Conceptions of philosophy and Characteristics


Conceptions of philosophy and Characteristics

This discussion on the conception of philosophy is meant to introduce you to a number of basic perspectives to how philosophy may be conceived. By its very topic, there are, at least, three ways by which we may conceive of philosophy. Conceiving philosophy in these ways helps us provide broad understanding of the discipline of philosophy.

For instance, one sense in which the notion of philosophy is employed is in relation to an individual’s general attitude towards life and relationships attitudes grounded on certain guiding principles. And so, the discussion in this unit is meant to introduce you to what philosophy is, by providing you with broad conception of what characterizes the discipline of philosophy.

Let me say, as indicated in the first unit of this module, that this unit is meant to further introduce you to philosophy; it is meant to provide you with broader knowledge of what you need to know, so as to be at home with studying philosophy. By the end of this post, you should be able to identify a number of conceptions of philosophy, Explain, at least, two of these conceptions of philosophy and Highlight essential characteristics of these conceptions of philosophy.

The conceptions of philosophy to be discussed as the content of this article will be examined under the following heading:

(i) Philosophy as a worldview

(ii) Philosophy as a way of life

(iii) Philosophy as a discipline.

In examining these conceptions of philosophy, it is pertinent to state that these do not exhaust all available perspectives of conceiving philosophy.


Philosophy as a Worldview (WeltanschaĆ¼ung)

Let us begin by stating that early Greek philosophers attempted to describe the world in its simple make-up. One of such early Greek philosophers was Thales. He asserted that water was the important material (primary stuff) of the universe, from which all things came. For him, water can, at least, assume the three basic states of all things – liquid, solid (as ice) and gaseous (as vapour).

In a similar vein, there have been many other proposals from other philosophers. But the main issue concerns the nature of the universe. A worldview, or WeltanschaĆ¼ung as the Germans term it, involves more than the question of the universe. A worldview is the attempt to come to a total outlook of the universe as it relates to the make-up of matter, man, God, the right, the nature of politics, values, aesthetics, and any other element in the cosmos that is important.

A worldview will therefore include views on man, social responsibilities and politics amongst others. In fact, any discipline or study having a bearing on the meaning of man will have relevance for a worldview. This will include biology, anthropology, psychology, sociology, theology, and other related disciplines.

A worldview is an attempt to think coherently about the world in its completeness.

Such understanding of worldview may be seen to underlie James categorization of philosophy as:

The principles of explanation that underlie all things without exception, the elements common to gods and men and animals and stone, the first whence and the last whither of the whole cosmic procession, the conditions of all knowing, and the most general rules of human action – these furnish the problems commonly deemed philosophic par excellence; and the philosopher is the man who finds the most to say about them.

It is imperative to note that there are many worldviews that are contrary to one another. Look at the following brief examples:

(i) Lucretius, in his essay on nature, developed a worldview based on the atomic nature of all things. Everything that is, is atomic. Even the souls of men and gods are composed of atoms. When atoms disintegrate, things, souls, and gods also disintegrate. Only atoms are permanent. Lucretius dealt with many other facts of existence, but they are all related to the atomic nature of things.

In contrast to the simple atomism of Lucretius is the

(ii) Philosophy of Hegel which views all reality from the standpoint of mind, or Absolute Spirit. Spirit is the only reality. What looks like matter is really a sub-unit of Spirit. Hegel interpreted politics, the world, and man from the single vantage point of Spirit or Mind.

A worldview that sort of stands at the mid-point or hybrid between (i) and (ii) above would be the philosophy of realism which asserts that mind and matter are both equally real.

Matter is not mind, nor is mind merely matter in a different form. Samuel Alexander’s book, Space, Time, and Deity, give an example of this third viewpoint.

The three examples above are attempts at worldviews. Neither example is compatible with the other. Neither thinker would accept the other’s views. But all are seeking explanations of human existence that result in worldviews. The modern era of philosophy since the turn of the 20th century has seen considerable rejection of the worldview conception of philosophy.

In spite of this rejection, it has a time-honored tradition behind it. Aristotle has a sentence that is widely quoted about this emphasis:

There is a science which investigates being as being, and the attributes which belong to this in virtue of its own nature. Now this is not the same as any of the so-called special sciences, for none of these treats universally of being as being. They cut off a part of being and investigate the attribute of this part.

