Finding a true definition of philosophy is an elusive task, although we know some things about it. Western philosophy has its beginnings in the pre-Socratics, and the works of Plato and Aristotle were monumental in its development. Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza, and a whole host of other great thinkers expanded the universe of philosophical thought. But where does it all end? What are the limits to the intellectual disciplines that have shaped our world? Let’s explore the dimensions.
Philosophy, Theology, and Science
Perhaps the most acclaimed book in its subject area is The History of Philosophy by Bertrand Russell. A capable philosopher and mathematician himself, Russell offers this assessment about philosophy’s scope in the first few words of the book’s introduction: “Philosophy, as I shall understand the word, is something intermediate between theology and science.” He calls this wide in-between area a “No Man’s Land”, a place where philosophical explorers are subject to attack from both sides.
Those who have dared to venture into this vast field of contemplation and conjecture risk the criticism of those who are more established in their views. Philosophers have challenged orthodoxy through the centuries, and some — like Giordano Bruno of Italy — have paid for their illicit theories with their very lives.
But what is knowledge? And what is truth? Or beauty? Or justice? Who is right, and who is wrong? No one has a monopoly on wisdom. Philosophers may not have all the answers, but clearly they seem to have all the questions.
Cosmology and the Soul
Some of the greatest questions have to do with the origin and nature of the universe. Where did it come from? How old is the universe? What is the universe made of, and what is our part in it?
Cosmological views vary greatly. The biblical creation story provides the ultimate answer for many people: God created the universe ex nihilo, out of nothing. Devout believers need no further explanation. Scientists have an altogether different theory. There was a Big Bang that started everything, and they have scientific evidence to support their claims.
Philosophers, on the other hand, have offered up ideas of their own. According to Russell, the Timaeus was the only one of Plato’s dialogues that was known to the West in the Middle Ages. It espouses the belief in ancient times that the universe is made up of four elements: earth, air, water, and fire. And the stars have souls. Aristotle’s geocentric universe consisted of the sublunary sphere, where time exists, and the superlunary aether and celestial bodies beyond the moon.
What then is the relationship of the soul to the universe? Does the soul transmigrate to other incarnations until it finds its place in the stars? Was the soul created in the beginning, or does each conception signify a new creation by God? The possible pre-existence of souls is a matter that some — who otherwise believe in the soul’s existence — would rather not discuss.
Logos and Logic
Thinking is at the core of philosophy. Those who are well entrenched in a belief system may feel antagonized by questions that disrupt accepted views. Is there an inherent conflict between faith and reason? Despite these difficulties, many would be surprised to learn that ancient Greek philosophy and modern Christianity share a significant concept. It is called the Logos.
The passage in the Gospel of John is familiar: “In the beginning was the Word….” In Greek, this is the Logos, and Christians readily recognize Christ as the Living Word of God. But the term goes back much further than the writings of the apostle. In the 6th century before Christ, Heraclitus wrote of the “everlasting Word (Logos)”. The philosopher some have called the Riddler also said, “But although the Logos is common, most people live as if they had their own private understanding.”
The Word is supreme. Call it Divine Reason or Christ, the Logos plays an important role both in Western philosophy and religion. In philosophy, it connotes an order and intelligence that permeates the universe.
Philosophy’s Many Branches
The etymology of the word philosophy tells us that it is a “love of wisdom”. But it does not tell us what that wisdom is. To Heraclitus, it has to do with change. But Parmenides saw the world as static, unmoving. Defining wisdom is as difficult as defining the universe. We know that it exists, but the best we can do is describe it.
The traditional areas of philosophy are:
But philosophy can extend to any subject area. Universities began awarding the Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) degree centuries ago. Such an achievement signifies that someone has given significant thought to a chosen field of study.
The scope of philosophy may be broader than we can describe here, but the topic raises another issue for consideration. I’m referring to philosophy’s opposite, which must have to do with severely limited thinking. Socrates believed that the unexamined life is not worth living. He also spoke of the three great evils in life: disease, poverty, and ignorance. The search for wisdom continues for many of us, but there is little to be said for those who refuse to think.