Philosophy, Top Stories

The Indispensable Study of Inescapable Matters

Philosophy is not merely practical; it is the most practical discipline of all. Indeed, philosophy is so practical that it is indispensable. To know why, it is necessary to know what philosophy is. In the Western tradition, philosophy is subdivided into five branches: metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, politics, and aesthetics.

Metaphysics is the starting point of any individual’s entire corpus of knowledge. Metaphysics begins with the axioms at the base of knowledge, and encompasses ideas pertaining to the basic nature of the world. These ideas include existence, consciousness, and their relation; entity, identity, attribute, change, and action; the nature of causality; and the nature and extent of free will. In short, metaphysics develops explicitly the basic concepts that are implicit in the very concept of knowledge.

Epistemology is the theory of knowledge, that is, the method of knowing. Epistemology addresses how to take the evidence of your senses and form concepts, statements, sequences of statements, and a corpus of knowledge that is organized, non-contradictory, readily applicable to new situations, and conducive to the discovery of new knowledge.

Ethics builds on metaphysics and epistemology—that is, on a base of knowledge and a method of knowing—to establish the starting point for knowing what to do with your life. Ethics enables you to identify your fundamental purpose and your means of achieving your purpose. Ethics identifies your fundamental values.

Politics is the application of ethics to the matter of using physical force against other individuals. Politics, therefore, deals with rights and with principles of government.

Aesthetics is the theory of art.

Philosophy is the most basic component of the entirety of mankind’s corpus of knowledge. All religions, for instance, have at their base an answer to the questions of metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics.

Why does philosophy, mankind’s most basic subject, include only the five branches identified above? Why are other fundamental subjects, such as physics—which at one time was considered part of philosophy—not fundamental enough to be included in philosophy? Part of the answer is that the five branches of philosophy are the only parts of a man’s corpus of knowledge that are so fundamental that they must not be delegated by one man to another.

You may rely on experts for answers in physics, mathematics, medicine, and so on. But you must not let anyone choose your religion (or atheism) for you, or choose your ideas regarding the basic nature of the world, or choose and develop for you your very method of knowing, or decide for you what is right or wrong, or decide for you how to choose and pursue your highest values. You do not delegate to others your basic ideas of politics; that is, you do not delegate your basic right to vote, or your basic judgment on the proper role of government. And if you are going to use physical force or sanction the use of physical force by government against other individuals, you had better have thought carefully about the matter. The power to vote can be and has sometimes been a weapon of mass destruction—or a requirement for prosperity.

You also do not delegate to others what you choose to love in art. You do not delegate to others the choice of which paintings to hang on your walls at home, what music to listen to in the car, what songs to sing with your family, or what movies to take your family to see.

Aesthetics depends directly on metaphysics and epistemology. An individual’s ideas on metaphysics and epistemology, whether these ideas are held explicitly or only implicitly, lead unavoidably to a basic evaluation about the world and man’s place in the world. For instance, one individual might evaluate the world as knowable to man and auspicious to human life—akin to being beautiful—whereas another individual might evaluate the world as inscrutable and leaving man doomed to misery. A work of art, to be effective, must project an imaginary world that is complete and coherent enough to imply a specific metaphysics and epistemology. It is the worldview of the artist that guides his creation of this imaginary world, and it is the worldview of the observer that shapes his response to this imaginary world.

It can be argued that there should be a sixth branch of philosophy: the study of romantic love. Virtually all the great philosophers have written about love. Like your response to art, your romantic love for another person is a response to the deepest values—the deepest philosophical values, the worldview—in the person you love and in yourself. As with the other branches of philosophy, you do not delegate to others your choice of romantic partner.

Another part of the answer to the question of why only these five or six branches of study constitute the subject of philosophy was identified by Ayn Rand in the title essay of her anthology, Philosophy: Who Needs It. Everyone has a philosophy, whether he wants to or not, whether he studies the subject or not. Everyone has a worldview and a way of drawing conclusions and a way of deciding what to do.

