What is Philosophy? - Philosophy as the Darkened Room - Some Personal Thoughts
The Darkened Room
What is Philosophy?
Sometimes when students, or even teachers, are asked the question, "What is philosophy?" or "What do you study?", they can struggle to put their discipline into words, though it doesn't mean they aren't knowledgeable about the subject. It is just one of those paradoxes where finding the words to encompass such a discipline like philosophy is simply difficult. And so, I have come up with an analogy for myself which can help simplify the notion of what philosophy is at its core. This is my image of the "darkened room." Let's walk through it.
The Human Experience and Chaos
So if you think about it, an amazing thought will take you quite aback. Every human being has come to consciousness of themselves in a way that is without any absolute knowledge of the past. Whatever existence is, whatever it means to experience existence as a living human being, we only come to consciousness of this experience in a fragmented way, always "in the middle of things," so to speak. We are born in the middle of time, in the middle of the historical events of earth, in the middle of a culture, a family, a religion ... in the middle of the drama of existence. And so the human experience is one of constant pushing out, pushing out into the past to understand our origins, pushing out into the mystery of things to understand the identity of things, and pushing out in the future to try to grasp our purpose. In trying to do this, though, we are faced with an immensity of complexity and seeming chaos to existence that answers are hard to grasp. Why does anything exist at all? Why do things exist in the way they do? Why is reality understandable in a logical way? How do I exist at all? How am I conscious of myself? What is the purpose for my short life?
Philosophy as a Darkened Room
In so many words, this awakening consciousness to the mysteries of existence and our experience of it, is like coming to consciousness in a dark room. We have no knowledge of the past; who we are or how we got there or where we actually are. All we know is that we are now consciously aware and there is darkness around us. Philosophy can be summarized as the human attempt "to understand the mystery." Humanity, starting in this darkness, has fumbled out into the room, trying to figure out what is there. What is this thing I am bumping into? Is there any glimmer of light I can use to better make out what is in the room with me. These attempts at understanding constitute philosophy as a discipline. Yes, there are many mistaken claims along the way, but each age adds something to the collective knowledge of what exists in the room. Paths are cut into the darkness with glimmers of light, and hopefully incorrect knowledge of the room is replaced by correct knowledge. I may have thought that an image on the wall of the room was a window, only to realize that it was later a painting, or vice versa, for example.
The Systemization of the Human Experience and the Mystery of Existence
And so when we talk about different "philosophies," we are talking about different attempts to create a system of understanding the complexity of the room. Humans are not accepting of pure chaos and disorder where there might indeed be an order to things. And so we begin to formulate principles which act as buffers and shield against pure complexity. These first principle act as the barriers in which other notions and details can be explored with more knowledge. For example, if we sectioned off a part of the room and only began to explore what existed in that section in more detail, ignoring what else could be out there. Or maybe that small section can tell us something about the room in general, such as finding out what the floor is made of by examining this small section. And so philosophy is also the systemization of the human experience. Different people have created different first principles in which to couch their understanding, and thus different interpretations of the room. Each system also has its own vocabulary, though they may be describing the same realities of the room.
And so philosophy is about finding out what the heck this experience of coming to consciousness in this world of existence is, little by little, age by age. Fundamentally, it can be summarized by the simple question posed towards existence itself ... "What are you?" or "What is it?"
Aspects of the Room
Over time, even amidst different interpretations of the room, different aspects or categories of the human experience of the room have emerged in common. These can be considered the different branches of the discipline of philosophy. Here is the most simple list of the different universal branches.
Philosophy of Nature - Understanding the workings of the tangible world around us that we can see, touch, hear, etc.
Metaphysics - Rational exploration of the foundations and first and unchanging causes and principles that must hold reality together.
Epistemology - Trying to understand how human beings know things.
Anthropology - Understanding what it means to be human.
Ethics - How should human beings act.
Logic - What does it mean for our minds to match the coherency of reality in the way we think about it.
Politics - How should groups of human beings live together.
Aesthetics - Exploration into the nature of beauty.
Natural Theology - Looking towards understanding the ultimate prime reality.
Examples of Main Questions
Here are a few questions (by no means exhaustive or in the correct order) of some main questions that the human experience has brought to the forefront.
1) Where has the cosmos come from? Are there gods, or a God, or not?
2) How do we know that God exists? What and how can we know about what God is?
3) What is everything made of? What is the ultimate reality?
4) What does it mean for things to be "living?" How are things living? How did life come about?
5) What is a human being?
6) Is there life after death? Does a soul exist?
7) Are humans born good or evil in their state of nature?
8) How do mind and body interact?
9) Is there such a thing as free will or is one's fate determined?
10) What is a good or moral life? Is meaning real or only made up?
11) How should human societies be run? What form of government is best? Is social contract good or bad? What rights does man have? Where do they come from? How important is the individual, and their rights, in society?
12) By what methods do we arrive at truth? What are the limits of human knowledge? What can we be sure about regarding truth? Is the mind just the brain or is knowledge something beyond the brain? How do children learn?
13) How does one detect design in the universe?
14) What relationship do faith and reason have together? What role does/should religion play in human society?
15) What can we know about history? The past? Are there overarching realities or themes within history itself?
16) If God is good, how can there be evil and suffering in the world?
The Schools of Philosophy
As we have established, there is complexity coming at us on all sides, the darkness of the room is overwhelming. Human beings, though, cannot function with an incomplete understanding of the room. Incomplete knowledge leads to overwhelming choices and no reference point to aim our choices, and thus to complete inaction. This inaction inevitably leads to a quicker death. And so it is better to formulate a preliminary understanding of the room and be wrong, than to have no framework of understanding of the room. Creating these frameworks is to create the fundamental parameters of existence, to make a claim at that which is most universal about the mystery of existence. This is done by formulating first principles from which every other principle and decision can be made. This, then, limits the chaos of existence and allows us to take aim at something and have a comprehensible goal, allowing for human action. Now, these frameworks may be wrong and incomplete, but every culture and person has them. Philosophy should be about purifying these frameworks over time as they are tested against the reality of the room. If the fundamental parameters don’t match the reality of the room, then they are wrong and can be dangerous. Some examples of these schools would be Platonic, Aristotelean, Thomistic, Cartesian, Kantian, Hegelian, Existentialist, Nihilist, Communist, etc.