As the first in a series of ruminations about philosophy, it seems appropriate to start by looking at the nature of philosophy itself. So, in the grand tradition of philosophers everywhere, I’ll begin by making a distinction. On the one hand there is “critical philosophy” and on the other “speculative philosophy.”
When it comes to “critical philosophy,” Socrates is our model. Most of the pervasive explicit beliefs we have in the important domains of religion, morality, politics and culture we inherit; we are born into them. We are “Catholics,” “democrats,” “football fans” or “artistic philistines” mainly because our parents, neighbors and friends are.
Growing up it is difficult to see beyond these “found beliefs” to even imagine alternatives. Philosophy, as practiced by individuals like Socrates, is the art of critical questioning, the art of probing behind the merely accepted beliefs to look for reasons for belief rather than merely causes. For example, to the question “Why are you a Catholic?” we might answer “because my family and friends are.” Or we might say “I see that particular belief as making the most sense out of my lived experience.” The first answer gives a cause, the second gives a reason. Socrates calls us to ground our fundamental beliefs in good reasons rather than mere causes.
At a deeper level than explicit beliefs, a level of unreflective presupposition underlies our orientation to the world, in how we see and do things. Orientations we take for granted. This, too, is what Socrates wants us to uncover. This is never easy. This is why it is crucial for anthropologists who are trying to understand a different culture to live with and observe that culture rather than simply to ask questions of the subjects.
Philosophy, as practiced by individuals like Socrates, is directed toward uncovering these presuppositions so they can be critically confronted. Euthyphyro, in the dialogue that bears his name, is badgered by Socrates into at least beginning to understand that he is making presuppositions. The unexamined life is not worth living. Philosophy in this critical sense invites us to become examiners, critically reflective individuals who are not at the mercy of local contingencies, the winds of fashion or the prejudices of a given age.
When we talk of “speculative philosophy,” our model is Aristotle. Most of the information we get about the world, its history and our place in it is diverse, complicated and often contradictory. The information and sources of information about our world multiply with every passing day and the beliefs that these sources naturally occasion are collectively chaotic.
If we are to have any kind of coherence in our lives it would seem that we need some overarching view that allows us to filter and categorize information so we have a coherent conception of our world and our place in it, a conception that would allow us to navigate the world with some degree of rational responsibility.
The overarching narratives that are available from religion, from science and from history are very different but they must fit together in some way that makes sense to us if our lives are to have any kind of coherence. Philosophers historically have been the grand synthesizers, the ones who stand back and propose a way of looking at everything so that the general overview makes sense. In terms of evidence this project involves highly audacious speculation which has little to recommend it except its apparent human necessity!
Plato and Aristotle integrated all they knew into coherent narratives which they bequeathed to the Middle Ages where sages like Augustine and Aquinas integrated them with the narratives of Christianity to provide an integrated picture.
Science offers a new picture
The modern world, however, introduced a new player on the scene, empirical/mathematical science, which immeasurably complicated this integrative task. Thinkers from Copernicus to Newton played major roles in the emergence of the “new scientific picture of the world” that had much to recommend it by way of explanation, prediction and control of our familiar world. The classical philosopher/scientists in the tradition of Aristotle stayed with and extended the basic categories that seemed to make sense of our familiar world, but this classical picture was gradually replaced by the new powerful picture articulated in the language of mathematics and confirmed by communal experience.
The new speculative philosophers had much more to assimilate but some among them seem ideally suited to the task, especially Descartes, Leibniz and Kant. However, this new scientific picture of the world was not as congenial to our conception of ourselves and our aspirations as its classical predecessor. Our conceptions of God, freedom and immortality were put under considerable pressure, and constructive philosophy became a much more daunting task.
On the contemporary scene, the situation is even more daunting. Even to have a minimally adequate conception of ourselves and our situation in the world we have to temper our philosophical reflection by judgments about the relevance of evolutionary biology, neurophysiology, empirical psychology and artificial intelligence. Philosophical speculation becomes ever more tenuous as specialized pockets of knowledge multiply and the ties of speculation to evidence become less immediate and sure.
Still, as humans, we still need to be critical and we seem to need an overall narrative that makes sense out of our lives. Philosophy speaks to both needs.
Professor of Philosophy Neil F. Delaney is director of Notre Dame’s Glynn Family Honors Program. This is the first of a series of brief essays on “real philosophy for real people,” a non-academic look at great thinking. Among other books, Delaney is the author of Science, Knowledge and Mind: A Study in the Philosophy of C.S. Peirce.