The subject of philosophy then is the study of indispensable ideas, regarding inescapable matters, at the root of man’s knowledge and values. Philosophy seeks to understand reality (metaphysics), knowledge (epistemology), goodness (ethics and politics), beauty (aesthetics), and love.

Many individuals acquire their philosophy—a philosophy they don’t even know they have, a philosophy they might not even agree with if they made it explicit in their mind—by passively accepting haphazard and contradictory pieces from half-identified feelings and from half-understood slogans of others. Without being aware of his philosophy, an individual might follow reason at work and emotions at home. Or he might be judgmental and selfish in his choice of a wife, and non-judgmental and altruistic in his advocacy of political policies.

Instead of acquiring your philosophy passively, you can develop your philosophy from a first-hand study of the great philosophers in history, followed by your own independent and systematic thought and judgment.

In studying philosophy, you will encounter philosophies that claim that metaphysics is fiction, knowledge is a subjective construction of individual minds or societies of minds, and free will is an illusion, and therefore that ethics is without a basis in fact or choice, beauty is naive, and love is blind and base. It is from such ideas, which have dominated modern philosophy—not to mention postmodern philosophy—since Hume and Kant, that the subject of philosophy has acquired a reputation for being impractical.

However, there is much more to studying philosophy than rescuing common sense from the assault by postmodernism. It is not enough to say, “Yes, there is reality,” “Yes, I have knowledge,” “Yes, there is good, beauty, and love, and these things are exalted.” You must be able to say, “This is reality, and here is what I know about it, and here is my validation of my method of knowing, and this is the good and how to achieve it, and here is how to create beauty and to love well.”

The importance of philosophy is a basis for the importance of history and literature. The thoughts, discoveries, and actions of history’s great men and women provide essential factual information from which to formulate and evaluate a philosophy. History shows the causal connection from thought to physical action to physical effect to further thought, action, and effect, from one individual to other individuals, from one period of time to the next.

The rational, this-worldly philosophy of Aristotle, rediscovered in Europe in the Middle Ages, led to the Renaissance, which led to the Enlightenment, which included the political writings of John Locke, which led to the political ideas of American revolutionaries, who put those ideas into action in the founding of the United States of America, which led to unprecedented prosperity.

By identifying the effects that great individuals have caused, history begins to reveal free will’s nature, scope, and degree of efficacy. Great literature takes this beginning established by history and builds from there. Whereas history shows what great individuals have done, literature shows what great individuals might choose to do.

Quoting Aristotle, “the difference between the historian and the poet is … that the one tells of things that have been and the other of such things as might be. Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history, in that poetry tends rather to express the universal, history rather the particular fact.” [Poetics, Ch. 9, 1451b1–7, translation by James Hutton, 1982.] In this respect of expressing the universal, literature is a bridge from history to philosophy.

How, though, does literature express the universal, not only the particular fact? After all, the characters and events in a work of literature are as particular as the people and events in history.

Because literature is an art, an answer comes from aesthetics. As mentioned earlier, the artist must present enough particulars in an artwork to create an imaginary world with its own metaphysics and epistemology. But this imaginary world cannot possibly contain nearly as many particulars as does the real world. The author of fiction must select only those particulars that are conducive to being integrated conceptually into some theme. For example, every event in a plot might confront the main character with the ever-escalating consequences of having told a lie, along with the ever-escalating conflict of whether to perpetuate the lie. Given such a selection of particulars, the universal idea of honesty is readily grasped.

There is, then, a progression from the true stories of history to the created stories of literature to the fundamental, philosophical ideas that will guide the story of your life. And if you seek to build upon the greatness of those who lived before you, then you must study the history of the greatest individuals and cultures, the literature of the greatest writers, the works of the greatest philosophers.

Here then is why to study history, literature, and philosophy. These studies are the prerequisites for forming your own rational philosophy, which is the prerequisite for making the choices you must make for yourself.

 

Ronald Pisaturo has written on epistemology, esthetics, romantic love, politics, and the philosophy of mathematics. He has also written plays and screenplays.

