Why Philosophy Is Important: an Introduction to Philosophical Thought and Its Significance Today

Darren Wallace, LC

Starting the Adventure of Philosophy

Growing up, I was always more of an action/oriented type of person, and not your typical intellectual and lover of snuggling up with a good book on a rainy day. On rainy days, I was outside on an adventure, not worried about getting wet, but worrying about meeting a new challenge. If there was a mountain to climb or an optional lecture to go to, I would probably instinctively choose the mountain every time, hands down. I just like adventure and challenges over sitting around learning stuff. At least, that is the mentality I used to have about study; just get by, doing the bear minimum, so that I can go climb that mountain. It also might not have helped that before coming to study in Rome, I spent the last few years in full time apostolate looking for vocations for the priesthood in the whole of the United States and Canada; talk about climbing a mountain… However, while studying philosophy in my very first few months of being in Rome, it came to my mind to really try to approach my studies in Rome in a different way.

            I decided to not only see my studies as a preparation time for the priesthood and the mission God has planned for me in the future (which it most definitely is), but also to see each moment of my “full time study” here in Rome, as a moment to build the Kingdom of Christ at the “Altar of my Desk”! This agreatly influenced each moment of my studies, as I began to approach my philosophical education in a new light each time I went to class, or sat down at my desk; for it slowly began to stop being a moment wasted in not being out there on the apostolate, challenging myself to reach new heights. Rather, it started to be a moment of challenge, in giving myself totally, in an act of love, to Christ and the souls entrusted to my care. I then began to see that I not only could do this, but I needed to give myself completely and unconditionally to Christ in every moment of my studies, because this was the mission he had given me. This change brought the mountain down to the classroom, and set a fire of excitement and joy at the tip of my pen. For I could build the Kingdom of Christ, not only in looking for vocations, preaching retreats, and giving spiritual direction all over the States and Canada as I had done, but I could build the Kingdom right from my desk! Through this line of thought, I began to see the wonders of philosophy, and the importance it has today.

Effects of Philosophy on Today’s World

We live in a philosophizing world. To deny, or try to disprove this, we simply prove this very statement to be correct, for we ourselves would be philosophizing in trying to negate this philosophical statement. However, this philosophizing world of ours is also a world under attack by many aggressive philosophies, especially those who have surfaced over the last few hundred years. These attacks have come principally in the forms of hedonism and nihilism, though naturally they do not always present themselves as such, with waving banners and marching bands.

Hedonism does not directly deny that man’s mind has the ability to know truth, but it undermines this, and makes it subordinate to the ability of feeling pleasure.  The hedonistic mindset has effected all of us in some way, after all, we are all products of our culture, and it pushes man to seek happiness in maximizing pleasure, and minimizing pain.  For the hedonist, the search for truth is set aside in favor of the search for pleasure.

Hedonism pushes us to live by the words, “don’t think, just enjoy,” or, perhaps better put, “don’t think too much, just enough to have a really good time.”  We are all effected by this way of thinking, as we are all effected by what of our society tries to promote as man’s ultimate purpose in life.

Nihilism is a little more sophisticated, and it takes many different forms; such as pragmatism, deconstructionism, relativism, and existentialism.  Without getting overly complicated, nihilism in many of its forms indirectly denies the human mind’s ability to know, because it claims that there is essentially nothing to know. This makes sense, as the word “nihilism” is derived from the Latin word for “nothing”. Ultimately, for the nihilist, there is no ultimate order in the universe; no meaning, no transcendent values, no source of solid truth or lasting goodness.

In the face of this “transcendent nothingness”, the human mind is faced with two options: either 1. to try to find truth within human language, which at least gives the impression of knowledge, or 2. for man to set out on his own and simply create a personal system of truth and meaning from the “nothingness” that surrounds him.  It is rather a self-contradicting and dismal approach to life, for in following the teachings of nihilism, one needs to put all of ones trust in the power of one’s own mind to create meaning, because it is not powerful enough to find meaning in the first place. However, this self-contradiction fits perfectly into the Nihilism’s motto: “I will do it my way; you can do it your way; just stay out of the way!”

This modern two-front battle against reason has unwittingly revived an old Christian heresy of fideism.  Like hedonism and nihilism, fideism also reduces the role of human reason within man.  It does not deny the existence of transcendent values or the existence of a wise God as Nihilism does, nor does it take God and morality out of the picture of human happiness, as hedonism does. Nevertheless, it does demean and belittle the role of reason, as it claims that we can know the truth about God and spiritual realities only in and by faith. Faith, for the fideist, is independent of reason, and therefore it can slip into irrationality.

