The Roots of Philosophy

By Jonathan Dolhenty, Ph.D.

This essay discusses the “roots” of philosophy found in man’s rational nature and in some primeval manifestation to man of the meaning of reality, particularly of his own existence.


Philosophy, the loving quest of wisdom, the tireless pursuit of knowledge to its deepest origins and roots, comes into being, first and foremost, because the human mind is forever seeking to know, and to grasp the ultimate how’s and why’s of what it knows. Man has a quenchless thirst for knowledge. Nor is this a desire for mere data, for bare facts and events; it is a desire for data with their explanations, their justifications, their evidence, their proofs. And if a proof or explanation is not in itself an evident and inescapable reality, the mind looks for proof of that proof. So the search for solid and reliable knowledge, — for truth, in a word, — is carried forward, or naturally tends to be carried forward, towards fulfillment. The mind proves truth by truth; it holds truths in relation and connection; it delves deep to unify and clarify its findings in an ultimate understanding. Thus man is, by his very nature, philosophical.

The incessant questions of a child are manifest proof of the natural thirst for knowledge in which philosophy finds its first root. And though the child, unspoiled and trusting, will accept any explanation as satisfactory, and will find, for instance, no difficulty in the story of a fat Santa Claus coming down a narrow chimney or in the leap that carried the cow over the moon, the young mind will presently inquire further for evidence as extended experience makes its first willing acceptance give place to doubts. In its immaturity, in its lack of time and experience to draw into understandable unity the endless wonders of the world about it, the child accepts any explanation of any fact, and accepts fantastic tales quite casually as no more wonderful than the reality of this most wonderful world. But the child accepts each explanation, each wondrous tale, because it regards these things as true. Truth is what the mind is after; truth is what the mind desires; truth is what the mind is for. And the quest of truth, down to its last foundations, is a philosophical quest. Here is discerned the first root of philosophy.

Nor can it be successfully objected that many minds are indifferent, careless, unconcerned about the quest for truth and the explanation of facts. Such an objection is far from exact. No normal mind, however incurious, is without special interests in which it has the tendency to know and to understand, even though enervation or lack of energy hinders the full exercise of this tendency. There are indeed countless persons who have no direct or conscious interest in what are loosely called “the things of the mind,” that is, deep reasonings upon abstract truths, such as are the delight of the practiced philosopher. There are many who have no sympathy with such things; who regard effort spent upon them as idleness and waste of time; who consider all “philosophizing” as silly vaporizing in a world of unreality. It is remarkable that this should be, since the philosopher, above all others, is most thoroughly and exclusively concerned with reality. It is remarkable, but it is so. But the point to be made here is that even those who regard professed philosophers as fools who wear out their minds (and their readers and hearers) in meaningless discussions of “the whichness of what” and “the whatness of which,” — even those scoffers to whom there is no important reality beyond machines and microscopes and bread and sport, even these are seekers after facts with their causes and reasons, their how’s and their why’s. Your “practical” person, full of scorn for philosophy, is none the less an ardent admirer of the man who knows his job; it is his own proudest boast that in his special sphere of interest and activity he “knows all the answers.” So even this “practical” person is proof sufficient of the assertion that the human mind wants knowledge, and wants the how’s and why’s of what it knows.

But we have no need to pause and argue with the inept, the lazy, the incurious. Our statement that the human mind is naturally philosophical in its effort is manifestly true of the mind at its unspoiled best. That some minds are ill-directed and spend their energies amiss; that some are thwarted by incapacity; that some are quickly weary in the quest of truth, — these facts are in so sense an argument against the native tendency of the human mind for ultimate truth. Indeed, they are rather proof of that tendency. There is an explanation for the fact that many human beings fail to seek out ultimate causes and reasons, fail to realize or to concern themselves about the meaning of existence, and are content with second-best and third-best explanations of the world about them, of life, of duty, of effort. There is an explanation, and only one. Man is not perfect; man has weaknesses inherent within his being. This simple explanation should suffice.

We come back to our statement that the first root of philosophy is found in man’s native tendency to know truths with their evidence. This statement is given with technical accuracy in the following formula: the first roots of philosophy is found in the rational nature of man.

