This last spring I decided that I wanted to try to write down my intro to philosophy lectures. To what end, I am not sure. There are, of course, way too many introductions to philosophy already in existence. But, at least I'll be recording them for whatever future purpose.
Of course, a written text is not the same as a spoken presentation and facilitation of a discussion, so these are not exact copies. And writing may mean I enter into more or fewer tangents (something I'm wont to do in class--some planned and some spontaneous).
Here, then, is a beginning:
“Now that despair has befallen me,” wrote the scholar. Al-Ghazali lived in the eleventh century, in Baghdad, where he was a professor of law. Al-Ghazali had set out to explore “the true meaning of things” and had discovered only doubts. So many different people believed so many different things that conflicted with one another. This disagreement “is a deep sea in which most men founder and from which few only are saved.”
Al-Ghazali had inquired into the “true meaning of knowledge,” looking for “that sure and certain knowledge . . . in which the thing known is made so manifest that no doubt clings to it, nor is it accompanied by the possibility of error and deception, nor can the mind even suppose such a possibility.”
He realized that his senses could deceive him—“Sight looks at a star and sees it as something small” but, instead, it “surpasses the earth in size.” He began to worry how you can tell the difference between dreaming and non-dreaming states and whether or not there was a “state beyond reason” that would make our normal experience seem like dreaming. In other words, how could he trust his experience of reality?
Thus his despair, his crisis of doubt.
Al-Ghazali was not alone.
Six centuries later a French army man, fighting in the religious wars between Catholics and Protestants, found himself spending the winter in Germany where he “stayed all day shut up alone in a stove-heated room, where I was completely free to converse with myself about my own thoughts,” which led him down a path to a crisis of doubt similar to al-Ghazali.
The Frenchman, Rene Descartes, later reflected upon his day of thinking, “Several years have now passed since I first realized how numerous were the false opinions that in my youth I had taken to be true.” Like al-Ghazzali he realized that he was deceived by his senses and couldn’t distinguish, with certainty, the difference between dream and awake states, but his greatest fear was that maybe the entire world had been designed in order to deceive him.
How do I know that [God] did not bring it about that there is no earth at all, no heavens, no extended thing, no shape, no size, no place, and yet bringing it about that all these things appear to me to exist precisely as they do now?
What if God were not “supremely good” and the “source of truth” but was rather “an evil genius, supremely powerful and clever, who has directed his entire effort at deceiving me.”
Descartes imagined a nightmare but dreaded being awakened to once again be plunged into these frightening doubts.
Al-Ghazali and Descartes were both worried that the world doesn’t make sense, that there is no meaning or purpose to our lives, to existence. They express a powerful anxiety.
Has your experience of the world ever compelled you to doubt that there is any meaning or purpose? Maybe the existence of horrendous evils like genocide or mundane sufferings like hunger and poverty and disease alarm your sense of what is fair and right and good?
If so, then you have engaged in philosophical thinking.
Sure, philosophy is an academic discipline with its standard textbooks and teachers, but more broadly philosophy is the human exercise of trying to make sense of our world. To that broader human endeavor painters, songwriters, poets, filmmakers, novelists, dancers—even plumbers and physicians and day care workers—have contributed.
Consider Michelangelo’s famous painting from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel of The Creation of Adam. Gazing upon that painting (or more likely a copy of it) what messages about human nature, the world, and truth does it arouse in you?
Contrast that with something like Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. What is different here?
Or listen to the closing minutes of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the great “Ode to Joy” with lyrics taken from a poem by Friedrich Schiller. What possibilities are suggested by the exuberance of the music?
Contrast that with Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit,” about the lynching of black people in the American South. Or Johnny Cash’s cover of the Nine Inch Nails song “Hurt.” If the latter is “true” than can the joy of Beethoven’s symphony also be “true?”
And, so we are left with these questions that arise from trying to make sense of our world. Questions like “What is real?” “What is true?” “What can we know?” “What is the good life?” And many more.
These are philosophical questions.
Does philosophy, then, begin in doubt and despair and anxiety?
I don’t think so. At least not for everyone. I believe it begins someplace else.
Have you ever observed a toddler exploring the world? Walk along a sidewalk with a young child, and she or he will stop every two steps to listen to a dog bark, watch a passing automobile, pick up a leaf, stare at a robin gathering worms in the yard, and about twenty other things all in a just few minutes.
“Philosophy begins in wonder,” Alfred North Whitehead wrote. He was a philosopher who lived and wrote at the beginning of the twentieth century.
As we grow up, many of us begin to lose our sense of wonder and imagination. The despair that al-Ghazali or Descartes grappled with can arise when something bad happens to us or we observe ways in which the world is not fair or good.
Maybe philosophy exists in the interplay between our childhood wonder and our grown up doubt?
For Whitehead, “Philosophy is akin to poetry.”
Poets observe the world and create metaphors and images to describe their experiences, aware that no words can ever fully grasp the reality, though they try their best.
Philosophers do something similar (even if few philosophers are poetic writers, or even great writers, but there are a few!). They use the concepts of reason in an effort to describe and understand and make sense.
Philosophy begins in wonder at our experience of the world around us and then endeavors to construct a worldview that is consistent, coherent, adequate in interpreting experience, and applicable to the broad range of our lives. What do I mean?
To be consistent means that your beliefs and ideas contain no direct contradictions. You can’t, for instance, believe that moral rules are absolute while at the same time saying “Too each his own” (even though I’ve known plenty of people who do precisely that).
To be coherent means that everything you believe must fit well together. This is a looser criterion than consistency, but very important. You don’t want ideas that fit so uncomfortably together that the tension is problematic. For instance, is it coherent to be pro-life about the topic of abortion and pro-death penalty? Maybe, but even asking the question should compel you think about how to make those and similar ideas fit together into a coherent whole.
You also don’t want big holes in your belief system, which is what the criterion of adequacy means. You want a worldview that has grappled with all the big topics and questions and not simply ignored them because they are difficult. So, do you believe that God exists? Why or why not?
Finally, your beliefs should apply to your life. You should actually be able to use them to solve problems and figure out what to do.
This, I believe, is a very important criterion because I believe that the ultimate goal of studying philosophy is to become a better person.
So, I invite you to join me on a journey as we explore the nature of reality, the scope of human knowledge, and the nature of a good human life. Can we make sense of the world, avoid despair, reignite our wonder, and become better people?
If so, then that’s a grand adventure.
Let’s begin outside a courthouse in the ancient Greek city of Athens were a guy name Socrates is on his way into court when he runs into an acquaintance name Euthyphro who happens to be a priest. Socrates think Euthyphro might help him solve a problem relevant to why he’s been called to court. And so begins a conversation.