Saturday, September 15, 2012

History of Ideas : An Introduction.

Philosophy is a strange subject. It has no agreed upon scope – the taxonomy of different species, decorating a room, running a business, the narrative of a text are all considered examples of philosophy. By what standard do we place a new species in a hierarchy? There are different opinions on the subject. What business philosophy should a company adapt? Book shops have entire cases dedicated to answering this question. How should a text be understood? Libraries could be filled just outlining the possible answers to this question. So in one sense philosophy happens when we step outside a field and start questioning how that field should operate. But how do we step outside and criticize philosophy itself? In many ways we cannot. Try to denounce philosophy and a philosopher will rather smugly retort ‘Your argument is itself an act of philosophy, which by your own standard is then useless so I can ignore it. Maybe you should study the subject a little more’. This understandably causes frustration. Philosophy claims ownership to all forms of argumentation and enquiry, so it becomes circular and 
beyond criticism.
They are entire categories of philosophisers called anti-philosophizers because they use philosophy to criticize philosophy.

All very strange indeed.

I am more interested in the history of ideas than proposing arguments.  The history of ideas is a recent field born from frustration over the apparent lack of progress in philosophy.  Rather than proposing a sustained logical argument into the nature of things, the history of ideas aims at understanding what people believe and the historical roots of that belief.  But of course this is just another way of performing philosophy:  inevitably judgments are formed over ideas, their usefulness, their dangers and their truth.  The false are rejected, the true embraced.  If truth is acted upon, then ideas become transformational because behavior patterns and modes of thinking can change.

I am primarily interested in the Greek concept of philosophy as wisdom, a guide to living. Such philosophy is holistic in that it contains a theory of the natural world, a set of ethics based upon that theory and advice on achieving the good life.  I am not interested in academic philosophy which enquires into subjects as outsiders: 
philosophy of religion, philosophy of science etc. I am somewhat skeptical over the effectiveness of the so-called 'philosophical method'.  

A framework

A traditional school of philosophy can be divided into three distinct stages:-

1) A theory

A philosophical theory aims to gather knowledge of the natural world to determine how we should live and act. To the ancient Greeks, a theory or ‘theoria’ meant 'I see (orao) the divine (theion)' or just 'divine things (theia)'.

But the divine in this sense is not a transcendental self-aware God but rather the harmony, order and structure present in the universe. It refers to forces which are universal or transcend human capacities. The word itself has its origins from the Latin word ‘deus’ which translates as ‘godlike’. So at the risk of belabouring the point, when I write divine, I am not referring to a deity. For the Greeks a theory was a claim to understanding the universal nature of the world.

Any philosophy therefore takes as its starting point the natural sciences which reveal the structure of the universe - physics, mathematics, biology etc and the disciples which enlighten us about the history of the planet as well as our own origins . 'Let no one ignorant of geometry enter here 'said Plato to his students, referring to his school, the academy, and thereafter no philosophy has ever seriously proposed to ignore scientific knowledge. But philosophy goes further and examines the means by which we acquire such knowledge (epistemology). Philosophy attempts to define the nature of knowledge and to understand its methods (for example, how to do we establish the causes of natural phenomenon?) and its limitations.

The ancients considered ontology as fundamental and epistemology as secondary. That is to say, their starting point was to ask what sort of things exists and how those things interact. Our modern practice is to emphasise epistemology over ontology - We first strive to discover methods and techniques through which we can derive knowledge; the most famous being the scientific method.

2) Morality/Ethics

This stage is practical and is based upon the theoria, sometimes loosely, sometimes rigidly, depending on the tradition. Questions of morality and ethics essentially concern how we interact with other humans and our environment. If I become pregnant, should I have an abortion? Should I return the wallet I found on the street? Should I lie when it's to my advantage? Note : In some traditions morality and ethics are considered different fields; other traditions consider them interchangeable.  For clarity I support the latter view.

3) Wisdom

Wisdom is a lofty term for 'how do you live your life' style advice. It is the end product of philosophy, the reason why we should learn about the world and it’s history. If philosophy is the 'love of wisdom', it is at this point that it must make way for wisdom which surpasses all philosophical understanding. For the Greeks, to be a sage, by definition, is neither to aspire to wisdom or seek the condition of being a sage, but simply to live wisely, contentedly and as freely as possible, having conquered fears sparked in us by our finiteness.

Of course all philosophy does not fit neatly into those categories, each building logically upon each other to grant its practitioners the perfect life. But I believe they are useful categories for examining the great philosophical traditions.