M W F Stone. New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. Editor: Maryanne Cline Horowitz. Volume 4, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005.
According to an ancient tradition deriving from Heraclides of Pontus (388-310 B.C.E.), a disciple of Plato (c. 428-348 or 347 B.C.E.), Pythagoras of Samos (c. 580-c. 500 B.C.E.) was the first to describe himself as a philosopher. Three types of person, he is alleged to have said, attend the festal games: those who seek fame by taking part in them; those who seek financial gain by selling their trade goods there; and those (“the best people”) who are content to be spectators (Diogenes Laertius, De vita et moribus philosophorum, I, XII). Philosophers or “lovers of wisdom” resemble persons of this third class: spurning both fame and profit, they seek to arrive at the truth by means of contemplation. Pythagoras distinguished the wisdom (sophia) sought by the philosopher—knowledge of the truth—from the mercantile skills of the merchant and the physical prowess of the athlete. Whether or not these distinctions derived from an actual utterance of Pythagoras, they can most certainly be found in the works of other ancient thinkers such as Plato, who was much preoccupied with the question of what philosophy is and how it differs from other forms of intellectual inquiry. Many of Plato’s contemporaries had thought his teacher Socrates (c. 470-399 B.C.E.) a sage; some considered him a Sophist, while others believed him to be a cosmologist. In Plato’s eyes and in the judgment of posterity, Socrates was none of these things; he was first and foremost a philosopher. But what made him different from a sage or Sophist? What made him recognizable as a seeker after wisdom and truth? In attempting to find answers to these questions, it is possible to learn something of the manner in which philosophers have traditionally characterized their métier, and how their different views on the scope and point of philosophical practice has led them to speculate on the relations between philosophy and other forms of intellectual labor.
Many ancient savants believed Socrates to be inimitable for the reason stated by Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 B.C.E.): he “first called philosophy down from the heavens” and thereby made the study of nature instrumental to human happiness (Tusculan Disputations, 5.X-XI; cf. Diogenes Laertius, De vita et moribus philosophorum, II. 16, 45). In other words, Socrates’ life as a philosopher was devoted not to the scientific description of the universe in the manner earlier advanced by Ionian cosmologists, but to the pursuit of wisdom in order to secure genuine human happiness. For this reason a philosopher, according to Socrates, could not devote himself simply to the study of the requisite arts and sciences, but had to have his mind attuned to the requirements of wisdom in the context of striving to live the best possible life. Such a life had to be lived, even if it entailed the bitter fate of drinking a draft of hemlock.
For Plato, the first characteristic of philosophical wisdom is that it meet the needs of rational inquiry. As he suggests at Apology 22, this criterion precludes all types of quotidian knowledge and other homespun verities in favor of genuine philosophical insight. Neither the statesman, the artisan, nor the poet can explain why he is doing what is he doing, for none of them has formulated a clear, tractable, and explicit method of self-reflexive reasoning. That some members of humanity may act wisely on occasion does not prove that they possess genuine wisdom, for to be wise such persons must be able to offer explanatory and justificatory reasons for their deeds that will stand up to dispassionate scrutiny. The philosopher has this ability, and by means of dialectic, he can make progress in the quality of his self-understanding by criticizing received opinions. Philosophy thus liberates the space of reasons and never imposes itself upon the human mind by means of arbitrary techniques or conflated methods. Even mathematics, which for Plato is the most developed and admirable of the sciences, is subject to philosophical criticism. Philosophy is the highest form of speculative thought because it alone involves no presuppositions and is predicated on gratuitous reflection.
Unlike other branches of human learning and industry, philosophy has direct access to a “true reality” as distinct from the phenomenal world of ever-changing things. Having access to such a world, philosophy can offer pertinent and definitive criticisms of received opinions about the nature of meaning, beauty, and goodness. And since it concerns itself with the relationship between eternal and unchanging entities and verities, philosophy can validate its claim to possess certain knowledge of what actually exists rather than what seems to exist. At Phaedo 98-99, Plato suggests that the Ionian cosmologists did not possess true philosophical learning because they could not explain the purpose and nature of things. Being ignorant of the reality that upholds and sustains the universe and its objects, the cosmologists could not explain anything of real value concerning the nature of the world.
