Wednesday, February 15, 2017



D. R. Khashaba

Does philosophy have a history? To answer this question we have first to observe that ‘philosophy’ is not a unitary term. From the beginning of Western philosophy in Ionia around the sixth century BC philosophy has been closely associated with physics, astronomy, and mathematics. These are sciences characterized by the accumulation of positive knowledge; hence they have histories through which there runs a continuous line of development. But there is a perennial core of questions about the meaning of this world we find ourselves thrown into, of the nature of a human being, of the meaning of life and what we can make of life. These are questions that have puzzled the human mind ever since humans acquired the power of reflective thinking. These are questions that have to be ever faced anew, ever answered anew, and that can never be answered once and for all, for the simple reason that in facing and answering these questions human beings constitute their individual characters and determine the meaning and value of their individual lives.

As such philosophy is not a cumulative acquisition of positive knowledge and hence does not have a continuous line of development that can be depicted as a history. Of course there are certain disciplines associated with philosophy, such as logic, and certain ancillary techniques, that show development. We have a parallel to this in poetry and drama and art. In all of these there has been much development in exteriors, but fundamentally they all address the everlasting quandaries of being and life and meaning and we have the same depth of insight in Sophocles as in Goethe. Our world today with its computers and space probes is very different from the world Shakespeare lived in, but the heart-wringing questionings of Hamlet or of Lear are still our questionings.

Since the questions of philosophy live as long as humanity lives and since philosophy (in the restricted sense in which I take the term) does not have and can never jave a store of positive knowledge, how does philosophy function? A. N. Whitehead, one of the profoundest thinkers of the twentieth century, wrote a fine book titled Adventures of Ideas. That title nicely depicts the nature of philosophical thinking. All the dialogues of Plato are adventures of ideas. A dialogue begins as a hunt for the meaning of a certain idea. The idea is chased, discovering its relatedness to other ideas, thereby forming a fairly coherent context, but no rest is ever found there. How can there be rest in the intellectual venture when Plato tells us that the philosophic soul aspires to comprehend all things whole and in their entirety (tou holou kai pantos aei eporexesthai)? (Re[ublic, 486a) And this is true in all philosophical endeavour since everything in the world is interconnected, interdependent.

In the philosophical quest we play with ideas, creating intrinsically coherent contextual wholes satisfying our unquenchable thirst for intelligibility. But the wholes we create are necessarily ad hoc and the self-coherence is only such for us at the moment. Like a child seeing camels and storks in a passing cloud, our enjoyment is true but not factual. Hence Plato insists we must constantly undo our dearest intellectual creations (tas hupotheseis anairousa) ( Republic, 533c). It is only thus that we can enjoy the life of intelligence without falling into the dungeon of what Socrates called the worst amathia (ignorance), thinking that we know what we do not know.

D. R. Khashaba

February 15, 2017.

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