It all begins with a question. ‘What is philosophy?’
The conversation is initially tentative, nervous, but rather quickly it reaches a crescendo as my brand new class of first year university philosophers-in-training find confidence both in themselves and their new acquaintances. It is around this time I call back the attention of the room.
‘Tell me, what is philosophy?’ I ask again, this time so that the answers, which have been so far discussed with neighbours and around tables, can now be shared with me and the class as a whole. Momentarily, the tentativeness and nervousness returns. Then a bold spokesperson starts us off: ‘Well, we think philosophy is the search for truth.’
‘Oh good’ I reply, eagerly. ‘But what is truth?’
‘Umm…something that is true.’
‘Ahh…maybe…that the earth is round not flat.’
‘That is indeed true. But isn’t that a scientific fact? What has it, that kind of truth, or any kind of truth, got to do with philosophy?’
‘How about we keep thinking about that while we consider some of the other answers,’ I suggest.
Another bold spokesperson speaks up: ‘We think it’s the study of metaphysics, epistemology, ethics.’
‘Very good’ I reply, again eagerly. ‘They’re the main fields of philosophy, right?’
‘Remind me, what are they about?’
After some to-ing and fro-ing, and careful conversation, I summarise the conclusions: ‘So, then, in the most basic terms, metaphysics asks what exists or is, epistemology asks what we can know, while ethics asks how we ought to act. Great! But aren’t those all really different things? What makes them all philosophy?’
‘Hmm…maybe they all aim at truth.’
‘Oh excellent!’ I reply, most eagerly. ‘Do you mean something like, metaphysics looks for what truly is, epistemology looks for what we can truly know, and ethics looks for how we truly ought to act. But, isn’t every academic field, or in fact, every ordinary person, looking for the truth of what is or knowable or the right ways to act, so what makes all these true-lys philosophy?’
This is the extremely abridged account. The actual in-class conversation, with many diversions, will have gone on for over an hour at this point. When a confused, somewhat contemplative, slightly uncomfortable quiet settles over the room, an important quiet that I must not disturb.
Finally, an exasperated yet sincere voice breaks the silence, ‘I haven’t a fucking* clue.’
I smile in spite of myself, actually I’m beaming — ‘Brilliant.’
Within their very first hour and half session my philosophers-in-training experience, find for themselves, genuine philosophical ignorance. I am so proud. And to my continued surprise and delight these philosophers-in-training come back for more.
The more that we (these philosophers-in-training and I) explore is the question: What are we doing when we are doing philosophy? Philosophy is generally taken to be the study of the fundamental nature of the world (metaphysics), knowledge (epistemology), and action (ethics). However, throughout its history, philosophy has understood its own aims (what it is for) and methods (how to do it) in different ways. In the Western Tradition — that by accident of birth and training I have grown up in — philosophy has be shaped by two main aims: ‘how to live?’ and ‘what can be known?’ These two aims are readily compatible and feature throughout the field’s long history. Nevertheless, perhaps controversially, I suggest that there is an identifiable, historical shift from one to the other; minimally a shift in emphasis, maximally a shift in foundation. Directly connected to these shifting aims are the variety and changing practices of philosophy; that is, what it means to be a philosopher. As I become more familiar with non-Western philosophical traditions, I also suggest that similar shifts in aims and practices can be seen in them. And in order to understand what we are (perhaps, ought to be) doing when we are doing philosophy only really comes into view by the exploration of this history of philosophy’s philosophy.
In the forthcoming series of posts, my view on these shifts of philosophy’s aim and method will be developed. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I begin with Socrates, yet less surprisingly, as the child of the existing lovers of wisdom rather than the father of all philosophy.
Next time: Love of Wisdom, the Birth of Socrates’ Method.
*For very important philosophical and pedagogical reasons, all language, all words, are permitted in my classroom, with the only limitation or condition being that some words or combination of words, may or may not be permissible for certain participants to say or use (for instance, unlike 2Pac there are no circumstances that I can legitimately use the n-word). Similarly participants receive appropriate warning of the discussion of difficult topics and can excuse themselves at any point without reason nor requiring permission. However, if a mistake is made, we have the difficult conversation about what makes it a mistake. This fitting expression of exasperation is no such mistake. Furthermore, under this proviso, and well before any student says it, I will have said fuck/ing in relevant context at least twice in this class and will continue to do so throughout the course.