Lastly, and on account of a philosopher’s certain knowledge of an eternal and unchanging reality, he can know how people ought to live. For Plato, this entails that the speculative excellence of philosophical thought can be applied to the variable conditions of action, thereby reforming the moral quality of human life. Echoing the earlier pronouncements of Socrates, Plato readily castigated the proud claim of the Sophists to teach their charges the art of immediate worldly gain by means of quick wit and self-serving judgment. Such “fruits” of sophistical learning can never amount to genuine knowledge, since the mere exertion of intelligence is not comparable to the exercise of wisdom. Though the philosopher might look forlorn and foolish next to those who claim to teach the most efficacious route to fame and fortune, he is privileged by being in receipt of a form of understanding whose enduring qualities stand in stark contrast to the fleeting glories and superficialities of the world. For Plato, any attempt to explain and interpret the nature of the universe and human beings must involve philosophy. That is why the ideal ruler must be a philosopher, and those who would claim to be wise must be imbued, like Socrates, with a spirit of critical reflection.
What can be learned from Plato’s specification of the differences that separate philosophy from other branches of human learning is the idea that philosophy is quite unlike anything else. It is not reducible to another art or science, and its subject matter as well as its point and scope are not circumscribed by considerations that are external to its method of enquiry. Philosophy, then, belongs at the very summit of human knowledge. If prosecuted appropriately, it bequeaths to the individual mind a form of sagacity and judgment that will enable any human being to live well. Like Socrates, the philosopher stands apart from the world while seeking to make sense of it; philosophy is a sui generis activity.
These ideas found repeated expression, albeit in different forms, throughout the course of ancient philosophy. Aristotle, although he made enduring contributions to most forms of human knowledge (especially the natural sciences), was mindful of the differences between more rarefied forms of intellectual speculation, such as metaphysics and theology, and prosaic methods of taxonomy and description that belonged to the sciences of physics and what we could now term biology. Aristotle can be said to preserve the spirit if not the letter of Platonic teaching, especially in his insistence that the goal of human life is gratuitous contemplation of the divine.
In the schools of the Hellenistic period and late antiquity, the writings of adherents to Stoicism, Epicureanism, Cynicism, and Skepticism demonstrate a similar commitment to preserve a conception of philosophy as an autonomous discipline that can authenticate a reflective way of life. While individual members of these schools all emphasized the need to preface philosophical study by securing a sound knowledge of other fields of human enquiry, they held firm to the belief that the study of subjects such as physics, mathematics, or rhetoric is but a preface to the more challenging regime of philosophy. Even in certain Neoplatonic schools, where the view that theology is the goal of any genuine intellectual quest had gained momentum, there is little evidence to suggest that philosophers were prepared to characterize their subject, or at least to specify its difference from other branches of intellectual enquiry, in a manner that radically departed from the views of Socrates and Plato. Seen thus, an important aspect of the intellectual legacy of the ancients was the idea that philosophy stands apart from all other abstract and cerebral pursuits. Philosophy is not a physical science concerned with the description of natural phenomena; it is not a form of poetical discourse or artistic endeavor; it is not civic religion; philosophy is about critical reflection on the nature and conditions of human life leading to the development and practice of wisdom.
Although the idea that philosophy enjoyed a unique position in the scheme of human knowledge and was thereby unanswerable to anything but itself did not go unchallenged in antiquity, when ancient philosophy came into contact with biblically-based monotheistic religions of the Judeo-Christian tradition, it met with a thorough reappraisal of its claim to dominance. While Jewish and Christian thinkers such as the Alexandrians, Philo Judaeus (20 B.C.E.-45 C.E.), St. Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-between 211 and 215), and Origen of Alexandria (185?-?254), all endeavored to make sense of doctrinal issues by appropriating philosophical insights, a growing and increasingly vocal constituency, especially in Christian circles, argued that philosophy ought to be subservient to the claims of revealed religious teaching.
From the advent of the common era, a discussion was set in place that aimed to clarify the exact relations between philosophy and theology or sacred teaching (sacra doctrina). At its simplest, this debate sought to posit clear lines of demarcation that would distinguish the nature of philosophy and remit it from the province of theology. The debate sought to arrive at a view of how philosophy might or might not contribute to the path of individual salvation as that idea had been set down by Jewish, Christian, and from the seventh century onwards, Islamic teaching. The debate between “Athens and Jerusalem,” so famously instituted by Tertullian (c. 160-c. 220), was in part a discussion as to how ancient philosophy might or might not be arrogated by the theological doctrines of a biblically-grounded monotheism. A by-product of this discussion would be its detailed consideration of the relationship of philosophy to other fields of intellectual activity.