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29 Comments

  1. Pingback: The Indispensable Study of Inescapable Matters – Foggytown's Micro Blog

  2. AC Harper says

    No, sorry, the article didn’t move me at all. Whatever the value of philosophy (and I do like reading about it) it appears to fail as a practical exercise.

    I’m puzzled by the various strands of philosophy which start out as differing thoughts on ‘how to live’ (modest pleasure, virtues, duty, self actualization) and collapse into endless debates about the meaning of concepts, including meaning itself. Is it unreasonable to expect some convergence in thought over the centuries?

    Plus of course there’s the issue of whether or not Western philosophies are limited by ignoring the rather different worldviews of Eastern philosophies.

    I consider that the ‘philosophies’ people follow in their daily lives are rather different, and almost unrelated to academic philosophy. I think it is an overreach for academic philosophers to claim it is (one of their particular) philosophies all the way down.

    • Dave says

      In my opinion, the purpose of philosophy is to teach one how to think critically, something our academic institutions have failed in doing. It’s not necessarily the beliefs you acquire through philosophy that matter, but rather the process of thinking it took one to arrive at that belief. In that sense, philosophy can be applied to virtually any discipline.

      • AC Harper says

        The next question you have to ask yourself is whether or not Western Academic Philosophy is an effective way of promoting how to think critically.

        Plus, of course, whether or not thinking critically is *in practice* a worthwhile skill. Philosophers ought to be able to justify this, rather than just assert it as a truth.

  3. Chris Tanz says

    Thank you for doing this article. You are a good thinker.

  4. Rob says

    Thank you, enjoyed the read. I believe that philosophy should get more attention in schools. Hope to be part of that change.

  5. ripwit says

    Gosh – I would have thought that most independent thinking (such as forming a philosophy about anything) would have started with a baby learning how to suckle. Or stubbing a toe. Or identifying friendly faces/voices.

    Most of the rest of life is build around trying to put a mental meaning/framework about the real-life experiences as well as the ones we “read about” – experience existentially.

    So I think this article is upside down for most of us. We learn first by doing, then by observing, and lastly by reading articles such as this.

    • Andrew Roddy says

      Yes. I think you are exactly right. Perhaps, though, I might put ‘feeling’ before ‘doing’. ‘I feel therefore I am.’ The implication is that the western philosophical tradition has been upside-down for many centuries. Not redundant but in need of such a radical review that our children’s grandchildren won’t live to see it begun.

  6. Martti O. Suomivuori says

    Words are one thing, reality is another.
    The biggest handicap of philosophy is the lack of connection with material reality.
    Philosophers are totally OK discussing Marx as an accomplished thinker and theorist even though his prophecies went totally wrong and his ideology has created monstrous oppressive murder machines wherever they have been applied. The mountains of corpses do not enter the discussion.

    Now the postmodernist Neo-Marxist are assembling for a come back. We can see the unholiest allies uniting under the same basic idea: To take down the ‘oppressive’ western society with its ‘oppressive’ traditions and culture –that have provided the Westerners with a standard of living no other forms of governments have ever could even dream of.

    Yes we get these square miles of text about -isms, we get namedropping and fancy terms.
    But how many philosophers do you need to change a light bulb?
    None.
    You do not need them to change light bulbs, either.

    • AC Harper says

      Q. How many philosophers does it take to change a light bulb?

      A. Theories of darkness divide over whether perceptual darkness is rich or sparse in specific representational content and whether it requires cognitive access. These two issues are often treated in tandem because of a shared assumption that the representational capacity of cognitive access is fairly limited. Heidegger recognizes in the true being, in terms not only Aristotelian but Greek in general, the privilege of “changing light bulbs”. Only from these reasons will it be possible to understand how the Greek question of home maintenance in the classical formulation αλλάζοντας τους λαμπτήρες, is presented as the guiding question of philosophy…

  7. Bob Cowley says

    Mystery
    who can explain life?
    don’t try too hard
    logic should be
    a servant of love

