Philosophy, the shepherd and guide of knowledge

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We often disregard philosophy in modern society, dismissing it as a subject of no valuable import. While many of these accusations are at least partly justified, we cannot disregard philosophy in its entirety, but rather seek to prune it into a more fruitful growth. In this article I will outline why we cannot ignore philosophy, how it guides society, and why it is in fact becoming more important to society as we progress.

Philosophy dares to dream

Every great advance in science has issued from a new audacity in imagination – John Dewey

Science is analytical description, while philosophy is interpretative speculation, using what we currently know to formulate a theory of what could be. Science deals only in the concrete, that it can test with certainty. Philosophy experiences no such scruples.

Philosophy dares to dream, to construct extraordinary hypotheses, and imagine vast possibilities. It is not afraid to question the very fabric of our reality, what we consider good, and what is actually truth. In this way it transcends the boundaries of our society, attempting to construct definite and permanent ideals, not ones that revolve around our subjective and narrow opinion.

This questioning is essential as it paves the way for science. We can see examples of this everywhere: Ancient Greece; philosophers were the first to question the established attribution of all natural phenomena to the gods. The Scientific Revolution; Isaac Newton was a natural philosopher, one who dared to question the laws that dictate our existence, and paved the way for much later thought.

it [philosophy] is the front trench in the siege of truth. Science is the captured territory; and behind it are those secure regions in which knowledge and art build our imperfect and marvelous world. Philosophy seems to stand still, perplexed; but only because she leaves the fruits of victory to her daughters the sciences, and herself passes on, divinely discontent, to the uncertain and unexplored – Will Durant

Philosophy does not have concrete products, rather its outcomes benefit science, giving it new avenues of thought, new possibilities, which allow it to move forward.

Philosophy is the fountainhead of inquiry

Every science begins as philosophy and ends as art; it arises in hypothesis and flows into achievement – Will Durant

It is through philosophy that all other disciplines of inquiry came to be. Originally philosophy encompassed these – empirical science, mathematics, theology, biology. These were all considered aspects of philosophy in ancient times (significantly, on the lintel of The Academy, Plato’s school for philosophers, stood the words “Let no man ignorant of geometry enter here”. Likewise the undisputed founder of science was Aristotle, foremost a philosopher at the time). Gradually, as these disciplines grew larger and more concrete, they separated from philosophy.

Philosophy opens up the initial path for these disciplines to follow. It asks questions of a specific nature and direction, which then coalesce into their own practice.

Philosophy remains the fountainhead, the birthplace, of all other knowledge-seeking disciplines. It is therefore important as its progression gives rise to other avenues of thought, new ways of seeking this coveted knowledge and wisdom.

Philosophy is the construction of ideals

Philosophy concerns itself with the construction of ideals (whether it be the ideal conduct in ethics, the ideal social organization in politics etc.). These ideals are supposed to be truth, permanent and unwavering principles – the way to do things. The progress made by philosophy in this regard is invaluable.

The construction of an ideal is an inquiry into the best way to do things. It looks past capricious, short-term improvement driven by greed or ignorance, and instead tries to establish universal guiding principles, leading us in the best direction for all. If we follow a more-or-less straight path to a close to ideal society, a utopia insofar we can perceive it, we will naturally see faster improvement. This will be improvement that is meaningful in the long-term, for all members of the nation.

While it might be impossible for us to perfectly express an ideal form of something, we can come closer. By attempting this we set ‘goals’ for society. If your goal is misguided, based on misconceptions about things, you will get nowhere, or go somewhere in the wrong direction. There is value in painting pictures of our desire. Our significance lies in the fact that we can imagine a better world, a utopia, and will at least some part of it into reality.

Philosophy brings wisdom, required to synthesize knowledge

Science tells us how to heal and how to kill; it reduces the death rate in retail and then kills us wholesale in war; but only wisdom—desire coordinated in the light of all experience—can tell us when to heal and when to kill. – Will Durant

Science can only bring knowledge; it is a method of acquiring means. Something external must therefore drive it, to give it a direction. In modern times capitalism and warfare have filled this role. However, the direction these provide is like quicksilver, constantly shifting according to short-term desire. This leads to the use of science for both good and evil, for reducing death rate, but also for waging war.

