What is Philosophy?


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Philosophy is primarily a form of thinking, reading and writing texts, and specifically a very abstract form if not the most abstract form of thinking. It’s first of all a theoretical conception of various kinds of objects of thought, often it’s object of thought being different forms of thought itself.

It’s procedure is classically divided into two main different modes of functioning, which are epistemology and ontology.

Epistemology primarily concerns of the nature of knowledge and our acquisition of it, an activity which mainly falls under the broad umbrella of questioning such as ’what do we know?’, ’how do we get to know it?’ and ’what kind of knowledge is it?’

Ontology is primarily primarily thought which deals with the questions of being and existence, activity which deals with the questions of ’what exists?’, ’what is the way of its becoming?’, that is, ’how does it come to exist?’ and ’what is the nature of that existence?’, ’what sort of existence is it?’, and with ’what is real?’ It thus deals with the questions pertaining to the nature of reality.

In general I would relate epistemology as the theory of knowledge and ontology as being the theory of truth. By this division it becomes fairly quickly obvious that ontology gets quite a logical priority as a mode of thinking, that knowledge and truth are thus always necessarily divided and very different in their modes of functioning, and am ready to claim that ’philosophy is ontology’. Although ontology mostly concerns the questions of grasping the nature of reality correctly, it is without a doubt very often produced by, and thus starts with, various kinds of illusions and illusory beliefs, it’s beginnings and motivations often having very problematic origins, for example often stemming from very personal existential anguish or different kinds of crisis. Then the task of a philosopher is not simply to be dismissive of illusions, but to proceed in a way as to show the course through those illusions towards more real forms of apprehending reality.

The equation of philosophy and ontology would be considered without a doubt a very problematic way of explaining things for many philosophers, but I am ready to stand by this specific claim.

An often used term standing in the place of the expression of philosophy is also ’dialectical thinking’ or ’dialectics’. Although usually quickly associated with the names of Hegel and Marx in their work and those of their followers, equating the expressions of dialectics and philosophy is actually not really that misguided.

There is a very strange belief operating regarding dialectical thinking I will mention at this point, and that is that it has some special method operating somehow hidden within it. Finding the exact laws of the dialectical method of course in itself in this way becoming a certain obsession of various thinkers who have tried to find its precise definition of it, making the finding of it intro a sort of an unofficial holy grail of philosophy.

And in fact by looking for the definition for long enough, one can actually find a very simple three step procedure, something akin to a three step programme of loosing weight quickly, a precise explicit definition of three specific laws under which the dialectical method supposedly operates, more precisely within the unfinished work written by Friedrich Engels, specifically in his ’Dialectics of Nature’ published in 1883, which was a kind of a continuation of his better known work titled Anti-Dühring.

Engels was mostly known for being the main friend and theoretical companion of Marx. And in the entire terminology of Marxism, a form of thinking which was in various ways built upon the Marx’s major theoretical work of an unfinished trilogy of books, that of ’Das Kapital’, more specifically the very first book subtitled ’Critique of Political Economy’. Most importantly in the very first chapter of it, which is his most condensed form, the most abstract and theoretical and thus the most philosophical writing of his one can find, which could ironically be called a very condensed and short version of ’the Science of Logic’ as developed by Marx, here with the obvious reference to the book of Hegel of that title. Now Marxism as itself a form of dialectics can be mostly divided mostly in two separate forms of division. The first usual kind of division of it being the most common example one will find, since there was always an effort to consider Marxism as a form of science by it’s followers and practitioners. The main division of Marxism would thus be the classical one into dialectical materialism and historical materialism. The interesting thing here is that in most cases, among all of those those actually engaged in Marxism as a form of thought, nobody will be actually able to quite remember that the dialectics in the first example of this division actually refers to philosophical thinking as such, specifically as practised by Hegel as it’s most concrete case of its use, but not the earliest one, as we will see later.

Marx can be categorised to be a case of anti-philosophy, the recent philosophical development of the very concept of anti-philosophy being primarily done by Alain Badiou. Here let me just point out that anti-philosophy is not quite outside philosophical thought, but an occurrence within in it, something akin to having the status of standing officially outside of it, but still somehow remaining within it with one foot, as an inherent negation of philosophy itself. Other cases of prominent anti-philosophers being various authors, if we try to list them, for example Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Søren Kierkegaard, Samuel Beckett and Jacques Lacan.

