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   Experiencing the Humanities


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5. Philosophy and Basic Beliefs



The Greek philosopher Plato as imagined by the artist Rubens*


Chapter Five of
Experiencing the Humanities

by Richard Jewell


Introduction--The Love of Wisdom

The word "philosophy" comes from two roots, "philo" and "Sophia," which mean "love" and "Wisdom." Thus philosophy is the love of wisdom and, in actual practice, the pursuit, study of, and enquiry into wisdom. Some great philosophers have called philosophy the art of thinking; others have described it as the systematic study of human thought and feeling. Still others have said that whereas in real life people think about things, in philosophy they think about thinking.

So, here begins the initial journey of thinking about thinking. Because most philosophers also think about feelings--the meanings of artistic feelings, emotional feelings, and intuitions--feelings should be included, too. In fact, there is one more step to take: one simply can call all thoughts and all feelings perceptions. Usually the word "perception" means what one sees, hears, smells, tastes, and feels by touch. Some philosophy does examine external perceptions.

However, there are inner perceptions, too: thinking and inner feelings are ways in which people also come to know themselves. Therefore, it is possible to describe philosophy as the activity of thinking about knowing, or thinking about perception. Everyone is a practitioner of philosophy when he or she asks, "How do I know that what I think is right?" or "What is the nature of love?" Philosophy is more than just being aware--it asks questions about how everyone is aware.

The Story of Early Philosophy

Philosophy can be explained, as can most of the other humanities disciplines, by showing its history, its types, and its methods.

Its history began long before written records were kept. It may have started when the first human not only perceived the sun, moon, and stars--and his or her own needs and desires--but also asked, "Why do these exist?" True philosophical thinking may have begun also when human beings first realized that they were separate from nature, that they could control it, and that they therefore had freedom and willpower- -the will to choose. Perhaps philosophical thinking began even more simply in humans when they became aware that they could think--something like seventeen-century philosopher Rene Descartes' famous statement, "I think, therefore I am."

Written philosophy developed in several places in the world independently. In 47 fact, written philosophy began at about the same time civilizations began to keep written records. The history of writing and the history of philosphy often, in fact, have gone hand in hand: when the nature of writing has changed, there have been major changes as well in philosophy, from handwriting to mass production of books and then to the computer age. Though the cultures that first developed philosophy were not in close contact with each other at the time, most of them developed philosophy at about the same time in history: the 5th-7th centuries B.C.

In the West, the Greeks developed the first major philosophical systems starting about 600 B.C. Towering figures in philosophy--Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle (ca. 470-322 B.C.)--soon followed. Socrates was put to death by his fellow Greeks for influencing the youth of his country with too much questioning and doubt, for he encouraged everyone to question all their beliefs, no matter how sacred or important. Plato developed orderly systems of philosophy for moral, political, aesthetic (the arts), intellectual, and spiritual behavior. He especially developed a belief in Ideas: eternal, perfect forms, invisible but understood by the soul. For example, a baseball is but an imperfect earthly version of the eternal Idea of Roundness or Spheroid Nature. Aristotle, though Plato's pupil for twenty years, developed a different philosophy that emphasized human reasoning, de-emphasized belief in souls or eternal forms, and was more interested in analyzing and classifying what already exists in reality.

In the nearby Middle East, Jewish religious writers were creating the Hebrew Scriptures--what would become for Judaism its foundation and Bible, for Christianity the Old Testament, and for Islam important teachings and history.

The first written Greek references to Jews refers to them as a race of thinkers. As philosophy, the Hebrew Scriptures have in them a consistent belief in a single divine being, one who can be personally contacted and who helps humanity by ethical codes and divine intervention. In addition, later books such as Proverbs and Ecclesiastes contain philosophical reflections, and the book of Job is a profound meditation on the meaning of life and suffering. The Song of Solomon also is sometimes given importance as a philosophical meditation on the meaning of beauty and love.

In China and India, great philosophical systems also were developing at about this time in the history of the earth. In China, a group of gentlemen scholars who also were government workers began to think and write about the meaning of government and society. The great philosopher Confucius, 551-479 B.C., (known in China as Kung Fu-tse), a government worker, took these philosophical considerations a step further and developed a system that taught how the individual should operate within government and society. A very different system of philosophical and religious thought--Taoism--developed at about the same time. It emphasized union with the "Tao" or "Way of Nature" and encouraged individual freedom and communal farming. It was started by Lao-tse (Lao-tsu), ca. 604-531 B.C.

In India, philosophical systems of thinking had been handed down by oral tradition for centuries. These began to be expressed in written form in the eighth through second centuries B.C. The oldest scriptures, the Vedas, from which much of classic Hindu mythology with its eight-armed gods and holy cows came, developed a system of understanding the universal being of god and the individual "chip" or "spark" of god in each person. The later Upanishads helped developed a system of psychological realities--higher and lower thoughts and feelings--that were both spiritual and real at the same time, something like Plato's invisible "Ideas." These psychological states later became much of the practical philosophy called "yoga," which means "yoke" or "union" with God.

