Philosophy can be defined as a form of knowledge that, despite the wide variety of its expressions, exhibits as almost constant characteristics two vocations: one towards universality and one towards the prescription of wisdom. The former manifests itself in two ways: philosophy is presented as the perfect form of knowledge, in any case as the best possible form of knowledge for mankind, compared to other inferior ones, or at least as the most general and comprehensive form of knowledge; or it is presented as a knowledge that takes other forms of knowledge as its subject, to study their characteristics, their areas of validity, their implicit meanings.

In both cases, philosophy ends up involving all forms of human activity, which it critically examines within the individual fields identified by the current denominations of different philosophical disciplines: logic, ethics, metaphysics, aesthetics, the philosophy of history, of law, of religion, of nature, of science, and so on. The vocation towards the prescription of wisdom is presented as the code of conduct that conforms to the results of philosophical research.

The search for the principle of things

philosophy the thinker

In the oldest manifestations of western tradition, philosophy presents itself as a science, or rather as the science par excellence, and it examines the origins and the structure of things. A common aspect to all philosophers is the search for the first principle of reality, for whatever exists as the foundation of the variety of phenomena and renders it intelligible. According to the Aristotelian testament, for the majority of the first philosophers, this principle is materialistic: in Thales, for example, water is the common principle of all things. But Anaximander goes beyond this understanding of a material principle and recognizes the ‘principle’ in an undeterminable reality, which he calls the limitless and in which he sees the cause of the creation and destruction of beings, that happens based on necessity.

The theme of cosmic legality is thus outlined, the unitary meaning to the variety of phenomena. This theme is found again in Heraclitus with the notion of the logos as the law of existence and as the rule to the opposing conflicts that form the flow of life. In Heraclitus, we also find the distinction between a vulgar knowledge and an authentic knowledge, the former belonging to the many, the latter belonging to the philosopher, or to the sage who, underneath the appearances, knows the true nature of things. With Parmenides of Elea, there is a clear distinction, or rather a juxtaposition, between truth and opinion, correlative to an evaluation of reality, of which the authentic and truly real substance is the being, what is opposed to the fickle and unstable world of becoming. With this, the concept was created of a reality that was superior, transphenomenal, deductible from reality, in antithesis with the world of ordinary experience, recognized by the senses.

Philosophy as “first science”

Towards the middle of the 5th century BC, the focus of philosophical research moves towards anthropological issues (knowledge, morality). The protagonists of this new school are the so-called sophists, to whom we also owe the critique of a series of traditional notions. Philosophy becomes critical of tradition, in its religious, ethical, juridical, and political aspects. Tradition and its certainties are replaced by debate (hence the vital importance of rhetoric, of the art of saying and persuading), with a strong relativistic accent. But in order for the debate to be fruitful, we need to have criteria, to give meaning to words, to define them. And this is the necessity brought forth by Socrates, a sophist as well by virtue of being the creator of debate and criticism, but an enemy of the sophists and more radical than them as a supporter of a correct and cohesive debate. Hence Aristotle’s judgment, according to whom Socrates is the inventor of the ‘concept’ or of the ‘universal’.

In Plato, different characterizations of philosophy, implicit or explicit, coexist. In the Symposium we find the acceptation of the word (‘love of knowledge’, and ϕιλοσοϕεῖν with the meaning of ‘examining’ and ‘researching’). Plato gives a typical representation of the philosopher who is only interested in scientific studies and uncaring of what pertains to practical life in the Theaetetus. The philosopher of the Theaetetus is also a mathematician and an astronomer: he discovers the very structure of the being. And in the Sophist, the philosopher is identified with the debater, as the dialectic is not just a research method or a spiritual exercise, but the objective nexus that holds the connections between ideas.

Aristotle confirms the platonic idea of philosophy as the science par excellence, superior in-depth to all other sciences. The sciences study their subjects within their necessary or more constant characteristics, while philosophy examines them in their most intimate essence, in what they have of substantial and that makes them what they truly are. Therefore, philosophy establishes the foundations of all other sciences. In this specific sense Aristotle defines philosophy as first science or first philosophy or even theology, and places it alongside the other sciences he calls theoretical, mathematics, and physics, but in a privileged position compared to them.

Philosophy as the practice of wisdom

The theme of philosophy as the search and practice of wisdom presents itself in its most specific form in the Epicurean and Stoic schools, and it can also be found in the Cynics, the Cyrenaics, and the Sceptics. The new accent gained by philosophy lies within the assumption that truth exists in the function of the self and that reaching individual happiness (and independence) is the most important objective in life. These philosophies rise in conjunction with the crisis of the ancient city and they express the desire of the individual to retire inside their personal peace. However, philosophy isn’t thus reduced to ethics; Epicureans consider both physics and the canon (theory of knowledge) to be its necessary premises, and even the stoics place logic and physics alongside ethics. Still, the aim is to achieve the happiness-serenity of the individual.

These forms of rational wisdom will soon be overtaken by typically religious wisdom, hence concerning not only happiness but rather individual salvation. And philosophy gains a religious and soteriological nuance: philosophy begins to be identified in religion, since the search for truth doesn’t seem to be achievable through a logical-rational examination, but it tries to be fulfilled in the form of a superior knowledge (γνῶσις) that stems from ineffable and divine realities. A strong religious inspiration crosses Neoplatonism, which will mainly try to present itself as a return to Plato: the transcendence of divinity, the division between the tangible and intangible world, but with a dynamic connection between the two in the context of more profound unity. In the later Neoplatonists, the assimilation of pagan mythology and mysterious, magical rituals will become more and more prominent.