In their distinctive ways, Christian thinkers as dissimilar as the Cappadocian Fathers, St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430), Boethius (c. 480-c. 524), and Gregory I (c. 540-604); early medieval thinkers such as John Scotus Erigena (c. 810-c. 877), Peter Abelard (1079-?1144), and St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033 or 1034-1109); and the scholastics of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries all attempted to clarify the relationship of philosophy to theology. For these thinkers, the subject of “philosophy” amounted to the scientific teaching and ethical wisdom of the ancients (specifically Aristotelian learning conjoined to aspects of the Neoplatonic tradition and trace elements of Stoicism), while prevailing ideas of “theology” were distilled from ongoing attempts to codify the requirements of revealed teaching by means of ideas of tradition and authority. In different guises and with very different exigencies, these efforts were replicated by thinkers in the Jewish and Islamic traditions. One of the more pressing questions confronted by all who attempted to gauge the relationship between philosophy and theology was the issue of duplex veritatis or “double truth,” a problem that was debated in earnest from the thirteenth century onwards following the reintroduction of the corpus Aristotelicum to the Latin West.
Medieval and Renaissance
Given the authority assigned to Aristotle’s arguments on a wide variety of philosophical and scientific questions, it became apparent to many that what he had to say about such pressing topics as the origins of the world, the nature of the soul, and the final end of human life were at variance with the strictures of revealed biblical teaching. Some thirteenth-century theologians such as Albertus Magnus (c. 1200-1280), St. Thomas Aquinas (c. 1224-1274), and St. Bonaventure (1217-1274) advocated the use of aspects of Aristotelian philosophy, supplemented and corrected by the “higher truths” of revelation. Other thinkers, though—especially members of the Arts Faculty of the University of Paris, the so-called Latin Averroists—attempted to balance Aristotelian philosophy in its own right over against Christian revelation by arguing that a distinction could be enunciated between philosophical teaching and theological truth. In short, they proposed a theory that looked to their opponents and generations of more impartial scholars as a theory of “double truth,” according to which something might be true in philosophy, such as Aristotle’s well-known cosmological theory of the eternity of the world, yet false in theology and vice versa.
As medieval scholarship has long pointed out, the Latin Averroists, most notably Siger de Brabant (1240-between 1281 and 1284) and Boethius, did not themselves argue for a theory of double truth; rather, they reserved the term truth in an ultimate sense for revealed doctrine and never claimed the possibility that there could ever be two equally true contradictory truths specific to the competing requirements of theological and philosophical discourse. Nonetheless, they did recognize that reason rightly used could reach conclusions that did not agree with revealed doctrine, or else placed the veracity of certain biblical statements in question. Such was the hostility to their views in theological circles that Bishop of Paris Stephen Tempier issued condemnations of propositions associated with their work in 1270 and 1277.
In the later Middle Ages, yet another element was added to the general debate about the relationship of philosophy to theology by the nominalists and Scotists, followers of John Duns Scotus (c. 1266-1308): they contended that rationally deducible concepts and theological systems do not necessarily stand in any pertinent relationship to one another. The issue here is not one of duplex veritatis but rather one of a radical diastasis between philosophical or, in a Scotist dispensation, specifically metaphysical argument and the claims and requirements of theology. Some scholars have argued that this late medieval perspective underlies a good deal of the early Reformers’ rejection of philosophy in their initial attempts to codify their emerging theological positions. The problem set in motion by late medieval Scotism was further complicated by a shared proclivity among many Lutheran and Reformed theologians to embrace an Augustinian view of how the effects of original sin corrupt and deprave an individual’s powers of reasoning and the exercise of will.