Buddhism and Jainism also developed in India in the fifth century B.C. Buddhism emphasized seeking nirvana--a spiritual no-thing that is Everything--and Jainism emphasized strict discipline and denial in order to obtain spiritual grace.

The Middle Ages: A Scholarly Period

As written philosophy grew older throughout the world, it had to contend with a series of great religious movements that started during the time period of the sixth century B.C. through the seventh century A.D. During this time, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam became major movements in the West and the Middle East; in the East, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism became major forces. Much of philosophy during the following years--the medieval years--lent itself to helping the spread of these religions.

In many cases philosophers became, primarily, scholars who studied older writings, rather than originators of new philosophies. They examined the ancient philosophers and the ancient scriptures, trying to combine the two. In the West, the name for this period of philosophy is "scholasticism" because philosophy was, primarily, a scholarly activity. The name applies to much of philosophy throughout the rest of the world, too, during this middle time period between the ancients and our own modern day thinkers.

Middle Eastern culture was a source of many great thinkers during the Middle Ages. Some of Islam and Judaism's most brilliant developments in thought occurred during this period. In Islam, once the basic principles had been established by Muhammad (Mohammed, Mahomet), ca. 570-632 A.D.) and his followers, important commentators began to develop Islamic philosophy by using Greek philosophy to support it. One of the best known Muslim philosophers was Ibn Sina (Avicenna), 980-1037, who helped further develop Neoplatonism, a systematic combination of Plato and other Greek philosophers with religious beliefs. Neoplatonism had been started by Plotinus, ca. 205-270, who was born in Egypt and studied in Alexandria. Neoplatonism was the dominant philosophy of Europe for nearly a thousand years.

Another scholarly Islamic philosopher and one of the towering minds of the both the Middle East and the West in medieval times was Averroes (Ibn-Rushd), 1126- 1198. He was perhaps the most important medieval commentator on Aristotle. Averroes tried to show how both belief in religion and belief in Aristotelian science could exist together. Averroes suggested, as do some people today, that there are two realms of truth: one governed by spirituality and one governed by science. Averroes not only profoundly influenced his Muslim followers but also deeply affected some of Christianity and Judaism's greatest thinkers at that time.

In Judaism, the scholarly use of Greek philosophy to help explain religion began early. Philo (ca. 20 B.C.-50 A.D.), an Alexandrian Jewish leader, and other Jewish commentators started this process in the same time period when Christianity was being born.

One of the people whom the Muslim philosopher Averroes especially influenced was the great Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides (Moses ben Maimon), 1135-1204. Maimonides, a Jewish rabbi (minister and teacher), codified Jewish scriptures and writings to make study of them easier. He also developed Averroes' work with Aristotle by turning Aristotle on his head and showing how Aristotle's methods of philosophy were the best means by which to understand God and prove God's existence-- though Aristotle had denied the existence of a creator.

In the West, great scholars of the Christian Church arose. These philosophers, people such as Augustine (354-430), Albertus Magnus (ca. 1206-1280), Roger Bacon (ca. 1214-1294), and Thomas Aquinas (1225-74), made Plato and Aristotle fit into Christian philosophy, a molding process that gave Christian Catholicism a rich intellectual heritage it still possesses today.

In all three Western and Middle Eastern cultures, competing mystical strains of semi-philosophical, semi-religious, and semi-spiritualist schools of thought also arose during the Medieval Ages. In Islam, Sufism developed. In Judaism, interest in the mystical Kabalah grew. And in the West, alchemy--an occult and spiritual art that only incidentally was related to chemistry--developed. All three schools of thought, though mysterious and requiring special knowledge of some kind for participation, counted among themselves some of their cultures' most important religious and political leaders.

In India, China, and Japan, philosopher-scholars were at work, too. In India, Vedanta--from older Hindu scriptures--came to dominate while Buddhism and Jainism declined. The philosopher Ramanuja (12th cent.) and others who followed him gave India the Vedanta movement that emphasized the existence of one primary Being or God.

In China, Buddhism briefly found more fertile ground, and two forms of it developed: T'ien-T'ai, and Meditation--known better by its Japanese name of "Zen" Buddhism. These two forms of Chinese Buddhism co-existed with popular Taoist and Confucian religions until Confucianism--the religion of the upper classes--slowly absorbed the other religions into itself. Confucianism developed three strains: the Schools of Principle (Reason), Mind (Idealism), and Practical Learning (Empiricism). These three schools were most powerfully developed in the philosophies of, respectively, Chu Hsi (1130-1200), Wang Yang-ming (1472--1529), and Tai Chen (1724- 77).

In Japan, Zen Buddhism and Confucianism overshadowed the native religion called Shinto. The Japanese teacher Kukai (Kobo Daishi), 774-835, brought all three religions together in a philosophical and religious system that made Buddhism dominant.

