Chapter 18 – How To Read Philosophy (part 1 of 4)

  1. HOW TO READ PHILOSOPHY

Children ask magnificent questions. … The child is a natural questioner. It is not the number of questions he asks but their character that distinguishes him from the adult. … Somewhere along the line, adults must fail somehow to sustain the infant’s curiosity at its original depth.

We have no solution for this problem; we are certainly not so brash as to think we can tell you how to answer the profound and wondrous questions that children put. But we do want you to recognize that one of the most remarkable things about the great philosophical books is that they ask the same sort of profound questions that children ask. The ability to retain the child’s view of the world, with at the same time a mature understanding of what it means to retain it, is extremely rare – and a person who has these qualities is likely to be able to contribute something really important to our thinking.

The great philosophers have always been able to clear away the complexities and see simple distinctions – simple once they are stated, vastly difficult before. If we are to follow them we too must be childishly simple in our questions – and maturely wise in our replies.

THE QUESTIONS PHILOSOPHERS ASK

What are these “childishly simple” questions that philosophers ask? When we write them down, they do not seem simple, because to answer them is so difficult. Nevertheless, they are initially simple in the sense of being basic or fundamental.

Take the following questions about being or existence, for example: What is the difference between existing and not existing? What is common to all the things that do exist, and what are the properties of everything that does exist? Are there different ways in which things can exist – different modes of being or existence? Do some things exist only in the mind or for the mind, whereas others exist outside the mind, and whether or not they are known to us, or even knowable by us? Does everything that exists exist physically, or are there some things that exist apart from material embodiment? Do all things change, or is there anything that is immutable? Does anything exist necessarily, or must we say that everything that does exist might not have existed? Is the realm of possible existence larger than the realm of what actually does exist?

These are typically the kind of questions that a philosopher asks when he is concerned to explore the nature of being itself and the realms of being. As questions, they are not difficult to state or understand, but they are enormously difficult to answer – so difficult, in fact, that there are philosophers, especially in recent times, who have held that they cannot be answered in any satisfactory manner.

Unfortunately, we do not have space to go into the whole range of question more deeply. We can only list some other questions that philosophers ask and try to answer. There are questions not only about being and becoming, but also about necessity and contingency; about the material and the immaterial; about the physical and the non-physical; about freedom and indeterminacy; about the powers of the human mind; about the nature and extent of human knowledge; about the freedom of the will.

All these questions are speculative or theoretical in the sense of those terms that we have employed in distinguishing between the theoretical and practical realms. But philosophy, as you know, is not restricted to theoretical questions only.

Take good and evil, for instance. Children are much concerned with the difference between good and bad; their behinds are likely to suffer if they make mistakes about it. But we do not stop wondering about the difference when we grow up. Is there a universally valid distinction between good and evil? Are there certain things that are always good, others that are always bad, whatever the circumstances? Or was Hamlet right when, echoing Montaigne, he said: “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”

Good and evil, of course, are not the same as right and wrong; the two pairs of terms seem to refer to different classes of things. In particular, even if we feel that whatever is right is good, we probably do not feel that whatever is wrong is evil. But how do we make this distinction precise?

Again, we do not have space to go more extensively into these questions. We can only list some other questions in the practical realm. There are question not only about good and evil, right and wrong, and the order of goods, but also about duties and obligations; about virtues and vices; about happiness, life’s purpose or goal; about justice and rights in the sphere of human relations and social interaction; about the state and its relation to the individual; about the good society, the just polity, and the just economy; about war and peace.

The two groups of questions that we have discussed determine or identify two main divisions of philosophy. The questions in the first group, the questions about being and becoming, have to do with what is or happens in the world. Such questions belong to the division of philosophy that is called theoretical or speculative. The questions in the second group, the questions concerning good and evil, right and wrong, have to do with what ought to be done or sought, and they belong got the division of philosophy that is sometimes called practical, and is more accurately called normative. Books that tell you how to make something, such as a cook book, or how to do something, such as a driver’s manual, need not try to argue that you ought to become a good cook, or learn to drive a car well; they can assume that you want to make or do something and merely tell you how to succeed in your efforts. In contrast, books of normative philosophy concern themselves primarily with the goals all men ought to seek – goals such as leading a good life or instituting a good society – and, unlike cookbooks and driving manuals, they go no further than prescribing in the most universal terms the means that ought to be employed in order to achieve these goals.

The questions that philosophers ask also serve to distinguish subordinate branches of the two main divisions of philosophy. A work of speculative or theoretical philosophy is metaphysical if it is mainly concerned with the questions about being or existence. It is a work in the philosophy of nature if it is concerned with becoming – with the nature and kinds of changes, their conditions and causes. If its primary concern is with knowledge – with questions about what is involved in our knowing anything, with the causes, extent, and limits of human knowledge, and with its certainties and uncertainties – then it is a work in epistemology, which is just another name for theory of knowledge. Turning from theoretical to normative philosophy, the main distinction is between questions about the good life and what is right or wrong in the conduct of the individual, all of which fall within the sphere of ethics, and questions about the good society and the conduct of the individual in relation to the community – the sphere of politics or political philosophy.