INTRODUCTION TO PHILOSOPHY:
What 'philosophy' might be and its relation to theology.
Welcome to this course! Have you ever had a conversation about what's wrong with the country and how it might be fixed up? Or thought about whether there was such a thing as a 'soul' or 'God' and whether we really survived death? Have you ever sat down, perhaps at the end of a party or barbeque when only the regulars are left, and in company with a few good friends 'solved the problems of the world'?
If you have, then you should be rather set for this course. The Republic, which is probably the most famous of the Dialogues of the Greek philosopher Plato (427 - 347 B.C.) is about the first of the above questions, more or less, and it is set over dinner or after dinner. Another of his Dialogues, the Symposium or Feast, is quite specifically set at the end of a dinner party after numbers of wines when those remaining take it in turns to share and discuss what genuine love is. Some of them are rather more serious in their setting. For example, Socrates is waiting to be given the hemlock to drink, this being the method by which he is to be executed by the Athenian democracy (399 B.C.). The conversation just has to be about death and the after-life! Whatever, it is all along the same lines, people engaged in thinking matters of individual and common concern through more deeply, in a more or less sophisticated fashion, beyond the everyday taken for granted, a search for insight and wisdom, typically in conversation, in dialogue with others.
To cite someone more modern, how about this, from the great Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711- 1776 A.D.), towards the end of his Enquiry concerning Human Understanding (Section XII): "Those who have a propensity to philosophy, will still continue their researches; because they reflect, that, besides the immediate pleasure attending such an occupation, philosophical decisions are nothing but the reflections of common life, methodized and corrected." (EHU 162, my emphasis). Or the notion of philosophy as the conversation of human kind put forward by the contemporary American philosopher Richard Rorty. Though this latter may go a little bit too far.
Whatever, philosophy is not just a university subject or a university department. It is something that engages, or may engage you and people with whom you associate. Indeed, from very early on, it has been regarded by many in both East and West as useful for everyone and a necessity for some, a part of one's spiritual journey and a vitally important ingredient particularly for anyone inspiring for leadership or public office. Interestingly enough, from the very beginnings in the early circle of Pythagoras (about 500 BC) this included women, as also in the circle of Plato at least in theory.
The object of the course you are about to enter is to help you/us widen the conversation, to give us a whole heap of new dialogue partners so to speak, derived mostly for the Mediterranean basin and European traditions.
Philosophy, conceived as a continuous tradition of thinking, a 'conversation of human kind' expressing itself in various forms of literature, has been with us in both East and West since before 500 B.C. Indeed, it is very interesting that three of the key early people in different parts of the world were all alive at the same time: Pythagoras, c. 575 - after 500 B.C., Confucius, 551- 479 B.C. and the Buddha, 560 - c. 480 B.C.. It's as if something new was happening all over the world, as if humanity as such suddenly broke through to a new level of self-reflection. Needless to say, something like this has been going on, in both East and West, in a variety of different forms ever since.
Our word 'philosophy' comes from two Greek words, philia, meaning 'love' as in Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love; and sophia, meaning 'wisdom', in something like the sense of, life enhancing knowledge. So a philosopher is someone who is in love with wisdom, and strives after it with the powers at his or her disposal. The word seems to have been first coined by the Pythagoreans.
According to Aristotle (384 -322 B.C.) philosophy begins in wonder. One might say that it continues to be sustained by wonder. While it always takes place in some culture and some tradition of previous thinking, e.g. the one you are in at the moment, it proceeds by reference to the experiences available to the participants, the best reasoning they can muster at the time, and more or less open dialogue with each other and with its own past. It is something you have already been engaged in and which you are invited to engage in some more, albeit in another, probably a bit more 'academic', mode. ['Academic' by the way comes from the name of the philosophy school set up by Plato, the Academy).
Finally, there are at least three reasons why a person interested primarily in Christian theology might be interested in this unit:
1) Firstly, there is a large degree of overlap between problems and mysteries that philosophers probe and those that theologians are interested in. For example, freedom and determinism, souls and minds and bodies, right and wrong, life after death, how we construct ourselves or are constructed as the people that we are, God. There is plenty of room for cross-fertilization, for each to draw on the other.
2) Secondly, in the classic phrase from the early Middle Ages, philosophy is the 'handmaiden' of theology. Theology is Faith Seeking Understanding (St Anselm, also early Middle Ages) or something like that. While philosophy is not enough for a person taken up in faith, theology typically makes judicious use of the resources of philosophy, the best that it knows at the time, in its project of understanding.
3) Thirdly, the history of Christian (and indeed Jewish and Islamic) doctrine, theology, ethics and even spirituality, is incomprehensible without a knowledge of the philosophical thought world in which it was formed. (In the case of Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism they are close to being continuous with each other, with the philosophical paths being elements within various kinds of knowledge and meditation yogas.)
In conclusion, Good Luck, and Happy Thinking! Keep your mind open, your critical faculties at work, and don't believe everything you read.
You might like to take a little time now filling in two columns side by side, with the word Hopes on one side and the word Fears on the other. What would you most like to get out of this unit?