Modern Philosophy 

"Modern" in philosophy really means something that has happened in the most recent several hundred years. In fact, so subtle are the influences of philosophers on society that it often takes at least one hundred years--sometimes much more--to determine whether or not a philosopher has been important enough to have an effect.

The modern period in Western philosophy began, perhaps, with the Enlightenment, that period in which people began questioning and seeking in new ways in a number of fields. In the 1600s, physician William Harvey began opening up cadavers to see what was inside--and the reality was very different from what Aristotle and his philosophy of human science had said was inside people. Similar revolutions occurred elsewhere as Galileo and Copernicus developed proofs that that the sun did not revolve around the earth, Reformation-minded Protestant and Catholic theologians changed the map of Christian practice and belief, and ancient and modern writings became more accessible to everyone through the invention of mass-produced books.

The Enlightenment brought to philosophy a renewed interest in the philosophies of other parts of the world and in the Greek philosophers who came before Plato and Aristotle. Philosophers began to ask once again, as had many of the early Greeks, such questions as "What is God?", "How do I know that I exist?", and "What is reality?" In scholasticism, these questions all had been answerable by some form of religious or Platonic doctrine. Gradually philosophers began to ask any question once again.

Much of Western philosophy began to concern itself in the West with issues the Greeks had discussed and Hindu philosophers had analyzed for a thousand years. Rene Descartes, 1596-1650, suggested that all philosophy starts, not with scripture, God, or old philosophies, but rather with this principle: "I think, therefore I am." There were some people who felt Descartes should be put to death for such a radical belief.

However, the belief in a human-centered view of philosophy continued to grow. Roger Bacon (1561-1626), Baruch de Spinoza (1632-1677), and Voltaire (1694-1778) all proposed philosophies that made reason important; Spinoza, a Jewish philosopher, and Voltaire both were considered dangerous radicals. A movement called Romanticism also arose, which declared that human instinct and feeling are more important place than reason; Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) provided a philosophical basis for this.

In Great Britain, a powerful trio of philosophers argued about how people know that their perceptions of reality are true. John Locke (1632-1704) suggested that the mind is like photographic film, which takes an exact picture of reality around it, Bishop George Berkeley (1685-1753) argued that individuals' minds create reality, and David Hume (1711-1776) said that mind and matter interact to create what people think is reality. If these three were asked a famous philosophical question, "If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?", Locke would have said "Yes," Berkeley would have said "No," and Hume would have said, "Something would happen, but that something would not be 'sound' without a human being to hear it."

The towering figure of this period of philosophy, however, was Immanuel Kant, 1724-1804. Kant, a quiet little professor at a college in his own hometown, created a revolution in thinking that has affected every person now alive. Kant combined most important Western strains of philosophy into one system: Platonic scholasticism, Enlightenment reasoning, Romanticism, British perceptual philosophy, and Christian theology. Kant argued, basically, that the mind is neither a complete blank at birth, nor does it create reality: both mind and matter are real and have their own real qualities. All minds automatically understand, from birth, twelve basic qualities or "categories" such as how to count, to know differences, and to see relatedness. These qualities are close to the Being that people call God; however, people's minds and sense organs are limited because they cannot see matter as it exists in its rawest, most basic forms.

Kant's thinking, radical at the time, has become the present day understanding of the nature of matter, human knowledge, and God. Kant made it possible for many philosophers and theologians to agree--or at least to argue together using the same language. It is sometimes said, in fact, that present-day philosophers can argue for Kant or against him, but they can't argue without him. Some of Kant's speculations also were developed by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, 1770-1831, who in turn was a major influence on Karl Marx, 1818-1883, the political philosopher who helped start communism.

Since Kant, the most important single movement in Western philosophy has been that loosely termed as "existentialism." Existentialists are a group of primarily 20th-century philosophers concerned with how humans should think and act in a world where all that people can perceive is raw existence and, often, suffering that appears to be everywhere.

Some existentialists have been Christian; others have been agnostic or atheist. Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), Soren Kierkegaard (1813-55), and Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) were early influences who discussed the nature of freedom, will, choice and suffering in human life. In the 20th century, Jean-Paul Sartre dominated existentialism with his logical critique of reasoning and perception. Important existentialist theologians included Christians Paul Tillich, Karl Barth, and Reinhold Niebuhr and Israel's Jewish theologian Martin Buber. Other existentialist philosophers have included Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, and Jose Ortega y Gasset. Some philosophers argue that French vitalist Henri Bergson and German phenomenologist Edmund Husserl also may be placed under the broad umbrella of existentialism.

Other strains of Western 20th century philosophy have included linguistic analysis, especially in the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, the mystical theology of Teilhard de Chardin, and the speculative metaphysics of Alfred North Whitehead. Many American philosophers consider Whitehead, with his interest in the processes of reality and God, as the most important philosopher of the 20th century.

