Looking over the initial material on the definitions of philosophy in
the course content section, which definition (Aristotle, Novalis,
Wittgenstein) would you say gives you the best feel for philosophy? What
is it about the definition that interests you? do you find there to be any problems with the definition? what other questions do you have regarding the meaning of philosophy?
ARISTOTLE : Definition 1: Philosophy begins with wonder. (Aristotle)
Our study of philosophy will begin with the ancient Greeks. This is not because the Greeks were necessarily the first to philosophize. They were the first to address philosophical questions in a systematic manner. Also, the bodies of works which survive from the Greeks is quite substantial so in studying philosophy we have a lot to go on if we start with the Greeks.
Philosophy is, in fact, a Greek word. Philo is one of the Greek words for love: in this case the friendship type of love. (What other words can you think of that have “philo” as a part?) Sophia, has a few different uses in Greek. Capitalized it is the name of a woman or a Goddess: wisdom. Philosophy, then, etymologically, (that is from its roots) means love of wisdom.
But what exactly is wisdom? Is it merely knowledge? Intelligence? If I know how to perform a given skill does this necessarily imply that I also have wisdom or am wise?
The word “wise” is not in fact a Greek word. Remember for the Greeks that’s “Sophia”. Wise is Indo-European and is related to words like “vision”, “video”, “Veda” (the Indian Holy scriptures). The root has something to do with seeing. Wisdom then has to do with applying our knowledge in a meaningful and practically beneficial way. Perhaps this is the reason why philosophy is associated with the aged. Aristotle believes that philosophy in fact is more suitably studied by the old rather than the young who are inclined to be controlled by the emotions. Do you think this is correct? Nevertheless, whether Aristotle is correct or not, typically the elderly are more likely to be wise as they have more experience of life: they have seen more and hopefully know how to respond correctly to various situations.
Philosophy is not merely confined to the old. Aristotle also says that philosophy begins with wonder and that all people desire to know. Children often are paradigm cases of wondering. Think about how children (perhaps a young sibling or a son or daughter, niece or nephew of your acquaintance) inquistively ask their parents “why” certain things are the case? If the child receives a satisfying answer, one that fits, she is satisfied. If not there is dissatisfaction and frustration. Children assume that their elders know more than they do and thus rely on them for the answers. Though there is a familiar cliche that ignorance is bliss, (perhaps what is meant by this is that ignorance of evil is bliss), Aristotle sees ignorance as painful, a wonder that I would rather fill with knowledge. After all what I don’t know could potentially be harmful to me. This wonder, then, this wide open curiosity and astonishment about the complexity and nature of the unknown world around us is, for Aristotle the beginning of philosophy.
NOVALIS : Definition Two: Novalis: Philosophy is homesickness
Novalis was chiefly a poet. He was German and there have been plenty of good German philosophers so in the case of Novalis its not surprising to have a little overlap. Homesickness (heimweh in German) would initially seem to be a strange definition for philosophy. Is philosophy a home or a physical location? Isn’t it rather an academic discipline? Something you study in college or something you discuss with friends at a cafe or after watching French cinema?
Novalis seems to be on to something here though. Another word for homesickness is, to go back to the Greeks again: nostalgia. Nostos (Greek for Home), Algia(pain) (for a challenge try to find other words in English that have these roots in them).Nostalgia is often a sweet pain for something vaguely familiar but now absent. We often speak of being nostalgic for the past, our mother’s cooking, friends, a certain favorite place or song from our childhood.
Novalis, then is on to something powerful by his linking this powerful and bitter sweet experience– nostalgia– with something which initially seems quite abstract: philosophy. For Novalis, philosophy is this longing for a home. Perhaps a home that we’ve never had. It is a dissatisfaction which motivates us to seek a foundation and place in the world where we belong.
WITTGENSTEIN : hilosophy Defintion Three: Wittgenstein: Show the Fly the way out of the bottle
Wittgenstein is one of the superstars of 20th Century philosophy. Born to a tremendously wealth Austrian family he decided to give his inheritance away. He wore a number of odd hats throughout his life including a gardener at a monastary, an elementary school teacher, an architect, an engineer student, and a philosophy professor. As a philosopher he was quite eccentric; for instance he held lectures in his rooms from a lawn chair and often lapsed into long periods of silence while his students patiently waited. An excellent and readable biography is Ray Monk’s Duty of Genius.
Wittgenstein is unique in the history of philosophy for having two distinct philosophies an early and a late. After conducting work during World War I as a prisoner of war in Italy which was eventually published as his dissertation in philosophy: Tractatus Logico Philosophicus Wittgenstein later abandoned his early approach after being confronted by an Italian friend’s obscene gesture, going on to develop another philosophical approach.
It is from this second period, the later Wittgenstein, that we derive our definition of philosophy given here. Wittgenstein believes that philosophy is to be seen as a “therapy”, a means of clearing up the confusions of our language. Our language function as the fly bottle of the definition. Often philosophers, Wittgenstein thought, try to push beyond the bounds of sense and as a result push up against the invisible walls of the bottle. Therapeutic philosophy can give “philosophy peace”. And allows us to stop philosophizing when appropriate and accept the language that we have which is perfectly serviceable. Wittgenstein’s image here is stunning. We all can picture such a case even if we haven’t actually seen such a case. A similar case of course is the moth that flies into the flame and destroys itself. Wittgenstein points out here again that philosophy has a practical purpose to illumine and liberate from the invisible barriers which we may not be aware of but nevertheless hamper and constrain us.
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