Meaning and Nature of Philosophy


Meaning and Nature of Philosophy

Quite literally, the term "philosophy" means, "love of wisdom." In a broad sense, philosophy is an activity people undertake when they seek to understand fundamental truths about themselves, the world in which they live, and their relationships to the world and to each other.

In this topic, you should realize that there are two parts that make-up our examination of philosophy here. There is the part on meaning, on the one hand, and there is the part of nature, on the other hand. Thus, we are going to deal with the meaning as well as the nature of what philosophy is.

It is assumed that by now, you have heard of philosophy and perhaps, have been wondering what it is all about.

The discussion in this article is meant to introduce you to what philosophy is, by providing you with knowledge of the basics of what characterizes the discipline of philosophy.

Let even say that it is not just this unit that would introduce you to philosophy, the whole of the module will provide you with knowledge of what you need to know, so as to be at home with studying philosophy.

This article will be examined in the following headings the meaning of philosophy, the nature of philosophy. In examining the meaning of philosophy, we would look at some approaches to the definition of philosophy.

These will include the historical approach, as well as an approach that sees philosophy as the analysis of language. As regards the nature of philosophy, we would look at philosophy as a set of questions and answers, philosophy as criticism, and philosophy as a program of change.


Meaning of Philosophy

Let me begin by saying that the task of defining philosophy is not much different from that of defining any discipline. By this, I mean that it is often the experience that for a discipline with the character and history as philosophy, there would be as many definitions as there are experts in the discipline.

With this said, from etymology, the word philosophy is a combination of two Greek words, Philo (meaning love) and Sophia (meaning wisdom). When conjoined, philosophy then becomes the love of wisdom and a philosopher, a lover of wisdom.

In ancient times, a lover of wisdom could be related to any area where intelligence was expressed. This could be in business, politics, human relations, or carpentry and other skills. In this sense, philosophy was used to describe the whole of life in antiquity.

In contrast to this, some modern definitions restrict philosophy to what can be known by science or the analysis of language. So, as used originally by the ancient Greeks, the term “philosophy” meant the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, and comprised all areas of speculative thought, including the arts, sciences and religion.

In today’s intellectual society, there is a popular use of the word philosophy. Philosophy is a term applied to almost any area of life.

Some questions may express this general attitude:

What is your philosophy of business?


Driving a car?

Or your philosophy of the use of money?

If this popular use of the word were to prevail, one may admit that anyone who thinks seriously about any subject is a philosopher. If this general definition is accepted, then everyone rightly qualifies to become a philosopher, but this would be ignoring the understanding of philosophy in the strict, technical and professional sense as academic disciplines or study.

Put differently, If this loose definition prevails, it would mean that a philosopher is anyone who says he is a philosopher. Because of this inadequacy, it becomes apparent that we have to look elsewhere for a definition of philosophy.

So, because the original meaning of the word, philosophy, does not give us much for specific content, we will turn to descriptive definitions. A descriptive definition of philosophy is such that it seeks to describe its functions, goals, and reasons for existence. 

In the following pages, a number of these definitions will be set forth and examined. But let me reiterate what I said earlier regarding having as many definitions as there are philosophers. This would come as a note of caution to the student who is just beginning to have first contact with philosophy. 

The beginner may despair over diverse definitions. Students who come from a scientific background frequently expect concise, clear, and universally accepted definitions. This will not be true in philosophy and it is also not universally true concerning all issues in any science or non-scientific study or discipline.

The diversity of opinion in philosophy becomes a source of embarrassment for the beginner when asked to explain to parents or unknowing friends, just what a course in philosophy is all about. 

It might naturally be expected that philosophy, being one of the oldest disciplines or subjects in academia, should achieve some uniformity or opinion in terms of definition, but this is not exactly the case.

Yet, in spite of diversity of opinions, philosophy is important. Plato declared that philosophy is a gift the gods have bestowed on mortals.

1 This may reflect man’s ability to reason about the world as well as man’s life within it. Socrates’ famous statement, “Know thyself,” reflects this aim of philosophy. Plato also warned against the neglect of philosophy. He wrote that “land animals came from men who had no use for philosophy. . . .”

2 In light of this, it might help to inform you that men live by philosophies.


The Historical Approach

Remember our question: what is philosophy? According to the historical approach, philosophy is the study of historical figures who are considered philosophers. One may encounter the names of Thales, Philo, Plotinus, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Don Scotus Erigena, Immanuel Kant, David Hume, Karl Marx, Georg Wilhelm Fredrick Hegel, Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and many more.