Philosophers in Judaism and Islam have continued to discuss issues brought to them by other cultures and religions. Much of 20th century Jewish and Muslim philosophy has been political as both cultural groups have gained more power in the world. Some of the issues are concerned with how to deal with other cultures (for example, how should Israel deal with surrounding Arab countries), and some of the issues have to do with whether traditional or liberal ethics and practices are best (for example, should Arab countries separate or combine religious laws with civil laws).

In China, modern philosophy has been concerned mostly with understanding the pragmatic and material worlds, and most recently, in the 20th century, with dialectical materialism--the communist philosophy of Karl Marx. The best known proponent of this philosophy was Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung), leader of the Chinese communist revolution, whose writings and leadership made Marxist-Leninist political philosophy an everyday Chinese system of practice. Though greatly modified in present-day China, many communal and ethical parts of his system still are practiced.

In Japan, modern-day Shintoism and Buddhism have continued to coexist philosophically and in most people's regular religious practices.

The modern period in Indian philosophy has been marked by the development of systems incorporating Western thinking into Indian philosophy through such philosophers as Aurobindo and Vivekananda. In addition, a system arose of political ethics that has influenced much of the world in the 20th century: the passive resistance philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi (Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi), 1969-1948, who led India to freedom and was then assassinated.

Gandhi's philosophy was further developed by the African-American Martin Luther King who also was assassinated for his beliefs. This political philosophy has been joined by another and very potent one in the African American community, that of the Islam-based political philosophy of Malcolm X. In his Autobiography he espoused active nonviolent resistance, a return to cultural roots, and the development of Islam among African Americans. Each of these ideas continues to grow, along with King's political philosophy, in today's African American communities.

In other countries and cultures, and among other cultural groups--for example, American Indians, Latin Americans, Africans, African Americans, and women in many dominant cultures--political and cultural speculations also have developed with second-class citizenship and resistance as dominant themes. These political philosophies sometimes have been related to Marxist philosophy and sometimes to democratic philosophies; however, each has acquired its own cultural approach, emphasizing that the people of its culture have a right and obligation not only to be free and have equal choice, but also to explore their own ethnic, emotional, and historical roots.

Does Philosophy Affect Anyone?

Major philosophers have great impact on the world, even if their impact is not known or measured for years, even centuries. For example, Plato, the fourth century B.C. Greek philosopher, had very little direct affect on history for almost seven centuries. Then in the third century A.D. another philosopher, Plotinus, revived interest in Plato. Plato became, after the Christian religion, the second most important source in Western civilization of thinking and understanding reality (see "Religion"). His importance lasted more than a thousand years and still, in some forms, continues today among great thinkers.

Socrates, Plato's teacher, was considered of so little importance as a thinker in fourth century Greece that the politicians condemned him to die. They felt he was having negative affects on the youth of the city of Athens. However, Socrates' words and beliefs formed the basis of Plato's writings. Plato, in turn, taught the Greek philosopher Aristotle. And Aristotle was an important teacher of Alexander the Great who conquered the Western world. Alexander spread many of Aristotle/Plato/Socrates' ideas throughout Europe and Asia. In addition, Alexander tried to bring enlightened intelligence, culture, and appreciation of the arts and sciences to his conquered lands--according to many of the philosophical beliefs of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.

More recently, Emmanual Kant, the eighteenth century philosopher, has had an enormous--but rather hidden--impact on almost all of the current beliefs people have today about how the world is real, what constitutes thinking and reasoning, and how these beliefs affect actions. As just a small example of this, Kant greatly influenced Hegel, a nineteenth century German philosopher, who in turn deeply influenced Karl Marx, the political philosopher who fathered Marxism. Marxism was the belief system used by those who led the Russian Revolution of 1917 and established modern Russia's political system.

Or, for example, take John Dewey. His philosophy of education became the dominant mold for educating most Americans in school system for many decades in this century. The Danish philosopher Kierkegaard and German philosopher Nietzsche helped developed existentialism, a 20th-century philosophical school of thought, which in turn deeply influenced such important modern day theologians as the Neihburs and Harvey Cox, who in turn have deeply affected the way a large number of Christian ministers and priests preach and carry on their ministering.

The influences of philosophy, however hard to see, are far-reaching and of great importance.

Ways of Thinking about Thinking 

As was said at the beginning of this chapter, philosophy is thinking about thinking. Another way of saying this is to describe philosophy as thinking about perceptions.

There are several primary ways in which philosophers think about perceptions. People use these same ways of thinking in their own philosophizing about themselves. There are a number of names for these patterns of thinking, and the more clearly you understand them, the more easily you can use them in your daily life. Here are names for six of them, their meanings, and some examples of them using fruits:

comparison--examining similarities (red & green apples). 

contrast--examining differences (apples vs. oranges).

analysis--taking things apart to examine them (apple parts). 

synthesis--fitting things together in new wholes (apple tree).

addition--asking what would happen if something were added to a process (growing apple-oranges). 

deletion--asking what would happen if something were deleted from a process (growing apples with no crunch).