  8. Nearly everything in this article is wildly inaccurate.

    First, the study of metaphysics is absolutely NOT concerned with concepts related to consciousness, knowledge or free will. These are completely different disciplines, though they often overlap. Metaphysics rather is concerned with what philosophers sometimes refer to as “first principles.” Which is to say, the most fundamental concepts from which all other concepts can be derived. Examples of such concepts are universals, space, time, identity, the nature of being and existence. However, none of this will make any sense without citing examples. Let’s look at identity. No, identity in the sense of “I don’t know know who I am anymore,” but rather, a metaphysical crisis of another kind. Consider the properties of a candle. It is has a certain shape, smell, texture and taste (if one felt so inclined). One would be able to look at a candle and say “that’s a candle.” However, imagine if the candle were to be completely melted so that it resembles a puddle of wax. This puddle of wax may now has a different shape, smell, feel and texture. Is it still a candle? These are the types of questions metaphysicians ask.

    Second, the author’s definition of epistemology is also completely inaccurate. Epistemology is the study of knowledge, but this does not ONLY involve knowledge derived from the senses. This is flat out FALSE. Only one branch of epistemology looks at knowledge acquired or derived from the senses, we call this a posteriori knowledge. Epistemology is also concerned with a priori knowledge, that is knowledge that is derived from logic, independent of the senses. The main function of the epistemology is to determine knowledge from opinion. A common but controversial definition of knowledge philosophers use is a “justified true belief.”

    The definition of ethics is again, completely misleading. Ethics is concerned with determining right from wrong actions. It’s pretty simple.

    The author’s definition of political philosophy might be the most mind boggling thing in this article: “the application of ethics to the matter of using physical force against other individuals.” It’s so silly I can’t even address it seriously and everyone reading this will know what politics is anyway.

    Next, the claim that postmodernism, skepticism, relativism or whatever the author is implying has “dominated modern philosophy” is patently FALSE. The tradition of Western Analytic Philosophy, including philosophers such as Bertrand Russell, Willard Quine and Saul Kripke, is absolutely NOT dominated by post-modernist thought (such as the claim that all knowledge claims are equally valid, i.e. there is no actual truth). No serious analytic philosopher takes any of these claims seriously and to insinuate that they do is a lie. Where one could claim that such ideas are more endemic is in the tradition of Continental philosophy, which tends to lean towards the existentialist philosophers such as Nietzsche, Sartre, Kierkegaard, and the post-modernist philosophers such as Foucault and Deridda. To fail to distinguish between the traditions of Analytic and Continental philosophy and then to suggest philosophy as a whole is dominated by postmodernism is utterly reckless and demonstrably false.

    The rest of the article is a garble of distorted concepts and non-sequiturs.

    Lastly, I’m fairly certain that the author intended to put “aesthetics” and not “esthetics” is his description. Though, based on this article, he seems to be far more equipped to write about the latter than the former anyway.

    • Scott Hamilton says

      Thank you Graham. That saved me from writing a critique. Which wouldn’t have been as thorough as yours anyway.

    • Austin says

      Thanks for this response. Your corrections and distinctions were crying out to me as I read.

    • Andrew Roddy says

      That’s all well and good but you didn’t tell us how many philosophers it takes to change the candle.

  9. Bob Cowley says

    As a simple lad, I like the ancient Greek notion of philosophy being the love of wisdom.

  10. Thank you, Ron.

    Your explanations were clear, direct, and practical, and I felt the dust of centuries being blown off the topic of philosophy to reveal it as something vitally relevant for living a happy life here on earth.

  11. Based on the comments, perhaps I should have included the following paragraph in the article: Even a conception of what philosophy is, and what it is for, depends on a philosophy. In my article, the word ‘choose’ or ‘choice’ appears ten times; clearly, I advocate free will. But my examples illustrate that humanity progresses along a causal chain; that is, a caveman cannot will himself to discover nuclear power or capitalism, and so free will has strict limits. Clearly, I also advocate causality—in particular, causal relations in both directions between physical reality and thought—implying that it is crucial to know the relation between existence and consciousness. Finally, my entire article argues that philosophy is practical; clearly, I think that knowledge is of reality.

