Philosophy Weekend: What Is This Thing Called Philosophy?

I don’t usually read The Stone, the New York Times philosophy blog.  The topics are a bit trendy for my tastes, and the contributors’ voices tend to be coy and journalistic, rather than bold and declarative, as a confident philosopher’s voice ought to be. Still, when Litkicks friend Nardo tipped me off to Colin McGinn’s recent The Stone/Opinionator post Philosophy By Another Name I took a look, and liked what I read.

McGinn, a professor at the University of Miami, points out that the word “philosophy” fails to capture its essence in several ways. It translates as “lover of wisdom”, but a great philosopher may not be in specific pursuit of wisdom, and may also not love wisdom (if he or she uncovers painful truths, for instance, he or she may hate wisdom, as valuable as it may be). McGinn suggests the word “ontics” as a modern replacement, pointing out that the discipline may gain respectability from the linguistic vicinity to “physics”.

I agree with Colin McGinn that we can often improve our discourse by inventing words — it’s something I tend to do myself.  Words are free. Why don’t we design new ones more often?  If our brains are as lively as they ought to be, we should be thinking wildly original thoughts on a regular basis, and churning out at least dozens of new words a year (hopefully not primarily text message acronyms or nicknames for celebrity couples) to encapsulate them.  I think Colin McGinn is right that coining new words can help us think more clearly about philosophy, and I’m all for coining away.

However, I can’t favor McGinn’s suggested coinage, the blunt, diminutive “ontics”, and I think “philosophy” works so well on the aesthetic level that it really doesn’t need to be replaced at all. Rather, “philosophy” is a masterpiece of a word, one of the best ones we’ve got.  Its double roots indicate classical depth — how many other words can boast such perfect etymological symmetry? As a ten-letter, four-syllable word, “philosophy” feels slow and languid enough to evoke a long thinking session on a hammock or tree stump, and yet it vocalizes with a pleasing jerky rhythm that matches the awkward quickness of the practice itself. Yeah, this is a word we ought to keep.

(I also regret Colin McGinn’s retreat into banal humor within this article — “Committee to Rename Academic Philosophy” — this is exactly the kind of cute touch that makes me generally avoid the New York Times philosophy blog. I wonder if one of the blog editors demanded the insertion of that poor joke, which does not serve the article well at all.)

I have had my own struggle with the word “philosophy”, not because I don’t love it but because I do. I have always seen philosophy as made up of three areas of inquiry: metaphysics, epistemology and ethics. And it’s no secret to anyone who reads this blog that I have virtually no interest in metaphysics (I would not waste a minute of my precious life wondering whether or not the world is real), and a healthy but limited interest in epistemology (I do want to know what “truth” is, but I think William James has fairly well settled the case, and I’m mainly interested in the question for its practical importance and don’t really enjoy endless circular dialogues about the matter.)

But I have been fascinated with ethics — the question of how best to live, and how best to love my fellow humans — my entire life. It was to answer my burning ethical questions that I sought a Philosophy degree in college years ago, and I’ve never stopped exploring these questions, nor have I ever had the slightest sense that the pursuit is a waste of time. All my favorite philosophers from Plato to Buddha to Jesus to Rousseau to Kierkegaard to Kant to Nietzsche to James to Sartre are ethicists, and many of my favorite philosophers to disagree with, from Aristotle to John Stuart Mill to Karl Marx to Ayn Rand, are ethicists as well.

But what a dull word “ethics” is! If only the word had more music to it, you’d be reading “Ethics Weekend” instead of “Philosophy Weekend” right now. But it doesn’t, and you’re not. We have a right to invent new words, but we also have a right to stick with words we love, even when they are inexact. “Philosophy Weekend” makes it sound like we’re having fun here, and that’s the kind of impression I want to create. I hope it works.

17 Responses

  1. a route of many roads leading
    a route of many roads leading from nowhere to nothing? (said ambrose bierce, in his 19th century “devil’s dictionary”)…

  2. yes, let’s just make up a new
    yes, let’s just make up a new word for everything since we’ve got nothing better to do… from now on, a dog is a flazix, a cat it a smoon . . .

    and I’m using a sarcastic, sing-song voice, in case you can’t tell…

  3. Those are excellent words,
    Those are excellent words, Bill … however, the point is not to make up new words for things that already have perfectly good words. There are a lot of objects, ideas and notions that don’t have words yet, and those are the ones we are trying to help. Get with the program!

  4. I love the word philosophy
    I love the word philosophy and I agree, “ethics” is dull in comparison.

    I’m so glad I stumbled onto this site today. These articles are great! What an inspiration.

  5. Levi, I think epistemology
    Levi, I think epistemology stems from scientific curiosity, and now few of us can keep up with the latest scientific discoveries, since they involve a lot of mathematics and advanced technical knowledge. The age of “Renaissance men” (and women) or (French) philosophes, when one could have some chance of learning all the major fields, is over. I agree with you about metaphysics, particularly if you care about practical questions related to human life. What’s left? Political philosophy, ethics and aesthetics. They may sound boring, but they’re not boring at all! Plus they have enormous practical implications, and philosophy (or any academic field) should not shy away from those. You don’t have to be a closed-minded moralist to write about ethics, obviously. Nor a raging relativist either. There’s a mean between these two extremes, as Aristotle would say, but it’s so difficult–and fascinating–to find it.

  6. “I’m using a sarcastic,
    “I’m using a sarcastic, sing-song voice, in case you can’t tell.”

    I could tell.

    “There’s plenty of ways to skin a smoon.”

    You mean “flipe a smoon”

    Skin a smoon doesn’t make any tsind.

