What is Philosophy? Dr. Jonathan Dolhenty

Introduction to Dr. Dolhenty’s Mini-Course in Classical Realism (of the Theistic not Secular Tradition)

1. The Name Philosophy

The word philosophy is a combination of two Greek nouns, philia which means “love” or “friendship,” and sophia which means “wisdom.” A philosopher, consequently is “a lover of wisdom.”

Translating a word is one way of expressing its nominal definition. For a nominal definition (called so from the Latin nominalis which means “having reference to a nomen or name”) tells what a name means. A nominal definition explains a name, but sometimes it tells very little about the thing which has the name. Of much greater value and importance is real definition (called so from the Latin realis which means “having reference to a reality or thing”). For while nominal definition explains the name of a thing, real definition explains the thing itself. Still, there is sometimes much enlightenment to be found in studying aptly formed names. This is so in the case of philosophy. We shall therefore pause briefly to consider the nominal definition of philosophy. Afterwards we shall study its real definition.

We have legend, if not history, to tell us that the word philosophy was coined by Pythagoras in the 6th century B.C. This ancient Greek teacher is praised for his humility or his clear-sightedness, — which comes to much the same thing, –in recognizing the fact that a man, by the use of his unaided natural powers, can never attain to wisdom pure and simple. He can be, and should be, a lover of wisdom, a seeker after wisdom. But he may never presume to call himself absolutely wise. And hence Pythagoras called his own deep studies, not wisdom, but the love or the quest of wisdom; that is, he called these studies philosophy.

No long after Pythagoras there appeared in Greece men of wide influence but of inferior mind who proudly called themselves “the enlightened” or “the wise” (as who should say “the intelligentsia”); the name in Greek is sophoi. History has permitted these persons to keep the name thus usurped, and knows them as The Sophists. But it is a tidy piece of irony that the name Sophist has come to mean, not a man truly wise, but a pretender and a quack. “Thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges.” We wonder what lies in store for the prideful modern “intellectuals” who made a religion of the latest apparent findings of material science. Doubtless their place is already set among the antic-comedians on the stage of coming time, and futurity will use for its mirth, yea, for its laughter.

Philosophy, nominally or by virtue of the word as a name, means the love of wisdom. The words love and wisdom call for a moment’s attention.

Love, in its fundamental meaning, is the tendency or drive of the will towards an object. It is an act and a state of the will, not a tender sentiment or affection. Sometimes, indeed, the will-act and the will-state of love are attended by soft feeling, but this is not always or necessarily the case. It is important to notice and to remember this fact in a day when the cinema and light fiction have distorted and almost destroyed the true meaning of the word love. — Love is of two types, called by the learned desiring love and well-wishing love (or, in the ancient Latin terminology, amor concupiscentiae and amor benevolentiae). Desiring love tends to possess its object; well-wishing love tends to do good to its object. Manifestly, the love of wisdom which we call philosophy is desiring love. It is love which finds expression in effort, in quest, in striving to possess and to retain wisdom.

And what is this wisdom which philosophy seeks? Wisdom is not the same as knowledge, for a person might know much and still be unwise. Wisdom indeed involves knowledge, but it also includes the ability, the inclination, and the steady purpose of putting knowledge to good use. St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) says in his book Summa Contra Gentiles that a man is to be called wise when he knows what he has to do and plans and manages to do it well. Thus wisdom involves several things: an end or purpose to be attained; an appreciative knowledge of this purpose; an ability, an inclination, and a steadfast effort to achieve the known purpose in the best possible manner.

Thus it is wisdom to work for a known good purpose in a steady, devoted, and enlightened way. Such is wisdom considered subjectively, that is, in its subject, in the person who possesses it. Taking the term wisdom in an objective sense (that is, as a thing in itself, independent of a possessor) and regarding it in a most general way, we may say that wisdom is the sum-total of the things worth knowing and working for, which can attract the best efforts of the best minds and wills. This is the wisdom which philosophy pursues. This that deepest knowledge, that altissima scientia, of which philosophy is the love and the untiring quest.

