To philosophize is to attempt to see in a coherent and meaningful vision v the totality of my whole existence. It is a renewed effort to see the essential value and direction of my life. Ultimately to philosophize one must decide for wisdom of life.
Here we face a number of difficulties.
First a casual look at the history of Philosophy reveals to us many and different beliefs, ideologies, faiths. As already mentioned, it seems that almost everything that has been believed as true by some thinkers was also denied by others. Philosophers do not seem to agree on the most vital issues, which perennially confront every generation of mortals.
Second a casual look at the contemporary scene, at the world today, seems to suggest the same. There are so many divergent views, ideologies and mythologies and all have dedicated defenders and followers sometimes fanatically sold to their visions of what is valuable, true and meaningful.
This realization may lead to despair. Is Truth attainable at all? How can I know whether there is anything worth believing at all? Is not skepticism the most reasonable attitude? Is not everything relative?
Third the observation of the great majority of people is not encouraging either. It does not take much time to see that a great part of mankind lives without paying much attention to the crucial questions of human existence. False notions of security, ignorance deliberately cultivated, thoughtless pleasure-seeking, mad activism are all glorified and widely practiced. Preoccupation with senseless trivialities – this is what we see everywhere, or it seems so.
Not many people like to think deeply. Many deliberately evade confronting their inner emptiness by constantly trying to run away from themselves. The society in which we live provides immeasurable ways for making it easy to plunge into thoughtless spending of time. It is called entertainment: drugs, alcohol, bought sex, etc. Many people live this way.
It is enough to reflect on this all to be tempted very strongly to give up the serious search for a true meaning of our lives. Is there any?
This “temptation to despair” is nevertheless the result of a superficial and shallow observation. For philosophy is not a futile quest. Many individuals found deep and rewarding meaning to their lives in personal search; in Philosophy. The quest itself is certainly difficult and may last a lifetime. But it is not a futile quest. Gradually light emerges. Many a truth, a belief acquires through centuries of thinking and rethinking more validity and more solid justification. Everyone wants to make his or her life as meaningful as possible. Mankind never gives up this search for meaning. If it had it would stop existing as mankind. There would be no humanity, we would not exist. For this search for meaning, philosophy is the main striving force of one’s existence. There is no life without it.
The perennial questions confront in some way every thinking human being, but the horizon of knowledge, the depth of insight differs from century to century. All humanity evolves dynamically towards clearer understanding, toward fuller awareness, towards simpler vision of meaning of existence.
The differences must be there, because each culture, each civilization, each generation (and each individual) has a perspectival, partial and limited view. Nevertheless the insights, the answers gained gradually accumulate.
We must not let ourselves be deceived by the perspectival and limited nature of human knowledge. Since human beings are limited, so will be their visions, but limited does not mean non-existent. Since philosophical questions face each one of us, we are very privileged. We can examine how the greatest minds of mankind struggle with the same problems. We have a dialogue with the great philosophers of the past and the present. This itself is a great advantage. By examining their views, the way they formulated the enduring all-human questions on the meaning of existence, we may be spared going into blind alleys of improper ways of questioning. By examining carefully their answers we may get tremendous insights and depth of vision, perhaps even true solutions. We are not alone in this human quest which endures over the ages. My and your vision is certainly very limited and meager, to say the least, but in conversing with the great philosophers, the leaders and giants of insight and vision, we can think the thoughts of the best of all humankind. The great advantage of this fact cannot be overestimated ever. This is most certainly the most exhilarating experience. It is growing towards full human stature as a member of the whole family of men. Are we not contradicting ourselves? First we realized that the philosophical search for meaning must be done by each one for himself and thus it is a lonely search, and now we are saying that this search is nevertheless a search together with other thinkers in a kind of enduring search – dialogue over centuries of time! There is no contradiction here. What is important is our aim, our goal: to shape my meaning of my existence, for myself. The purpose of philosophy, St. Thomas Aquinas remarked, is not to know what others thought, but to attain towards the TRUTH of things. In studying Philosophy each one must think for himself. Each one is all the time searching and actively looking for his or her meaning. Philosophizing is a constant determined reaching towards the vision of TRUTH. Otherwise it would be a meaningless gathering of scattered information only. So much is always clear.
