A Student's Guide to Philosophy

A Student's Guide to Philosophy

by Ralph McInerny, Ralph M. McLnerny

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Who is a philosopher? Can philosophical thought be avoided? What have philosophers written over the ages? And why should we care? In this critical essay, these and other questions are posed and answered by one of America's leading philosophers, Ralph M. McInerny of Notre Dame. Schools of thought are examined with humor and verve, and the principal works of


Who is a philosopher? Can philosophical thought be avoided? What have philosophers written over the ages? And why should we care? In this critical essay, these and other questions are posed and answered by one of America's leading philosophers, Ralph M. McInerny of Notre Dame. Schools of thought are examined with humor and verve, and the principal works of philosophers and scholars are recommended.

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Guides To Major Disciplines Series
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A Student's Guide to Philosophy

By Ralph M. Mclnerny

ISI Books

Copyright © 1999 Intercollegiate Studies Institute
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4804-9440-4



There is a theory about the dialogues of Plato—at least some of them, the "Socratic" ones—that their function was to stir up interest in potential members of the Academy so that they would want to devote their lives to the pursuit of philosophy. Literary recruiting posters, as it were. The Greek adjective here is "protreptic." The idea is that there is a desire that precedes and guides the pursuit of wisdom.

In his phlegmatic way, Aristotle put it thus: "All men by nature desire to know." To be a human being is to have a built-in natural thirst for knowledge. A bent is natural if we have it whether or not we choose to. We become aware that it is already at work in us. Now this can seem a rather exalted thing to say about everyone. You might have an acquaintance or two, perhaps a relative, of whom it would seem outlandish to say that he has a natural desire to know. He might seem to have a natural desire not to know. Was Aristotle carried away by his intellectualistic and Macedonian tendencies? Not at all. He goes on to say this about our natural desire to know: "A sign of this is the pleasure we take in our senses...." The general claim is verified in this modest and convincing way. Sensing is something we are engaged in without taking thought, so it is natural in the sense required, and it is by and large pleasant to sense, particularly to see, to take a look: "[F]or even apart from their usefulness they [the senses] are loved for themselves; and above all the sense of sight. For not only with a view to action, but even when we are not going to do anything, we prefer seeing (one might say) to everything else. The reason is that this, most of all the senses, makes us know and brings to light many differences between things."

We find already adumbrated in this account of sensation the distinction between the practical and theoretical. Our senses are instrumental—we call them organs, after all— and their most obvious role is in helping us live our lives. We look out. We are on the lookout. The outlook is favorable or not. But surely Aristotle is right that just looking is sometimes its own reward. For all that, the pleasures of sense are dangerous if they become an end in themselves, but that is only because the human good embraces and transcends them. Experience retains (i.e., records) the history of perception and may give way to art. The experienced person has know-how, but it is the mark of the artisan that he knows both How and Why. When it is a question of the specifically human, Why marks the spot.

When Plato observed that philosophy begins in wonder, he was thinking of two senses of wonder—the wonder that is awe and the wonder that comes from not yet knowing why. The Athenian who witnessed a solar eclipse two and a half millennia ago felt much the same awe we do. His understanding of what was happening may strike us as risible, but a true explanation does not take away our wonder. The wondering involves the wonderer as well. What does it all mean? And what does it mean for me to be in this world?

We are these questions, in a sense, and the pursuit of them, often latent in everyday activities, sometimes absorbing us completely, draws us through and beyond the world to the source of ourselves and all the rest. From its beginning, theology was the ultimate business of philosophy. When Plato said that philosophy is learning how to die he was not being morbid. It is the inescapable fact of our mortality that provides the horizon for our thinking.

"All men by nature desire to know." This truth is a great leveler; it leaves no one out. It prevents us from thinking that some are thinkers and the rest are, well, the rest, the many, the hoi polloi. Everyone is already engaged, well or badly, in thinking and in that sense is already a philosopher. Potentially, as Aristotle would add. Latently. But the capacity is there in every human. The questions are inescapable. Perhaps we have to learn not to philosophize, making a real effort to put our minds to leading mindless lives. If being dumb is the achievement, one is not likely to preen himself on being a philosopher.

If I seem to protest too much this is because of the gall of Descartes. How could he induce us to doubt everything when all along we have to remember how to read French or Latin? What the return to Aristotle gains us is the realization that everybody already knows things for sure. Of course the observation is banal, but that is only one of its attractions. It is also true. Philosophy starts where everybody already is. The principles of philosophy are in the public domain. The modern tendency is to say, "Hang on to the brush, I'm taking away the ladder." With Aristotle, we will keep our feet firmly on the ground.



