Saturday, March 19, 2011


Philosophy: (Gr. philein, to love---sophia, wisdom)

The most general science. Pythagoras is said have called himself a lover of wisdom. But philosophy has been both the seeking of wisdom and the wisdom sought. Originally, the rational explanation of anything; the general principles under which all facts could be explained; in this sense, indistinguishable from science. Later, the science of the first principles of being; the presuppositions of ultimate reality. Now, popularly, private wisdom or consolation; technically, the science of sciences, the criticism and systematization or organization of all knowledge, drawn from empirical science, rational learning, common experience or wherever. Philosophy includes metaphysics, or ontology and epistemology, logic, ethics, aesthetics, etc. (From Dictionary of Philosophy, edited by Dagobert D. Runes, Littlefield, Adams & Co., 1962.)       

Science has been an integral part of Western philosophy from its beginnings. The great concern of the pre-Socratic philosophers was an effort to understand nature. For example, Democritus presented nature as consisting of atoms, that is, entities differing only in shape and size and being qualitatively indistinguishable.  Like Plato, Aristotle affirmed the existence of an objective, public knowledge---the goal of science---and laid the foundations for the natural science of biology. (That goal of a shared, public knowledge has never changed, only the methods we deem appropriate for achieving that goal.) Aristotle gave us even more: logic, political theory, a psychology and theory of perception, a poetics (or aesthetics), and metaphysics. Put another away, all the intellectual disciplines were originally part of the enterprise we call philosophy. It is only in the modern era that various fields of inquiry broke away, specializing and establishing themselves as separate fields, but the intimate relationship between science and philosophy has endured.  Typically, as philosophy students immerse themselves in intellectual history, they must absorb the positions taken and discoveries made by Ptolemy, the Pythagoreans, Francis Bacon, William Gilbert, Nicholas Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Johann Kepler, Galileo, Isaac Newton, Thomas Hobbes, Rene Descartes, Benedictus Spinoza, John Locke, George Berkeley, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, and numerous other philosophers and scientists throughout history.

Once upon a time, back in 1914, 75% of American colleges made an introductory course in philosophy mandatory; by 1993, only 4% made it a requirement. As you might guess, I consider this decline to be tragic. I fondly remember that during my graduate study at SUNY-Stony Brook, the Philosophy and Physics Departments were located in the same building, and one of our former chairmen had a Ph.D. in physics, as did one of the philosophy graduate students with whom I shared an office when we were teaching assistants. I also fondly recall discussing the relatively new (at the time) discovery of black holes in the early ‘70s with one of the physics professors as we both hurried from our shared building across campus to teach our classes. My dissertation advisor Don Ihde has been at work for forty years interpreting, as one of this nation’s leading phenomenologists, the meaning of technology for our lives. I highly recommend his Technology and the Lifeworld: From Garden to Earth (Indiana University Press, 1990). 

In my late teens and early twenties I found it inconceivable that anyone (including fiction writers) would hope to write significantly about culture, ideas, and the human experience and not have a solid background in philosophy---its methodologies---or Western intellectual history. A strong background in philosophy empowers one to write and think well (i.e., systematically) about almost anything. It is, indeed, “the science of sciences.”

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