This conception of philosophy provides an integrated view of philosophy that makes it such that looking at the universe as a whole involves questions which cannot be ignored or isolated one from another but should be put together to form an integrated whole, or total view of the world..

In short, the purpose of philosophy, seen as a worldview, is to guide human life; it is to ensure that the journey of life is not undertaken without a sense of direction and discretion.

Conceiving philosophy as a world-view sounds good, but it too has problems. One basic criticism is that the systems of philosophers – Lucretius, Hegel, and others – have been limited by the basic motif, or guiding principle that is adopted. The principle is too limited and when applied, it makes a mockery out of some areas of human existence.

For example, Lucretius’ materialism or atomism is true to some extent, but it makes a mockery out of mind and is inconsistent with freedom or denies it. Other limitations exist in other worldviews. 

To put it positively, a world-view should be based on the best possible models, principles, or motifs. They are however not established dogmas, but should be set forth tentatively, as existential challenges and changes may require their revision from time to time.


Philosophy as a Way of Life

Let me begin by saying that the phrase ‘Philosophy as a Way of Life’ is closely associated with the French philosopher and researcher of ancient philosophy Pierre Hadot, whose work gained prominence in the English-speaking world in 1995 with the publication of a book called Philosophy as a Way of Life.

In the chapter from which the volume gets its title, Hadot claims that in antiquity “philosophy was a way of life,” a “mode of existing-in-the-world, which had to be practiced at each instant, and the goal of which was to transform the whole of the individual’s life.”

Philosophy was conceived as a love of wisdom, and wisdom, Hadot says, “does not merely cause us to know: it makes us ‘be’ in a different way.” Hadot goes on to illustrate the ways in which a wide range of ancient philosophers presented the task of philosophy as something therapeutic, something aimed at overcoming mental disturbances so that the practitioner can attain some kind of inner tranquility. Hadot contrasts this with philosophy as it is usually practiced today: “Ancient philosophy proposed to mankind an art of living. 

By contrast, modern philosophy appears above all as the construction of a technical jargon reserved for specialists.” Having said that, Hadot also refers to a number of post-antique philosophers whom he thinks still hold on to this ancient conception of philosophy. 

He suggests that both Rene Descartes and Baruch Spinoza held on to this way of thinking about philosophy, as did Schopenhauer and Frederick Nietzsche, and Hadot thinks that it is no coincidence that none of these thinkers held university positions.

The important point in the present context is that this is not only how philosophy was once conceived long ago, but also a live metaphilosophical option that has been taken up by philosophers throughout the history of philosophy and can still be taken up today. But what does the expression, “Philosophy as a way of life,” imply? It may be taken to involve the following things:

First that the ultimate motivation of philosophy is to transform one’s way of life

Second, that there ought to be some connection and consistency between someone’s stated philosophical ideas and their behaviour; and third that actions are ultimately more philosophically significant than words.

In this vein, philosophy may be seen to resonate with what Isaiah Berlin called “the power of ideas,” that is, the ability of philosophy to transform the life of an individual, or even an entire society. As he puts it, the concepts and categories with which people think “must deeply affect their lives. 

One of the best definitions of “Philosophy as a Way of Life,” can be found in Friedrich Nietzsche’s Schopenhauer as Educator: I attach importance to a philosopher only to the extent that he is capable of setting an example. ... The philosopher must supply this example in his visible life, and not merely in his books; that is, it must be presented in the way the philosophers of Greece taught, through facial expressions, demeanour, clothing, food, and custom more than through what they said, let alone what they wrote.

Or, as he puts it a little later on in the same work, “the only possible criticism of any philosophy, and the only one that proves anything, is trying to see if one can live by this philosophy.” This Nietzschean image was taken up by Michel Foucault when he wrote, “couldn’t everyone’s life become a work of art? Why should the lamp or the house be an art object, but not our life?

If we go back to ancient Greek philosophy, we read in Plato’s Apology, Socrates’ saying that his principal concern is a desire to live a philosophical life. This is implicit throughout the text but there are a few passages that stand out. 