COMPARISON AND CONTRAST: Comparison and contrast are two of the most common ways of philosophizing--of thinking about thinking. They are in fact, two of the main philosophical tools used in the writing of this book, Experiencing the Humanities. This book gradually asks you, chapter by chapter, to see each of the humanities disciplines as a separate part of some great beast--much like the elephant in the history chapter, which the four blind men examine. Then, like the blind men, you are asked to examine both the differences and the overall similarities in the parts of the beast. This is comparison and contrast: similarities and differences.

What, for example, are the similarities and differences between history and philosophy? They both interpret what people have done and said and why they did it. They both involve lots of careful reading of what others have written. One, however, is about events while the other is about ideas; one explains things in a logical progression of time, one event after another, while the other explains things according to patterns of the mind and the emotions. People make similar comparisons and contrasts constantly in their day-to-day lives. Philosophical comparison and contrast is just an application of these everyday tools to the world of ideas.

ANALYSIS AND SYNTHESIS: A second way philosophers think about the roots of things is to analyze and synthesize. Analysis means taking things apart and seeing how they work. Synthesis is putting things together--perhaps things that never have been put together before--to offer a look at the whole, at the big picture, of how things work. Analysis is taking a machine apart into its smallest parts to see how it works; synthesis is putting a bunch of little machine parts together to form a new machine.

Analysis and synthesis also mean that one must gather, without prejudice, as much information as possible before he or she makes a decision. One must, in other words, act like the fourth blind wise man in the history chapter before he proclaimed that there was an elephant before him. He analyzed by listening to what the first three blind men said and, perhaps, checking out their observations with his own hands and ears. Then he synthesized by trying to see how all three of the others might in some way be right, even if they disagreed with each other. His synthesis brought him to the conclusion that only an elephant could at once be like a wall, a rope, and a tree.

Using analysis and synthesis without prejudice is called, in philosophical circles, a "philosophical attitude of enquiry." This means that one takes a stance or position for a particular project to not be afraid to ask any question and to not be afraid to think of any answer.

This kind of attitude is, in fact, used in a number of real-life experiences as well. A master car mechanic, for example, when faced with an unusual problem with an unknown source in an engine must clear his mind, open himself to all possibilities, and test and check everything step by step. Managers and owners of companies must examine their products and workers dispassionately, without prejudice, to understand what is best for everyone. Lawyers must try to understand the law and their clients rationally, teachers must be able to rise above their feelings for individual students, and government officials must gain a clear understanding of all issues and needs. All these activities are accomplished through what is, essentially, a philosophical attitude of enquiry.

This kind of openness is, in fact, one of the most frightening parts of philosophy to some people. They imagine that if they open themselves so completely to all differing opinions and beliefs, they will lose their own beliefs. Actually, for the great majority of people, the opposite happens: by opening themselves fully to understanding how and why others believe as they do, they usually discover that their own beliefs are even more strongly reaffirmed, and they understand their beliefs more rationally and fully.

For this reason, if for no other, the philosophical attitude of enquiry about different beliefs is a healthy one for everyone to use.

ADDITION AND DELETION: A third way of thinking about perceptions is addition and deletion--the "what ifs?" of philosophical thinking. Philosophers use these two ways of thinking to guess at or observe what would happen if things were different. Things can be different either by having something new added to them, changing the result of how they work or operate; or they can be different by having something deleted from them, again changing the result of how they work or operate.

For example, in the philosophy of religion, one important question of addition is to ask, "What would happen to people's beliefs if God were perceived as not only male, but also female--and not only one's own skin color, but also the colors of other races? A question of deletion that has been important to some people in the philosophy of religion is, "Should people who do not believe in God still participate in religions?" Both of these questions have been very important to many people for decades if not centuries.

So important is the "what if" way of philosophical thinking, in fact, that there is a name for it in philosophy. It is called "the Socratic method" after Socrates, the great Greek philosopher. He lived during the fifth century B.C. in Greece and was the teacher of Plato, another famous philosopher.

Socrates' way of teaching philosophy was to run an informal school in which he and his students would spend hours or even days at a time sitting and walking about, eating and drinking, and asking each other questions to which they would try to supply possible answers. Socrates sometimes infuriated would-be students and townspeople who would come to chat or deliver their own opinions. At every step of their thinking, he would ask "what if?" questions, using not only addition and deletion, but also analysis, synthesis, comparison, and contrast. His goal was to get people to find answers to basic questions in life not by telling them the answer, but rather by asking questions until they themselves found the answer. Sometimes people actually would walk out or nearly get in fist fights because they were so flustered or upset by his constant questioning. Socrates, however, kept asking, right up to the moment of his death. He wanted his students to imagine every possible answer and its results until they were satisfied that they knew the best answer of all.