All these are known philosophers. But one may ponder as to what actually holds them together within the philosophical bracket, since they are so diverse in many of their views? One answer lies in their common set of problems and concerns.

Many were interested in the problems of the universe: its nature and origin; the issue of man’s existence, good and evil, politics, and other topics. The argument for the historical approach is that no real understanding of philosophy can be had unless one understands the past. Philosophy would be impoverished if it lost any of the names above.

Some argue that knowing the history of philosophy is required for a positive appreciation of philosophy, and necessary if one is to make creative contributions to the advancement of philosophy.

This definition of philosophy has its problems:

(i) It tends to limit philosophy to the great minds of the past and makes it an elitist movement.

(ii) It restricts philosophy to an examination of past questions and answers only.

(iii) It is not really different from the study of history of ideas.

This would make philosophy a sub-unit of history.

The value of the historical approach is that it introduces the student to the great minds of the past and the confrontation one has with philosophic problems that are raised by thinking people in all ages. This is desirable in itself even though this is not the best definition of philosophy.

The history of thought shows that philosophers are always concerned with, or motivated by, life’s fundamental questions, or what is sometimes referred to as the ‘Big Questions’, such as:

How should we live?

Is there free will?

How do we know anything?

What is real? or,

What is truth?

While philosophers do not agree among themselves on either the range of proper philosophical questions or the proper methods of answering them, they do agree that merely expressing one’s personal opinions on controversial topics like these is not doing philosophy.

Rather, philosophers insist on first attaining clarity about the exact question being asked, and then providing answers supported by clear and logically structured arguments.

Such well-constructed and logically structured arguments are meant to primarily analyses and critique such fundamental questions and the ideas we live by in every facets of our existence. 

Philosophy is thus a critical and rational activity concerned with the most fundamental questions of human existence and an analysis of usually taken-for-granted worldviews, beliefs, knowledge claims and ideas about human existence.

Hence core philosophical activity is summed up in three questions:

What is real (the metaphysical/ontological concern)?

How do we know (the epistemological concern)?

What is the moral life (the axiological/moral concern)?


Philosophy as the Analysis of Language

This is one of the more extreme definitions of philosophy. This definition began as an emphasis in philosophy at the beginning of the 20th century. A growing revolt took place against the metaphysical systems in philosophy. Metaphysical systems in philosophy explained everything from the standpoint of a great idea like ‘mind’ or ‘spirit.’

The reaction was primarily against the philosophy of idealism which is a highly developed metaphysical philosophy. The analysis-of-language-emphasis rejected metaphysics and accepted the simple, but useful modern standard of scientific verification. Their central thesis is that only truths of logic and empirically verifiable statements are meaningful.

What does scientific verification mean in this context? If you can validate or reproduce an experiment or whatever, you can say it is true. If there is no way to reproduce or validate the experiment in the context of science, there was then no claim for truth. How do verification and language work together?

Try this example. How do you know when to take a statement as referring to a fact? We can use three sentences:

(i) God is love

(ii) Abuja is in Nigeria

(iii) love is wonderful.

These sentences are constructed in a similar manner. But only one is factual, in that it can be scientifically verified. Many people travel every day to Abuja and anyone who doubts can go see for himself. But you cannot scientifically verify that love is wonderful, and that God is love. I can say factually that I love a person and may even witness events that point to this, but how can I verify the word “wonderful”? God is not seen and love is not seen scientifically.

Are these statements meaningful? The conclusion reached by the philosophers (known as analytic philosophers) who champion the language approach is that anything not verifiable is nonsense. All of the systems of the past that go beyond verification are to be rejected as nonsense.

This means that the realm of values, religion, aesthetics, and much of philosophy is regarded only as emotive statements. An emotive statement reflects only how a person “feels” about a topic.

Declaring that love is wonderful is only to declare that I feel it is wonderful. I may seek your agreement on the issue, but again it is not an objective truth, but two “feelings” combined.

Other analytic philosophers moved beyond the limitations of the verification principle to the understanding of language itself. Instead of talking about the world and whether things exist in the world, they talk about the words that are used to describe the world.

This exercise in “semantic ascent” may be seen in contrasting talk about miles, distances, points, etc., with talk about the word “mile” and how it is used.

Language philosophers such as W. V. O. Quine spend entire treatises on the nature of language, syntax, synonymous terms, and concepts of abstractions, translation of terms, vagueness and other features of language.

This is a philosophy about language rather than being interested in great issues that have frequently troubled the larger tradition of philosophers.