2. Definition of Philosophy

The real definition of philosophy, as contrasted with the nominal definition already discussed, tells us that philosophy is the science of all things naturally knowable to man’s unaided powers, in so far as these things are studied in their deepest causes and reasons. We shall presently ponder each phrase of this definition. But first it will be well to inspect the meaning of the term philosophy as it is loosely employed in casual speech.

We often hear such expressions as these: “the philosophy of education,” “the philosophy of religion,” “business philosophy,” “the philosophy of history,” “the American philosophy of life,” “the philosophy of style.” Now what does the term philosophy mean in all these uses, or what, at least, does it suggest? It suggests, first of all, a body of reasoned truths or of conclusions regarded as truths. Further, it suggests that these truths are the background, the basis, and the ultimate explanation of the thing to which they are referred as “a philosophy.”

Thus the expression “the philosophy of education” suggests a body of reasoned truths (or principles, or “values”) which give meaning to the word education, which show the worth of education, and which indicate, in a basic way, the best means of achieving and imparting it. Again, the expression “the philosophy of style,” — that is, of literary style, — means, as it does in Herbert Spencer’s little book which bears that title, the root-reasons which are back of all the rules of grammar and rhetoric. Therefore, “the philosophy” of anything suggests the sum-total and system of reasoned truths which are back of the thing and give it meaning.

Of any activity or procedure, of any plan, of any program, of any “way of life,” the reasoned basis is called its philosophy. Here, of course, we have the term philosophy in a very restricted meaning, even a metaphorical meaning; philosophy thus restricted comes close to what people usually mean when they use that horrible misnomer ideology. We have no quarrel with such a restricted use of the term, but it is not in this sense that we employ it in the present treatise. In our study of philosophy, we use the term philosophy to indicate the science of all things knowable, the science which is “man’s ultimate effort to interpret the universe”; we do not use the term to mean the basis of some one effort or some one phase of human activity or interest. We do not speak of the philosophy of this or that; we speak of philosophy. Our concern is philosophy in its first meaning as the universal science, not in its restricted or metaphorical meaning as a special or particularized science.

Reverting now to the real definition of philosophy, we find that we have called it the science of all things naturally knowable to man’s unaided powers, in so far as these things are studied in their deepest, their ultimate, causes and reasons. This definition must be learned with care; we must be sure of the precise meaning of its every phrase.

a. Philosophy is a science: Science, considered objectively, is a body of related data, set forth systemically, expressed with completeness, and presented together with the evidence (proofs and explanations) which justifies and establishes these data as certain and true. Science, considered subjectively, is scientific knowledge in the mind of a person; it is knowledge that is rounded, systematic, evidenced, and complete.

A science is (objectively) any branch or department of things knowable which presents related data with certitude, proof, system, completeness. A science (subjectively) is a person’s certain, evidenced, systematic, rounded knowledge of things knowable.

When we say that philosophy is a science, we take the term science objectively. We mean that philosophy is a body of related data that is systematic, complete, evidenced, and certain.

It is to be noted in passing that the evidence or proof requisite for a science is not merely experimental or laboratorian evidence. Evidence may also be (as in the case of pure mathematics) reasoned or rational evidence. This point is important because many teachers of our times have presumed to limit science to the domain of the laboratorian and the statistician, arbitrarily ruling out rational evidence from the realm of true science. Such a ruling is blind and brazen impudence; it is also self-contradictory. For no amount of laboratorian data, no number of experiments, no catalogue of statistics, can amount to scientific evidence unless reason reduces them to unity and order and draws conclusions from them. And neither the nature and value of reasoning nor the basic force of the conclusions drawn by reason can be tested by laboratorian devices or proved by experimental methods.