However, it would be irrational and unjustifiable to reject a philosophical insight, which after careful rethinking appears as true and valid, within an important area of my search simply because it is not my own, but someone else’s. This point is so obvious that it would be a waste of time to dwell on it further. There lies the value and meaning of studying the greatest and the best in Philosophy.
Some of the modern thinkers are rather skeptical of conclusion, transcending what they define as human experience. This experience is conceived by them in a rather narrow sense, called scientific. To those thinkers – contrary to the Ancient Greek belief and Medieval attitude, philosophy should only be concerned with what is empirically verifiable. By empirical verification again they mean sense-verification. This attitude in its extreme form narrows tremendously the horizon of inquiry to the scientifically demonstrable only. There are some, who believe that Science so understood, is all we have to our disposal.
Scientific truth – truth obtained by special sciences – has the redeeming quality of being exact, but is never complete and never ultimate. It does not suffice unto itself. It needs philosophical, that is more fundamental, grounding. It originates in many assumptions which are without much scrutiny accepted as good. Scientific truth does not stand on its own feet and is not fundamental enough. It must be integrated and rooted in more complete and final kind of truth, which may be considered neither “scientific” (in a sense described above) nor directly demonstrable by senses. No scientific theory is in any way ultimate for each one can be – and historically often had been – replaced by another one. Where science ends the problems do not end, neither does the search for meaning. It must be noted also that special sciences give us only piecemeal insight into very limited a narrowly specified aspects of the world: by no means exhaustive or complete. The scientist himself within his field of specialization, as a human being needs truth which is whole and complete. Whether he likes it or not, by the very make-up of his human mind, he must form a total concept of the universe and find his place in it. The philosophic truth is more general thus less exact but more basic. It is truth of higher rank not only because its horizon is broader and deeper, but also as a type of knowledge. The inexact philosophic truth is true truth and indispensable. A truth may be very exact and yet very small and almost devoid of deeper meaning altogether. Special sciences alone cannot ever completely satisfy the imperative need for a meaning-vision of the totality of human experience as human. As Sidney Hook remarked, “Philosophy concerns itself with the place of man in the universe from the point of view of certain -large and perennial questions which all reflective men at some time or another ask. These questions are not asked or answered in any of the special sciences, but to answer them intelligently one must be familiar with the best science and theology of the day.” Sidney Hook, The Uses of Philosophy).
This then is Philosophy as the quest for wisdom. Wisdom is concerned with meaning, values and value judgments. It is knowledge of what is good or better, bad or worse, what is meaningful and what is not. It is knowledge which throws in the concreteness of human existence a certain illuminating light at the questions: Who am I? What is the universe around me? What can I know? What I can hope for? What should I do? Does the universe show a design or not? Is there a God or Friend beyond phenomena or are we alone? Are human beings destined for immortal existence or perchance only complicated sparks of chemical elements?
This of course, is only a random selection of philosophical problems. There is a host of other problems. All are interrelated and mutually trigger one another and thus throw light at one another forming gradually a more meaningful pattern of vision.
We are in the position now to put together the answer to the question: Why should we study Philosophy? Philosophy provides
(a) purpose in life. It enables a person to attain a coherent system of ideas and beliefs leading towards a more satisfactory mode of living;
(b) tremendous enrichment of human knowledge because it organizes the best of sciences and draws conclusions relevant for the search for the meaning of life;
(c) contact with the greatest minds in the history of mankind. The problems of Philosophy are by their very nature perennial. Mankind has been wrestling with these problems through the ages and will continue in future. In each generation there are geniuses of insight and depth who have left their answers to be pondered and examined.
(d) a sense of worth and meaning of life. An unexamined life is not worthy of man. An exclusive preoccupation with everyday concerns without a more comprehensive view limits and impoverishes life robbing it almost completely of its value and import;
(e) social evaluation. In our modern rapidly changing world of mass civilizations a mass destruction becomes more and more probable. The study of Philosophy helps towards an intelligent evaluation of the political scene and to constructive use of one’s freedom for the interests of civilization. It augments the sense of meaning of each person’s individual existence.
To quote Jacques Maritain, Philosophy reminds men “of the supreme utility of those things which do not deal with means, but with ends. For men do not live only by bread, vitamins and technological discoveries. They live by values and realities which are above time and are worth knowing for their own sake.” (Jacques Maritain, On the Use of Philosophy).”