It’s 1,000 years before the common era in the city-states now known as Greece and Italy. You know that Poseidon, god of the sea and brother of Zeus, requires you to appease him if your crops and fishing boats are to survive from harvest to harvest. But this morning, there was an earthquake. You know he can’t be happy, but you also can’t figure out what you did to upset the old Earthshaker this time. What do you do? How does the explanation of the event shape your behavior after it occurs? What are you going to do today to prevent an earthquake tomorrow?
We have examined some of the origins and history of philosophy, but what really matters is how to interact with it in our world and in our society. You might be surprised to find out that you’re already something of a philosopher, as you’re already asking and answering many of these questions in your personal life or through your work.
Like medicine and science, philosophy is broken down into branches. Various sources divide them into more or fewer branches with the standard range being between four and eight branches. The cause for this discrepancy in nomenclature is philosophical itself, naturally.
Some believe that the study of political philosophy, law, and beauty should all be grouped together under the heading of Value. Some think that they should be studied individually. These differences in how to view the groupings of the various philosophical questions lead to different classification systems. The various branches of philosophy each ask or answer questions which are systematically categorized.
These questions are sometimes universal and significant, such as the understanding of free will and the nature of the mind (Epistemology); while some of them are deeply personal, requiring us to contemplate our morals, beliefs, and actions (Ethics).
Between these two extremes there lie other areas of study such as Logic (essential to any scientist), political philosophy or political science (which has an impact on the laws that govern our daily lives), Linguistics, Theology, Aesthetics and so on. Each of these branches poses, contemplates, or answers particular questions, and then applies the same methodology to the application of the findings from such work.
From the broadest perspective, then, these categories may be largely ignored up until the point that the individual views of a particular question presented by various philosophical branches or schools (more on that later) can offer further clarification of the subject or the answer under contemplation. Therefore the most straightforward way to examine philosophy, initially, will be to follow the questions themselves, rather than the branching systems.
This poses some problems, however, for pedagogy. The whole reason these systems are categorized is to make them more accessible. Raindrops each provide a reflection of their surroundings, but the representation offered is much easier to contemplate once those drops have converged into a puddle. While it might seem easier to start the study of philosophy from the puddle end of that spectrum, it also provides initial bias which is detrimental to nascent philosophical education. The question of whether or not a thing is beautiful has largely different implications to an art student than to a metaphysicist. Because of this, it is better to start with the question itself and allow it to follow its course organically.
Aside from branches of philosophy, which break various questions down into distinct categories, there are also schools of philosophy which are overarching methodologies for the application of current philosophy in daily life. Whereas a researcher of ethics will extrapolate all questions from within that branch in isolation of other branches, a school of philosophy, such as Stoicism, will use ethics as well as all other philosophical lines of questioning in an attempt to present a way of exhibiting those aggregated truths held sacred by the tradition.
So in the next few weeks, we will examine various questions and how they evolve and emerge in history and society. For several weeks we will avoid the examination of any one branch or school of philosophy and instead focus on the many questions that all of the various philosophical traditions are attempting to elucidate. While our approach will not typically be chronological, it is useful to examine the first question of philosophy first.
The beginning of Western Philosophy may be said to originate with the break from answering metaphysical and epistemological questions with myths and the attempt to tackle those same questions through reason alone. If we believe Aristotle, this occurred sometime near the 7th century BCE during the lifetime of Thales of Miletus.
Thales didn’t think that Poseidon was causing the earthquakes. He proposed, through examination of the natural world and through hypothesis and analysis, that actually it might be caused by something else, no offense to Poseidon, of course. He supposed that land masses were floating on the sea and that when these masses collide or rub earthquakes result. While our continents are not floating on water, he got most of the rest of that right. That is saying something as it would be nearly three millennia before the theory of plate tectonics was accepted by the scientific community at large.
So what about his philosophical contributions? What was the first question posed by the first philosopher long before Socrates drank hemlock for heresy?
I don’t think it was the question that was important, because others had asked and answered that question with myths — but Thales’ new method, i.e. the new standard for an answer to the question, namely the light of natural reason alone. That new standard “led to the foundation of philosophy”, or rather, that standard itself is the foundation of philosophy.
However, for the curious minds, the question was mainly, “Is there a reality that does not change, despite the ever-changing appearances of things? And is that reality one thing or various different things?”
The starting point in philosophy — the first question and the point on which all else pivots — is how the distinction is made between sense and nonsense. How a philosopher makes — or does not make — this distinction decides the game, as the king decides the game in chess: it determines the outcome. Because in philosophy the end is in the beginning, in this particular beginning: the distinction between meaning and “mere sound without sense” is both a philosophy’s foundation stone and keystone.
So the genesis of Western philosophy lies in the ability to know something, and to know that it is known, and to be able to convey both the knowledge of the subject and the technique of the acquisition of that knowledge. Following that, what do you do with that new knowledge? How does it change your understanding of your world and your society?
Next week we will explore the break between the mythological and philosophical ways of examining the world and how that break got us to where we are today, using philosophy all the time.