The first of these is when Socrates tries to describe his philosophical mission. He presents it as a duty to live as a philosopher, examining him and others.

 Later, in response to his accusers who have condemned him to death, he says, “you have brought about my death in the belief that through it you will be delivered from submitting the conduct of your lives to criticism.” This idea that the task at hand is to examine lives is repeated in another passage where he says that the best thing anyone can do is to examine themselves and others, adding that a life without this sort of examination is not worth living.

For Socrates, then, philosophy is an activity directed at trying to figure out how to live well, subjecting our current way of life to examination. This of course leads to a desire to know various things and attempts to define various things, not least what is good and what is not good, but the motivation, even if it remains implicit, is clear:

Socrates wants to find out how to live well and not just for the sake of knowing how to live well, but because above all else, he actually wants to live well, to enjoy a good life, whatever that might turn out to be. This remains the motivation throughout the early Socratic dialogues.

In the Gorgias, for instance, Socrates insists on the seriousness of their discussion by reminding his interlocutors that it is about “what course of life is best.” It seems, then, that we have a clear metaphilosophical division between Socrates and Aristotle. Both are committed to the pursuit of knowledge and both offer an image of an ideal life involving the pursuit of knowledge, but nevertheless, there is a clear difference when we turn to their ultimate motivations.

Socrates pursues knowledge in order to live a philosophical life, while Aristotle lives a philosophical life in order to pursue knowledge. This is a subtle but, I think, important difference. 

Aristotle’s scientific image of philosophy is a disinterested pursuit of knowledge for its own sake; Socrates’ humanistic image of philosophy is concerned with what it means to be human and how to live a good human life.

The subsequent history of Western philosophy has seen both of these conceptions of philosophy flourish at different times, sometimes in combination, and sometimes apart.

In the light of what we have discussed so far, we might now point to three distinct views about philosophy as a way of life. These are:

1. The claim that philosophy as a way of life is a distinct tradition within Western philosophy, different in form and motivation from both analytic and continental philosophy, dominant in antiquity and present ever since, albeit marginalized in recent times.

2. The claim that philosophy as a way of life is a humanistic approach to philosophy, to be contrasted with a scientific approach and, as such, perhaps sharing more in common with the works of some continental philosophers than it does with most analytic philosophers.

3. The claim that philosophy as a way of life is one pole inherent to all philosophy, sometimes marginalized but always present to a greater or lesser extent. A further consideration to be made here concerns whether we may do philosophy in order to transform our lives, or in order to comprehend the world?

Following Stern’s view that all really good philosophy does both, we may say that the notion of Philosophy as a Way of Life involves the claim that the ultimate motivation is the Socratic: one to transform one’s life; with the caveat, as Stern points out, that for this to be philosophy at all, that motivation cannot be at the expense of a commitment to the truth, for that is part of what makes it philosophy.

Stern’s account has a lot to recommend it. All really good philosophy worthy of the name, takes seriously the central idea of Philosophy as a Way of Life, but never at the expense of the desire to understand the world as it is. This means that it cannot be merely a project aimed at making us feel good, because truths can sometimes be uncomfortable.

In short, if we want to think of philosophy as something engaged, practical, and life changing, we need to be careful not to reduce it to something we do just to make us feel better.

Thus, Philosophy as a Way of Life ought not to be conceived merely as a form of therapy. The same applies, if we avoid talk of happiness and instead focus on self-formation or self-cultivation as the goal of philosophy.

Philosophy as a Discipline conceived as a discipline, philosophy may be taken as a rational inquiry. In this sense, philosophy is an activity that consists in a systematic search for truth, knowledge or the principles of reality.

Such a search is actually described as rational when it is done following certain pattern of reasoning. What this means is that philosophy as a discipline is carried out according to certain procedures or method, principles and norms, canons and rules, which are taken to be universal and foundational to the discipline. It is in this sense that philosophy is taken to be the pursuit of truth, a search for the knowledge of reality as well as an understanding of man’s place in the universe.

A further understanding to philosophy as a rational inquiry may be gained by stating that philosophy as a discipline is essentially an activity in search for knowledge that embodies the instrument of language. In other words, as an activity, philosophy adopts language in navigating the entirety of reality or aspects of it. 

