Philosophy is one of the most challenging undertakings a human can enter into. It is one of the most powerful mental disciplines humans have developed in their time on this planet. It has changed the course of human events around the world in manners that are both subtle and in some that are quite obvious. Philosophy has evolved or arisen in every major human civilization. It is a natural development for minds that are inquiring and critical.
People come to the reading and studying of Philosophy through different paths. Many, perhaps most, do so because they have entered some formal educational program that has the study of Philosophy as part of a curriculum of studies. Some, a few, come to Philosophy because they have a mind that is questioning and they want to learn more about the issue or problem that is on their minds and are so they led through this common but less traveled path to the door of philosophy as they discover that there are books on the topic that perplexes or befuddles them or stirs them to wonder and they learn that these books are written by philosophers.
Most people who take a course in Philosophy do so without having had another. Most will take only one and many of them do so primarily to satisfy some degree requirement. Indeed, many students in a high school Philosophy course are only interested in finishing the course in order to get their credits and those credits are to satisfy a degree requirement. The degree is desired as a means to some other end: going to college, getting a job, getting a different job or promotion. Be that as it may, this text is designed to stimulate your mind. Whether you read it because it is required or whether you are really interested in the subject matter, there will be plenty in this study of Philosophy to interest you, entertain your mind, challenge you, and frustrate you as well.
A Friendly Philosophical Warning
Most people think that it is all well and good and no big deal to read and accept such phrases as "there will be plenty in this study of Philosophy to interest you, entertain your mind, challenge you and frustrate you as well. " Well, in the case of Philosophy and of this work in particular, the reader should be aware and forewarned that the issues raised in this work might just be disturbing to them in a personal manner, if they seriously consider the issues raised in this work, that are characteristic issues for Philosophy and how Philosophers approach them. What is meant by this? Is it just a "promo" for the book? Is it some "hype" or "come-on"? Well, I simply report to you that there are many who have read this work in connection with taking a class in Philosophy who have been disturbed in their thinking and have needed to make changes in the very manner in which they think, the manner in which they settle on their beliefs and on what they think is true after being encouraged to think most carefully and seriously and critically about a number of very basic questions and issues. Why would this be the case?
Well, in Philosophy people reflect on their thinking and on the contents of their minds in terms of the views, assumptions, presuppositions and beliefs and sets of beliefs that they hold and with which they do their thinking. Today when people do that after having been alive for say 18 years or more they find that in that time they have acquired a good number of ideas and beliefs and that when you get around to examining them with the slightest bit of careful thought it turns out that not all of the beliefs can be true. Yes, people learn through Philosophy that they have been holding beliefs that are inconsistent or even outright contradictory to one another. This can be quite disturbing for some of those beliefs have provided some degree of comfort or even a feeling of certainty that makes life easier.
The beliefs that are serving as the most basic upon which others are founded or with others are supported can provide the overall view of life that serves those believers with a sense of identity and orientation and of life's value, even the basis for hope in the face of death that all is not for nothing. It can be quite disturbing to reach a point where one is facing the simple truth that some of the held beliefs are contradictory and realizing that they can’t all be true requires that a decision be made as to which beliefs are better founded and more likely to be true and which are less so or even proven not to be true and needing to be rejected and abandoned. It is like being directed or forced to give up that which has been serving so well for so long to provide a sense of comfort. It is akin to being forced to open up the mind and venture out into new areas of thought and having to bear the possibility that this motion from the old and comfortable into the new and perhaps disturbing. What is most disturbing and a sign of intellectual growth is that one is "forced" into the new mode of thinking by the decisions made by the thinker based on the thinker's own realization and acceptance that the prior thoughts are now seen as being defective in some way. This is not a mental act that anyone performs being forced to do so from without but is only done from within once the mind has been opened up and educated into the consideration of more information and the examination of the relationship to one another of the ideas and beliefs that were being held in an uncritical fashion.
It is not a pleasant act to realize the need to surrender that which was once so certain and comforting for entry into a process with a resultant set of beliefs and positions that one does not yet know. Some will attempt to refuse to make the departure from past beliefs out of fear of the new and some will attempt to refuse in an effort to remain in close relationship to those who share the old ideas and beliefs, thinking erroneously that the relationships are absolutely dependent on the belief systems that are shared by those in the relationships. One reader expressed this view in this manner after having reached a point of realizing that some previous beliefs were simply no longer tenable "I feel like I am being disloyal if I were now to change my mind."
If this work is successful the reader will see that there are a number of positions that have been taken on many of the most basic problems or issues or questions faced by philosophers over the millennia and that some of them are better defended than are others. It is the intent of this work to encourage the reader to become a critical thinker and to make the best informed decision as to which position is at this time the best position to hold and then to move to adopt that position.
Here are some of those issues:
- What is real?
- What is truth?
- What is knowledge?
- What is the good?
- What is justice?
- Is the mind something separate from the body?
- Are we free or our actions determined by that over which we no longer have any control or influence?
It has happened in the past that readers of this work have come to understand that there are three or four or possibly more positions to take on any or each of these issues. They also have come to realize that the positions that they held upon entering into the reading and the reflecting and the critical thinking process could no longer be accepted as the best position which they could defend using reasoning and evidence. Then they face the decision as to whether or not they will abandon their prior positions and move to the best defended position in their own view or attempt in some manner to deny what they have come to see as the faults in their positions and going on maintaining them for the sake of avoiding change, discomfort or some other perceived ill felling.