  7. Re: “…the word ‘philosophy’
    Re: “…the word ‘philosophy’ fails to capture its essence in several ways. It translates as ‘lover of wisdom’, but a great philosopher may not be in specific pursuit of wisdom, and may also not love wisdom…”

    Therein lies the problem our modern world as – it has not a shred of wisdom. There is an over-reliance upon intelligence and the intellect is not wise at all but has wonderful ability to regurgitate facts and figures. Would it not be better to drop the name ‘philosopher’ and perhaps use another word for what the love of wisdom is no longer?

    Do any of today’s “philosophers” have a clue as to what the true definition of that which they claim to be, i.e. lovers of wisdom actually implies? Wisdom has become an unknown to we moderns who place greatness upon inventiveness and cleverness, wisdom be damned. And why not? Wisdom has no value in today’s world. It doesn’t enrich the wallet, it doesn’t nourish the body but successfully creates a false sense of ease and enrichment in today’s overvalued material world… and what a world of absolute foolishness we have created for ourselves.

    To love wisdom is to embrace Nature as the teacher and learn thru observance the greatness of that Nature which feeds and nourishes the splendor of existence from which true wisdom is born.

  8. But seriously, it doesn’t
    But seriously, it doesn’t hold that we should change the name of philosophy because it means “lover of wisdom” and some philosophers might not love wisdom, or they might discover some painful truth. That’s like saying, don’t call me a bibliophile because I don’t love books, even though I collect them, catalogue them, read them, etc. and I might read something I don’t like, or, in the course of my reading, I might discover some painful truth.

    This does bring up an interesting point – possibly even a paradox – about the striving for knowledge in spite of the possible sadness it can bring. There’s a line in Eccesiastes that says, “in abundance of wisdom is abundance of sadness,” but later it says, “Wisdom will brighten a man’s face and change his appearance.” A contradiction? I don’t think so. There is a place in the mind I like to call the nexus, which our brain feels as a mystical revelation, or gnosis, where two seemingly opposing things are true at the same time. This also goes along with the idea that we tend to seek love even though it can hurt us, but when it doesn’t hurt us, it was worth the risk.

  9. Re: “… some philosophers
    Re: “… some philosophers might not love wisdom, or they might discover some painful truth.”

    Curious… could you site an example where a true philosopher would not love wisdom… or share a truth that is so painful it is no longer true (or shouldn’t be known)?

  10. Good question, mtmynd — I’ll
    Good question, mtmynd — I’ll try to answer, but keep in mind that I’m trying to paraphrase this Colin McGinn’s point here, rather than expressing a point of my own.

    I think what McGinn is getting at is that a philosopher studies existence with a particular goal in mind, just as any other scientist, investigator or analyst does. If he is trying to determine whether or not we have free will, or whether or not words have definite meanings, he is trying to do exactly that, and is no more obsessed with “wisdom” per se than a scientist looking for the cure for a disease, or the secrets behind the structure of a cell.

    I am lukewarm on this point of McGinn’s, though I suppose I generally agree. A philosopher may be motivated by a desire for the thrill of discovery, or may be trying to find a formula with which to support his political beliefs, etc. In these cases, the relationship with “wisdom” appears tenuous. And, what is “wisdom”? To say that a philosopher seeks wisdom is to beg the question that we know what wisdom is, or that we believe wisdom exists.

  11. Firstly, thank you for your
    Firstly, thank you for your reply, Levi. I appreciate it.

    Re: “To say that a philosopher seeks wisdom is to beg the question that we know what wisdom is, or that we believe wisdom exists.”

    This line seems to be in direct conflict what is defined as ‘philosopher’ does it not? You write that a philosopher ‘seeks’ wisdom while it is said a philosopher ‘loves’ wisdom.

    To find common ground on what is wisdom as defined by dictionaries, let’s look at –

    1) American Heritage which writes in the first definition –

    a)The ability to discern or judge what is true, right, or lasting; insight.

    I see this meaning as learning process rather than a process fully learned but either way it is generally a commonly accepted definition.

    Another source, Roget’s Thesaurus states:

    a) Deep, thorough, or mature understanding.

    How does one arrive at a deep, thorough or mature understanding? It certainly must include a level of love for the subject to arrive at these qualities, would it not? If someone is only surfacely interested in gaining knowledge, this would not be fairly equal to one who is fully absorbed, i.e. devotional, in knowing the facts and/or truth about life and the world, which is how ‘philosopher’ is defined. Knowledge is a fountain that temporarily fulfills the thirst of the wise for knowledge. This is an ongoing process without end and this endlessness is the journey of a philosopher who fully realizes that it requires nothing less than ‘love’ of knowledge that makes this journey without attaining a destination. Why else would one undertake this journey? Certainly not for material gain or ego-satisfaction… this would be counter-productive to a true philosopher’s pilgrimage to not only understanding but fully knowing as much as one is able to know about the very world we all share. Therein lies the beauty of this degree of love… a freedom that is bountiful and is constantly giving but never asks for anything less than devotion to knowing. It is liberating and that is what we all seek but so few ever attain.

  12. i’d like to come up with a
    i’d like to come up with a new word for poop. shit and crap just don’t do it for me either. dookie is somewhat better but still not good enough.

    as far as the definitions of philosophy…what do you know? and how do you know it? what exactly is truth anyway?

  13. Re: “what exactly is truth
    Re: “what exactly is truth anyway?”

    Good question. In the same way as the definition of ‘pornography’ was stated by Justice Potter Stewart in 1964: “… I know it when I see it . . . ”

    One thing is quite certain, there is a real difference between fact and truth.

  14. You summed it up beautifully,
    You summed it up beautifully, philosophy is just a word and like all words its meaning is different for different people and situations and as far as invention of words is concerned, well it keeps happening and it will continue to happen till humans are on this planet.

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