We therefore reject the positivistic, sensistic, materialistic, and empiricist doctrine that pure reasoning is of no scientific value. Philosophy is a rational or reasoned science, not a laboratorian science. Philosophy does indeed use the findings of the laboratorian sciences, but it is not confined or hampered by their limitations. It sheds its great light upon the data of the laboratory sciences, serving the scientist as daylight serves the laborer or the mechanic, and, in its turn, it draws from them illustration and direction for its efforts. But it is not fettered by their methods or subjected to their special requirements.

b. Philosophy is the science of all knowable things: In a day of intense specialization, it seems silly to say that there is a single science of everything. Nearly all the sciences we know of, and notably the positive sciences which keep our laboratorians busy, are partial or departmental sciences. Each of these deals with a branch of knowledge, and each is divided into almost endless departments and sub-departments. In the face of this bewildering maze of sciences, how can we think of one science which embraces in its scope every possible object of human knowing? Yet there inevitably is such a science. Even those who scoff at the assertion of its bare possibility are forced to assume its existence and to build their findings upon it as a necessary base. A little thought will convince anyone that there must be such a science; the difficulty suggested by the variety and multiplicity of partial sciences is merely a seeming difficulty.

It is impossible to have any particularized science without some fundamental grasp or some assumption of universe truths. The very existence of particularized or partial sciences affirms the existence of a non-particularized science, that is, of philosophy. For it is as impossible to have a partial science without reference to a universal science as it is impossible to have words without a reference to a language, or even to have parts without reference to a whole. Not that philosophy is the simple sum-total of partial sciences. No, the relation of the particular sciences to philosophy is not the relation of constituent parts or elements to a totality which is their sum; rather, it is the relation of elements to a reality which is other and greater than themselves.

A few examples to explain the above. A building which is called a triumph of architecture is something other and something greater than any or all of the bricks and beams used in constructing it. A living plant is something more than a simple sum of parts. A language is more than a list of words; a literature more than a sum of sentences. The glorious harmonies of a musical masterpiece make something other and greater than a sum of notes. To dwell for a moment on the last illustration, we may notice that the harmonies of a musical composition “come after and rank above” the individual notes that make it up. The composition is not a simple addition of note to note; it involves more than single notes or chords sounded in sequence; it involves notes and chords in their relations, their interpretations, their fusions in a reality which is both other and greater than themselves.

So philosophy which is the science of all things, and therefore includes all other sciences and their objects, comes after and ranks above the partial sciences, and is other and greater than the sum-total of all these. Philosophy achieves its place by drawing into basic unities the vast and bewildering world of knowables with which all other sciences deal piecemeal.

c. Philosophy is the science of all things naturally knowable to man: Philosophy investigates all that man can know by the use of his unaided knowing-powers; that is, by the use of his intellect or reason working upon the data gathered by his senses. Philosophy does not investigate what man has come to know by Divine Revelation, except, indeed, in so far as he could have known this without such revelation. For this reason philosophy is called a human science in contrast with the divine science of Christian theology or some other theology of some religion. Philosophy, indeed, is the queen of human sciences.

d. Philosophy is the science of all things naturally knowable to man inasmuch as these are studied in their deepest causes and reasons: The quest of philosophy is an ultimate one. Philosophy seeks bedrock for the edifice of human knowledge. Every science looks for causes and reasons to evidence its data; philosophy seeks the last, the ultimate, the deepest causes and reasons. Philosophy, therefore, stands unique among human sciences. The partial or particularized sciences — such as physics, chemistry, biology — must be satisfied with proximate causes and reasons, that is, with those that are more or less ready to hand. For each of the partial sciences works in a very restricted field, and must find justification for its data within that field or in immediately related fields. Philosophy, however, is not so restricted; philosophy is not immediately or necessarily concerned with proximate causes; it wants the ultimate, the root-deep evidence for its truths.

To illustrate the contrast between the particular sciences and philosophy, consider a block of limestone. Mathematical science is interested in it solely as quantity. Physics looks to its mass and inertia. Chemistry wants to know the substantial bodily constituents (the elements) that compose it. Now, philosophy ignores quantity, physical properties, and chemical constitution (although it does not deny these things). Philosophy poses an ultimate question; it asks, “What, in the deepest sense of the inquiry, is this thing called a block of limestone?” Philosophy does not, like mathematics, inquire about the size and measurement of the limestone. It does not, like physics, investigate qualities or properties of limestone. It does not, like chemistry, seek to know which other bodily realities (called elements) make up this bodily reality called limestone.

