The word “philosophy” has historically been a nebulous notion, one that conjures up images of a Rodin-like thinker seated on a stone in a distant garden absorbed in thought, or a white-bearded armchair philosopher contemplating the adages of the ages, or an ancient Athenian surrounded by his youthful followers questioning an irritated interlocutor.
Whatever conception comes to mind, the persistent question that frequently puzzles the modern mind is—what exactly is philosophy?
As the Roman philosopher Epictetus stated in his “Discourses”, written in 108 A.D., the choice to become a philosopher is a conscious decision. “You must be busy either with your inner man, or with things outside, that is, you must choose between the position of a philosopher and that of an ordinary man.”
For insight into the study of philosophy, The Telescope interviewed Palomar College Professor of Philosophy William Leslie, who has taught philosophy at Palomar for nearly thirty years.
Professor William Leslie
The Telescope asked Leslie why a person should study philosophy.
“Most importantly,” Leslie said, “to think like a philosopher. This means, on any important issue or controversy, to exercise all the reasons supporting different answers to it from all relevant perspectives, including the criticisms of those answers and rebuttals of those criticisms, always using logic and avoiding fallacies.”
The distinguished philosopher Bertrand Russell spoke to this point in his belief that the role of philosophy is that of critical evaluation. As he states in his work, “The Problems of Philosophy,” 1912, “The essential characteristic of philosophy, which makes it a study distinct from science, is criticism. It examines critically the principles employed in science and daily life.”
Leslie believes that thinking like a philosopher helps us to develop our values. Through thinking philosophically, we can critically examine the values we have inherited. “Most people mimic, uncritically, the values of the family, religion, the society they were born into and had no choice in,” Leslie said.
To critically examine one’s own values and those of others was the mission of one of the greatest philosophers of all time: Socrates.
The philosopher Socrates lived in Athens, Greece from 469 – 399 B.C.E. As the progenitor of the Western philosophical branch of ethics, Socrates was the first to declare that the human condition should be the domain of philosophical inquiry.
In Plato’s “The Apology”, ca. 399 B.C.E., Socrates admonishes his fellow Athenians to take no thought of their reputation or their property, “but first and chiefly to care about the improvement of their souls.” He believed that “daily discourse about virtue … is the greatest good of man” for “the unexamined life is not worth living.”
A foremost concern of the philosopher is with the search for truth and attainment of wisdom. The word philosophy forms from the Greek word “philosophia” which means ‘love of wisdom’.
Leslie reflects Socrates’ position of the need to think through our values in a way that Socrates might have described as examining our life. “With its emphasis on thinking through all possible answers (and their criticisms) to questions of values (good vs. evil, virtue),” Leslie said, “thinking philosophically about our values takes us a long way towards realizing our maximum potential.”
When asked whether humans have an intrinsic need to philosophize, Leslie said he believes “all humans are born with an innate curiosity about the big questions (Reality, Truth, Justice, etc.). It does take an effort, however, to keep that curiosity alive.”
The reason sustaining curiosity requires exertion may be found in Leslie’s insight into how circumstances within the human condition qualify the opportunity that individuals have to engage in philosophical thought and discourse.
According to Leslie, by studying philosophy “we learn how lucky we are to have the opportunity and wherewithal to study and discuss the great issues. Many, if not most, people throughout history were too poor, illiterate, or exhausted to do so.”
“By answering questions of the extent to which we are existentially free,” Leslie added, “or determined by forces outside ourselves (genetic inheritance or social conditioning), we can gain a measure of control over those forces.”
Reflections on the big questions mentioned by Leslie can be found in the classics of philosophy.
Leslie believes it is worth studying the classics of philosophy because by doing so “we learn how people in the distant past were confronted with the same Big Questions we are concerned with even now. It also shows us the back-and-forth [dialectic] of this long conversation. In addition, we see how beautifully these great authors expressed themselves.”
The premier American philosopher William James also believed in the benefit of studying the classics written by ancient authors. In his “Pragmatism,” 1907, he speaks of how these ancients initiated a tradition of thought that eventuated in common sense as we know it today:
“Our fundamental ways of thinking about things,” he writes, “are discoveries of exceedingly remote ancestors, which have been able to preserve themselves throughout the experience of all subsequent time. They form a great stage of equilibrium in the human mind’s development, the stage of common sense.”
Leslie believes the importance of studying the ancient and the great philosophers resides primarily in teaching us how to think like a philosopher when examining any issue or controversy.
“Next in importance,” Leslie said, “is to study how the great philosophers handled those issues and controversies. This gives us insight into how philosophical minds approach the Big Questions about the nature of reality, how we know what we know, how we should treat each other, how we should organize society, and what is art. These are, respectively, metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, political philosophy, and aesthetics.”
The study of philosophy helps us to form our own personal philosophy. Although studying philosophy might not be the most monetarily remunerative area of expertise, it can help us deal with issues that are integral to what it means to be human.
Mortimer J. Adler, a 20th century philosopher and pedagogue, wrote in an essay that is part of a collection of books known as the “Great Books of the Western World,” 1990, in which he presents the view that “the province of the philosopher” comes “nearer to what the ordinary man means by ‘philosophy’ when he speaks of having a philosophy of life—an overall yet personal view of the human situation, illuminated by a sense of the values which should direct conduct.”
Because the perennial questions dealt with in philosophy have been entertained by humanity since time immemorial, it would seem they cannot be answered with finality in this life. But that does not mean we should not try to learn from them. Reflecting on this idea, Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”
When The Telescope asked William Leslie what he has personally learned from studying philosophy, his answer mirrored the pithy yet profound sentiment of as wise a thinker as Ghandi when Leslie insightfully declared, “The questions are long but life is short. Carpe Diem!”