The Thinker: What is Philosophy?


Posted by jamesesz on May 3, 2010 ·



How charming is divine philosophy!

Not harsh, and crabbed as dull fools suppose,

But musical as is Apollo’s lute,

And a perpetual feast of nectared sweets,

Where no crude surfeit reigns.

~ Milton, Comus, lines 475-9


When I utter the word ‘philosophy’, I realize that this word invokes, more often than not, an unpleasant expression like a frown or a scowl from my listeners. I suppose that this is not surprising as the word ‘philosophy’ represents everything complex, puzzling, obscure and boring. What is worse is that trailing faithfully behind ‘philosophy’ are multi-syllable words like metaphysics (the study of reality) and epistemology (the study of knowledge). These words are not commonly recognized outside the realm of academia. I can say with quite certainty that these are not words to be spoken during casual social events. It is however, an excellent way to chase away potential individuals with the intention to create romantic relations that one does not desire.

What is philosophy?

I believe that this word that starts with the letter P and rhymes with everything from eternity and infinity is probably one of the most misunderstood words in the English language. The historical root of the word is surprising simple. The word ‘philosophy’ comes from the Latin word ‘philosophia’ and the Greek word ‘philosophos’. Both of them mean ‘lover of wisdom’. So if you have a daughter or sister called ‘Sophia’, her name means wisdom. ‘Philo’ on the hand, means ‘lover of’.

So why is there an adverse reaction to the word? According to first entry in the Collins English Dictionary, the word philosophy means: the academic discipline concerned with making explicit the nature and significance of ordinary and scientific beliefs and investigating the intelligibility of concepts by means of rational argument concerning their presuppositions, implications, and interrelationships.

For most people, the definition above is good gibberish.

The definition above is all good and well, but what does philosophy really means to the layman? Bertrand Russell once said, “The definition of ‘philosophy’ will vary according to the philosophy we adopt.” I agree. Philosophy in its most diluted and sterilized form is simply a person’s outlook or viewpoints. It is any system of belief, values, principles or tenets. Philosophy is personal and every one of us, at least those with intellectual capacity, would have some form of belief or outlook on this world.

Philosophy is inescapable.

There is not a single day that goes by in our lives that we do not fall back to our most cherished beliefs and principles. And when we do so, we are essentially falling back to our own personal philosophy or a philosophy that we adopt. Forget Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. When a Christian lives by the principles of his religion, he believes and practices Christian philosophy. The same things applies for a Muslim (Islamic philosophy), Jew (Jewish philosophy, Buddhist (Buddhist philosophy) or Taoist (Taoist philosophy).

What about an atheist?

I believe that the same concept applies! An atheist is someone that does not believe in the existence of God. But an atheist is not without beliefs, principles or outlooks. He simply believes that there is no God and he most likely has reasons to justify his belief. An atheist may be as much of a philosopher as everyone else. Hence, a good point to remember when we are philosophizing is that we should not be to quick to judge another person’s view. According to Will Durant, “When we prove or disprove a philosophy, we are merely offering another one.”

When philosophy is defined in such a loose a manner, it becomes simple and less intimidating. A short definition of philosophy that I would propose us to consider is also a good one: Philosophy is simply thinking about thinking. And by saying ‘thinking about thinking’, what I really mean is that when we ‘philosophize’, we are actually thinking in a rational and critical way. It is also good to add that such thinking should be done in a systematic approach since the aim of philosophy is to attempt to arrive at real knowledge free from vagueness and self-contradiction.

But before we start philosophizing blindly, let us go back to the basics.

“Philosophy begins in wonder,” said Plato and humanity has been filled with wonder of the external world and ourselves since the ending days of the Ice Age. Knowledge begins with doubt but philosophy begins with speculation. Try and remember some of the times in your life when you asked yourself questions like:

Why is the world the way it is?

What should we believe?

How should we act in society?

What is right and what is wrong?

When we attempt to answer these questions, we are in fact philosophizing and we probably do it without knowing.

Many people before us have asked similar questions and they have attempted to answer them. Every branch of science and education can trace their roots back to philosophy. The disciplines and study of mathematics, biology, physics, chemistry, theology, economics, psychology, politics, language and law were built upon the foundations that philosophy had laid. The proof of this is that the one of the highest achievements in advance learning in a particular subject is called a PhD or doctor in philosophy. I call it Permanent Head Damage.