People are starting to use the Socratic method whenever they ask themselves why they do the things they do, what makes them feel as they do, and why the world is the way it is. Philosophers try to ask questions more thoroughly and systematically than the average person sometimes does, and they try to ask questions with a philosophical attitude of enquiry--with less emotion, perhaps, than the average person sometimes uses in normal life. However, the basic way of thinking is similar--the Socratic method of questioning.

Categories of Philosophy 

There are several different ways in which philosophy is divided by type and by school of thought.

Western philosophers--those of the Eurocentric heritage of philosophy--tend to divide all of philosophy into two categories: practical and pure. Practical philosophy deals with down-to-earth issues like "Why is democracy good?" and "How does one really appreciate a poem?" Pure philosophy deals with more abstract ultimates such as "What is the ultimate nature of being and existence?" and "What is the nature of basic human consciousness?"

Some philosophers in other cultures (and a few in the West as well) would argue, however, that making such a simple division like this is dangerous because there is no beginning or end of either "pure" or "practical" thinking. They say that two merge and are so interconnected with each other that a person risks creating an illusion by separating them in this way.

Another Western division that is perhaps less criticized by other cultures is that of analytic philosophy and synthetic philosophy. Analytic philosophy analyzes: it takes ideas and actions apart, using logic and reason, and shows how they work. Synthetic philosophy synthesizes: it puts ideas and actions together into ever greater wholes so that one can understand the larger picture and the greater meanings of life in unified systems.

In Eastern philosophy--especially Chinese and Indian (Hindu)--categories or schools of thought often are established according to some kind of spiritual orientation (or lack of it). Thus there are, in China, philosophies of yin-yang (female-male), Tai-chi (Great Ultimate), and Legalism. In India, there have been such philosophies as the Vedic (from which much of Hindu deity worship comes), yoga ("union" with God), Buddhism, and Jainism.

There also are several branches and types of philosophy, each with its own issues and concerns. The four major branches of Western philosophy by traditional classification are as follows, along with a fifth one, logic, that people sometimes add to the original four:

METAPHYSICS -- why and how people have reality and being 

ETHICS -- why and how people are moral and have moral systems 

EPISTEMOLOGY -- why and how individuals know 

AESTHETICS -- why and how there is beauty and the arts 

LOGIC -- why and how there is logic and reasoning.

There also are other ways of distinguishing branches or types of philosophy, some by professional field and some by geographic, historic, or cultural reference. Many academic disciplines, for example, have branches of philosophy attached to them: for example, the philosophy of science, political philosophy, and the philosophy of education. Cultural and geographical philosophies follow not only religious lines (for example, Christian philosophy, Jewish philosophy, Buddhist philosophy), but also historical and geographical divisions (Western and Eastern philosophy; ancient, medieval, and modern philosophy; et al.).

POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY -- basic theories of political systems  
LINGUISTIC PHILOSOPHY -- basic theories of human speech  
PHILOSOPHY OF HISTORY -- basic theories of knowing history  
PHILOSOPHY OF EDUCATION -- basics theories of learning  
PHILOSOPHY OF RELIGION -- basic theories of religious systems  
PHILOSOPHY OF SCIENCE -- basic theories of scientific knowledge

WESTERN PHILOSOPHY -- philosophies of the West  
EASTERN PHILOSOPHY -- philosophies of the Far and/or Near (Middle) East  
CHRISTIAN PHILOSOPHY -- philosophies of Christianity  
JEWISH PHILOSOPHY -- philosophies of Judaism  
INDIAN PHILOSOPHY -- philosophies of Hinduism, Buddhism, etc.  
ANCIENT PHILOSOPHY -- philosophies of ancient Greece and Middle East  
MEDIEVAL PHILOSOPHY -- philosophies of medieval Christians, Jews, & Arabs  
MODERN PHILOSOPHY -- philosophies in modern times

There also are dozens of schools of philosophy that emphasize different questions and answers about life. Here are some of the Western schools of philosophy, ancient and modern. There counterparts exist in Eastern and Middle Eastern schools of philosophy, too.

1. What is the nature of God or Being? 

--Deists say God is beyond creation and stays there. 
--Pantheism says God is everywhere in the creation. 
--Theism says God is both beyond and in creation.

2. What is the basic substance of the universe? 

Monism says there is one basic mind-matter substance. 
Dualism says everything is either mind or matter. 
Pluralism says there are many basic substances.

3. What is the nature of spirit in the universe? 

Animism says all things in creation have awareness. 
Platonism says there are eternal Ideas or Forms. 
Transcendentalism says one can find spirit in nature.

4. How should one live if there is mainly just Nature? 

Cynicism says one should live by basic biological needs. 
Epicureanism says one should pursue higher, finer pleasures. 
Hedonism says one should pursue pleasure.