The main example of the anti-philosophical stance regarding Marx is of course his entire official effort of ’turning Hegel upon his head’, as exemplified in his often repeated 11th Thesis on Feuerbach, the epigrammatic and final thesis famously explicating that ”Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it”.

The only proper dialectical response to this vulgarity of the 11th thesis being nothing else but to apply its very own logic to itself: by turning Marx upon his head this time, we can thus literally say that ”Philosophers have hitherto only tried to change the world in various ways; the point is to interpret it”. Which can itself be quite easily be proven, the most prominent case of and example of this being Plato’s Republic as an effort to change society already at the very origins of Philosophy in ancient Greece.

The second division of Marxism would be the unofficial one, that would be that of dividing it into Marxism as the official socialist state ideology, a form of ossified thought which a third of the planet had to undergo in their formal education within the countries of really existing state socialism, mine included. And the second camp being that of the so-called Western Marxism.

This would be form of thought often practised with varying degrees of naivety by those in the West, in non-socialist countries, who were still very sympathetic to the ideology and thought of the Soviet Union. The most prominent example of an author within Western Marxism is the case of the Hungarian philosopher Georg Lukacs, especially in his classical book ’History and Class Consciousnesses’, which argued for the concept of the unity of thought and practice.

And it I return to Engels and his fragmentary text of the Dialectics of Nature, what I’ve referred to as the so-called ’holy grail’, or what I also described as following the logic of a three step diet programme, would be the remark made within the book, which defines the method of dialectics as:

  1. The transformation of quantity into quality. That could of course also be called as a qualitative leap, which follows the insight that no matter how great the amount of quantitative accumulation is, it by itself does not, without there being an additional logical twist at work, ever produce a change in quality.
  2. The insight into the occurrence in which opposites often turn out to be the same as what they officially negate and oppose, what can also be referred to as the coincidence of opposites. A contemporary case of this being the example of China, where an officially contemporary Communist regime, by a way of the logic of the coincidence of opposites, turns out to be the very same as the most extreme example of a hyper-capitalist country run under an authoritarian regime of a so-called party system.
  3. The negation of negation, the simple point that very often negating an already negated content of something does not simply get one back to the starting point, as in mathematical algebra. This mostly refers to the difference between form and content, and the necessity of the double negation being the logic according to which it is said to be structurally required, since a first negation of something first necessarily negates the content in question while leaving the logical form of it in tact, and another negation of it being requited to negate the form itself and thus arrive at en entirely different logical frame. A very simple example of this this case being that of religion: while a direct negation of let’s say Christianity thus produces a form of direct anti-Christianity, that of ’satanism’ as the direct negation of its ten commandments as its most directly antagonist form possible, a second negation is then required to arrive at a properly atheistic standpoint of rejecting the entire logic within which religious belief itself functions, for example by seeing how the entire perverse logic of transgression being something under which both Christianity and satanism operate, which is not directly an antagonist form of thought, but something entirely foreign to its logic of functioning, a logical step beyond its mode of functioning.

Since Plato’s dialogues can be taken as the first historical example of dialectics, due to’dialogue’ or ’dialect’, also discourse or conversation between two individuals being it’s primary form, one can easily equate dialectics with philosophy. The most prominent example Plato’s writings is his book titled Republic, and his various other dialogues are then the first example of philosophical work done in history.

Although in his Republic, Plato wanted to have philosophers as the rules in a society, I don’t agree with this particular idea, as it would make governance into a form of meritocracy, which is problematic due to an explosion of envy and resentment that would occur within such a society, since individuals would have to believe that someone is a ruler due to his own merit, effort, intelligence and objective personal superiority over them. I think societies are far more easily governed if the people in that society don’t see the ruler as inherently any better then them, but just having the contingent fortune of becoming one, like by hereditary right, which doesn’t say anything about that person’s strength or weaknesses, thus making a society where the ruler would be elected via a form of lottery and thus random chance, objectively one where the populace would most easily accept their subordination.

Socrates, as is the name of protagonist, Plato’s teacher, is the main character in the writing of Plato’s dialogues. The question to what extent is the textual figure of Socrates as presented in these dialogues a literary work of fiction and to how much it relies on the actual life of the historical Socrates himself. Ancient Greece is then the first historical background in which Philosophy as a mode of thought started. Though it is often also deemed as the birthplace of democracy and the polis (which translates rughly into ’the city’), inside Athens more precisely, the political notion of isonomia as referred to by Plato in his Republic was more closely associated with the birth of philosophy and the mode of its functioning than actual democracy itself.