If wisdom is the goal and the definition of wisdom is "such knowledge as men can achieve of the divine," how do we get from here to there? The middle books of Plato's Republic lay out a curriculum for the aspiring philosopher. Once the appetite has been whetted, once the desire for knowledge is deep, the student is ready for some sobering news. He must devote a decade to the study of mathematics. Paideia is a structured process. We do not begin just anywhere.

From Aristotle we can piece together the proper order of learning the philosophical sciences and the reason for it. We begin with logic, so we will recognize good arguments when we meet them; we go next to mathematics, because even children can learn it. Not much experience of the world is needed to do arithmetic and geometry. Then on to natural philosophy, which will occupy us for years and years. The world is a given but nature delivers up her secrets only to the persistent inquirer. Experience of another kind, of good and evil, is required if the study of moral and political philosophy is to be profitable. The young see things in black and white while the favorite adverb of the aged is "perhaps." Truth in the moral order makes itself known to the virtuous. Finally, we are ready to ask if there is any science beyond all these (i.e., the science of being as being). That culminating effort comes to be called metaphysics.

The fragments of this pedagogy that became the monastic education of the Dark Ages were called the liberal arts tradition. On the one hand, there was sacred learning, the Bible, and on the other, secular learning, the seven liberal arts. The trivium consisted of grammar, rhetoric, and logic; the quadrivium, of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. It was as if the whole of human learning, the fragments that had been shored against our ruin after the collapse of the classical world, could be gathered into those arts. Desirable as these arts were, they were also aimed beyond themselves—trivium, the threefold way, quadrivium, the fourfold way. Ways to what? To the wisdom contained in the Word of God.

Universities arose in the thirteenth century from the monastic and cathedral schools and, with the arrival of Aristotle, the liberal arts were restored to the larger context they knew in Plato and Aristotle. They were now seen as only parts of secular learning, not the whole of it. We can see that the trivium and quadrivium answer to the first two stages in the order of learning in the philosophical sciences mentioned earlier. From its beginning, medieval education sought to establish a modus vivendi between faith and reason. This remained true in the thirteenth century. The recovery of philosophy had to be accommodated to the theology based on Scripture. For one brief shining century everything cohered. Faith and reason fully complemented one another. The range of reason was what Plato and Aristotle thought it was. The human mind could know the divine and know that the soul was immortal. Christianity had an ally in the life of reason, and vice versa.

It did not last. Soon thinkers in the name of faith began to devalue reason and eventually the mind had only language to play with. Nominalism and the Reformation effectively dismantled the medieval synthesis, paving the way for modernity. Descartes spoke of a tree of knowledge and the quest for method sought a new systematic integration of the different sciences, but philosophy became progressively more isolated from the natural sciences and mathematics. The turn from the world to the mind as the primary concern of the philosopher led to a succession of theories purporting to establish the a priori conditions for thinking. But the distinction between being and being known blurred to the point where to be and to be thought were identical. What would unify the enterprise of human thought was no longer a connection among the sciences, but an understanding of why we think as we do.

The last great effort of idealism is phenomenology. The return "to the things themselves" disappointingly became a concern with the constituting acts whereby objects become objects (i.e., the conditions of presence), and what had seemed a realism became one more effort to tease from the structure of our mind the character of its objects, to anticipate experience, to turn thinking into a kind of thing-ing that generates its own object. This alteration of the program of phenomenology caused the recently canonized Edith Stein to part company with Edmund Husserl.

Phenomenology, like drugs, is addictive. Imagine finding sentences like the following meaningful: "In fact, after Nietzsche had brought to an end and completed all the possibilities—even inverted—of metaphysics, phenomenology, more than any other theoretical initiative, undertook a new beginning" (Jean-Luc Marion). It would be more accurate to say that philosophy, both Continental and analytic, succumbed to Teutonic gurus who uttered gnomic pronunciamentos. The influence of a Heidegger and a Wittgenstein can be difficult to comprehend, yet these are the two most influential philosophers of our century. Each proclaimed himself to be a new beginning. Ezra Pound, in his Cantos, sought to produce lines like the uneven ones in the remnants of Sappho's verse. Some modern philosophers aspired to write pre-Socratic fragments. The style was aphoristic, arguments were scarce to nonexistent, a mood was induced or an attitude produced which ruled out questioning. Nietzsche was tolerable because the madness had no method. In Heidegger, Nietzsche is given credit for having brought metaphysics to an end, whatever that might mean. Heidegger is the first post-metaphysical thinker. He must be; he tells us so. Wittgenstein sought to redefine philosophy, yet boasted in old age that he was a professor of philosophy who had never read Aristotle. One would have bet on it.