Addressing Modern Philosophical Issues

These philosophical thoughts have done great damage to the way men think and live. It has effected all areas of the Church, the family, and society in general. How we respond to these aggressive ideas does have an impact on not only ourselves, but also on every person, we encounter and interact with. Pope Saint John Paul II understood this reality very well. In his 1998 Papal Encyclical ‘Fides et Ratio’ (meaning Faith and Reason), he addresses these three philosophical ideas, and proposed a way of recovery from their errors. He explains in the introduction of this encyclical that although the human mind has made considerable progress in many fields throughout the modern era, it has left behind something essential: “the search for ultimate truth.”  As a result, the Saint explains, “Hence we see among the men and women of our time, and not just in some philosophers, attitudes of widespread distrust of the human being’s great capacity for knowledge. With a false modesty, people rest content with partial and provisional truths, no longer seeking to ask radical questions about the meaning and ultimate foundation of human, personal and social existence.”

He goes on to explain that the modern intellectual enterprise “seems to have forgotten that men and women are always called to direct their steps towards a truth which transcends them. Sundered (meaning separated) from that truth, individuals are at the mercy of caprice (meaning their impulses)… It has happened therefore that reason, rather than voicing the human orientation towards truth, has wilted under the weight of so much knowledge and little by little has lost the capacity to lift its gaze to the heights, not daring to rise to the truth of being”[1].  In other words, the attack on reason has made people like jellyfish; if the tide goes this way, I go with the tide, and if the tide of the culture pushes me to do this, even if I know it is wrong, well… I do it. Little does the jellyfish know that this cultural tide is pushing him onto the beach on which he will not be able to get off, at lease he does not realize it until it is too late.

“The unexamined life,” as Plato once said, “is not worth living,” and it is not much of a stretch to say that modern times have go so far as to put the examined life out of fashion (out of sight and out of mind as it were), pushing man to live life principally by his passions and feelings, whatever they be, as long as no one gets hurt or is offended. Just be that happy jellyfish in the sea of my passions and culture; where all truth is relative, until you try to swim against the tide! Does any of this sound familiar?

Need for Philosophy

Jumping back now to ‘Fides et Ratio,’ Saint Pope John Paul II, without mincing words, states directly that the antidote to this attack on reason within culture is philosophy.  He also stresses however, that this antidote is not found in one particular philosophical system, like Hegelianism, Phenomenology, or logical positivism, but real, authentic philosophy; the philosophical enterprise in itself, the systematic and reasoned search for the ultimate truths; an enterprise that the Saint calls “one of the noblest of human tasks”[2].

In this way, philosophy, being the mind’s journey to understand the ultimate truths about reality, and the wisdom it brings, are necessary components for any healthy culture, and for a meaningful life.  The Saint makes this point many times within ‘Fides et Ratio’.  He points out that the benefits of true philosophy are especially necessary in our world today, “… when we are faced with the patent inadequacy of perspectives in which the ephemeral (meaning short-lived) is affirmed as a value and the possibility of discovering the real meaning of life is cast into doubt. This is why many people stumble through life to the very edge of the abyss without knowing where they are going.”[3]

This possibility of living and affirming an ephemeral life is true even for Christians, even though we have the advantage of God’s revelation to reinforce our fallen human nature. By recalling the mountain climber that was mentioned at the opening paragraph, we can see that this is very true!  However, the Saint does state that in God’s revelation, instead of limiting the mind’s attempt to understand the universe, as some critics maintain, it actually spurs it on to search more enthusiastically and thoroughly.  Again, Pope Saint John Paul II expresses this sentiment when he says, “Revelation therefore introduces into our history a universal and ultimate truth which stirs the human mind to ceaseless effort; indeed, it impels reason continually to extend the range of its knowledge until it senses that it has done all in its power, leaving no stone unturned.”[4] Therefore, the Saint tells the faithful, that as both men, as well as followers of Christ, we need to earnestly search for truth and wisdom. A wisdom which brings us an authentic  interior peace and joy which comes from contemplating the truth about the world, ourselves, and God, and also in that it brings one’s knowledge and clarity of the world (in both morality and justice) into a greater harmony with that truth. For with philosophy we are assisted in knowing the beauties of the faith with ever more clarity, for both are ordered by reason.

Why Should Every Man Study Philosophy?

At this point of getting one’s feet wet on the shores of the sea of philosophy, one might rightly ask the question if it is really necessary to actively philosophize, once we have these aforementioned principles clear within our minds. Is every man really called to study philosophy in some way, shape, or form? In answering this, I can simply say that in addition to rescuing the nobility of the human spirit from living like the proverbial jellyfish, authentic philosophizing also purifies and elevates man and culture as a whole.