The issue of double truth also appears in sixteenth-century philosophy in the writings of the Renaissance thinker Pietro Pomponazzi (1462-1525). He turned the medieval discussion on its head by arguing for the superiority of philosophical over theological truth. As an Aristotelian philosopher whose principal work was the exposition and analysis of the pages of Aristotle for the sake of developing a modern Peripatetic philosophy, Pomponazzi addressed the issue of the immortality of the soul and argued that the question could only be clarified and resolved philosophically. His conclusion was that the soul was indeed capable of discovering knowledge of higher things, especially the eternal truths of the universe, but he also indicated that such knowledge was restricted temporally to the life of the individual. The mind cannot survive the death of the body and cannot exist in a disembodied state. All of this Pomponazzi argued from the perspective of (Aristotelian) philosophy, while at the same time acknowledging that Scripture is without error and the doctrine of the immortality of the soul can be proved from it. More so than the much-maligned Siger de Brabant and Boethius of Dacia, Pomponazzi began to trespass into the territory of duplex veritatis, and can be said to have reasserted the traditional claim of philosophy to be the final tribunal in any dispute of reason.
One consequence of the protracted and sophisticated medieval debate on the relationship of philosophy to theology—a discussion that can be said to have continued in different guises, albeit with slightly altered terms of references, in the polemical disputations of the Renaissance and Reformation—was to initiate by the end of the sixteenth century a willingness on the part of philosophers to assert their independence from the theologians. In the time of the ancients, philosophers had enjoyed preeminence among the cognoscenti, yet with the advent of biblical monotheism and the rapid expansion of Islamic and Christian civilization, the place of philosophy had been relegated in importance next to theology. In addition to this, the developing system of university education that was established in Western Europe supported subjects such as medicine and law, each of which claimed their own unique intellectual status and professional structure. For the medieval tradition, philosophy (which included logic and the natural sciences) was at best the handmaid of theology, a valuable intellectual training that prepared the able minded for the dizzy heights of speculation on the truths of the bible and the mystery of the Godhead. While many of the most important and enduring achievements of high scholastic theology are framed within philosophical terms of reference (e.g., the use of the language of Aristotelian metaphysics to describe issues concerning the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Eucharist), for the authors of these works these discussions were theological, pertaining to sacra doctrina, and not philosophy.
With the dissolution of the medieval outlook in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, philosophers set about the long enterprise of recasting their subject so as to ensure its independence from theology but also to align it with new developments in scientific thinking. These tendencies can be observed in the writings of influential figures in the history of early-modern thought ranging from Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), Francis Bacon (1561-1626), Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), and René Descartes (1596-1650). That said, what in the early twenty-first century tends to be thought of as philosophy—a broad but relatively precise discipline distinct from the humanities, sciences, and religion and characterized by certain kinds of difficult and even irresoluble questions—would have struck an early modern thinker as a definition all too parsimonious in scope. The term philosophy in the seventeenth century included a great deal more than it does in the twenty-first, and this complicates any attempt to clarify the relationship of philosophy to other forms of human leaning in the early modern period. Philosophical learning would include the physical and biological sciences, as much as the logical structure of argument, conceptions of the good life, as well as questions about being and the existence and nature of God. Thus, a natural scientist in the seventeenth century would consider himself a “natural philosopher,” and though preoccupied with issues in mathematics and physics, would attempt to relate his understanding of these questions to more general areas of philosophical concern. Here one thinks of the very different writings of Marin Mersenne (1588-1648), Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655), Johann Clauberg (1622-1665), Robert Boyle (1627-1691), and Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727). Similarly, it would be wrong to detach figures who are believed to be purely “philosophical” (as that term is currently understood) from those who were “theologians,” “biblical exegetes,” “political theorists,” and “jurists.” Authors such as John Locke (1632-1704), Ralph Cudworth (1617-1688), Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (1646-1716), Nicholas Malebranche (1638-1715), Antoine Arnauld (1616-1694), Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), and Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) all displayed expertise in these disciplines. The range and generality of so many seventeenth-century philosophical questions, and the continuing disputes concerning the appropriate characterization of the world of nature accompanied by several thorny theological problems concerning divine grace and predestination, provides evidence that philosophy was connected to most fields in the arts and sciences, and enjoyed a close association with theology. The synoptic enterprise of seventeenth century philosophy would have to include not only the well-known canonical figures but also confessional apologists, corpuscularian scientists, alchemists and chemists, Jansenist polemists, Jesuit moralists, activists advancing toleration, country clergy, urban rabbis, city intellectuals, and a panorama of intellectually gifted royalty and nobles.