5. What is the basic nature of Reason? 

Empiricism says people have blank minds absorbing life. 
Materialism says everything is made of matter. 
Positivism says people should live scientifically. 
Rationalism says reason is enough to know reality. 
Realism says that reality is completely real.

6. To what extent are people fated or predetermined? 

Determinism says if people are predictable, so is fate. 
Fatalism says all is predictable, no matter what. 
Predestinarism says God predetermines everything. 
Stoicism says one may choose to act or not act.

7. What is real if God, Reason, or Nature aren't enough? 

Existentialism says one must make concrete choices. 
Idealism says reality is a creation of minds. 
Skepticism says one can't find truth, so why care? 
Solipsism says, "I am imagining all of reality." 
Voluntarism says that willpower is most important.

8. What political attitude is best? 

Dialectical Materialism says materialism and constant resolution of life's opposites are what is real. 
Holism says a group is more important than one human. 
Nihilism says science and revolution are important. 
Utilitarianism says the greatest good is the greatest happiness for the most people. 
Utopianism says a perfect society can be created.

9. How should one treat the existence of God? 

Agnosticism says there is no proof God exists. 
Atheism says there is proof that God does not exist. 
Gnosticism says one can have special Knowledge of God. 
Monotheism says there is one true, central God. 
Mysticism says direct experience of God is possible. 
Polytheism says there are many gods. 
Spiritualism says there are spirit beings that exist.

The Purpose of Philosophy

Why should people study philosophy or even bother to understand its methods? Philosophy strikes at the very center of what people do every single day: live their lives. Philosophy is not just something for others to do or play with. It is a deep part of being human and thinking through problems and solutions. Each of person has his or her own philosophy of life. And the more people understand how they arrive at their philosophy of life, how they make adjustments to it, and how it compares with others' beliefs, the more they will have good personal and business relationships with others. Philosophy is at the very core of everyone's being and daily actions in everything, directly or indirectly, that is said or done.

Philosophy also trains people to think more clearly, deeply, and rationally. This rational kind of thinking is so important that philosophy is one of the most highly recommended undergraduate majors for people who plan to become lawyers. Philosophy also is excellent training for those interested in careers having to do with religion, social work, personnel, and the arts. And for anyone it is excellent practice for understanding oneself and others better. Philosophy actually is one of the most practical disciplines available for improving one's own philosophy of life.

One's own philosophy is for each person a mixture of many ideas, feelings, and actions. It contains a number of beliefs and decisions. It also contains beliefs that were part of that person's childhood, and beliefs that were and are part of the larger culture. Some of these beliefs that one had in childhood are beliefs that have been examined and accepted; others are simply ones that have remained since childhood without detailed consideration.

One's own philosophy of life also has in it a number of reasons he or she uses to explain personal actions. Most people feel or believe on some level that their actions are right, at the time of the actions. Sometimes people just go by what "feels right." Other times they act first and explain it to themselves or others later. At still other times people find that they have acted in a way contrary to what they believe intellectually, and so they forgive themselves (or feel guilty) for their temporary lapse of normal good behavior. Sometimes they make exceptions for their behavior: they say, "I can't help myself" or "This time I have no choice." These beliefs and actions are part of their philosophy of life, too, a philosophy that accepts uncontrollable behavior or exceptions to rules.

People don't need to apologize to others for their philosophy of life nor try to justify it to others. The first step is simply to find out just what one's own philosophy is. Once one clearly has enunciated it to himself or herself--usually in some kind of written form--then that person can look at it more closely and, if desired, explain it to others.

According to one philosopher, "The unexamined life is not worth living." All people examine their lives to some extent, and this is simply what this philosopher means: in order to survive in society, grow, and succeed, there are times in people's lives when they need to think through what they believe and feel and why they act.

This is when the discipline of philosophy can be useful. Everyone's philosophy of life has been believed in by someone else, somewhere, at some time. And most philosophies of life have been examined in some way, at some time in history, by philosophers. For this reason, studying how philosophers have created their systems of thought often can help everyone understand his or her own better. Philosophy is not just a bunch of dead ideas: it lives on in every single person who is alive and whose thinking has been influenced even the smallest bit. It lives on as a variety of leaping, pulling, tugging, and competing philosophies of life that grab people in the centers of their hearts, wills, and minds. The philosophies of the philosophers are much like everyone else's, only more carefully developed over longer periods of time. But still, these philosophies are those of everyone--their hopes, their fears, their needs, their thoughts, and their desires all put together into systems of feeling and thinking that await the conscious, logical heat of consideration to become for each individual a philosophy of life.

Each person's own philosophy of life is a flame within him or her, sometimes obvious and sometimes hidden. By looking at other people's flames--philosophers who build their fires professionally--the rest of society can learn how better to tend their own fires.

Your Philosophy of Life

One of the best ways to dig more deeply into philosophy is to explore your own philosophy of life.

One can argue that probably most people have at least three "levels" in their own philosophies of life. That is, most people have several combined philosophies that they use in different ways at different times.