We were not created to live life as a spineless and directionless creature, but as a creature with a transcendental purpose; using our intellect and will to attain this purpose within the confines of truth and goodness. As Pope Saint John Paul puts it, “With its enduring appeal to the search for truth, philosophy has the great responsibility of forming thought and culture; and now it must strive resolutely to recover its original vocation.”  For man’s own sake of enrichment, as well as to further the mission of building the Kingdom of Christ, it is more than just worthwhile to learn how to philosophize, it is imperative. Because if we do not know how to philosophize correctly, we have already made a decision to fall into hedonism, nihilism, or fideism.

How to Start to Philosophize

Though some might have prejudices against many philosophies, it is more important to first enter into the waters of philosophy by understanding what it is really all about. Not all bodies of water are calm, but all fish still belong in the water, and we cannot let the rough waters of a bad philosophy or philosopher send us running for the shore.

Secondly, over the years, many people have associate philosophy with strange, eccentric, bearded professors who dress poorly, wave their hands in the air when they talk, and are completely out of touch with reality.  Thankfully, none of these are requirements for a philosopher, and in fact, being out of touch with reality is the biggest obstacle for an authentic philosopher.  Authentic philosophy means to seek to comprehend reality, to understand the way things are, to push the human mind as far as it can go, and find the ultimate explanations of things; the “why’s” behind the “how’s” of our existence!

Why Philosophize When We Have Science?

Many people are so overawed by the length and breadth of scientific knowledge, that they fail to realize that philosophy is not in “competition” with science, but that both can actually work together, and complement each other (provided both are done correctly and according to their nature and purpose). There is after all a difference between philosophy and science.

Science, as it is limited to what one can observe and analyze by one’s senses, tracks down the “how” and the “what” of our “physical reality”.  Questions like; how is it that some lizards appear to walk on water, while sheep usually sink, or whether the moon really is made of cheese, are all questions answered by science, and they have nothing to do with a philosophical question.

Philosophy, on the other hand, embraces all of our reality, and it pursues a total understanding of reality, tracking down the ultimate causes of everything, like a cat chases down a mouse.  Moreover, unlike science, philosophy-s’ method is beyond the quantifiable.  It uncovers the principles and the truths that underlie every experiment, and every existing thing.  Principles like those of non-contradiction, causality, and finality, which illuminate the structure of existence itself, not just the structures of certain existing things, like a moon which might or might not be made of cheese.

Over the past few hundred years, with scientific advances and discoveries, the scientific method of hypothesis and experiment proved so successful in promoting technological progress, that many leading nineteenth century intellectuals rapidly started to think it could be equally successful in every other field of human inquiry, including true philosophy. This thought however, had disastrous effects on the way we as men think and live out our lives. Not everything fits under a microscope or into a mathematical equation.  Science can tell us the chemical composition of a good man, but it cannot answer the question, what is goodness?  It can indicate the proper physical and chemical conditions for carbon-based life forms, but it cannot reveal the meaning of life.  Political science can “describe” and “demonstrate” how democracy or a republic work, and history can give us examples of different political systems, but it’s philosophy that ventures further along, asking and answering questions such as, “what is human society, why do human beings form societies, and what makes a society good and bad?” It is easy to see what can happen to a society and a world once these answers were no longer asked in a philosophical way.

The Attitude of a Philosopher

Philosophy, more than a simple field of study, is an attitude, and an activity.  Philosophy consists in philosophizing, in engaging reality in a conversation, and in questioning reality.  True philosophers, whether they happen to be professors or shepherds, fishermen or bankers, take up the difficult but rewarding mission to understand the whole truth about all reality: the world, mankind, and God.  For this very reason, God had given us our intellect, so that we can understand truths, so that we may come to know reality and appreciate it, and through that knowledge come to know him, the creator. For by knowing God, we are able to come to love him, and live in friendship with him, which is the only source of lasting happiness for man. Any other happiness or joy which man may or can experience is simply a shadow or mirror image of this one true happiness which we are able to experience, being loved creatures of a loving all powerful God. It is no strange coincidence that the founding father of nihilism, Friedrich Nietzsche, in his contempt for true philosophy, was also the author of the most famous phrase in modern anti-philosophy: “God is dead.”

However, there are many great examples of philosophers whom man can look to in learning the right attitude to have in philosophizing. One might say that history’s first great model of the true philosopher was Socrates. Even though he did not know Christ on his pilgrimage for wisdom, and therefore could only go so far, he shows man an example of undaunted wonder, undeterred courage, and profound humility, as he sought after truth.