From the seventeenth century to the Enlightenment, a new intellectual entity known as “culture,” an enterprise that connoted more than simple custom but less than learning, began to occupy the middle ground between knowledge and ignorance. Most philosophes of the salons conceived their métier quite differently from the preceding generation of seventeenth-century thinkers who had attempted, with some optimism, to translate the fruits of scientific knowledge into an accessible idiom open to all educated persons. Not all the protagonists of the European Enlightenment upheld belief in the incremental democratization of human learning; rather, they held to the view that an encyclopedic understanding of all branches of knowledge would enhance the cause of civilization and harmony among nations.
Such ideas helped to facilitate a very different understanding of philosophy and its re lationship to the arts and sciences. Enlightenment thinkers and their successors no longer embraced a model of the subject that was directly influenced by the ancients. Aristotle’s teaching was believed to have been made obsolete by the intellectual developments of the seventeenth century, and while the deeds and opinions of ancient thinkers like Socrates, Plato, the Stoics, and the Epicureans were widely respected and valorized, post-Enlightenment thinkers looked more to the “novelties of the moderns” than the “wisdom of the ancients” for essential instruction about the nature of the world and the purpose of human life. In addition, the increasing secularization of European thought and the general advancement of science in society, industry, and learning became increasingly opposed to the earlier models of philosophical practice that had encouraged the gratuitous pursuit of wisdom or the importance of a metaphysics leading to theology. Such views of philosophy were deemed to be out of keeping with the intellectual, cultural, and mercantile needs of the age. Perhaps more than at any other time in its illustrious history, the proud boast of the ancients that philosophy should stand at the top of the hierarchy of knowledge was now forcefully challenged by thinkers who remained unconvinced that philosophy was any different than other reputable branches of learning.
What one might term the conversion of philosophy from the quest for wisdom to the more prosaic pursuit of conceptual analysis, or the abstract clarification of the claims of more important scientific theories, is a marked feature of the philosophical thought since the turn of the nineteenth century. Since Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), philosophers have become more limited in their intellectual ambitions and, at times, have dispensed with the pretensions of their subject to be a synoptic discipline, or else to propose something of enduring value or pertinence on the subjects of God, ethics, and beauty. For good or ill, modern philosophy has preferred to restrict its purview to those matters that can be demonstrated to be legitimate objects of discourse and has eschewed ways of talking about issues that are deemed to lie outside the boundaries of sense meaning.
The prominence of such views, especially in the English-speaking world, eventually led to a recasting of the relationship of philosophy to other subjects of intellectual concern. In those quarters where the influence of scientism has been unyielding, there has been widespread support for the view that philosophy can never pretend to emulate the accuracy, reliability, and verisimilitude of valid scientific theories. Going on from there, some thinkers have taken the further step and argued that there are no perennial philosophical questions, and that traditional philosophical puzzles concerning the nature of the mind, the structure of the world, and the moral qualities of human beings have either been resolved or else superceded by advancements in physics, biology, and psychology. For these thinkers, there is nothing special about philosophy, and there is nothing to privilege it over and above other branches of intellectual inquiry. A well-known position associated with the work of the American thinker Richard Rorty (b. 1931) has even suggested that philosophy has expired through exhaustion. Now that science has demystified the world and resolved the perennial mysteries, what else is there for philosophy to do? Given the end of philosophy, Rorty has suggested that scholars turn to subjects such as literature in order to make sense of the seeming intractabilities of human worldly existence.
Yet Rorty’s position, though it is based on a set of metaphysical commitments that are widely shared by contemporary philosophers, is by no means universal, and despite the blandishments of fashion and novelty, the daily grind of philosophical speculation still goes on. Few are persuaded that the subject first commissioned by father Thales (c. 625-c. 547 B.C.E.) and so suggestively ameliorated by Socrates and his successors is really at an end. What is perhaps significant about this phenomenon is the fact that the very practice of philosophy, whether it be in dialogical or in written form, helps to ensure the impression among practitioners of the subject that the discipline is really quite different from every branch of the humanities, sciences, and theology. Why is this so? It really comes down to the type of question, the supporting framework of reference, and the variety of answer that it invites that identify and individuate a question as a philosophical question. Socrates understood this and the Sophists did not. That each generation of his successors has attempted to honor the special nature of the discipline he did so much to create stands as testimony to the fact that philosophy will always enjoy a vicarious relationship to other branches of human learning.