This difficulty can be expressed in this manner paraphrasing what more than one reader has disclosed: "I now know that there are five possible positions and that the one that I can best defend is position ‘c’, but I would like to go on believing in 'b' because that is what I was brought up with and what all my family and friends think." So be forewarned that if the reader takes seriously reflecting on and thinking about matters in this text there may be some difficult decision ahead as to how the reader will be fixing the beliefs with which the reader will be thinking about matters of great importance and of personal concern.
Back to Philosophy
At this time what I would like to do is to get you to gather some idea of what you think Philosophy is. So I have an assignment for you. Think about philosophy and about what questions you have about life. It is very easy really. I don’t want you to do any research or to read anything before you answer the questions I just want you to think about these things. So, do so, and write your answers or responses down in some way and keep them somewhere and then review it when you have completed your reading of this work. See if your thoughts and views have changed any by that time.
Now read the next section and we’ll be off on our excursion into Philosophy and some of the issues that have disturbed, challenged, perplexed and even excited humans around the world for over two thousand years!
I have been in Philosophy in some formal manner for over three decades. However, I have been doing philosophy since I was very, very, young, say about 9 years old. I would ask questions. I would ask lots of questions and most of those around me at the time, my friends and relatives, did not have answers. Most had no patience even for discussing the issues. I learned to keep my questions and ideas to myself. Oh, for sure, they would “leak out” once and a while but to no serious consequence other than for most folks to think I was different. It wasn’t until I arrived in college that I learned that what it was that I had and it had a name. It is called Philosophy.
Now I have also learned that many people have a number of wrong ideas about what Philosophy is and does and how it operates. Let me give you an example of one of the improper but popular uses of the term “Philosophy”.
A true story: I was in a New York City taxicab. The driver spoke English. Honest, he did. In fact he was listening in on a conversation I was having with a friend and at one point the driver volunteered the following remark: "You’ve got to take it one day at a time. That’s my philosophy!"
I suppose that I could have ignored the remark, except that I really wasn’t sure at all what the heck he meant. And I knew that uttering pithy remarks was not philosophy at all! So I answered the driver’s remarks with a series of questions.
- What do you mean by “you”, others don’t?
- What do you mean by “got to”? Do you mean “got to” as in the laws of gravity and I have no choice or do you mean “got to” as in laws where I’ll get punished if I don’t? Just why do I “got to”?
- What do you mean by “take it”? What else is available? “Leave it”?
- “One day at a time"? Why not two days at a time? Heck, why “one day”? Why not one hour or one minute or one second?
- Well, when I was done the driver just said, “I’m sorry.” And that was the end of his contribution to our discussion.
Philosophers ask questions. In my classes I would ask students “what do they think Philosophy is?" Over the years I have heard a lot of answers to the question: What do you think Philosophy is? Let me list a few that are not correct. Some are very off the mark and others are only partially correct.
Past Students' Attempts to Define Philosophy
- Logical reasoning to answer any questions or problems.
- Means by which to view and encounter life.
- A system of beliefs and behaviors based upon experience and judgment.
- Different views and beliefs that people have.
- Just personal opinions.
- Logical thinking or reasoning, taking into account all that is known to be convincing.
- A frame of mind.
- A way of viewing the world and handling life’s experiences and explaining it.
- Great thinkers thought and ideas.
- The way a person is able to maneuver their intellectual ability.
- A theory based upon moral codes and reasoning.
- Study of one’s thoughts without the impact of external opinions.
- Someone’s ideas and outlook on life or anything.
- Someone’s point of view.
- The art of reasoning, thinking and discussing.
- Logic, knowledge, a body of principles to follow.
- A discipline of thinking, which involves moral reasoning, logic, and principles.
- View or Opinion or Belief or Theory.
- Ability to think and make your own judgments.
- Things I live by.
- A belief, way of life or religion.
- A way of Life.
- A translation of the complexities from all angles and summarizing it to its simplistic terms.
- The way the individual interprets or rationalizes what is encountered.
- Analyzing, questioning, discussing and thinking.
- Information handed down from generation to generation: Beliefs, stories, rituals, and experiences.
It is possible that I will be adding additional attempts at to this list. Students and readers continue to surprise me with answers to questions such as this one. Some of the answers appear as if the answer did go to some dictionary or reference work while others appear to be very direct and simplistic.
Now I do not want to start this introduction to Philosophy by giving you a clear definition of what Philosophy is. Instead, I shall tell you a great deal about it-- most of which you will forget. Then, I’ll show you some examples of Philosophy in the writings of Philosophers on the major issues Philosophers have been thinking about for over two thousand years, much of which you will remember, if only vaguely. Finally, I’ll attempt to engage you in doing philosophy through the discussions and presentations of various positions on many of the issues and that is when I think you will understand both what philosophy is and some of the most challenging and recurring issues with which philosophy has dealt and continues to pursue.
For a good overview of different ideas about what Philosophy is and forms or fields in Philosophy
What is Philosophy?
Answer each of these questions. You will come to learn why it is important to do so as we proceed through the course. We need to establish a starting point. Make sure you keep your answers.
- Do you believe that there is a real world?
- Do you believe that you are real and are part of the real world?
- Do you believe that you have a body?
- Do you believe that you have a mind?
- Do you believe that you have a soul or spirit that survives after death?
- Do you believe that there is a force, agency, spirit or greater reality that is responsible for the existence of the universe?
Vocabulary Quizlet 1.1