However, an even greater example of a philosopher who Christians can look to is the Blessed Virgin Mary. She, as someone who not only knew Christ, the fountain of all truth, intimately and personally, also reflecting deeply and continually on the experience of God and the world around her. She, in this way, lived as a true philosopher her whole life long: growing increasingly not only in knowledge, but in wisdom as well. More than once in the Bible, we read how Mary sought after the contemplation of all the realities around her, letting truth guide her thoughts. For we read that, “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”[5] In summary, we can see that to treasure one’s experience of God and reality, to ponder them as it were, “in one’s heart,” is the very attitude of every true philosopher, every true man who loves wisdom. A lover of wisdom, the literal meaning of the word “philosopher,” therefore can be said to be one of the many titles of Mary, especially when Wisdom himself decided to become her Son.

Living as a Philosopher

Understanding what philosophy is, and why it is important, are key steps to living as a philosopher in everything one does. Wisdom, being “the interior delight that comes from grasping the truth of things and ordering one’s life accordingly”, and satisfaction, as when a fisherman catches a fish, are the two goals of philosophizing. Wisdom is not just for those in ivory towers, or the exclusive property of professors; wisdom is for every man who is open and willing to learn.  Man, by his very nature, is spontaneously rational, and is made to seek wisdom in truth, like a salmon who fights against the tide, and swims up the gushing waters of a river to reach its goal. It is hedonism and nihilism, who say we do not need to worry about wisdom; just go with the flow, and fight the tide as a spineless jellyfish. It is up to each individual man to decide if he wants to live life as a jellyfish, or as a salmon.

Setting Out with Faith and Reason

Faith and reason, as Pope Saint John Paul II expressed it, “are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.”[6] They are meant to help each other and work together for the common goal of finding truth. However, the greatest temptation, and the most subtle, for the true philosopher, is intellectual pride.  It takes many forms, but each one involves refusing to admit one’s own limitations.  The human mind is made to perceive and understand reality, to receive it, not to invent it.

A true philosopher cannot lose one’s sense of humility, as one needs to be faithful to what exists outside of oneself, and not give into the temptation to create a system of ideas which have been fabricated inside one’s own minds. As Pope Saint John Paul II explains, “in effect, every philosophical system, while it should always be respected in its wholeness, without any instrumentalization, must still recognize the primacy of philosophical enquiry, from which it stems and which it ought loyally to serve.”[7]  The humble mind accepts the simple fact that reality comes first, and philosophy comes second.  Misguided philosophers lock themselves up in the ivory tower of their own making, meditating on creations’ possible nonexistence, and that the only sure existing thing is themselves. True philosophers, on the other hand, are pilgrims enthusiastically journeying through the surprising wonders of reality towards eternal wisdom founded on truth.

Looking at this in light of one of the Doctors of the Church, Saint Theresa of Avila, we can see that there are many similarities with one of her books on the spiritual progress of man (The Mansions), and man’s philosophical journey for truth about himself, the world, and God. In this way, we can take an image from Saint Therese, and see the world as a mansion with many rooms, and man’s mind as a little boy walking from room to room, exploring all the nooks and crannies of this fascinating house. However, through original sin, all the lights of this mansion have been turned off, and our little boy is left in the dark, without having the light of divine revelation to illuminate his path. Therefore, this little boy stumbles from room to room as best he can, in order to know the truth about this mansion (to philosophize). However, by faith, God turns the lights on in this house, and reveals the truths, through reason, in the light of faith! Faith and reason therefore, as Pope Saint John Paul II says, must work together in order to know the truths of divine creation.

Conclusion

Growing up, my family raised pretty much everything we ate on our land, including sheep. From this experience, I can attest that man is not a sheep. A sheep is supposed to spend all its life eating, drinking, sleeping, and breeding. Man is not.  Man is also supposed to think, to philosophize! Man was created, not only to admire beauty, but also to seek to understand himself, the world, and God; reflecting on one’s own experiences, and discovering true meaning and wisdom.  This is what makes man a human being and not a sheep. Anyone who argues about this is simply pulling the wool over their eyes.

By knowing how to reflect and philosophize, one can build and influence cultural progress by learning the positive and negative ideas from those who have gone before the present time, and left man to an ever-greater height of thought. What is more, man can live with an interior peace, knowing that he acts and thinks on the solid ground of truth, and not just subjective ideas of personal preference. These are the endeavors unique to the human spirit, and we cannot be sheepish about applying them.

 

 

[1] Fides et Ratio, #5.

[2] Fides et Ratio, #3.

[3] Idem, #6.

[4] Idem, #14.

[5] Luke 2:51.

[6] Fides et Ratio, Introduction.

[7] Fides et Ratio, #4.

 

Photo Credit: Mehal Shah

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Why Philosophy Is Important: an Introduction to Philosophical Thought and Its Significance Today