What Is Philosophy?

David Warren: One may have much leisured fun comparing the ancient to the modern academic philosophers. It is the difference between a life of free participation and a life in the service of a bureaucracy.

Philosophy is a subject by itself, distinct from religion but, more importantly, not subsidiary to one, another, or all of the empirical sciences. It is not “experimental,” truth to tell, and thus it fits poorly into our modern schemes of meaning.

For philosophy – from the Greek and Latin PHILOSOPHIA – philosophiefilosofiafalsafadarshanaprachyazhexue – is founded in the love of wisdom. This is true — however wisdom is approached in foreign languages.

It involves “how to live,” for instance: the purpose of one’s life. This has generally been received as a serious topic.

Wisdom is the constant, inescapable theme. There are other things that wisdom loves, which do not themselves love wisdom, and the modern crisis of philosophy can be seen in this wandering away. Wisdom survives in colloquial speech, but not in the academy.

There, it has become restricted to a “love of knowledge,” and philosophical history is taught, outside a few Catholic colleges, only with God deleted.

Both Plato and Aristotle were naturally interested in the philosophers that came before them. But they studied these with a view to finding the wisdom in them; not, or not usually, to surveying opinions.

The medieval and scholastic philosophers, likewise. Thomas Aquinas is not a “disciple” of Aristotle, or of anyone else. He wants to know things that are beyond Aristotle, and studies what Aristotle can tell him, as impressive guide. But a guide to something that differs from the guide himself.

Even the approach to philosophical history has changed. We want to know what Schopenhauer taught, in itself. We want to “know” our Heidegger, etc. Part of our task is actually to study what each meant by the word, “philosophy.”

But we know what the word means. It is the love of wisdom. The follower of philosophy is, moreover, the “lover” of wisdom. The reader must grasp the erotic sense in this. He is not a simple collector, unless he is collecting to a wise purpose. For philosophy has a purpose, as everything else.

A cobbler could be a philosopher, said my youthful hero Thomas Ernest Hulme, in echo of the great philosopher, Pascal. They were both lovers, of the philosophical kind. The cobbler’s purpose in everyday life might be to fix shoes, and he would find this quite compatible with philosophy.

A “professional,” however, he would not be. Neither a philosopher nor a maker or mender of shoes was a professional, until recently.

As was not the mirror-polisher, in the tradition of Spinoza, or the sword-polisher, in the Japanese, or the pursuer of many other avocations for money over time.

Such crafts may provide the mental leisure to think about things, in a conceptual way, together with material analogies to focus upon the real. One must be “a thinking machine” to master a craft; something different from simply becoming a machine in a factory, or rather part of a machine, for it is not the worker but the factory that has a purpose.

The old Jewish idea of a rabbi – that he should have a day job – had wonderful consequences for the survival of the Hebrew religion. No matter what, he could work for a living; and this idea is carried into Saint Paul, who says, in 2 Thessalonians, that if you don’t work, you don’t eat. Indeed, he puts some edge in this.

Wisdom, and the leisure in which wisdom is sought, should not be confused with laziness. It is a by-product of work, just as dinner is a by-product of the day’s labor, but not, as it were, the final purpose: to become wise. And beyond wisdom, in the Christian dispensation, is to be saved.

One becomes wise, at leisure, so to speak. This is true within all philosophical heritages; in “darshana” (Sanskrit) as well as “philosophie” (French).  Each requires leisure, and leisure requires work.

It could be said that the professors of philosophy, the “professional philosophers” in our university departments, are similarly employed, outside philosophy, to earn their meals. There is nothing subtle in their union-like demands, which are for pay and privilege, quite apart from wisdom.

Seeking wisdom can also be done at their leisure, of course, but their day job is rather in conflict with it. Teaching philosophy is a dead loss, unless they find students who also love wisdom.

Alas, you will not find many such young people in universities today. The closer to passion, the more they are demonstrating for re-gendering and Hamas.

The professoriate, meanwhile, is in pursuit of tenure, in preference to truth, which does not promise job security.

But job security is a foolish mistake. Not truth itself (which, incidentally, is a person), but a knowledge of the truth, comes with the opposite of steady employment, as the most truthful professors may begin to realize.

And whether or not it leads to saintliness, the teaching of wisdom and truth is as likely to lead to death.

Socrates did not seek job security. He wouldn’t have got it in his day job as a stonemason (or in his previous day job as a soldier), nor would he ever have signed a contract, since he was likely to have been illiterate, like most Athenians of his time. Indeed, Socrates was contemptuous of the “literati,” probably including Plato and Xenophon, who had the annoying habit of writing his words down.

One may have much leisured fun comparing the ancient to the modern academy. It is the difference between a life of free participation, and life in the service of a bureaucracy.

The advantage being, that the bureaucrats can fire you, whereas, in the end, the tyrants must kill you. I think there must be some other advantage of bureaucracies, but I’ve never found them.

Now, comes the question, what is philosophy? But I have already answered that: you must read this again. It’s the love of wisdom.

You may also enjoy:

+ James V. Schall, S.J.  “Who Are You?”

Francis J. Beckwith In Defense of First Philosophy


David Warren

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: davidwarrenonline.com.

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