Now, the nature of a thing is its working essence. And the essence of a thing is that which constitutes it and makes it what it is. Essence regarded as the source of operations is called nature; thus we are justified in our description of nature as “working essence.” To illustrate: the essence of man (physically considered) is his body and soul; these are the elements which constitute a human being, and make him what he is in his fundamental actuality. But the nature of a man is the essence looked at as the source and font of human operations. So we say that it is according to man’s nature that he feels and sees and thinks and wills. Man’s essence works that way. That is his mode of operation. That is his nature.

When we say that the nature of man is rational we use the term in its original Latin meaning, not in its current meaning of “conscious” or “normal.” A rational nature means a nature fundamentally equipped for understanding and freely choosing. We do not say that a being of rational nature can think or will at any instant; no, we say that such a being is fundamentally equipped for thinking and willing, even through some obstacle should prevent the exercise of these activities. Thus a baby, even a baby yet unborn; a madman; a man unconscious, each of these is a being of rational nature as truly as is the alert, mature, and normal man who is consciously exercising his powers of thinking and willing. This is a point of boundless importance for many reasons which lie outside the scope of this present study. But one of these reasons is of such vital character that it must be allowed to obtrude itself even here; we shall pause upon it for a brief paragraph.

One great reason for stressing the true meaning of the phrase “rational nature” lies in the fact that current usage makes the word “rational” practically synonymous with the word “conscious,” or the word “lucid,” or the word “normal.” Thus we speak of one recovered from the stress of high emotion, or of one who has emerged from delirium or coma, or of one who has achieved normality after a temporary lapse into insanity, as one who “is quite rational again.” This is a sad, nay a disastrous use of the word. For it has in it the suggestion, — which grew up and grew strong together with the materialistic and pagan view of things which we call “modern” and sometimes “scientific,” — that one who is not “rational” (that is, one who is not in adequate and active awareness and management of himself) is something less than human. Especially is this so with reference to the unborn child, the insane, the more benighted sort of criminal, the senile, the immature, — the “unfit,” in a word. And out of this evil sense of the term “rational” has come, in a measure far greater than most of us realize, our easy tolerance, our sober acceptance, of “scientific” discussions and justifications of abortion, of forced sterilization, of euthanasia or “mercy killing.” No one would listen for a moment to the proposal, however sober and “scientific,” that we should murder or mutilate a great number of perfectly normal men. But many of us will listen patiently, perhaps with half-assent, to the proposal that the abnormal, the subnormal, or the outworn should be eased gently out of life or mutilated and made impotent to propagate. It is, in large measure, our false grasp of the word “rational” that prevents us from seeing that the one proposal is precisely the same as the other. Each is a proposal to maim or murder human beings, every one of whom is a being of rational nature.

Here we recall an important distinction. A being fundamentally equipped for an operation is said to possess in actu primo the perfection which that operation indicates or bestows. A being that exercises the operation is said to possess its perfection in actu secundo. Literally, the Latin phrases mean, respectively, “in first actuality” and “in second actuality”; we may, however, translate them freely as “in basic fact” and “in actual exercise.” Thus a baby is a thinking and a walking being in actu primo or in basic fact, because it is fundamentally equipped for the operations of thinking and walking, even though lack of experience and of development balks the actual exercise of these operations. After a time, the child will both think and walk, and, in exercising these operations, it will be a thinking and a walking being in actu secundo or in actual exercise. It will think and walk in the second place, given the existence of the basic equipment for thinking and walking in the first place. Now, the point here to remember is that every rational creature is rational by reason of the fact that it possesses in actu primo the powers of understanding and free choice.

That every human being is a being of rational nature is a truth discussed in the department of philosophy called philosophical or rational psychology. For the present, we merely notice the fact that man is rational, that he has the natural equipment and tendency to think, to apprehend, to understand, to think things out, to correlate and integrate his findings and to bring them into unity. This human power and tendency for understanding, reasoning, unifying, — this rational nature of man, — is the first root of philosophy.

It must be noticed that a rational nature is more than a knowing nature. All animals have a knowing nature, but man alone of all animals, is rational. Animals are equipped for sense-knowledge; man is equipped for intellectual knowledge, that is, for rising from the individual findings of the senses to the supra-sensible and universal grasp of reality and for will-acts in the light of this superior knowledge.

