. Philosophy reminds him that other thinkers also unjustly suffered and were sentenced to death.
Anaxagoras was charged with impiety in 431 B.C. for proclaiming that the sun is a red-hot stone and therefore had to leave Athens. In 399 B.C. Socrates was accused of introducing new deities and corrupting youth; in accordance with the laws of his country he drank a cup of poison, although he was innocent and had an opportunity to escape from prison and a certain death. Zeno of Elea died in 430 B.C. in an unsuccessful uprising against a tyrant. Kanus Julius was sentenced to death by the emperor Caligula because the latter believed that Kanus Julius had known about the conspiracy against him. Seneca was similarly suspected of conspiracy by the emperor Nero, who forced him to commit suicide. Nero accused Marcius Barea Soranus of helping the coup in Asia Minor. It is not quite clear why Boethius introduced these personalities and events as a counterpart to his own misfortune, however in the first three personalities some parallels are apparent: they were prominent philosophers who died because they did not want to decry their philosophical and moral convictions (similarly, Boethius saw the main cause of his convictions in his philosophical views).
Boethius philosophy reiterates: “Thinkest thou that now, for the first time in an evil age, Wisdom hath been ← 12 | 13 → assailed by peril? Did I not often in days of old, before my servant Plato lived, wage stern warfare with the rashness of folly? In his lifetime, too, Socrates, his master, won with my aid the victory of an unjust death… It may be thou knowest not of the banishment of Anaxagoras, of the poison draught of Socrates, nor of Zeno’s torturing, because these things happened in a distant country; yet mightest thou have learnt the fate of Arrius, of Seneca, of Soranus, whose stories are neither old nor unknown to fame.” (BOЁTHIUS, A. M. S.: Filosofie utěšitelkou. In: Boëthius. Poslední Říman. 1982, p. 53)
It is perfectly obvious that while writing his philosophical testament Boethius considered the sum of everything he had encountered during his life and thus the Platonic, Aristotelian and Stoic schools. The aforementioned teachings formed a background in the search for an answer to the question “… not an abstract one at all but a very live one – to the question if the world and existence have not lost their meaning for him.” (BOЁTHIUS, A. M. S.: Filosofie utěšitelkou. In: Boëthius. Poslední Říman. 1982, p. 12)
The readers of the Consolation of the Philosophy usually understand the title of the work in a way that the author drew consolation from his encyclopaedic knowledge of philosophy. However, knowledge of philosophy gave neither comfort nor consolation to Boethius (although it participated considerably), this came instead from the personified Philosophy. He describes it as ← 13 | 14 → a woman with a very noble look and flaming eyes. The eyes of Boethius’ philosophy are “… more piercing than the eyes of an ordinary human.” (BOЁTHIUS, A. M. S.: Filosofie utěšitelka.1995, p. 16)
It seems that, according to Boethius, a philosopher sees things in a different way; more clearly, more acutely.
Boethius continues his extended personification: “Her complexion was lively, her vigour showed no trace of enfeeblement; and yet her years were right full, and she plainly seemed not of our age and time. Her stature was difficult to judge. At one moment it exceeded not the common height, at another her forehead seemed to strike the sky; and whenever she raised her head higher, she began to pierce within the very heavens, and to baffle the eyes of them that looked upon her.“ (BOЁTHIUS, A. M. S.: Filosofie utěšitelka. 1995, p. 17)
Philosophy as perceived by Boethius can bend down to an ordinary man and give him a helping hand but it can sometimes appear more majestic, more distant, and more unattainable for the chosen one.
Boethius’ Philosophy reaches behind the horizon and escapes from sensory perceptions. A convict viewed the clothes of Philosophy as a work of art sewn from thin fibres of indestructible cloth. (see: BOЁTHIUS, A. M. S.: Filosofie utěšitelka.1995, p. 17)
It seemed to be a neglected antique on the surface. There was a sign P (practice) embroidered on the lower edge and a sign Q (theory) on the upper edge. Boethius notices a set of subtle steps or a small ladder that one ← 14 | 15 → might climb. “This robe, moreover, had been torn by the hands of violent people, who had each snatched away what he could clutch.“ (BOЁTHIUS, A. M. S.: Filosofie utěšitelkou. In: BOЁTHIUS. Poslední Říman. p. 50)
Boethius always sees Philosophy as a noble and magnificent lady, a queen who has preserved her majesty even though many scholars, schools, sophists, people greedy for wisdom and answers to difficult questions have tried to seize her. Although he considers Philosophy a loyal life guide he is still surprised that the queen left her dwelling far from a usual reality and “lowered herself” to him in exile. Is it perhaps because even Philosophy belongs to the accused together with him? “Could I desert thee, child,’ said she, ‘and not lighten the burden which thou hast taken upon thee through the hatred of my name, by sharing this trouble? Even forgetting that it were not lawful for Philosophy to leave companionless the way of the innocent.” (BOЁTHIUS, A. M. S.: Filosofie utěšitelkou. In: BOЁTHIUS. Poslední Říman. p. 52)
Boethius paid tribute to philosophy, to real wisdom in all his preserved works. Laudatory words can be also found in the tractate De disciplina scolarium where he describes how youths should be raised and educated: “…I mean thescience about which we know that it is the only one which studies what is true and what is deceptive and those who are subordinate surrender to it as to the science of all sciences. I mean that this is the female ruler who lets by means of her see-through clothes with an inwoven ← 15 | 16 → ladder all the mental abilities rise to the height of sciences.” (BOЁTHIUS, A. M. S.: Školská výchova. In: BOЁTHIUS. Poslední Říman. p. 161)
Moreover, Boethius calls it an “imperial ruler or teacher of all abilities.” (See: BOЁTHIUS, A. M. S.: Školská výchova. In: BOЁTHIUS. Poslední Říman. p. 162) He believes it should be fostered with the greatest of care.
Let us halt for a moment at the similar therapeutic approach of philosophy. For example, the Slovak philosopher Emil Višňovský refers to the practical and healing substance of philosophy: “the thing is that we as philosophers should scratch the place where it really itches.” (Višňovský, E.: Filozofia ako problém? Filozofické poradenstvo ako forma filozofickej praxe: O životnej filozofii, 2004, p. 270)
The term ‘philosophy’ is not only utilised within schools of philosophical thought, but is also wielded within religious systems and is even used to define a chosen way of life or an economic strategy (a company philosophy).
Points of reflection:
CHRISTIAN, J.L.: Philosophy. An Introduction to The Art of Wondering. WADSWORTH Cengage Learning, 2012.