The first level is, simply, what your basic conscious beliefs are--what you believe is right or good.

The second level is what your basic unconscious beliefs are--what you would do or say automatically in a situation where you must react before thinking. This unconscious part is the part that reacts for reasons you don't know at the time but can figure out later. You also can figure out these reasons ahead of time. For example, what would you do if someone hit you? What would you do if you fell in love with two different people? Or lost control? Or had no money and had to feed two hungry children? Why would you do these things--what is the justification for each?

The third level is deeper yet: it is some of the major principles people use in their actions and thoughts. You can arrive at, or figure out, these major principles by comparing your conscious beliefs and your unconscious beliefs and asking ourselves which beliefs are similar, which are different, and why.

If you have thought a lot about your beliefs and your reasons for acting as you do, then your conscious and unconscious beliefs may be similar. However, if you have not thought much about your beliefs or about how and why you act the way you do, then your conscious beliefs and unconscious beliefs may be different.

A real philosophy of life develops when a person compares his or her conscious and unconscious beliefs and decides which are right, which may be incorrect, and how they can be united to make a system that feels right, good, and true.

This is how studying philosophy can help. It can show people how others-- philosophers--have gone through just the same process, and how these philosophers, after long consideration, have ordered their own beliefs. In looking at their results, you can more easily arrive at your own.


Exercise 1 

Look up several of the "Schools of Philosophy" that seem to fit with your own beliefs. Look them up in a dictionary, a dictionary of philosophy, or an encyclopedia. Write down how the descriptions fit you and how they do not.

Exercise 2 

Write down your own philosophy of life: five to ten basic beliefs that are important.

Exercise 3 

Write down some ways and situations in which you might react spontaneously-- without thinking. Start with unusual situations that would call something unusual out of you. Make your own list of situations--and your reactions to them. The list below is of unusual situations that may help you think of your own:

get married
get traffic ticket
get born
hit my little brother/sister
be accused of stealing
avoid person who hurt me
get wild at party
make a million dollars
see a close person die
be separated or divorced

Exercise 4 

Complete exercises one and two, and then compare the two lists you have made. Answer the following questions in writing:

What beliefs are the same on the two lists? What beliefs are different or even sound opposite? What beliefs are on one list but not the other?

Then finally, write one-half page or more describing how you feel or what you think about the differences and similarities you have found between the two lists. What do you think comparing the two lists shows you about your basic philosophy of life?

Exercise 5 

You have just been born. Coming out of the womb, your body is that of a baby; however, your sensory equipment and intellect are adult. Create a philosophy that explains the structure of existence. Include yourself and others in it. Also explain the nature of thinking, feeling, and sensory experience.

Exercise 6 

You have engaged in a fight. Your experiences and feelings are considered by your society to be not only normal but also praiseworthy. You agree. Develop a philosophy of life and of ethics around this agreement and your experiences.

Exercise 7 

You are very poor (or rich), very ugly (or beautiful), or very weak (or powerful). Build a philosophy of life based on your experience.


Bibliography for Philosophy as Part of the Humanities (Western classical)   

The Age of Philosophy Series. New York: Meridian:

The Age of Belief. Anne Fremantle, ed. 

The Age of Adventure: The Renaissance Philosophers. Giorgio de Santillana, ed. 

The Age of Reason: The 17th-Century Philosophers. Sir Stuart Hampshire, ed. 

The Age of Enlightenment: The 18th-Century Philosophers. Sir Isaiah Berlin, ed. 

The Age of Ideology: The 19th-Century Philosophers. Henry D. Aiken, ed. 

The Age of Analysis: The 20th-Century Philosophers. Morton White, ed.

Flew, Anthony. A Dictionary of Philosophy, 2nd ed. New York: St. Martin's, 1984.

Karnos, David D., and Robert G. Shoemaker. Falling in Love with Wisdom. New York: Oxford UP, 1993.

Kenny, Anthony, ed. The Oxford History of Western Philosophy. New York: Oxford UP, 1994. Illustrated.

Kidder, Rushworth M. How Good People Make Tough Choices. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.

Lavine, T.Z. From Socrates to Sartre: the Philosophical Quest. New York: Bantam, 1984.

Masolo, D.A. African Philosophy in Search of Identity. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1994.

McInerney, Peter K. Introduction to Philosophy. HarperCollins College Outline. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.

Russell, Bertrand. Why I Am Not a Christian. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957.

Scott-Kakures, Dion, et al. History of Philosophy. HarperCollins College Outline. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.

Watts, Alan W. Nature, Man and Woman. New York: Random House, 1991.

*Image with Chapter Title: The imagined face of Greek philosopher Plato as imagined in Study of Two Heads, ca. 1609, Peter Paul Rubens, Metropolitan Museum of Art. Retrieved 21 Mar. 2020.

Most recent revision of text: 24 July. 2006



Richard Jewell

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