The Original Philosophical Question - "What Is It?" - More Personal Thoughts
Here I am sharing a few rough thoughts regarding the nature of the history of philosophy and what unites the philosophical schools which flow from one to another century by century. I have also written on similar topics here and here. In this post I am arguing that the fundamental philosophical question is simply, "What is it?".
"What Is It?"
More and more, as I study the history of philosophy in the West, I come to realize that the central philosophical question is really the same in all philosophical schools, even though they may run with their answer in many different directions. I argue that this original and core philosophical question to which all philosophy returns is ..."What is it?". It is such a simple question, and yet it summarizes all of philosophy. Why is this the central question? Well as I've argued before, the human person experiences reality in two distinct ways, through one's subjectivity and through the objectivity of the world. There is always an interplay between these two things. I am experiencing the world, but what is it really that I am experiencing? Things are always changing all around me, and yet they are still the same in many ways. My conscious subjectivity influences reality for me, but yet I am still experiencing a reality. The differences between all the schools of philosophy comes down to how sharply they draw a distinction between the two, but fundamentally we don't have a complete or immediate grasp on what reality is, what things are. Philosophy has been the thousands of years long discussion about how to better understand just what reality is. Yet it is always more than our systems can describe or comprehend, and so we continue on in pursuit.
The Philosophical Schools
The PreSocratics wrestled with this when they speculated as to the explanation for why things in nature undergo changes, and yet can still remain the same thing. How can a river flow and yet still remain the same river? How can the different elements like earth, air, fire, and water be responsible for the many varied things all around us? Socrates and Plato also wrestled with this question, choosing to emphasize the identity, or "forms," in things which the mind perceives over the changing nature of material things which the body perceives. Aristotle expressed this same idea in his conception of "matter and form." Matter, being that which is the principle of change, parts, and extension in things, while form being responsible for the immaterial identity in things. For Aquinas, there is the sacramental system in which the metaphysical mysteries of faith are made known through physical signs and symbols in the seven sacraments. Much later, in the Rationalist schools from the Renaissance on, they struggled with the same thing, only they chose to emphasize to an extreme the subjectivity of perceptions such that change overtakes any knowledge of objectivity. They are left with either appealing to God for any identity in things, or falling into complete skepticism towards objectivity. On the other hand, the Naturalist Empiricists allow that the world be known in its objectivity, yet have no identity in things beyond the sensual appearance either. They give no metaphysical explanation for the natural realities going on around us. Finally, the Existentialist schools reject the identity in things other than that which the individual chooses to give them.
The problem that most of the philosophical schools fall into, in my opinion, is emphasizing either subjectivity or objectivity to the exclusion or suppression of the other. They put an impenetrable barrier between the subjective world and the objective world, or between the material world and the metaphysical world. To only accept the reality of subjective consciousness is to, by definition, lose contact with reality. On the other hand, to emphasize the objectivity of matter to the exclusion of human consciousness, or the existence of immaterial identity in things, loses a very real aspect of reality (in fact those aspects of human nature which most identify as most real -morality, love, justice, beauty, etc-). Both subjectivity and objectivity are needed in human experience and the pursuit of philosophy for the uncovering of truth.
What are we to do then with the problems that each of the philosophical schools raise? The skepticism of the Rationalists should be addressed first. The reality is that there are only two options in the face of the problem that the Rationalists propose. Either one can proceed down the pathway of skepticism towards the knowledge of one's senses, seeking refuge in the clarity of the structures of consciousness, but this will ultimately lead to solipsism. To put into doubt out sensual contact with reality is to into doubt the nature of thought itself, the very thoughts which are doing the doubting. One is left with pure absurdity, trapped in a mind which is sure of nothing. Or one must posit God to be connected to one's thoughts, guaranteeing them. The other options, and I argue the better one, is to hold on to a type of "natural faith." This is the faith in one's sensual knowledge of the world. Of course it is not perfect, and certainly limited, but to know anything at all depends on first trusting in the veracity of one's five senses. The scientific method first assumes this natural faith to even begin its own processes. This doesn't mean that we know everything about reality through our senses, but just that we know reality in some basic sense. Of course there is always still more to discover.
Again, to conclude, I argue that "What is it?" is the core question of philosophy because how one answers these questions related to epistemology, physics, and metaphysics will inform every other pursuit in philosophy, from anthropology to morality. These are the foundations upon which the whole philosophical pursuit rests ... a pursuit which centers around a simple question, "What is it?"