Meditation IX, Systēma – Approaching Systematic Philosophy

The Youth of Aristotle by Charles Degeorge

~ Our meeting today, my dear reader, is not one of coincidence, luck or blind chance. That we have met today means that we were meant to meet and our meeting could not have happened in any other way. It is inevitable that the past must be as it has been before the future can unfold. We may forget in the near future that this meeting has ever happened but we cannot change the fact that this encounter has already taken place.


In my last essay entitled, Philosophos – The Inescapable Philosophy of Philosophy, I argued that that the word ‘philosophy’ means different things to different people. However, the importance of philosophy is undoubtedly universal and relevant to everyone in our constantly changing world. Adding to that is the fact that philosophy is unavoidable for every individual with the capacity to think. When we have beliefs and we work to justify these beliefs, we without doubt construct a philosophy of our own. In this short essay, I will attempt to outline some of the stances that one should adopt when approaching the study of philosophy.

Each and every one of us comes to this world as an infant void of all knowledge and experience. Left alone, it is impossible for an infant raised in the Amazons to read and write English without first being thought how to do so. One does not become a Mozart or Beethoven with pure talent alone (although I would have to admit that talent plays a major part in music). Similarly, if Shakespeare was not exposed to the English language, he could not have become such a prominent figure in the world of English literature. Like an empty container waiting to be filled, we must first absorb the raw data of the world through our senses before synthesizing them with our minds to form knowledge and understanding. This process is the start of philosophy that every individual must go through.

Although every infant without mental and physical impairments are capable of using their senses to collect raw data, it is the mind that is responsible for organizing and synthesizing it into knowledge and understanding. As a child, this process that happens in the mind is an unconscious one that the child has no control of. Although this process happens naturally, children are commonly found with misconceptions in their initial understanding of the world and all its properties. This is to say that even though all children with intellectual capacity can think, it does not follow that these children can think correctly on their first attempt. Left unchecked, these mistakes and misconceptions would persist into their latter days and pose a barrier for future intellectual development.

It is common to find propositions that are accepted as being true and accurate in our childhood to be outrageously wrong as we mature in mind and stature. The ideal mission of the study of philosophy is to invoke a conscious process of identifying and rectifying these misconceptions in beliefs that we presume to be true, which are in reality false. As a child, our ignorance may be excused. As an adult, our ignorance is a sign of stupidity, intellectual impairment and sloth.

I believe that it is generally accepted that a physical structure built on top of weak foundations with the use of weak materials is a sure way to ensure its collapse in the near future. Should our structure of knowledge be built upon beliefs that are not proven, or worst, self-contradicting and vague, we can be sure that it will come crashing down like a house of cards. This realization that our knowledge may be an accumulation of a pile of nonsense would ultimately lead us to ask ourselves one question:

What do we know?’ or Que sais-je? as Montaigne would put it (he hints that we know so very little).

In order to answer this question, we should, in all humility, subject all our beliefs to the most stringent of tests to prove their validity. It is important during this process that we endeavour to erase all forms of bias and prejudice in order to produce a clean slate on which knowledge is to be built upon. If there is even a little evidence that a certain belief is doubtful, this belief must not be allowed to be accepted as true until it is completely cleared of doubt. But although we should expose all our beliefs and ideas to test their legitimacy, it does not follow that we should spend an impossible amount of time doubting each and every one of them. Every system of belief has core tenets or doctrines that once proven false would result in the destruction of its entire structure.

The Indian philosophers of antiquity were extremely good in questioning their own beliefs to such an extent that Hegel dismissed them as ‘dreamy’ and ‘childlike’. In Sanskrit, the term philosophy also stands for seeing. And at least as early as 1500BC, Indian ‘seers’ were known to raise questions that remain relevant to this very day. ‘What did the universe come from? Propelled by what does a directed mind fall upon its objects? By whom was life first set in motion? Urged by whom are these words being spoken?’, were some of those questions that were asked and largely left unanswered. Hegel may be right in saying that the early Indian philosophers were children. But being childlike is what we should be when we approach philosophy!

We should continue to ask childlike questions when we re-examine our deepest faith and beliefs. Only then can we make progress. Without looking into a mirror, how can one see his own face? The study of philosophy should be a mirror that reflects reality clearly without perversion.

The search for the truth of reality should not be one that is static and dogmatic. To philosophize correctly, we should realize that the process in which we turn raw data, provided by our sense-experience, into knowledge is one that should be continuous. It is a dynamic rather than a static state. The truth of reality over the ages has been seen in history as rather elusive. In the past, human beings thought and accepted that the Earth was in the middle of the universe. This was the generally accepted truth. The majority believed it. The Church leaders endorsed it. And it was wrong. We should be ashamed that it took not one philosopher but two, both Copernicus and Galileo to prove to the leaders of the Church their folly in this matter (please note that I am saying that the Church leaders at the time were at fault and not the Church as an institution).

The ultimate truth belongs to the heavens and no one philosophy can explain it in all its entirety. However, I believe that we can work to improve the precision of our knowledge indefinitely.  To do this, we must understand that doubt is the prerequisite and instrument of reconstructing a systematic form of philosophy.  Thesis and anti-thesis should produce a synthesis of wisdom. We should relentlessly reflect on our deepest faith and beliefs in humility and seek to reverse-engineer our understanding of a reality that we know is independent of our sense-experience. Continuously going back to the basics, letting go of false beliefs that we hold all so dear, broad-based readings and accurate observations are the ultimate virtues of a humble  and professional philosopher.

~ Ee Suen Zheng


Please Proceed to the Next Meditation: Meditation X, Logos – The Building Blocks of Philosophy

Or Go Back to the Meditations Page

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  1. […] our approach to philosophy should be systematic rather than a clumsy effort of grasping the wind (Systēma – Approaching Systematic Philosophy). In the last two essays entitled, Logos – The Building Blocks of Philosophy and Paradoxos – […]

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