Philosophy asks what this limestone is. The other sciences accept the basic fact, the deepest reality, of the block of limestone; they take this for granted; they do not seek to investigate it. But it is precisely this deepest reality, ignored or blindly assumed by the partial sciences, that focusses the inquiry of philosophy. Philosophy asks, “What, ultimately, is this limestone?” Well, it is a thing or reality; it is a substantial reality; it is a bodily reality. Fundamentally, ultimately, this limestone is a substantial reality of the bodily order; more briefly, it is a body. And as such, as a body, the limestone block engages the attention of philosophy. Notice here what an immense world of knowable things is drawn into unity in the one concept or idea of body.

Notice too how truly ultimate is the quest of philosophy as contrasted with the effort of the partial sciences to gain proximate justification for their conclusions. We have here something that should give us a grasp of the truth that philosophy can be, and is, a science of all things knowable (despite the endless variety and multiplicity of these things), and that philosophy penetrates as deeply as the human mind can go in its investigation of reality.

Philosophy seeks to trace things actual and things possible to their last discernible causes and reasons. Now a cause is anything that contributes in any way to the producing or the maintaining of a reality. A reason is whatever helps in any way to explain a reality to the inquiring mind. A cause contributes to the becoming or the being of a reality; a reason contributes to a person’s understanding of a reality. In word, a cause produces or maintains, a reason explains.

All reality must be either produced or unproduced. If produced, it is caused, it is an effect. One effect may, in turn, become the cause of a further effect. In the view of Classical Realism the chain of cause-and-effect is not endless, nor can it be endless. Working back along this chain, we inevitably must come to a First Cause which is not produced, not an effect of a prior cause (for it is first). There must be a First Cause, existing of its own necessity, by its own unbounded and supreme excellence. And this Cause is, and must be, one. There is only one First or Primary Cause. All other causes in the universe, whether actual or merely conceivable, are effects before they are causes. As causes then they are not primary, but secondary. The one First or Primary Cause may go by various names such as God, or the Intelligent Designer, or Logos, or the Creator, or the Principle of Reality, or merely First Cause or Prime Mover. However, all reality other than this First Cause has both causes and reasons; this First Cause has no causes but only reasons.

Now, when we know the cause of anything we have at least a partial explanation of that thing; therefore, every cause is a reason. But there are reasons other than causes; therefore, not every reason is a cause. Further, a reality, even if it lack causes (as does the First Cause) cannot lack reasons; for reality as such is knowable, graspable, understandable. Hence, everything is explainable; everything has its reasons; this is true even if the reasons elude the grasp of man’s imperfect mind. In a word nothing can exist without a sufficient or fully-accounting reason for its existence. This is the meaning of the familiar Latin axiom Nihil sine ratione sufficienti existentiae suae. Literary folk like to refer to this truth as the necessity for a raison d’être.

Causes are of four chief types; these are called, respectively, material, formal, effecting, final. A bodily reality is the product or effect of all four types of cause; a spiritual reality is the effect of the last three types, for a spiritual reality has no material cause. A material cause is the bodily stuff out of which a body is made. A formal cause gives “form” or character or definiteness or determinateness to a reality, making it that thing formally or as such; and this, whether one considers a substantial or an accidental reality; hence a formal cause is either a substantial formal cause (such as that which makes a silver statue silver) or an accidental formal cause (such as that which a silver statue six inches high). An effecting cause produces an effect by its activity or operation. A final cause is the goal which invites or indicates the aim of the activity of the effecting cause.