It is important to state at this point, that language analysis as the definition of philosophy, changes philosophy from being a subject matter into a tool for dealing with other subject matters. It becomes a method without content.

This definition is as one-sided as the definition is rejected. The analysis of language has been an important part of philosophy from the time of Socrates and others to the present. But language connected with verification and restricted by that principle places great limitations on areas that philosophy has often regarded as important.

This limitation is seen particularly in the areas of morals and ethics. Morality cannot be verified in a scientific way. But it does seem obvious that we can discuss actions and adopt some means of objective evaluation in terms of reason.

Moreover, it does not seem obvious that some moral distinctions are merely “emotive feelings.” It appears quite reasonable and acceptable to most people that there is a big difference between paddling a child by a concerned parent, and the child-abusing parent whose discipline kills the helpless child. If verification is required for the statement – it is wrong to kill the child – then all moral standards are at an end, and philosophy is turned into non-meaning-making activity.

At its simplest, philosophy is the study of knowledge, or “thinking about thinking”, although the breadth of what it covers is perhaps best illustrated by a selection of other alternative definitions given below:

• Philosophy is the discipline concerned with questions of how one should live (ethics); what sorts of things exist and what are their essential natures (metaphysics); what counts as genuine knowledge (epistemology); and what are the correct principles of reasoning (logic).

• Philosophy is an investigation of the nature, causes, or principles of reality, knowledge, or values, based on logical reasoning rather than empirical methods (American Heritage Dictionary).

• Philosophy is the study of the ultimate nature of existence, reality, knowledge and goodness, as discoverable by human reasoning (Penguin English Dictionary)

• Philosophy is the rational investigation of questions about existence and knowledge and ethics (WordNet)

• Philosophy is the search for knowledge and truth, especially about the nature of man and his behaviour and beliefs (Kernerman English Multilingual Dictionary)

• Philosophy is the rational and critical inquiry into basic principles.

• Philosophy is the study of the most general and abstract features of the world and categories with which we think: mind, matter, reason, proof, truth, etc.

• Philosophy is the careful thought about the fundamental nature of the world, the grounds for human knowledge, and the evaluation of human conduct.


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The Nature of Philosophy

In this sub-section, we would examine the nature of philosophy under the headings of

(i) Philosophy as a set of questions and answers.

(ii) Philosophy as a programme of change.

(iii) Philosophy as a criticism. To be sure, these do not exhaust how the nature of philosophy may be conceived and understood. They only provide some basic in-roads for describing the nature of philosophy.


1. Philosophy as a Set of Questions and Answers

There is a long list of topics philosophy is interested in. Some of these are more interesting and up-to-date than others.

Is the world of one or more substances?

Is it matter, mind, or other?

Is man only a body? Is he, or does he have a soul?

Does God exist? Many other questions could be incorporated here.

Some of these questions have several proposed solutions, while others cannot be answered decisively. For example, the question:

Does God exist?

Can only be answered in terms of a probability situation, as no scientific proof can decide the question either way.

Some questions have been answered to the satisfaction of many philosophers for a long period of time only to be raised again.

One example of this is the old question of Socrates’ days about man being born with knowledge, called innate knowledge. For centuries, this was accepted by a variety of people. But John Locke seems to have solved the matter for many philosophers that man is not given innate ideas at birth.

Hence, he must gain his knowledge through experience.

Now in contemporary thought, Noam Chomsky has raised the question again in proposing what he calls “generative grammar.” He rejects the view of Locke that language is learned empirically. When we learn a language, we are able to understand and formulate all types of sentences that we have never heard before. This ability to deal with language is regarded by Chomsky as innate, something we have inherited genetically. So, the issue comes anew.

But other questions have not met with the same successful responses for such a long period of time. 

However, it may be argued that describing the nature of philosophy as a set of questions and answers is not unique by any means, as other disciplines or studies could also be described by the questions they seek to answer.

If this description will be accepted as integral to the nature of philosophy, then it is important to set forth the particular kinds of questions that are restricted to the description of the nature of philosophy. 

Obviously, the answers to the problem of pollution are not the kinds of questions one deals with in philosophy. But the relation of man’s body to his mind is one of the kinds of questions that philosophers have regarded as their own.

Philosophical questions (unlike those of the sciences) are usually foundational and abstract in nature. Philosophy is done primarily through reflection and does not tend to rely on experiment, although the methods used to study it may be analogous to those used in the study of the natural sciences.