    The Kantian idea that some mind or minds construct the world we experience is, alas, foundational to every major Western philosophic school of thought since Kant. The Marxist notion that this construction is based on economic class, and the postmodern notion that this construction is based on race and ‘gender’, are mere wrinkles on the Kantian idea.

    Richard Rorty, himself a leading analytic philosopher, wrote this in 1980 (https://www.lrb.co.uk/v02/n17/richard-rorty/kripke-versus-kant):

    “Since Kant, philosophers have prided themselves on transcending the ‘naive realism’ of Aristotle and of common sense. On this naive view, there is a right way of describing things, corresponding to how they are in themselves, to their real essences. Scientists, philosophers like to say, are especially prone to adopt this unreflective view. They think they are discovering the secrets of nature, but philosophers know that they are really constituting objects by synthesising the manifold of intuition, or predicting the occurrence of sensations, or wielding instruments to cope with the flux of experience, or something equally pragmatic and anthropocentric. This condescending attitude towards common sense, Aristotle and science has been shared by people as far apart as Russell and Bergson, Whitehead and Husserl, James and Nietzsche, Carnap and Cassirer.

    “Until Kripke came along, almost the only exceptions to this consensus were the Catholics and the Marxists.”

    My only disagreement with this passage is that it is too charitable toward Kripke and Marxists.

    Finally, the notion that some knowledge is a priori merely sends thinkers into the arms of Kant and his postmodern progeny. If knowledge is prior to reality, then how do you know that knowledge applies to reality? You don’t, and it doesn’t. Then all that remains when dealing with reality is subjectivism.

    • AC Harper says

      “Even a conception of what philosophy is, and what it is for, depends on a philosophy.”

      The best advice I have is when you are in a hole, stop digging.

      • Andrew Roddy says

        Human beings, in their thinking, feeling and acting are not free agents but are as causally bound as the stars in their motion. Albert Einstein

        It’s just one man’s view but maybe worth rolling out. Does Einstein effectively rule out ‘agency’ altogether here?

    • There isn’t one coherent thought in this response. You give the impression of someone completely unfamiliar with the literature to which you are critiquing. And, it is patently obvious that you have never been spent any time within a philosophy department.

      If you really want to do philosophy, here is a tip. Stick to one very, very, very specific point you are trying to make and then spend paragraph after paragraph trying to flesh it out.

      How NOT to do philosophy is to, within a single paragraph (the first paragraph of this response), try to make statements covering a) free will, b) consciousness, c) causality, d) existence. NO philosopher worth their salt would EVER write like this, EVER.

      Lastly, for someone who seems to be a critic of postmodernism, you seem to write exactly like them. That is, to have no real purchase on what you are talking about and to to just shoehorn as much jargon as you can (jargon of which you don’t actually know the meaning of) in order to give what you’re saying the pretence of having genuine substance.

      Please don’t claim to speak for the philosophical community, it is clear that you are not apart of it.

    • Before we form the concept of love, we love. Long before we form the concept of philosophy, we have an implicit philosophy, as the article explains. Once formed, our concept of philosophy informs (or misinforms) our philosophy, and vice versa, in an ongoing spiral that enriches (or corrupts) both.

      • AC Harper says

        You haven’t stopped digging have you? You are down to a rich seam of woo now. Which is fine if you desire that sort of thing but it is not the same tenor as your original article.

  12. Mazzakim says

    The more articles I read, the more Quilette comes across as a forum for precocious undergraduates (of a certain type) and the occasional slumming grad student.

  13. Gregory Bogosian says

    You can dispense with free-will once you differentiate between will and free-will. Humans have will. “Will” Just means the capacity to act with a purpose. “Free-will” implies freedom from external influences. We don’t have that. Our wills are subject to innumerable external influences. Our wills are not “free” in any non-trivial sense. This is a good thing. If we did have free-will then we would be under huge existential pressure to make the most of our limited time on earth. Without free-will, the only pressure is to recognize the forces that compel us to act as we do.

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