But what about science? Science also aims to arrive at real knowledge. It also incorporates a range of methods by which we can collect and analyze empirical data. The difference is that science is a subset within philosophy. When a person says that he believes in science, what he means is that he believes in the philosophy of science and he believes that the scientific method is the preferable and most accurate method of arriving at real knowledge. Science leans more towards being analytical while philosophy is more of a synthesis. “Science gives us knowledge,” said Will Durant, “but philosophy gives us wisdom.”

Quoting Bertrand Russell on the topic, “A man does not become a better philosopher through knowing more scientific facts.” This is because knowledge does not automatically give us wisdom. The scientist is tasked with gathering data and information about a particular subject but the philosopher is tasked with connecting the various theories, beliefs, preferences and habits into a giant picture that is precise and consistent. Science tells us where the pieces in the jigsaw puzzle of reality fits and what is their purpose. But philosophy attempts to interpret the picture that the jigsaw puzzle produces into coherent understanding. Philosophy incorporates both theology and science while attempting to intermediate the two distinct approaches.

Philosophy attempts to answer all the questions that remain unanswered. It continues to attempt to find connections between the different branches of studies that have ventured too far abroad that they no longer recognize one another.

Philosophy is for everybody.

There will be some days in life where you sit down and realize that Plato was right in saying that, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” That Aristotle was right by saying, “all men by nature desire to know.” That life without knowledge and wisdom feels like being chained inside a cave only to look out at a world full of colour from the dark. Life may be full of strife, the needs of physical existence occupies most of our time. But there are days when philosophy is a ‘dear delight’. Days that you sit down with a cup of tea and look outside your window and begin to wonder your ‘reason for being’ (Raison d’être) and to evaluate your ‘world-view’ (Weltanschauung).

For the young that desire to seize the day (Carpe diem), philosophy is a tool that will give them the knowledge and wisdom to step forth into the world unafraid of the many trials and tribulations that awaits them. For the scholar and conservative, philosophy is a challenge, a ‘dare to know’ (Sapere aude). For the old in the twilight of their life, philosophy teaches them to ‘remember their mortality’ (Memento mori), to know that life is a brief candle, that time devours all things, and that it is as natural to die as it is to be born.

For everyone else, philosophy gives not only wisdom but also the freedom from trouble and anxiety (Ataraxia). “Woe to the philosopher who cannot laugh his wrinkles away,” said Voltaire. Although the final truth belongs to heaven and not this world, philosophy would give us peace and teach us that the purpose of life is a life of purpose.


The satirist may laugh, the philosopher may preach, but Reason herself will respect the prejudices and habits which have been consecrated by the experience of mankind.

~ Edward Gibbon, Memoirs of My Life, chapter 1


Philosophical Questions

  1. Is the world divided into mind and matter, and, if so, what is mind and what is matter?
  2. Has the universe any unity or purpose?
  3. Are there really laws of nature, or do we believe in them only because of our innate love of order?
  4. Am I the same person as the child who grew into me?
  5. Do we have freewill?
  6. What are the foundations of knowledge?
  7. What makes a sentence true?
  8. Does life has meaning?
  9. Is there reason to believe in God?
  10. Is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so?


Do not all charms fly

At the mere touch of cold philosophy

There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:

We know her woof, her texture; she is given

In the dull catalogue of common things.

Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,

Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,

Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine –

Unweave a rainbow.

 ~ John Keats, ‘Lamia’, pt. ii, lines 229-37



  1. Cooper David E. & Fosl Peter S. ed., 2010, Philosophy: The Classic Readings. United Kingdom: Wiley-Blackwell.
  2. Durant, Will., 2005, The Story of Philosophy. United States: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.
  3. Honderich, Ted. ed., 2005. The Oxford Guide to Philosophy, Second Edition. United States: Oxford University Press
  4. Russell, Bertrand., 1972, The History of Western Philosophy. New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc.
  5. Russell, Bertrand., 2009, An Outline of Philosophy. United States: Routledge Classics
  6. Wolff, Robert. ed., 2002, Ten Great Works of Philosophy. United States: Penguin Books Ltd.
One Response to “The Thinker: What is Philosophy?”
  1. eecheongkah says:

    We are mini-gods in a sense that we are created after God’s image. We have most of God’s attributes, perhaps, in a scaled down or imperfect ways. The inquiring spirits of philosopers are important to mankind as their impetus impacting humanity as a whole in their progress towards utopia. Human progress by their own ways towards utopia will be ended one day by God with the second coming of Jesus Christ.

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