In common usage, it sometimes carries the sense of unproductive or frivolous musings, but over the centuries it has produced some of the most important original thought, and its contribution to politics, sociology, mathematics, science and literature has been inestimable. Although the study of philosophy may not yield “the meaning of life, the universe and everything”, many philosophers believe that it is important that each of us examines such questions and even that an unexamined life is not worth living. 

It also provides a good way of learning to think more clearly about a wide range of issues, and its methods of analyzing arguments can be useful in a variety of situations in other areas of life.


2. Philosophy as a Program of Change

Karl Marx declared that the role of philosophy is not to think about the world, but to change it. Philosophy is not to be an ivory tower enterprise without relevance to the world of human conditions. A contemporary Marxist has asked:

What is the point in subtle epistemological investigation when science and technology, not unduly worried about the foundations of their knowledge, increase daily their mastery of nature and man? What is the point of linguistic analysis which steers clear of the transformation of language (ordinary language!) into an instrument of political control? What is the point in philosophical reflections on the meaning of good and evil when Auschwitz, the Indonesian massacres, and the war in Vietnam provide a definition which suffocates all discussion of ethics? And what is the point in further philosophical occupation with Reason and Freedom when the resources and the features of a rational society, and the need for liberation are all too clear, and the problem is not their concept, but the political practice of their realization?

The criticism of Herbert Marcuse is a stinging one. But the question of change is not one for philosophy per second. Philosophy has no built-in demand that can be the end product of one’s thinking. It seems natural that one who is thinking seriously about the problems of man should seek good solutions.

It seems natural also that one having good solutions should seek to carry them out. But it is also possible for one to have good solutions and only contemplate them without any action. There is no inherent mandate in philosophy for a program of action, although it may be tacitly assumed that some good action will come forth.

Philosophy is in contrast generally to a movement like Christianity which has a built-in motivation for changing the world by the conversion of people to its cause.

Traditional philosophy has concerned itself more with academic questions. But there is the underlying assumption: if you know what is right and good, you will proceed to do it. Another view of philosophy with an emphasis on doing, or change, is that of Alan Watts.

Watts describes philosophy from the standpoint of contemplation and meditation. He starts with the conclusion of the language philosophers: all language about philosophy is meaningless. If this is true, then philosophy should be silent and learn to practice oriental mysticism which is characterized as “idealess contemplation.”

According to this view, the aim of meditation is to get to the Ground of Being. What is the Ground of Being? In a simple way, it can be described as the all-pervasive Spirit that is the only basic reality of the world. Everyone is part of the Great Spirit.

The aim of philosophy is not to think, but to achieve union with the Great Spirit. The idea of change is different between Marcuse and Watts. The Marxist idea of change is to change the material world and man will be better. Watt’s view of change is to forsake social change for all change is futile. The real change is to attain oneness with the impersonal world-soul.

The world of the material is transient, and the visible world is not the real world. Even the Ground of Being, or the Great Pervasive Spirit is changing and manifesting itself in various forms. There is a subtle contradiction in Watt’s philosophy. The Ground of Being continues to produce human beings who must continually deny their own being to be able to return to the Ground of Being.

This denial of one’s own being reflects the fact that the Ground of Being is constantly making a bad thing come into being.

Another variation on the theme of mystic contemplation – the attempt to attain oneness with God – is seen in the thought of men such as M. Eckhart and Plotinus.

Their philosophy encourages a contemplative role. While Eckhart and Plotinus are motivated from a religious or quasi-religious motive like Watts, they do not promote the revolutionary social change as advocated by the Marxists.


3. Philosophy as a Criticism

The idea of philosophy being “criticism” may be explained or understood by looking at one of the philosophers who embodied this understanding of the nature of philosophy. Socrates is one of the earliest to engage in philosophic criticism. For Socrates, criticism referred to critical thinking involving dialectic in the conversation.

Dialectic, one must keep in mind, is a running debate with claims, counter-claims, qualifications, corrections, and compromises in the sincere hope of getting to understand a concept. This may be seen briefly in Plato’s Republic (Bk. I).

Socrates asked Cephalus what his greatest blessing of wealth had been. Cephalus replied that a sense of justice had come from it. Socrates then asked: what is justice? The conversation then involved several people including Thrasymachus who claimed that justice was a mere ploy of the strong to keep the weak in line.

Socrates rejected the tyrant-theory as irrational and the dialectic went on in pursuit of the question: what is justice? Criticism is the attempt to clear away shabby thinking and establishes concepts with greater precision and meaning.

