More about philosophy

Philosophy is traditionally defined as the search for what is true, what is good, and what is beautiful. Technical terms for those topics are “metaphysics” (the search for what is true, or real—which is followed by “epistemology,” determining how we know what is real), “ethics” (the search for what is good), and “aesthetics” (the search for what is beautiful, and how we recognize what is beautiful). Some twentieth-century philosophers willingly surrendered these searches to other disciplines that had branched off from philosophy. They conceded the search for what is true to science, accepting that whatever scientists recognize as real should be considered real. They conceded the search for what is beautiful to the arts, accepting that whatever artists recognize as beautiful should be considered beautiful. The question of how we know what is real was bestowed upon psychologists, and the question of what is good was bestowed upon sociologists. After all, perception is done in the mind, and psychologists study the mind. Ethics are governed (if not formed) by groups of people, and sociologists study groups of people.

What, then, is left for philosophy to consider? With philosophy left only as a branch on the limb of “liberal arts,” much of the work of modern philosophers concerns language and communication. This is, indeed, a fertile field to plow and plant and tend. The signs and symbols used to communicate ideas fascinate philosophers. Take the idea of 2, which can also be represented as II. It can be called two or deux or dos or zwei. For English speakers, it must be distinguished from the preposition “to” or the synonym of “also,” “too.” Once considered or communicated, though, this sign or symbol represents a powerful idea, an idea that contains more than two apples or two triangles. Philosophers even ask whether the number two exists apart from two apples or two triangles. If it exists as a pure idea, what makes that idea real? Would the idea of “two” exist without a mind to consider the significance of “two” beyond its representation in any pair of objects in the universe?

These questions restore philosophy’s function as a search for truth. Thinkers trained in a scientific approach may fail to appreciate the importance of determining whether the idea of “two” exists apart from the observer or exists only in the mind of the observer. For that matter, philosophers should ask whether science can observe and measure and comprehend everything that is real. Science does a good job studying those things it is designed to study, but other existing things may retain their being outside the reach of science.

Likewise, sociology is not equipped to determine whether a rule or requirement is good. Observing groups of people all over the world, sociologists might report that nearly all groups of people frown upon murder and stealing. That, in itself, does not make those actions bad. A scientist might weigh each individual in a group of people, then establish an average, or normal, range of weights, with abnormal extremes at both ends of the spectrum, but that would not mean that the median weight was the healthiest weight for those people. A sociologist might closely observe a group of people and count the lies told by those people, then establish an average, or normal, number of lies told each day, with abnormal extremes at both ends of the spectrum, but that does not mean that the median honesty was the most ethical honesty for those people.

In short, philosophers never should have limited themselves to studying language and communication, even though that topic is fascinating. Ancient Greeks made the same mistake when philosophy degenerated into sophistry, promising to teach speakers how to be convincing, no matter which side they took in a debate. The career of Socrates helped to correct that mistake. Philosophers need to keep asking the big questions: What is true? What is good? What is beautiful? Information from other specialties assists philosophers in their search for answers. Scientists and artists, though, cannot replace philosophers in the realm of human thinking. J.