Classical philosophy will also try to tell us that Plato was then himself the teacher of Artistotle, who is supposedly equally or more important than Socrates and Plato, but the truth is, he is not. He is simply a darling of the current mainstream liberal establishment, enforced upon students of philosophy everywhere, which in practice means that unfortunately today most of the academic departments formally dedicated to the teaching of Philosophy are filled with countless Aristotelian professors. Aristotle is among other things known for denying women their right to vote, and to be in favour of slavery, going so far as defining a slave as ’a talking tool’, ideas he couldn’t have learned from Plato, whose Republic didn’t deny women any political rights, neither did it have a place for slavery in it.

Since it is true that philosophy has very often throughout history been done by those who do not have the need to personally work in order to survive, something which has often placed it into the hands of aristocracy, the fact of slavery or at least different forms of the subordination of servants and maids, has no doubt been its ugly secret historical companion. But there is no inherent reason for this particular occurrence within the form of philosophy as such, whose entire nature is necessarily universal, whose mode of functioning is thinking, and its practice that of reading and writing, which means that as long as one is able to think, read and write, one should thus also be able to engage philosophy, at least at the very basic level (like me, admittedly), no matter whom that particular person might be.

Along the same lines, philosophy has without a doubt been historically specifically a part of Western European culture, to a great degree practised particularly by white male authors, often those of wealth, but again, this does not prevent it having a universal reach.

There are also of course authors who appeared before Socrates and Plato, who are important within philosophy, and these are aptly called the pre-socratics. The first of these pre-socratics and who is also often referred to be the very first philosopher in history is Thales of Miletus. Among other important presocratics were Pythagoras, Heraclitus, Parmenides, Democritus, Epicurus and the Sophists.

There is a very short story that should be mentioned regarding Thales concerning the very nature of philosophical activity. It talks about him taking a stroll and stargazing, that is observing, thinking about, or discussing the stars and their mysterious nature, a form of early astrology being therefore considered one of the metaphors for pre-philosophical activity. While he was walking along in this way, watching the stars and contemplating their very strange constellations, he found himself accidentally falling into a pit in the ground, not noticing it due to his focus on the stars themselves. And a young girl by chance happened to have stood nearby, seeing the entire accident and started to laugh at our poor Thales, thus shaming him due to the unfortunate event that happened to him for his focus on the stars.

At this point a book called ’The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature’ written by Karl Marx as his doctoral thesis in philosophy in March 1841, first published in 1902, accessible online via the French variation of the Marx Internet Achive, is quite worth mentioning. It’s mostly a comparative study on atomism of Democritus and Epicurus, where Epicurus argued in favour of the notion of clinamen (the declination, swerve of the atoms) coming most closely to today’s understanding in physics.

The main enemy of Plato were the Sophists. They were dealing with what today would be called rhetorics, a form of argumentation and handling of language which does not have much to do with the notion of Truth, truth being that which should be the main concern of Philosophy as such, instead mostly attempting to manipulate language to create pure, empty appearances in order to earn some money with it’s use.

Today, Barbara Cassin, a French philologist and philosopher, an author who often collaborates in writing and discussion with Alain Badiou, argues in favour of sophists, saying that sophistry has always been the negative alter-ego of philosophy, it’s disavowed and hated companion, it’s double, an inherent part of it since its very inception, as in for example her book ’Jacques the Sophist’, which argues for the close relation between sophistry and psychoanalytic theory, especially as it concerns the work of Jacques Lacan.

Since we know that the Ancient Greece universe was one of mythology, because it existed before the advent of Christianity, the ancient Goddess to whom the notion of Philosophy was mostly associated with was Athena, because of her association with the notion of wisdom in the mythological universe. Although wisdom as a notion is today mainly related and associated with so-called eastern forms of belief, none of which have much to do with philosophy as such, which is concerned with truth and knowledge. Due to her simultaneous role as the goddess of warfare, she was depicted as wearing a helmet and a spear. Her depictions also presented her as being accompanied by an owl, which makes an owl the primary mythological animal that historically philosophy’s origin was associated with. Athena was later renamed into Minerva within the later Roman appropriation of Greek culture.

To be continued…

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