Philosophy is the gathering of this wisdom. It is the aggregation and collection of human experience, harnessing it to form theories and general principles to guide us. The only way we can hope to use science for a common good is therefore through philosophy.

Philosophy should give direction

What I am proposing in this passage is merely that philosophy should be more seriously considered as a guiding factor of our knowledge progression, not an absolute ruler of society.

The most important reason which makes philosophy qualified to give direction is the fact that it attempts to define what is truly good, and to look past what only appears to be so. In the search for ideals philosophers sort between what will actually benefit us, and bring us closer to this perfect utopia, and the things that are only beneficial on the surface.

Attempting to find eternal ideals has the benefit of being able to transcend our current time. Philosophers look past the fickle opinions and trends of the present, and instead try to establish truths which apply to all societies. This allows us to not be caught up in what only appears, from our very narrow viewpoint, to be good.

Philosophy is ultimately the search for this wisdom. It’s express purpose is to find the most beneficial way of doing things. It is therefore an apt guide for our knowledge.

Philosophy is becoming increasingly relevant

Having established that philosophy should be an important factor in steering our progression, and why it is qualified to do so, I would go further to say that it is actually becoming increasingly relevant.

The last century has been a period of unprecedented and explosive growth, leading to a plethora of new technologies, as well as a significant improvement in standards of living. Along with all these good things has come a host of bad ones – nuclear weapons, more effective killing machines (drones, superior guns, larger missiles), commercial farming, unprecedented inequality et cetera. With this accumulation of knowledge comes a vast responsibility that falls on the people of the world.

This requires us to progress prudently as a society, with great wisdom. Unfortunately, short-term desire, and the opinions of a few powerful leaders, mostly serves to guide science currently. What we require is a collective operation, a mass effort to decide what we truly want and need; a construction of a societal vision. Philosophy is the only available platform for this, but must be expanded. I therefore believe that philosophy should developed and utilized by the world, as a mentor, and a guiding factor.

This visionary construction applies not only to the leaders of the world, however. It should be the burden of the people. All of us have a responsibility and role in the progression of society, and it is important that we all can utilize our roles, however small, to the maximum benefit of humanity. We all have an important part to play, and can therefore not only benefit from this source of wisdom in our lives, but also should take part in its discussions, working towards a better vision, and therefore a better future.

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4 months ago

A thought-provoking piece. Where others see philosophy as irrelevant you make a strong case for it being even more relevant in modern society. Considering the challenges we are facing related to medicine, food production, warfare, housing etc there are so many aspects of our lives requiring the guidance philosophy can offer. The ‘integrative’ nature of philosophy, as opposed to the ‘silos’ we currently operate, is so important.

Marcel Zimmermann
Marcel Zimmermann
4 months ago

Hi There, you confuse philosophy & science a bit. You need to be a bit more disciplined to keep them apart, or more clearly explain the overlap. Science as a field has really progressed as you mentioned, that is due to the rigour & process / methodology of science, which was set up by philosophy in the first place. Philosophy makes sure that we think in the right way, that we do not make logical mistakes (which makes sure the procedure / methodology of science is correct), philosophy also discusses the ethical aspects, right & wrong, what is truth, what is thought & how we think (all these things are outside of science) – science explains how the kettle boils (water molecules being agitated by heat), philosophy tells us why / the reason… because I switched the kettle on & want a cup of coffee, & whether this is a good thing… etc. So philosophy is “the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence, especially when considered as an academic discipline.”, whilst the philosophy of science is a branch of philosophy concerned with the foundations, methods, and implications of science. The central questions of this study concern what qualifies as science, the reliability of scientific theories, and the ultimate purpose of science. You have to clearly define your subjects up front, which will give you a clearer structure. Regards Marcel