WHAT USE IS PHILOSOPHY?
D. R. Khashaba
Philosophy, as understood in the West, began some twenty-six centuries ago. From Thales in the sixth century BC to the present day scores of brilliant minds busied themselves with the problems of philosophy. Many of them left works that have stood the test of time, are still read and will for centuries to come continue to be read with admiration. But ask any number of professors of philosophy “What is the outcome of it all?” and you will find no agreement. Ask them “What is philosophy?” and you will find no agreement. Surely we have a problem here.
In the eighteenth century we had Hume’s ‘commit it to the flames’ dictum. In the twentieth century A. J. Ayer (1910-1989) equated metaphysics with nonsense. Rudolf Carnap (1891-1970) could be more bitingly abusive. What is practised in present-day universities by the name of philosophy, especially in the English-speaking world, may have interested Plato in one of his moods, but Socrates would have said: “I have no time for that. I am trying to follow the Delphic oracle, enjoining that I know myself, and that leaves me no time for anything else.”
I maintain that it is Socrates who has the answer to our problem. In the Phaedo Plato puts in the mouth of Socrates an autobiographical account that students of philosophy have failed to appreciate. Socrates says that he has early given up investigations into natural things, not that he denied the importance or value of such investigations, but because he saw that such investigations were irrelevant to the questions with which he was concerned. He was interested in the ideals and values that constitute the worth of human being. He saw that here we have an area of investigation radically distinct from that other area of investigation concerned with natural things. He saw that the questions relating to either area were distinct, and so were also the methods of investigation proper to each. Neither of the two distinct areas and methods of investigation had any connection with, or any relevance to, the other. (See my Plato: An Interpretation, 2005, pp.126-9.)
Unfortunately this clear separation of science and philosophy was overlooked by subsequent philosophers. Philosophers confused their business with that of science on the one hand and of mathematics on the other hand. They thought they were required to, and could, obtain factual knowledge about the objective world, like scientists, or were required to, and could, reach demonstratively certain propositions, like mathematicians. These two illusions led many philosophers astray. They confidently gave supposedly factual accounts of natural things that subsequent scientific investigations showed to be false. They confidently advanced theoretical propositions, supporting them with plausible arguments, that were readily opposed with other equally plausible arguments. Confidence in philosophy and philosophers was inevitably shaken.
Empirical science and pure mathematics alone were respectable and highly valued. Objective science gave us power over nature and laid the foundation for material progress. Mathematics, even though modern mathematicians questioned its foundations and expressed puzzlement at their own findings, in practice resulted in amazing technological achievements. But all of that left us bereft of wisdom. We are deluged with knowledge but are gasping for understanding.
We need to go back to Socrates. We need to look within ourselves. We need to disentangle our tangled values and ideals; to clear our befogged notions; to shed light on our obscure aims. That is what Socrates spent all his life doing. That is the task of philosophy. Hence the necessity of philosophy for humanity.
We still have to deal with the second fatal illusion, that philosophy has to reach demonstratively certain propositions. Philosophical statements cannot claim finality, and must not seek finality. Finality is the death of reason and understanding. For the clarification of this vital philosophical insight we have to go to Plato. But within the scope of this short essay I cannot expand on this. (See Plato:An Interpretation, Chapter Seven, pp.217-220, and Chapter Eight.)
Cairo, 7 October 2013.