Sense-knowledge is knowledge of concrete and individual things; mental or intellectual knowledge is knowledge of essences (expressed in the mind as concepts or ideas) and of the relations of essences (expressed in the mind as judgments and reasonings). The sense of sight, for example, beholds individual objects, say a tree or a group of trees. But the mind, taking the findings of sight, rises from these data to an understanding of what tree means, not this tree or these trees only, but any tree and every tree. Further, the mind rises to concepts or ideas of things which the senses cannot possibly grasp, — things such as substance, or symmetry, or beauty.

Inevitably, out of its findings and their unions, their comparisons, their relations, their connections, the mind becomes aware of truths which it enunciates within itself as judgments and expresses outwardly as propositions. And out of judgments, aligned in their proper relations, the mind will draw conclusions or further judgments. Thus does the mind reason or think things out.

Among reasoned conclusions of the mind there are, by natural necessity, certain clearly recognized truths involving duty, obligation, rightness or wrongness; in a word, morality.

The fact that a man can define a reality, that he can discuss things in a general way, that he can do a sum in arithmetic or prove a theorem in geometry; the fact that he is aware of duty and recognizes the need of law and order, — all these facts are proof inescapable that man is a being of rational nature, and, by the same token, that he is by nature philosophical. Philosophy exists because, first of all, man has a nature that makes him pursue the philosophical quest. Such is the meaning of the declaration that the first root of philosophy is the rational nature of man.


The fact that man is of rational nature, and therefore fundamentally philosophical, does not mean that all human beings are actively interested in the deep and determined process of thinking things out which we call philosophical speculation. No, all we may say, and must say, is that man is equipped by nature for such speculation. It is to be expected, however, that man’s natural equipment for speculation would manifest itself in the formation of some system of thought about reality. Special tastes and talents, together with favoring circumstances, must have come into play, sometimes in man’s history, to put him to the task of using his natural equipment in the developing of philosophy.

None the less, the fact of philosophy in the world is not entirely explained in terms of rational nature, tastes, talents, and circumstances. There is ample evidence in the history of human thought that all men, from the earliest times, have had some common store of knowledge to draw upon. The ancients, despite wide variations in their cultures, had many notions in common. They all had some knowledge of the emerging of the earth out of a chaos of waters. They all believed that man was made, directly or indirectly, out of the clay of the earth. They all held that man is meant to serve God. They all were convinced that the human race had somehow gone wrong in its very origins, and that mankind had suffered a fall. They all felt that the business of life involves some sort of cleansing and refining of self, and the attainment of a more perfect state here or hereafter. They all taught that man is, in one way or another, to work for reunion with his Primal Source. Further, all the ancients had the story of a destructive flood of waters which laid waste the world, and the story of the dispersion of human tribes. We must conclude that mankind came to a knowledge of these things through the medium of some primitive revelation.

Christians find this conclusion consonant with their belief that God instructed our first parents; that He spoke with them familiarly; that He doubtlessly gave them information about their material origins even as He imparted knowledge of the creation and inbreathing of their spiritual souls which gave them their perfected being as images of God. This primitive revelation of man’s nature, dignity, duty, and destiny, together with the earliest and most striking experiences of the human race, must have been a matter of common discussion. All these facts must have been narrated again and again by the human voice as the story was handed on from generation to generation. In a word, the primitive revelation and the first great experiences of mankind must have been perpetuated through early times by human tradition.

Now, tradition, unless it is divinely protected and conserved, is a stream that inevitably gathers alien matters as it flows along. Man is imaginative, and his fancy tends to dress fact with such abundance of adornment that the fact itself is sometimes obscured and even forgotten. For this reason, modern man, driven by the same imaginative impulse, is too ready to dismiss old traditions as “mere folklore.” But there is always a reason for folklore; there is always a living truth in the wrappings of fanciful detail; there is no such thing as mere folklore. And so, while it is undoubted that the primitive revelation and the earliest events of human history have come down the stream of human tradition in an imperfect and progressively obscured condition, we are none the less on solid historical ground in our conclusion that these two things (primitive revelation and remembered events of early history) are factual and not fanciful. The primitive revelation and human tradition come together to constitute a true source of philosophical concepts and speculation. They may justly be regarded as the second root of philosophy.

The late Dr. Jonathan Dolhenty was the Founder and President of The Center for Applied Philosophy and the Radical Academy, and is Honorary Philosophy Editor at The Moral Liberal. The Moral Liberal has adopted these projects beginning with a republishing and preserving of all of Dr. Dolhenty’s work.