Indeed, in the discipline of philosophy the instrument of language is employed in accessing and assessing the world or the human environment or nature, or reality as a whole.

As it is understood, language is taken as the veritable instrument of thought and communication. It is to be noted that language as referred to here, does not only indicate verbal language; it also refers to other forms of expressive communication such as sign language. In employing the instrument of language, philosophy consolidates on its being a rational and critical activity that employs the principles and methods of logical analysis to interrogate existing beliefs, claims, assumptions, ideas, positions and dispositions, resulting in a clearer and better understanding of reality, whether social, political, cultural, spiritual or moral.

To this extent, philosophy raises questions that are directed at subjecting our beliefs and worldviews to critical interrogation and analysis, following the method of logic and coherence in thought. And so, by deploying the tools of logic, conceptual analysis, criticalness, coherence and systematicity, the philosopher is able to navigate the human condition and come up with those fundamental, normative, transcendental and overarching general principles and methods that underlie human knowledge, reasoning, actions and the understanding of being.

In this vein, the discipline of philosophy clarifies and sanitizes human experiences and conditions, and ultimately reveals how things ought to be. It is to this extent that philosophy is not just primarily critical; it is generally analytical and ultimately constructive.

In the light of the foregoing, the philosopher attempts to remove all clarities, ambiguities, vagueness, confusions or obscurities, so as to arrive at a better understanding of reality. This, it is believed, would enhance choices and actions.

In the words of the French philosopher and scientist, Rene Descartes, the technique of investigation or procedure of reasoning which is able to yield reliable knowledge is that which follows the system of logic, starting from, as it is done in deductive system of logic, some intuitively axiomatic premises, and proceeding through necessary Another sense in which philosophy as a discipline may be understood is represented as philosophy being a “body of knowledge, a system of beliefs, theories, hypotheses and claims.”

Here, we find claims represented in rather ‘completed’ bodies of knowledge, identifiable in branches of philosophy, such as epistemology, metaphysics, logic, ethics, and so on.

Epistemology, for instance, is that branch of philosophy concerned with discovering the fundamental or underlying, normative principles and methods concerning knowledge, and how this is distinguished from mere opinion. This is the point of epistemology as theory of knowledge.

As a discipline (a body of knowledge), philosophy also manifests in the area of metaphysics, which has to do with the theory of reality. Questions raised here include: “What is reality, and how is it different from mere appearance?” “What is the nature of the stuff of which reality is made – matter or form (spirit)?” Seen as such, the task of metaphysics is to establish that body of knowledge which consists in a framework of criteria for what it is for a thing to be. This body of knowledge or system of discourse is sometimes referred to as ontology.

Furthermore, there is ethics or moral philosophy which deals with the rightness or wrongness of human conduct, while logic attempts a discovery of the principles and methods of correct reasoning. By this, philosophy as a discipline has to do with aspects of the world, reality, human conduct, the meaning, purpose and goal of life and existence, as well as order and coherence in human reasoning.


Conclusion on Conceptions of philosophy and Characteristics

 The student would have by now, seen the various ways philosophy may be conceived. It is however pertinent to note, as stated before, that the perspectives to conceiving philosophy mentioned here do not exhaust the ways in which philosophy may be conceived.

That said, the discussion of some of the ways philosophy may be conceived, presented in this article, with the definitions of philosophy offered in the first article further expands the student’s horizon for understanding philosophy.

To be sure, the possibility of conceiving philosophy in the above examined ways reveals the far-reaching inclusiveness of philosophy.

This discussion on the conception of philosophy introduced the student to a number of basic perspectives regarding how philosophy may be conceived. Three conceptions of philosophy: philosophy as a worldview; philosophy as a way of life; and philosophy as a discipline were examined. Conceiving philosophy in these ways helps in providing a broad understanding of philosophy.

As such, as worldview, philosophy is employed in relation to an individual’s general attitude towards life and relationships attitudes grounded on certain guiding principles; as a way of life, philosophy refers to a mode of existing-in-the-world, with the goal of transforming the whole of the individual’s life; and as a discipline, philosophy describes the study of the subject-matter in a more technical context, much like other disciplines as political science, economics and history.

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