There is little sign that the influence of Heideggerian and Wittgensteinian gnosticism is abating. Like a fever, it will have to work itself out. Meanwhile, academic philosophy is in the doldrums, light-years distant from the questions that alone can justify it. If one could make sense of the claim that all—all!—the possibilities, inverted or not, of metaphysics had been brought to an end and completed by mad Nietzsche, one might agree or disagree. But what would either mean? It is best to heed Jeeves's remark to Bertie Wooster. "You would not like Nietzsche, sir. He is fundamentally unsound."

It may seem a relief to turn to analytic philosophy from the polysyllabic breathlessness of Continental philosophy. But this is to turn from Heidegger to Wittgenstein, the one as enigmatic as the other. The linguistic turn, like the transcendental turn, aims at putting philosophy in any traditional sense out of business. The seemingly straightforward desire to establish the meaning of meaning has not met with success. So we are back at the beginning; philosophy in the twentieth century, like philosophy in the sixteenth, is still trying to get started. Its present state is obscure, its past nonexistent, and its future nothing worth waiting for.

To say that modern philosophy has abandoned classical and medieval philosophy is simply to accept its self-description. Since this has still not led to anything, perhaps it is time to question the wisdom of the abandonment.

It is not just a well-turned phrase that modern philosophy is the Reformation carried on by other means. Most of the major figures are Protestant or apostate or both. Luther's attack on reason and his Manichean split between nature and grace poisoned the well of thinking. There is a striking contrast between the popular view that, thanks to science, our knowledge of the world increases by quantum jumps, and the philosophy of science, which robs the achievement of realistic import. Is it the world we know or our knowing of the world? Can't we always substitute one paradigm for another? Unmoored in sound philosophy, science becomes technology and the sorcerer's apprentice is let loose.

Since modern philosophy is characterized by the rejection of the past, I intend to return the favor and proceed for the nonce as if modern philosophy had not happened. Only after we have proceeded on this basis will we return to modern and more recent philosophy. Skepticism about the recent past of philosophy is almost de rigueur now, so it will be important to ask whether the iconoclasm of the past several paragraphs is merely received opinion.



We have contrasted modern philosophy with classical by saying that, while the former seeks an absolute starting point for thought, the latter notices that we have been thinking all along and asks what our starting points were. The modern mode could be shown to be a begging of the question, but the classical would seem to be committed to taking seriously the general opinions of mankind. Is this an appeal to common sense? Why not? Well, think of all the oddities that have been commonly held. In the immortal words of William Tecumseh Sherman, "Vox populi, vox humbug!"

There is a kind of school of philosophy called Common Sense, most notable in its Scottish form. This school is said to hold that we should simply begin with the fixed beliefs of mankind and go on from there. After all, there is no way to escape these, and to what else can appeal be made to correct them if the appeal must commend itself to human thinkers? Rather than discuss this in the abstract, let us examine Aristotle's procedure when, in setting out to study physical objects, that is, things that have come to be as a result of a change and are constantly changing (i.e., natural things), he puts before us a bewildering array of views as to what nature is.

Aristotle holds that there are common starting points for human thinking, principles that no one can fail to know. And yet, as he emphasizes, his predecessors have held views on the source of change whose variety boggles the mind. How can there be such diversity and conflict on matters which lie right before the eyes? Anyone who reads the first book of Aristotle's Physics will notice the respect with which Aristotle recounts views which are on the face of it absurd. Along the way, he provides extenuating reasons, particularly for post-Parmenidean accounts. Parmenides (b.515? B.C.) taught that the world of change and multiplicity had to be illusory because it violates the most elementary rules of logic. If change occurs, he held, being and non-being are the same. The atomists, Anaxagoras, and others sought to give an account of the changing world which softened the suggestion that any real change was occurring. But it is what Aristotle does after describing the rival views of his predecessors that interests me now.

He is concerned to ask what, despite all their differences, these views have in common. Some said that nature was water and others said that it was fire or air; some spoke of elements, others of atoms, some of the infinity of parts of an infinity of kinds of things as constitutive of any macrocosmic body. Bedlam? Babel? Or are there latent agreements beneath the obvious differences? Aristotle suggests that all these accounts share the notion that change involves a subject and contrary states of the subject. This analysis suggests that, while an initial appeal to the opinions of mankind is going to produce a seemingly unmanageable diversity, a closer look will detect beneath the diversity a common recognition. It is these deep, or shallow, perhaps, agreements that Aristotle has in mind when he talks about common-starting-points. And this is a community that can be drowned out by the middle distance noise of diversity.

Does Aristotle think that, just because all previous accounts of natural change have implicitly invoked three principles, that it is thereby established that there are three principles of change? Not quite. All he concludes from this is the likelihood that this is true. The likelihood is grounded on the realization that all these people, like ourselves, have minds and standard cognitive equipment.


Excerpted from A Student's Guide to Philosophy by Ralph M. Mclnerny. Copyright © 1999 Intercollegiate Studies Institute. Excerpted by permission of ISI Books.
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