Cape Sunion, South of Athens

 

Foreword

This Introduction to Philosophy has three main components:

1. an introduction to philosophical thinking as such through a presentation of the work of Socrates;
2. a narrative description of the world in which Socrates lived, the society of classical Athens;
3. an application of Socratic ideas in later developments of Philosophy, particularly today.

A few words about each of the components:

1. What is Philosophy? The literal translation of the Greek word "philosophia" is "love of wisdom" (from "philos"= love, and "sophia"= wisdom). That origin of the word is still highly relevant, as will be seen, but not quite sufficient for a definition of what Philosophy is. Obviously, one needs to know what constitutes wisdom before one can know what a lover of it is.

The word "wisdom" can have several meanings. In ancient Greece it could mean, for example, the thorough knowledge of such things as mathematics, astronomy, literature, and music. A wise man in that sense was a person who knew a great deal more about these things than most other people. The wisdom that is relevant for Philosophy, however, is somewhat different. It is a special kind of thoughtfulness--a thoughtfulness that can be described as follows:

When people think about themselves in a serious way they often take, as it were, a step back from themselves and their lives and ask such questions as: Is this the person I ought to be? And does what I do most of the time ultimately make sense? Is what I live a real life? (Time and again inquisitive people have wondered whether there is real life before death ....)

Widening their inquiry from personal matters to broader concerns, thoughtful people will ask: Is this society, of which I am an active or passive part, the society I want it to be? Is it a good society? Is it just? Are there meaningful alternatives to our way of life? And what exactly is justice, anyway?

Widening their awareness still further, people develop such questions as: What are the ultimate goals of humanity? What is the meaning of life? Is there any meaning to life?

The pursuit of these questions will quickly bring up such related questions as: How can one find valid answers? What can we really know? What exactly is knowledge?

Organized religions and social traditions have shaped most of the moral concepts and rules by which people live. Different religions and different societies often seem to differ, however, in what they consider to be good or bad. What is good in one society is often considered evil in another. A thoughtful person will not want to be naiv or arbitrary about any such moral convictions; a thoughtful person will ask for convincing reasons why the moral demands of this or any other society should be accepted by free and intelligent beings.

Philosophy is the activity of seriously asking such questions, and of possibly answering them. Philosophers are individuals who do not blindly pursue their everyday purposes within the confines of unquestioned beliefs and established practices, but who look beyond everything that is given in order to inquire about ultimate purposes and justifications. They are not content with what people usually accept as justifications, but try to go beyond such convictions to determine whether accepted justifications are in fact sound. To be a philosopher is foremost to raise critical questions where most people simply believe and accept. It is to be a professional skeptic--and to accept answers (if at all) only after an intensive investigation of all reasons for doubting generally accepted convictions. Philosophy, one could say, is the art of doubting what most people rarely or ever doubt: the foundations of their everyday lives.

The first well-known thinker who explicitly and systematically introduced this kind of questioning into Western civilization was Socrates. The basic principle of his activity as a lover of wisdom was his often quoted statement "The unexamined life is not worth living." Socrates thus defined Philosophy as critical self-examination, as the will to not just live life, but to constantly question and evaluate it at the same time. Life, according to this conception, does not consist in simply existing in the world, but in developing a conscious relationship to this existence. Human beings should not be just doers, but should exist more as knowers, as knowers of themselves and their world. They should not pursue their practical goals like the instinct-driven creatures of an ant hill, but rather deliberately and reflectively--with a comprehensive understanding of what their lives and activities are ultimately about. Socrates thus set new standards for what it is to be human. The teachings of Socrates imply that people can fail, and fail utterly, to be human beings.

By systematically and persistently asking such questions as "What is (true) virtue?", "What is (true) justice?", or "What is (true) knowledge?", i.e., by casting doubt on commonly accepted notions of virtue, justice, or knowledge, Socrates more or less created Philosophy as we know it. After Socrates his friend and disciple Plato did not have to do much more than to add some more questions, and to attempt some famous and infamous answers, to delineate the body of concerns that constitute the core of Philosophy to this day. After reviewing the work of the philosophers that contributed their efforts during the twenty-four hundred years, the 20th century philosopher A. N. Whitehead concluded: "The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato." Socrates's work has never become outdated (in the way in which ancient Greek astronomy, for example, has become outdated). Socrates's questions and teachings are as relevant today as they were in 5th century Athens. It is for this reason that an introduction to Socrates's thoughts and activities is as pertinent an introduction to Philosophy as an account of more recent philosophical endeavors. To understand Socrates is to understand Philosophy--at least in its Western form.

2. To start the study of Philosophy with Socrates does not only have the advantage of clarifying an important beginning of Western thought, but also of providing an insight into the reasons why Philosophy ought to be pursued. In studying the discussions that Socrates had with his friends and opponents we learn not only what philosophers think, but also what prompts their arguments and pronouncements. Philosophy rarely exists in a social vacuum; it usually emerges in response to problems and challenges that come from the outside world. In the case of Socrates that becomes particularly clear, as all his thoughts are not the result of writing in solitude, but of discussions with others--of direct social interaction.

Plato (the main biographer of Socrates) provides a great deal of social context for the thoughts of his teacher, even if some of his descriptions are fiction. He presents a fascinating picture of the society that brought about Western philosophy. Since Plato could presuppose a great deal of knowledge of classical Greece that later became lost, however, further historical material has been added here. The history of Athens at the time of Socrates is a significant and suspenseful story, a story that can be reconstructed from the writings of Plato's contemporaries, particularly from the histories written by Thucydides and Xenophon. These histories, as will be seen, add much meaning to the philosophical deliberations of Socrates.

3. For Socrates Philosophy was a matter of how to live one's life. In subsequent centuries the love of wisdom became a great deal more academic, something that could be as remote from people's practical concerns as a game of chess. One reason was the increasing degree of specialization that befell Philosophy as much as any other area of knowledge. Professional philosophers could fill volumes on the question of whether a falling tree makes a sound if nobody is around to hear it--without being able to say how an answer to this question would make any difference to anyone. Philosophers can argue such a question from nine to five and then live as unphilosophical a life as anyone else. Another reason is the growing historization of Philosophy, the tendency to painstakingly research what others have thought about a problem, and then consider the result as an accomplished task of Philosophy.

"There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers," Thoreau writes in Walden. And he adds: "To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, .... It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically." There would be not much sense in studying the thought of Socrates if one could not learn something important from it for one's own existence. Philosophy should make a difference in people's lives, and not exhaust itself in the contemplation of quaint puzzles or the satisfaction of an antiquarian curiosity. An application of Socratic ideas to situations of our own century is therefore an essential part of the present Introduction to Philosophy, an application that will actually highlight the very meaning of statements that would otherwise be nothing but cultural window dressing in an otherwise barren and uninspired life.

 

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