What is Philosophy?

What is philosophy? There are so many definitions of philosophy. It is not altogether unlikely that the “What is…?” question is not the best way to approach a definition of philosophy. There are many other important questions for defining and describing philosophy. Who are philosophers? What do philosophers do? How does one become a philosopher? How, where, and when does philosophy happen? If you want to keep the question of being (ti esti, “What is”), maybe you could at least pluralize or verbalize philosophy, so that “What is philosophy?” becomes “What are philosophies?” or “What is philosophizing?” (“What are philosophizings?”). In any case, all of these questions hover around the same point. Whatever philosophy is/does, it seems particularly involved in defining itself, maintaining itself, like it has to keep turning on the engine in order to keep driving, continually initiating itself, bringing itself back to itself. In short, philosophizing maintains a constant connection to its own beginning. Philosophy is perpetually preparatory, programmatically provisional.

What is philosophy? We have only begun to respond to that question. The famous quote from Aristotle about philosophy beginning in wonder is often read with emphasis on wonder. Sometimes, when philosophers emphasize how much awe, amazement, ecstasy, and wonder are part of their philosophy, it sounds like they’re trying to ward off some anxiety about how boring and overly intellectual they are. Aristotle’s point, though, isn’t to draw attention to how wondrous philosophy is. How philosophy begins is the really important point there. Myth is just as wondrous as philosophy, if not more so, but what makes the difference is the way in which wonder for philosophers is a beginning for the pursuit of knowledge.

“…by way of wondering, people both now and at first began to philosophize, wondering first about the strange things near at hand, then going forward little by little in this way and coming to impasses about greater things… But someone who wonders and is at an impasse considers himself to be ignorant (for which reason the lover of myth is in a certain way philosophic, since a myth is composed of wonders). So if it was by fleeing ignorance that they philosophized, it is clear that by means of knowing they were in pursuit of knowing, and not for the sake of any kind of use.”
Metaphysics, trans. Joe Sachs (Green Lion Press, 1999), 982b12-28
[I’ll leave it for now, but Aristotle’s concluding point is crucial: philosophical knowledge is not for the sake of use; it’s not instrumental, not a tool]

A similar point about wonder comes from Alfred North Whitehead. The point, again, is not that philosophy involves wonder. Wonder pervades human activities, since the world is so strange. Saying that philosophy involves wonder would not be an interesting or relevant point to make. It is utterly trivial. Whitehead’s point is that somehow wonder functions as a beginning, which remains with philosophical thinking throughout its activity, even unto whatever completion it might attain.

“Philosophy begins in wonder. And, at the end, when philosophic thinking has done its best, the wonder remains. There has been added, however, some grasp of the immensity of things, some purification of emotion by understanding.”
Modes of Thought (Mamillan Company, 1938), 232.

Phenomenologists and existential philosophers are particularly emphatic about the perpetually preparatory practice of philosophy. Consider Maurice Merleau-Ponty, speaking for himself and for the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl.

“The philosopher [for Husserl] is a perpetual beginner, which means that.…philosophy itself must not take itself for granted, in so far as it may have managed to say something true; that it is an ever-renewed experiment in making its own beginning; that it consists wholly in the description of this beginning, and finally, that radical reflection amounts to a consciousness of its own dependence on an unreflective life which is its initial situation, unchanging, given once and for all”

“All cognitions are sustained by a ‘ground’ of postulates and finally by our communication with the world as primary embodiment of rationality. Philosophy, a radical reflection, dispenses in principle with this resource.”
Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith (Routledge, 1962), xiv, xxi.

We could multiply examples of philosophers reflecting on their own beginning, preparing, making provisions, reenacting their initiation. Hannah Arendt’s natality is a relevant concept, although it is about action in the political sphere and not specifically about philosophizing. Other examples could include various interpretations of the idea of what Aristotle called proto philosophia (“first philosophy”), like Aristotle’s own claim that the study of “being as being” constitutes first philosophy to more current claims for which first philosophy takes place in logic (Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein), ethics (Emmanuel Levinas), or aesthetics (Graham Harman and object-oriented ontology). The fact that the question of what constitutes proto philosophia continues to be reopened indicates that philosophy never finishes its beginning; it remains preoccupied with its first steps. This is also evident in Heidegger’s waiting upon a new beginning (Anfang), in the return of a past that’s never been present for Levinas and Derrida, in valorizations of creativity (e.g., the redemption of creation in philosophical theology, the metaphysics of creativity in Whitehead, and the wild and free creation of concepts in Deleuze and Guattari), and in dialectical philosophies seeking a new beginning that comes from some other beginning’s end (to paraphrase Seneca). The examples would multiply much more from a global philosophical perspective. The shoshin (beginner’s mind) of Zen Buddhism might be a good start.

I’ll let Karl Jaspers, philosopher of Existenz, have the last word on the beginning of philosophy, the constant preparatory thinking that brings us back to ourselves and to reality.

“Philosophy demands a different thinking, a thinking that, knowing, reminds me, awakens me, brings me to myself, transforms me…. Philosophizing presses on reflectively to the point where thinking becomes the experience of reality itself. To reach that point, however, I must think constantly, though without attaining reality in such thinking alone. By way of a provisional, preparatory thinking I experience something more than thought.”
Philosophy of Existence, trans. Richard F. Grabau (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1971), 12-14.

6 thoughts on “What is Philosophy?

  1. Reblogged this on Reason & Existenz and commented:
    As always, most excellent thinkering from a most excellent person. I recommend engaging this to get some touchstones for the importance of beginnings. As Meister Eckhart encourages us all, “Be willing to be a beginner every single morning.” For me, that is how philosophy shows itself as an always contemporary engagement. Philosophizing is the willingness to be uncertain that never tires of beginning again, that always sparks in us once more the will to ask questions.

  2. Rather, why bother?

    Philosophy: arriving at the proud satisfaction of (still) not being a fool

    Beginning at betrayal (“fool me once…”) and heading towards sincerity (the Anyway), a proud soul cannot but have twisted ankles. For being those who bother themselves to still continue by (bothering themselves to still continue by…), it is the pride of such a being to not lose ground in one’s efforts: to make, if its the last thing one does, a defensible position against insurmountable futility.

    1. Yes, nice point. It’s difficult, especially with twisted ankles, not to lose ground in the face of insurmountable futility. I’m reminded of Albert Camus saying that we must imagine Sisyphus happy when we imagine him repeating the futile and surely ankle-twisting act to which he was condemned: rolling a stone up a hill only to see it roll back down.

  3. Indeed, but also ‘twisted’ in the sense of a conviction or turning (“I (myself) was convinced/convicted of such a verdict”): an ablative absolute. So a changed direction (toward sincerity) and a persisting injury (through such a conscious break).

    So not so much repeating the beginning, but repeating the end (‘arriving at the proud satisfaction of (still) not being a fool’).

    1. Wonderful! I like how you conclude by saying “repeating the end,” and then your final parenthetical comment repeats the definition of philosophy with which your first comment began. It seems like beginning and ending are twisted into one another.

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