Philosophy is interested in all types of causes and in all reasons, but only in so far as these are ultimate or serve as a means to the discovery of the ultimate explanation of reality. Herein we notice once more one of the unifying characteristics of philosophy, and we are enabled to grasp something of the possibility of a single science which dels with all knowables. For the multitude of sciences that exist today to amaze us with their endless variety are largely a tissue of proximate cause and effects, and of reasons immediate and often provisional. Philosophy, by entering the ultimate realms of investigation, is able to unify, clarify, and enhance the many and various findings of the particular sciences.

3. Object of Philosophy

When we speak casually of “an object” we may mean a reality or thing, as when we talk of “visible objects” or “objects of value” or “objects of art.” Or we may mean the end, aim, or purpose of an action, fact, or event, as when we speak of “the object of a visit” or “the object of a plan or program” or “the object of a meeting.”

Now, when we speak of the object of a science we employ the term object in an ancient technical sense. First of all, the object of a science is what the science treats of; it is what we loosely call “the subject-matter” of the science. In this sense the object of a science is known as the material object. Thus, for example, the material object of the science of geology is the earth; the material object of the science of physiology is the human body; the material object of the science of astronomy is the world of heavenly bodies. Hence when we speak of the material object of a science we name, in general, the field in which science works.

In a second and more penetrating meaning, the object of a science is what gives the science its precise character, its “form” as the ancients would say. It is that which makes a science this determinate science, formally or as such, and marks it off from other sciences in the same general field. In this sense the object of a science is called the formal object. Now, that which gives a science its accurate and determinate character is its point of approach, its aim and purpose, and the principles which guide it or light its way. Thus geology which studies the earth as its material object is concerned with the rocky structure of the earth, and not with the shape or size or fertility or divisions of the earth. We say: the material object of geology is the earth; the formal object of geology is the rocky structure of the earth.

Many sciences may work in the same field; therefore many sciences may have the same material object. But no two sciences deal with the material object in precisely the same way and with the same end in view; should they do so they would coalesce as one science. Hence no two sciences can have the same formal object. Sciences are distinguished one from another by their objects, and, in last analysis, by their complete formal objects.

To illustrate this, consider the sciences of anatomy, physiology, and hygiene. All three of these sciences have the same material object, namely, the organs of the human body. But these three sciences have not the same formal object. Anatomy studies its material object for the purpose of knowing structure; physiology studies the same material object for the purpose of knowing function; hygiene studies the same material object for the purpose of knowing how to maintain normality and health.

The material object of philosophy is reality, that is, “all things knowable.” The formal object of philosophy is reality in its final explanation, that is, “studied in its deepest, its ultimate causes and reasons.” Philosophy is at one with all sciences in its material object, for all sciences deal with reality, although each particular science has but a limited part of reality in its scope while philosophy has all. But philosophy stands alone, stands unique, in its quest of ultimate causes and reasons. Philosophy is distinguished from every other science by its formal object.

4. Importance of Philosophy

On the face of things, it is unquestionably important for us to know what man has accomplished through the centuries by the closest and most intense use of his mind. It is manifestly important to know something of man’s quest into the heart of reality and to read some of the results of that quest.

We all acknowledge the importance of knowing man’s deeds, his dreams, his plans and policies, his management of affairs, his aspirations. Still greater must be the importance of knowing man’s achievements in the high domain of the intellect. To follow the course of human efforts to learn ultimate truth; to be culturally enriched by a knowledge of what these efforts have won; to be helped by this knowledge to avoid the calamitous mistakes of the past; to achieve in all this a real enlightenment of mind — surely this is to pursue most noble aims. Now, the earnest study of philosophy and its course through history is the one direct means of pursuing such aims. Can there be any doubt then that philosophy; is a science of tremendous importance?

No one should go unwillingly to the study of philosophy, surrendering reluctantly to its imperious claims and taking up the work as a dull and heavy duty. For philosophy is not only inescapably important for the person who seeks education and culture; it is also one of the most attractive and absorbing studies that can engage the attention of any mind.

The late Jonathan Dolhenty, Ph.D., is the co-founder and honorary President of the Center for Applied Philosophy and The Radical Academy (now a project of Self-Educated American). Read his short biography here.