What Is Philosophy and Why Does It Matter?

The oldest story we have a record of on this planet is a Mesopotamian epic pressed into clay tablets. The story is from 2,100 BCE, although our earliest records of the story are from 1,800 BCE. The book of Genesis was composed somewhere between 6,000-5,000 BCE. The fall of the Roman Empire was 476 CE. So, when the book of Genesis was written, the Epic of Gilgamesh was already as far back in history to Moses as the fall of the Roman Empire is to us today. This story is old. Old old.

In it, Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, wanders the earth in search of the meaning of life following the death of his partner Enkidu. Gilgamesh can’t understand the point of going on ruling a kingdom when the most important things in the world will all be gone one day, and he questions the value of action in a world controlled by unseen forces. The oldest story in the world poses existential questions about how to grapple with responsibility while weighing determination against fate.

Since we have been able to write out our thoughts and communicate them to other people, we’ve been desperate to cope with the meaning of the world around us and our place in it. This search for the great unknown is the struggle with these questions. It represents our desire to not be alone in the world or in the universe. We are homo sapiens (literally “wise men”) and this search for meaning, this hunger to understand the metaphorical and cosmological darkness around us, defines us.

The Greeks finally gave us a name for this longing around 500 BCE when (probably) Pythagoras used the term φιλοσοφία, philosophia, literally “love of wisdom.” Pythagoras studied math, music, and astronomy and many of his theories have survived intact. He was, in his day, what we would think of as a scientist even though we remember him as a philosopher now. He’s not the only one. Democritus lived in the generation following him and was the first one to describe atomic theory. While he didn’t get it exactly right, he did lead us to nuclear fusion.

Today, people tend to think of philosophers as old men pontificating riddles or pondering existential questions about the felling of unobserved trees. Today, people forget that what we now call religion, psychology, sociology, critical thinking, linguistics, economics, political science, metaphysics, cosmology, math, biology, and the study of the arts were all, once, just part of philosophy. The parameters we use to process, integrate, disseminate and utilize new scientific data and discoveries are collectively philosophy. That’s what makes philosophy so important. The philosophy of today is the science or theology of tomorrow.

Imagine people in the year 4,600 remembering Stephen Hawking as a philosopher. It’s an apt analogy, because most of the people we think of as philosophers now really were just the polymaths and scientists of their day. However, not having microscopes and laboratories, they were utilizing a lot of logic (and sometimes intuition) to tackle the great questions they faced. They were observing the world around them and trying to test the hypotheses they could conjure with any of the tools available to them.

What they did, what we learned from them, and — most importantly — what we can do with that knowledge in our own time makes philosophy an imperative for the global society. In a world overrun by religious conflict, inebriated by fake news, and suffocating from the ignored warnings of the scientific community, what could possibly be more important than understanding how to seek, identify, and utilize truth?

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