A reader writes:
Dear Sir: A friend recommended your book to me a while ago and it literally took me over a year to read! It is so philosophical and I’m not an abstract person. But you made me think. My question is, how do YOU define philosophy?
Dear Paul S: The definition of philosophy — judging, at least, from very nearly every philosophical dictionary on the planet — has confounded philosophers for centuries, the concept being “too large,” it is sometimes said, to properly capture in concise fashion. Yet at the same time, in all branches of philosophy, minutia is cataloged to complete weariness.
This fake problem is nothing more than skepticism and its little bitch postmodernism running amok again. The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, for instance, a thoroughly postmodern compilation, says this:
“Some readers might be surprised to find that there is no entry simply on philosophy itself. This is partly because no short definition will do.”
That statement — and all others like it — is flatly false.
Philosophy is this: the science of rudiments and foundations. It is the study of fundamentals.
A philosophy is an organized system of ideas and arguments.
Etymologically, the word, as you know, comes from the Greek term philia (meaning love) or philos (meaning friend or lover); and sophia (meaning wisdom).
A fellow by the name of Diogenes Laertius claims that the term “philosopher” was coined by Pythagoras, in place of the word “sophist,” which meant “wise man.” But Diogenes Laertius was squirrelly, and his Pythagorean claim is dubious.
Oxford — evidently not as equivocal as Cambridge — defines philosophy thus:
“The investigation of the most general and abstract features of the world and the categories with which we think, in order to lay bare their foundations and presuppositions.”
Not bad, not bad. Better still, however, is Penguin’s philosophy dictionary, which says that philosophy “studies the most fundamental and general concepts and principles involved in thought, action, and reality.”
And yet the best of them all comes not from a philosophical dictionary, exactly, but from a man named Désiré-Félicien-François-Joseph Mercier — a.k.a. Cardinal Mercier — the late nineteenth-century thinker, who spoke well when he spoke thus:
“[Philosophy] does not profess to be a particularized science [but] ranks above them, dealing in an ultimate fashion with their respective objects, inquiring into their connexions and relations of these connexions.”
Philosophy, Mercier continues, “deserves above all to be called the most general science” (A Manual of Modern Scholastic Philosophy).
Lexically, here’s all one really needs to know:
Philosophy comes first, and last. Philosophy is the alpha and the omega. It is the most fundamental science because it studies the foundations of all subsequent knowledge, and that is why all the other sciences depend upon it: because knowledge forms a hierarchy.
For humans, to live is to think.
Philosophy provides an ultimate context — a gauge — for human knowledge. It systematizes the proper methods by which we are able to know.
And that is the definition of philosophy.
Thank you for writing, and thank you for reading my book.