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A Student's Guide to Philosophy

  • by Ralph M. McInerny

An Introductory Note

“To ask whether or not one should philosophize is already to philosophize.” When Aristotle said that he might have meant that doing philosophy is something like speaking prose—although you have been doing it all along, it still comes as news to be told that you are. Inevitable though it may be, philosophy has had a long and checkered career since its beginnings in the sixth century B.C. How a philosopher regards that history can tell you a lot about what kind of philosopher he is.

Modernity begins with the assumption that philosophy has yet to begin. Descartes first doubts everything he has been told. No judgment can cease to be suspect until it has passed a number of methodological tests that he devises. It is not sufficiently emphasized that this means that no one can claim to know anything until he has subjected it to methodic doubt. If methodic doubt begins with Descartes, as he claims, then philosophy had no pre-Cartesian history. Or its history is simply a record of error and deception.

Since Descartes, philosophers have vied with one another to seek an originality that would distinguish them from the rest of the pack. The drive for originality usually entails a very negative attitude toward one’s predecessors, and the history of philosophy inevitably loses its interest. When I was a graduate student I was urged to read Hans Reichenbach’s The Rise of Scientific Philosophy. For Reichenbach, philosophy began with Immanuel Kant in the eighteenth century since all pre-Kantian philosophy involved a fundamental mistake. More recently, we have been told that moral philosophy is based on a mistake and, in 1903, G. E. Moore showed to his own satisfaction that all previous moral philosophy was fallacious. In the 1930s A. J. Ayer looked back a few years to when philosophy had really begun. Later still, a linguistic turn was taken and, we were assured, philosophy could now at last get started.

From this and my opening remark, you can conclude that a sure sign that one is doing philosophy is to claim that it has never been done before. There is a tradition of denying tradition, in other words. There are inventive ways of handling previous attempts, however. Heidegger undertakes a destruction of the history of ontology in order to work his way back to the point where things first went wrong. This suggests that, while the past of philosophy was brief, it did occur.

In the Nietzschean phase we have now reached, philosophers are urged to forget about truth and become “strong poets.” The remark suggests an odd conception of poetry and an even odder one of philosophy. The implication is that poets simply emote and philosophers should follow suit. Leszek Kolakowski has written that “A modern philosopher who has never experienced the feeling of being a charlatan is such a shallow mind that his work is probably not worth reading.” You will of course wonder how Kolakowski was feeling when he wrote that. Perhaps in the tradition of such remarks—I think of the Liar’s Paradox—the speaker is implicitly exempted.

There is a more cheerful estimate of the history of philosophy that is captured by the phrase “perennial philosophy.” This is meant to suggest that, beneath and beyond the wrangles and differences and diversity of philosophies, there is a subtle progress being made such that every philosopher contributes malgrè lui to a cumulative achievement of the race.

These few introductory remarks indicate the circumstances in which one sets about writing a student’s guide to philosophy at the end of the second millennium. Philosophy has come to see itself as winding down, reaching the end of its rope on a gallows of its own construction. One might attempt a wertfrei account of the terrain, giving a narrative of what philosophers are doing here and there, staying above the battle, and accepting the by now mandatory disdain for philosophy’s past. That is not how I intend to proceed.

What follows will be an effort to direct the beginner to the great sources of philosophy as to fonts of truth. Newman said of Aristotle that he had expressed our thoughts before we were born. And of course Dante called Aristotle the master of those who know. Accordingly, this guide will concentrate on Aristotle and the later developments of his thought. I share Pope John Paul II’s dismay, expressed in Fides et Ratio (Faith and reason), that philosophers seem wary of the big questions, the questions that in a sense define us. What does it all mean? Does life have a purpose? Is death the end? Is there a God? This little guide will give directions on where philosophical help can be found to address such questions as these.

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