In this sense, John Dewey noted that: philosophy is inherently criticism, having its distinctive position among various modes of criticism in its generality; a criticism of criticism as it was.

Criticism is discriminating judgment, careful appraisal, and judgment is appropriately termed criticism wherever the subject-matter of discrimination concerns goods or values.

Another example of criticism is the philosophic movement associated with the name of Edmund Husserl who is the father of phenomenology.

Phenomenology is a method of criticism aiming to investigate the essence of anything. The essence of love, justice, courage, and any other idea may be dealt with critically, and a tentative conclusion reached. Such criticism is vital to philosophy as well as to other disciplines. Criticism must not be confused with scepticism.

Scepticism as an idea connotes a critical spirit. It is the tendency of not being easily satisfied with simple or superficial evidence and striving to accept only incorrigible beliefs that are absolutely certain. The sceptics strive to establish that there is the need to cast doubt on the existence of all things if that is not possible, then we can affirm that objective knowledge is unattainable.

On the other hand, criticism is carried on for the pursuit of purer, or better knowledge. Sometimes scepticism may be viewed as a stepping stone to knowledge. 

Unfortunately, scepticism frequently degenerates to irresponsible negativism. When this happens, scepticism becomes a wilful, self-serving activity rather than the pursuit of knowledge.

Criticism as the activity of philosophy has been fairly popular in the contemporary scene. Robert Paul Wolff describes philosophy as the activity of careful reasoning with clarity and logical rigor controlling 

it. Such an activity has strong faith in the power of reason, and it is an activity in which reason leads to truth.

Similarly, Donald Scherer, Peter Facione, Thomas Attig, and Fred D. Miller, in their Introduction to Philosophy, describe philosophy as beginning with an attitude of wonder. Philosophical wonder “leads to serious reflection on the more fundamental or more general questions that emerge in a variety of particular cases.”

 This sense of wonder leads to activities in which one raises questions concerning the meaning of terms, the attempt to think things through systematically, and comprehensively, to have good reasoning in the thought process, and then evaluate various options. Joseph Margolis suggests that doing philosophy is an art and philosophers pursue their creative work in different ways.

Studying philosophers of the past is done for the purpose of analyzing the ways they sought to deal with philosophical problems. Consequently, there is no prevailing way of working, to which professionals everywhere are more or less committed.Milton K. Munitz suggests that “philosophy is a quest for a view of the world and of man’s place in it, which is arrived at and supported in a critical and logical way.”

Following this: . . . philosophy is a radical critical inquiry into the fundamental assumptions of any field of inquiry, including itself. We are not only able to have a philosophy of religion, but also a philosophy of education, a philosophy of art (aesthetics), of psychology, of mathematics, of language, and so forth. We can also apply the critical focus of philosophy to any human concern. There can be a philosophy of power, of sexuality, freedom, community, revolution – even a philosophy of sports. 

Finally, philosophy can reflect upon itself; that is, we can do a philosophy of philosophy. Philosophy can, then, examine its own presuppositions, its own commitments.

Criticism as a description of the nature of philosophy makes it such that philosophy is taken as a method of going about thinking rather than the content of the subject. Criticism will help one acquire a philosophy of life, but criticism is not the philosophy itself.

Generally, when one asks about philosophy, the intention relates to a subject matter rather than a method of approach. This would make it possible for all critical thinkers on any critical topic to regard themselves as doing philosophy.

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Conclusion on Meaning and Nature of Philosophy

The thoughtful reader has now probably come to the conclusion: a single and universal definition of philosophy is nearly impossible. Another may say: why can’t all of these be used for a definition? The idea of pooling the best element of each definition – known as eclecticism – has a certain appeal. That is, there is some truth in an eclectic approach to defining philosophy.

In this vein, philosophy would not be the same without criticism; no philosopher worth his salt would consider an important discussion without resorting to an analysis of the language; and neither is it strange to see a philosopher attempting to put his beliefs in practice so as to bring about some positive change. All of these may help the beginning student to understand the meaning and nature of the discipline of philosophy

The lecture began with the attempt to provide the meaning of philosophy by examining the etymology (root words) of philosophy. In this sense, it was shown that philosophy refers to the “love of wisdom”. Wisdom here describes the way of life that is grounded on the idea of practical wisdom; not just conceptual or theoretical wisdom, so to speak.

Our discussion of the nature of philosophy further in the article prompted us to examine philosophy as a set of questions and answers; philosophy as a programme of change and philosophy as criticism.

In all, philosophy represents the attempt to understand the world by asking fundamental questions that bother on the human condition.

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