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Definition and Meaning of Philosophy – Part 1

The Concept of Philosophy

 INTRODUCTION

    Generally, Philosophy is difficult to define. This difficulty is a problem to all Philosopher. It arises from (a) the complexity and diversity of the subject, (b) the fact that individual Philosopher view Philosophy differently. Their subjective definitions are part of their general philosophical positions or thought.

    No one single definition of Philosophy is therefore accepted or recognized generally by all Philosophers. Yet, there are definitions of Philosophy.

    Perhaps a cursory look at some of the definitions proposed by Philosophers with different orientations would enable us understand what Philosophy is and is not.

 DEFINITIONS OF PHILOSOPHY

A. PHILOSOPHY AS LOVE OF WIDOM

    Etymologically, this is not very helpful. Philosophy is derived from two Greek words ‘philo’ – to love and ‘Sophia’ – wisdom: (Love of Wisdom). Philosopher were once called wise men. It was Pythagoras who first invented the term Philosophy (Love of Wisdom), observing that wisdom belongs in the strict sense to God alone, and for that reason not wishing to be called wise man, but simply a friend or lover of wisdom. Nevertheless, Philosophy is nothing other than wisdom itself so far as it is accessible to human nature.

    However, there are two kinds of wisdom: Supernatural (divine) and natural (human) wisdom. Divine wisdom is that which is supernaturally infused into our soul, which man possesses in virtue of divine illumination. Human wisdom which is philosophy is not a wisdom divinely imposed, neither is it wisdom wholly spontaneous and unconscious which is possessed in virtue of a natural instinct.

   It is the wisdom of man as man, which he acquires by the labour of his intellect, and it is for that very reason that his wisdom is gained with such difficulty and held so insecurely, and that those who seek it should be called philosophers rather than wise men. 

Such is the nature of Philosophy derived from the etymology of the term and its employment in ordinary speech. A philosopher is, therefore, a wise man. And the man who devotes himself to philosophy, by so doing undertakes to show the sublimest views at which man’s understanding can arrive at the solution of problems .

    The definition of Philosophy as “human wisdom” presents some difficulty. The meaning is somewhat obscure and reflects Greek rather than other views of Philosophy, for example, Indian, Igbo, Yoruba, etc.

B. PHILOSOPHY AS (KNOWLEDGE AND) A WAY OF LIFE

   Two principal notions – “knowledge” and “a way of life” have been historically asserted of Philosophy. The word Philosopher contains the two different meanings of  man who possesses “certain knowledge” and the “man who lives and acts in a particular way.” These two notions are essentially two ways of interpreting the world and the two interpretations have alternated and at times even existed simultaneously. It is necessary ti understand the word philosophy in such a way that our ideas of it would provide room for both meanings at the same time.

    Both interpretations are valid, in as much as they constitute philosophic reality themselves. In essence, Philosophy is a way of life that consists precisely in having a certain knowledge of reality. This knowledge is fundamental, autonomous, and it justifies itself. It constantly demonstrates and proves its own validity. It thrives exclusively on evidence. It is always renewing the reasons for its certainty.

C. PHILOSOPHY AS A SEARCH INTO THE ULTIMATE CAUSE OF REALITY

    Another definition of Philosophy is that “it is an indubitable cognition of being in the light of its ultimate justification.” It is an attempt to understand reality in the light of its secondary cause but its ultimate cause. We may say according to Jacques Maritain “that the Philosopher does not seek the explanation nearest to the phenomena perceived by our senses, but the explanation most remote from them, the ultimate explanation.” This is expressed in philosophical terminology by saying that Philosophy is not concerned with secondary causes or proximate explanations, but on the contrary with first causes, highest principles or ultimate explanations of reality.

    Reality itself being the object of Philosophy is whatever is, whatever is in existence and whatever has the potentiality of being in existence. It can be material or immaterial, real or potential, seen or unseen, immanent or transcendent. The proper object of Philosophy, therefore, is neither material aspect of reality or the immaterial aspect, but rather “Being qua Being” – the really existing thing.

D. PHILOSOPHY AS A CRITICAL EVALUATION OF ALL HUMAN EXPERIENCES

    This is another definition of Philosophy. It characterizes the attitude to life of Philosophers, that is, one of curiosity to know; maintaininv a critical attitude to life in conformity with the Socratic dictum: the unexamined life is not worth-living. It means the openness of mind to all issues and the lack of dogmatic assertion or stand. It implies an attitude of tolerance and the readiness to examine everything without prejudice or preconceived notions.

    This is the kind of Philosophy that is dated, according to Western Intellectual Tradition, from the 6th Century B.C. It was a time when men refused to take things for granted and asked questions and sought answers about the nature of the Universe, man, society and value. Here Philosophers have the duty of critically subjecting all human experiences to rational test to see whether they are justifiable or not.

    In our country, Nigeria, a lot of beliefs and ideas are accepted without question or reasonable ground. The study of Philosophy will enable us to purify our thoughts or some of these innocuous beliefs by subjecting them to rational scrutiny. It is only after this subjection that we can be freed from the dogma and conservatism that stifles intellectual growth, academic freedom and tolerance.