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Mini-Feature: Is Philosophy a Science?
This one's a thinker
Is philosophy a science unto itself? Why?
This is a very serious question. Philosophy originally means love of wisdom. To paraphrase the ancient Greek man: don't call me someone who knows, but only someone who loves knowing. But how do we know? Here's where education today fails utterly. Over the centuries, despite many disputes, there was a western thread of knowing arguing that you can indeed reason your way to some truths. In fact, it holds this is a key difference between man and the rest of the animals. Speech is possible because of this pursuit and perception of truth. We can ask ourselves vital questions: Who and what am I? What will make me happy? How should we live our lives? How did I and everything else get here and where am I and all the rest of it going? Why do we die and is it the end? Is there a God? What is good and evil? What is just? What is the natural world and how does it operate?
If you aren't asking these questions, you're likely slowly killing yourself as a person: live in the pod, eat the bugs. If you are asking these questions, the next thing to pursue is how to go about answering them? What is philosophy?
The temptation today is to dismiss some of these questions as unanswerable by means of human reasoning. The only thing we can do, in this view, is determine some truths about material things using the "scientific method", or the methodology of what we call "hard" science (hypothesis and experiment, statistics, etc.). This assumption leads us to think or at least act as if anything we can't apply hard science to is a matter of choice: since we can't really know those things, we can and should choose what we want to believe. And since material things we can experiment on don't really give us the big answers directly, some say the questions themselves are pointless, and all is random and there is no order within it all that could provide an answer. So we can choose our answers and impose them upon ourselves and nature.
How's that working out for you?
Notice this: hopefully, all of the above was understandable to you. How? None of it required empirical science to understand. So could there be a way to reason about what's true (and false) outside of hard science? Of course there is. And this is called philosophy. We used to teach everyone Logic as part of what was called the Trivium (Grammar and Rhetoric being the other two). You know when people say liberal arts and our eyes glaze over? Well, they used to be specified: those three things are each liberal arts. And logic is an account of the way you reason from stuff you know to stuff you didn't know before. All of this is in some sense complicated and wise people disagree about various aspects of it. But at the end of the day, if there is a way for human beings to reason about what's true—about what is—outside of empirical science, that's philosophy.
Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, for example, is a deceptively tight argument—a reasoning—exploring how we ought to live, and what for. The founders of this nation were one of the last generations to receive such an education. Read what they used to have to prove at Princeton. Or what they used to have to prove at Harvard. Philosophy wasn't enough to definitively answer it all, they were taught, in much the same way as the very first question of St. Thomas Aquinas's magnum opus says: "it was necessary that man should be taught by a divine revelation; because the truth about God such as reason could discover, would only be known by a few, and that after a long time, and with the admixture of many errors." But it was possible for philosophy to point us in certain directions as opposed to others, and to answer some of it all. And in fact necessary if we are to rise above our animality, never mind build beautiful civilizations—or find happiness and fulfillment in our lives.
Socrates says philosophy, the art of dying, explains how man should live. Nietzsche says psychology is the queen of the sciences, but pits Homer against Socrates as the ultimate antagonism. Homer’s art shows living well is inextricable from war, no matter how deadly. What is going on?
It is difficult to say—not that it isn’t worthwhile or important, just that—around the time of Nietzsche’s much-loved Emerson, Tocqueville warned that philosophers still disagreed about even the most fundamental elements of the human creature and condition, with no end in sight, leaving God obliged to send Jesus down to earth in order for humans to understand our shared equality as persons created to live and die.
Philosophy orients us toward the ultimate questions—psychology toward the secrets harbored inwardly by those oriented toward the ultimate questions. Tocqueville was a better psychologist than Nietzsche was a poet. Tocqueville’s psychology orients us toward ultimate theological, not philosophical, questions. Despite all the work of philosophy there has been no putting to rest theological questions, as Strauss (exoterically) concluded. Nor has there been an end to war or even (though ebbed somewhat) the lust for the heroism or pillage or sheer masterfulness of the warrior. These dynamics suggest philosophy has not demonstrated self-sufficiency in comprehending the whole.
If anything, though, I think the type most in danger today is not the philosopher or theologian or warrior but the artist—the “poet,” understood broadly. The artist-poet is losing his authority, the authority over both the critic and even the audience and ultimately, finally, over himself. Of the reasons for this the most powerful to me is the way our digital environment zaps away the claim on authority artists summon through their demonstrated self-sufficiency in mastering the faculty of imagination. Marshall McLuhan said, rightly I think, that artists (as opposed to philosophers) are our early warning systems: they encounter and experience what the rest do not YET as a result of their explorations. Curiously, “philosophy” as a discipline has been virtually silent about the digital disenchantment of the artist... to say nothing about the logical elevation under digital conditions of art that grows more religious as it shifts its resources and antennae from the world of pure imagination to the world of uniquely human memory. This retrieval of a greater psychological unity among art, philosophy, and religion is, I think, politically up for grabs—it remains to be seen which “faction” will develop intellectually robust religious art commanding enough to reestablish authority. Maybe two factions will vie against each other. Philosophy is masterful in its domain. But if it can’t tell us much about this unfolding situation, it certainly can’t convince us that it stands apart, complete unto itself.
Well, I don’t think philosophy is a science; it’s something else.
If I could take the question in a different direction, perhaps it’s best to think of science as a supplement to, or one of the many handmaidens of, philosophy. If you accept the proposition that philosophy, and only philosophy, can give—or at least approach—an account of the whole of things, then other forms of knowledge must of necessity be of a second status.
Two great philosopher-scientists to read on this relationship are Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes.
Permit me one more lesson in etymology. “Science” comes from the Latin scientia, which means simply “knowledge.” The analogue in Greek is epistēmē, from epistamai—which, like scire in Latin, means “to know.” There are, as I argued yesterday, many ways of knowing, and what we now call “science” is actually only one such way: it is the kind of epistēmē called physikē, i.e., the attempt to know and understand physis, or “nature.”
Physis is naturally (pardon the pun) the subject of Aristotle’s Physics, where we learn that nature is that which has its principle of change and being at rest within itself. That is: science is the study of things that change or stay the same spontaneously, according to predictable laws of determinacy whose logic is inherent in the things themselves. Atoms colliding, planets spinning, gears turning and code running: these are the proper objects of physikē epistēmē, i.e., of science.
Philosophy, by contrast, comes from two words: love (philia) and wisdom (sophia). Philosophers are lovers: they are driven on, as Plato explains in his Symposium, by a hunger to be wise. This is a hunger akin to sexual passion; like passion, it drives us to extremes and inspires in us great feats of accomplishment.
Now men and women, as Aristotle says in his Metaphysics, do not merely enjoy knowing but reach out (oregontai) in yearning to know—this is the longing that ignites philosophy. We yearn to know in all the sorts of ways there are—to know by doing, to know by looking, to know by loving. This is a far larger and more all-encompassing project than natural science, which is about rules and facts. Philosophy makes use of facts and rules, but it expands far beyond them to subtler and less predictable matters: the moral intuitions, erotic desires, and holy mysteries that make up the full sum of human mental activity both actual and potential.
Philosophy is the queen; science is only one of her many handmaidens. We have long since forgotten this, which is why we put the handmaiden on the throne where she never belonged. Philosophy, broadly understood, is what ought to guide us in adjudicating delicate questions of statesmanship such as the ones that have plagued us during this time of coronavirus. Instead we have turned to natural science and, not understanding that there were other candidates, crowned her queen. The results speak for themselves.