Philosophy can be defined as a form of knowledge that, despite the great variety of its expressions, has as almost constant characteristics two vocations: one to universality and the other to the prescription of wisdom. The former is manifested in two ways: either philosophy is presented as the perfect form of knowledge, in any case the best possible form of knowledge for humanity compared to other inferior forms, or at least as the most general and comprehensive form of knowledge; or it is presented as a knowledge that takes as its subject other forms of knowledge, in order 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 various fields identified by the current designations of different philosophical disciplines: logic, ethics, metaphysics, aesthetics, philosophy of history, law, religion, nature, science, and so on. The vocation to the prescription of wisdom is presented as a code of conduct in accordance with the results of philosophical research.

The search for the principle of things

In the oldest manifestations of the Western tradition, philosophy presents itself as a science, or rather as the science par excellence, and it investigates the origin and structure of things. One aspect common to all philosophers is the search for the first principle of reality, for that which exists as the foundation of the variety of phenomena and makes them intelligible. According to the Aristotelian testament, for the majority of the first philosophers this principle is materialistic: for 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 indeterminable reality, which he calls the Boundless, and in which he sees the cause of the creation and destruction of beings, which happens on the basis of necessity.

Thus is outlined the theme of cosmic legality, the unified meaning of the diversity of phenomena. This theme is found again in Heraclitus with the notion of the Logos as the law of existence and as the rule for the opposing conflicts that form the flow of life. In Heraclitus we also find the distinction between vulgar knowledge and authentic knowledge, the former belonging to the many, the latter to the philosopher, or the sage, who knows the true nature of things beneath appearances. 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 Being, which is opposed to the fickle and unstable world of Becoming. This gave rise to the concept of a superior reality, transphenomenal, deducible from reality, in contrast to the world of ordinary experience, perceived through the senses.

Philosophy as the “first science”

Towards the middle of the 5th century BC, the focus of philosophical research shifted to anthropological questions (knowledge, morality). The protagonists of this new school are the Sophists, to whom we also owe the critique of a number of traditional notions. Philosophy became 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, the art of speaking and persuading), with a strong relativistic accent. But for the debate to be fruitful, we need criteria, to give meaning to words, to define them. And this is the need that Socrates, who is also a sophist in that he is the creator of debate and criticism, but an enemy of the sophists and more radical than them as an advocate of a correct and coherent debate, brings to the fore. Hence Aristotle’s judgment that Socrates is the inventor of the “concept” or the “universal”.

In Plato, different characterizations of philosophy, implicit or explicit, coexist. In the Symposium we find the acceptance of the word (“love of knowledge” and ϕιλοσοϕεῖν with the meaning of “study” and “research”). In the Theaetetus, Plato gives a typical picture of the philosopher who is only interested in scientific studies and is indifferent to what concerns practical life. The philosopher of the Theaetetus is also a mathematician and an astronomer: he discovers the very structure of being. And in the Sophist, the philosopher is identified with the debater, since dialectic is not merely a method of inquiry or a mental 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 in their necessary or more constant characteristics, while philosophy studies them in their most intimate essence, in what they have of substance and what makes them what they really are. Therefore, philosophy is the foundation of all other sciences. In this specific sense, Aristotle defines philosophy as the first science, or the first philosophy, or even theology, and places it alongside the other sciences, which he calls theoretical, mathematical, and physical, but in a privileged position in relation to them.

Philosophy as the practice of wisdom

The theme of philosophy as the search for and practice of wisdom appears in its most specific form in the Epicurean and Stoic schools, and it is also found in the Cynics, Cyrenaics, and Sceptics. The new emphasis of philosophy lies in the assumption that truth exists in the function of the self, and that the attainment of individual happiness (and independence) is the most important goal in life. These philosophies arise in connection with the crisis of the ancient city and express the desire of the individual to withdraw into his personal peace. However, philosophy isn’t reduced to ethics; the 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. Nevertheless, the goal is to achieve the happiness of the individual.

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

Humanism and the Renaissance

With Humanism and the Renaissance, philosophy continues to be a form of totalizing knowledge, but its emphasis 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 that are obviously not absent in medieval philosophy and culture, but are clearly surpassed by the interest in the transcendent. Nor, on the other hand, can it be said that the philosophy of humanism and the Renaissance is an irreligious philosophy. But the religious necessity arises from the dignity of man himself, from his superiority over 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 disputes. The rediscovery of the classics is not a simple philological rediscovery, but rather their “imitation” and, at the same time, the creation of a new ideal of life taken from these 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 a polemic against insubstantial and gratuitous mental contrivances. These forms of “abstraction” are opposed, on the one hand, to attempts at other logics that are closer to the concrete processes of the mind and the psychological knowledge of man, and, on the other hand, to the concrete religious experience as lived by the believer. In this way, the principle of tolerance is affirmed, which derives from the importance of the common features of the various religions and from the insignificance of the elements that differ and contrast.

From Existentialism to Hermeneutics

No less than Husserl, and even more vigorously, M. Heidegger polemicizes with objective and calculating thinking. In Being and Time, he shows how conceptual abstractions presuppose lived experiences, of which these abstractions are the no longer lived 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 reflections is no longer the particular entity that is man, but rather Being. This being, however, is far from identifying itself with the most real being, because it is fluidity and temporality, 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 fully present, never circumscribable. The possible is therefore superior to the real and includes it. In both phases of his thought, then, we have a rigorously finite position, in which man tends towards Being or, inauthentically, distances himself from it, and a rigorously anti-rationalism: discursive thought does not bring us closer to it, but distances us from Being, to which poets, or rather some poets, and the wisdom placed in certain “original” words, tend instead.

The finalist approach is also the basis of the hermeneutic philosophy (H.G. Gadamer), of the evident and confessed Heideggerian inspiration. Before understanding, it reflects on understanding, on the conditions of understanding, and finds that understanding is interpretation and therefore conditioned by the situation of the interpreter. But if everything is interpretation, then nothing is unquestionable, everything is subject to revision. The intention of hermeneutic philosophy is, once again, anti-objectivist: it denies absolute transparency. Humble listening, not exalted seeing, is the appropriate metaphor for thinking.

Philosophy as clarification and analysis

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

L. Wittgenstein, for his part, 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 in which these languages are intelligible (and with this a Hegelian, as well as a hermeneutic, 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 known under the name of philosophy”. A.J. Ayer also says that the philosopher must not seek primary principles, nor make a priori judgments about the validity of our empirical beliefs, but must confine himself to works of clarification and analysis.

The current debate

A new way of understanding cognitive activity (including science) in relation to history and with an alternative interpretative dimension to the traditional attempts at normative grounding has transversally affected both philosophical fields, in which it is now customary to distinguish between philosophical, analytic and continental reflection, the first label referring to all Anglo-American philosophical production, traditionally characterized by a linguistic approach to philosophical themes, and the second label referring to European production, largely recognized in hermeneutic 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 shaped much of the philosophical debate. While respecting the different approaches inspired by different philosophical traditions, there has been a great convergence on the impossibility of achieving certainties in the scientific, ethical, or aesthetic fields that are definitive, unchanging, and independent of history. This has had far-reaching and profound implications for the very identity of philosophy.

Related keywords

  • Analytic philosophy
  • Arabic philosophy
  • Chinese philosophy
  • Christian philosophy
  • Jewish Philosophy
  • Modern Philosophy
  • Practical Philosophy
  • German Idealism
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