Humanism and Renaissance

With Humanism and the Renaissance, philosophy continues to be a form of totalizing knowledge; however, its accent changes, because it begins to assume those characteristics of mundanity that are generally thought of when we speak of modern thought. As such, it is essentially focused on the earth, the individual, the historian, all interests obviously not absent in medieval philosophy and culture, but clearly surpassed by the interest in the transcendent. Nor, on the other hand, can one say that the philosophy of Humanism and the Renaissance is an irreligious philosophy. But religious necessity springs from the very dignity of the man himself, from his excellence before other creatures, from his centrality in the universe, from his being made in the image of God. The new attitude is manifested in the rediscovery of the classics, in the controversy against scholastic logic, in the controversy against theological dispute. The rediscovery of the classics is not a simple philological rediscovery, but more importantly their ‘imitation’ and at the same time the creation of a new ideal of life, taken from those models.

The polemic against scholastic (and Aristotelian) logic is configured as a polemic against an abstract discipline, in the sense of being artificial and useless for research. The polemic against theological dispute is also polemic against insubstantial and gratuitous mental contrivances. These forms of ‘abstractness’ are contrasted on the one hand by attempts at different logics, closer to the concrete processes of the mind and the psychological knowledge of man, and on the other by the concrete religious experience as lived by the believer. In this way, the principle of tolerance is affirmed, deduced from the importance of the characteristics common to the various faiths and from the inessentiality of the differential and contrasting elements.

From existentialism to hermeneutics

No less and even more vigorously than Husserl, M. Heidegger polemicizes with objective and calculating thinking. In Being and Time, he shows how conceptual abstractions presuppose lived experiences, of which those abstractions are the no longer living derivatives. The second phase of his philosophy is also characterized by the polemic against objectivist thinking (metaphysics and the scientific spirit).

At the center of his reflection, there is no longer that particular entity that is man, but rather the Being. Now, this Being is far from identifying itself with the most real being, because it is fluidity and temporalization, manifestation and concealment: it is the possible Being, its infinite possibilities, which have manifested, which have not manifested, or which will be able to manifest, and it is therefore by eminence never totally present, never circumscribable. The possible is therefore superior to the real and includes it. In both phases of his thought we, therefore, have a rigorously finite position, where man tends towards the Being, or, inauthentically, distances himself from it, and a rigorous anti-rationalism: discursive thought does not bring us closer to it but distances us from the Being, towards which tend instead poets, or rather some poets, and the wisdom placed in certain ‘original’ words.

The finalistic approach is also at the basis of hermeneutical philosophy (H.G. Gadamer), of evident and confessed Heideggerian inspiration. Before understanding, it reflects on the understanding, on the conditions of understanding, and finds that understanding is interpreting, and is therefore conditioned by the situation of the interpreter. But if everything is interpretation nothing is indisputable, everything is subject to revision. The intent of hermeneutic philosophy is, once again, anti-objectivist: it denies absolute transparencies. The humble listening and not the superb seeing is the appropriate metaphor of thinking.

Philosophy as clarification and analysis

The ancient idea of philosophy as analysis and as the liberator from factors of conceptual confusion can be found in analytical philosophy. This idea is for example expressed by B. Russell when he affirms that only through rigorous methods of analysis it is possible to purify and transform, and thereby make correct and fruitful, otherwise vague and approximate notions and sources of errors such as intellect, matter, consciousness, knowledge, experience, causality, will, time.

For his part, L. Wittgenstein states in the Tractatus: «The aim of philosophy is the logical clarification of thought. Philosophy is not a doctrine, but an activity. A philosophical work consists essentially of elucidations. The fruit of philosophy is not philosophical propositions, but the clarification of propositions». In the second phase of his thought Wittgenstein speaks of a plurality of languages, correlatives of as many ‘forms of life’, i.e. cultural contexts within which those languages are intelligible (and with this a Hegelian, as well as hermeneutics, the movement seems to emerge).

R. Carnap observes that metaphysical problems are pseudo-problems and the correlative propositions are pseudo-propositions; therefore, a purification must be made to eliminate non-scientific elements from philosophy, and with this, the logic of science will take the place «of that inextricable tangle of problems which is known under the name of philosophy». A.J. Ayer likewise says that the philosopher must not seek out primary principles, nor make judgments a priori about the validity of our empirical beliefs, but limit himself to works of clarification and analysis.

The current debate

A renewed way of understanding cognitive activity (including science) in relation to history and with an alternative interpretative dimension to the traditional attempts at the normative foundation has transversally affected both philosophical areas in which it is now customary to distinguish philosophical, analytical and continental reflection, with the first label referring to the whole Anglo-American philosophical production, traditionally characterized by a linguistic approach to philosophical themes, and the second label referring to European production which, to a large extent, is recognized in hermeneutical philosophy.

The recognition of the impossibility of maintaining the concept of truth as the acquisition of objective knowledge, independent of cultural presuppositions, social contexts, and historical changes, has directly or indirectly marked much of the philosophical debate. There has been a vast convergence, though respecting the different approaches inspired by different philosophical traditions, on the impossibility of achieving, in the scientific, ethical or aesthetic field, certainties that are definitive, immutable and independent from history. This has had wide and profound repercussions on the very identity of philosophy.

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