There is a pleasure in philosophy, and a lure even in the mirages of metaphysics, which every student feels until the coarse necessities of physical existence drag him from the heights of thought into the mart of economic strife and gain. Most of us have known some golden days in the June of life when philosophy was in fact what Plato calls it, "that dear delight;" when the love of a modestly elusive truth seemed more glorious – incomparably -- than the lust for the ways of the flesh and the dross of the world. And there is always some wistful remnant in us of that early wooing of wisdom. "Life has meaning," we feel with Browning. "To find its meaning is my meat and drink." So much of our lives is meaningless, a self-canceling vacillation and futility. We strive with the chaos about and within, but we should believe all the while that there is something vital and significant in us, could we but decipher our own souls. We want to understand. "Life means for us constantly to transform into light and flame all that we are or meet with!" We are like Mitya in The Brothers Karamazov -- "one of those who don't want millions, but an answer to their questions." We want to seize the value and perspective of passing things and so to pull ourselves up out of the maelstrom of daily circumstance. We want to know that the little things are little, and the things big, before it is too late. We want to see things now as they will seem forever -- "in the light of eternity." We want to learn to laugh in the face of the inevitable, to smile even at the looming of death. We want to be whole, to coordinate our energies by harmonizing our desires, for coordinated energy is the last word in ethics and politics -- and perhaps in logic and metaphysics, too. "To be a philosopher," said Thoreau, "is not merely to have subtle thoughts, or even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live, according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity and trust." We may be sure that if we can but find wisdom, all things else will be added unto us. "Seek ye first the good things of the mind," Bacon admonishes us, "and the rest will either be supplied, or its loss will not be felt." Truth will not make us rich, but it will make us free.
Some ungentle reader will check us here by informing us that philosophy is as useless as chess, as obscure as ignorance and as stagnant as content. "There is nothing so absurd," said Cicero, "but that it may be found in the books of the philosophers!" Doubtless some philosophers have had all sorts of wisdom except common sense, and many a philosophic flight has been due to the elevating power of thin air. Let us resolve, on this voyage of ours, to put in only at the ports of light, to keep out of the muddy streams of metaphysics and the "many-sounding seas" of theological dispute. But is philosophy stagnant? Science seems always to advance, while philosophy seems always to loge ground. Yet this is only because philosophy accepts the hard and hazardous task of dealing with problems not yet open to the methods of science --problems like good and evil, beauty and ugliness, order and freedom, life and death. As soon as a field of inquiry yields knowledge susceptible of exact formulation, it is called science. Every science begins as philosophy and ends as art: It arises in hypothesis and flows into achievement. Philosophy is a hypothetical interpretation of the unknown (as in metaphysics), or of the inexactly known (as in ethics or political philosophy). It is the front trench in the siege of truth. Science is the captured territory, and behind it are those secure regions in which knowledge and art build our imperfect and marvelous world. Philosophy seems to stand still, perplexed, but only because she leaves the fruits of victory to her daughters the sciences, and herself passes on, divinely discontent, to the uncertain and unexplored.
Shall we be more technical? Science is analytical description; philosophy is synthetic interpretation. Science wishes to resolve the whole into parts, the organism into organs, the obscure into the known. It does not inquire into the values and ideal possibilities of things or into their total and final significance. It is content to show their present actuality and operation. It narrows its gaze resolutely to the nature and process of things as they are. The scientist is as impartial as Nature in Turgenev's poem: He is as interested in the leg of a flea as in the creative throes of a genius. But the philosopher is not content to describe the fact. He wishes to ascertain its relation to experience in general and thereby to get at its meaning and its worth. He combines things in interpretive synthesis. He tries to put together, better than before, that great universe-watch which the inquisitive scientist has analytically taken apart. Science tell us how to heal and how to kill. It reduces the death rate in retail and then kills us wholesale in war. But only wisdom -- desire coordinated in the light of all experience -- can tell us when to heal and. when to kill. To observe processes and to construct means is science. To criticize and coordinate ends is philosophy. And because in these days our means and instruments have multiplied beyond our interpretation and synthesis of ideals and ends, our life is "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." For a fact is nothing except in relation to desire. It is not complete except in relation to a purpose and a whole. Science without philosophy, facts without perspective and valuation, cannot save us from despair.
Specifically, philosophy means and includes five fields of study and discourse: logic, aesthetics, ethics, politics and metaphysics:
- Logic is the study of ideal method in thought and research: observation and introspection, deduction and induction, hypothesis and experiment, analysis and synthesis -- such are the forms of human activity which logic tries to understand and guide. It is a dull study for most of us, and yet the great events in the history of thought are the improvements men have made in their methods of thinking and research.
- Aesthetics is the study of ideal form, or beauty. It is the philosophy of art.
- Ethics is the study of ideal conduct. The highest knowledge, said Socrates, is the knowledge of good and evil, the knowledge of the wisdom of life.
- Politics is the study of ideal social organization (it is not, as one might suppose, the art and science of capturing and keeping office). Monarchy, aristocracy, democracy, socialism, anarchism, feminism -- these are the dramatis personae of political philosophy.
- And finally, metaphysics (which gets into so much trouble because it is not, like the other forms of philosophy, an attempt to coordinate the real in the light of the ideal) is the study of the "ultimate reality" of all things: of the real and final nature of "matter" (ontology), of "mind" (philosophical psychology) and of the interrelation of "mind" and "matter" in the processes of perception and knowledge (epistemology).
These are the parts of philosophy, but so dismembered it loses its beauty and its joy. We should seek it not in its shriveled abstractness and formality -- but clothed in the living form of genius. We should study not merely philosophies -- but also philosophers. We should spend our time with the saints and martyrs of thought, letting their radiant spirits play about us until perhaps we too, in some measure, shall partake of what da Vinci called "the noblest pleasure, the joy of understanding." Each of the philosophers has some lesson for us -- if we approach him properly. "Do you know," asks Emerson, "the secret of the true scholar? In every man there is something... I may learn of him, and in that I am his pupil." Well, surely we may take this attitude to the masterminds of history without hurt to our pride! And we may flatter ourselves with that other thought of Emerson's, that when genius speaks to us we feel a ghostly reminiscence of having ourselves, in our distant youth, had vaguely this selfsame thought which genius now speaks, but which we had not art or courage to clothe with form and utterance. And indeed, great men speak to us only so far as we have ears and souls to hear them --only so far as we have in us the roots, at least, of that which flowers out in them. We, too, have had the experiences they had, but we did not suck those experiences dry of their secret and subtle meanings: We were not sensitive to the overtones of the reality that hummed about us. Genius hears the overtones -- and the music of the spheres. Genius knows what Pythagoras meant when he said that "philosophy is the highest music."
So let us listen to these men, ready to forgive them their passing errors, eager to learn the lessons which they are so eager to teach. "Do you then be reasonable" said old Socrates to Crito, "and do not mind whether the teachers of philosophy are good or bad, but think only of Philosophy herself. Try to examine her well and truly, and if she be evil, seek to turn away all men from her -- but if she be what I believe she is, then follow her and serve her and be of good cheer."