What is Philosophy? : Understanding Understanding
There’s my definition. Done. End of the line. Nothing else to see. You can stop reading right here, click off this page and go about the rest of your day.
. . .
Some would consider starting a blog post with the conclusion anticlimactic, while others would think it insane. Who would bother to read on when they already have the answer they came here for? Normally I would agree that perhaps starting with the conclusion is a not so splendid idea, but for this question I think I’ll make an exception. The question itself is paradoxical anyway; how can I answer “What is philosophy?” in a non-philosophical manner, and how can I address it in a philosophical manner without knowing what philosophy is? In this one scenario, mixing things up seems like a logical response to a paradoxical issue, if such a response exists.
So as you may have picked up, instead of starting with an idea and ending with a definition, in this post I’ll flip everything around. I’ll start with a definition, and over the course of the post I’ll break the definition down into pieces and explain how I got to each piece and what each piece means to me. Without any further ado…
Piece 1: Fundamental Understanding
With all that rambling you may have already forgotten what my definition was (I don’t blame you, that was quite a lot of rambling), so I would suggest popping back up to the top of the post for a quick refresher. The second part of my definition is of particular importance for this piece, especially the words “fundamental human understanding”. What could I possibly mean by that?
To me, fundamental understanding is different than understanding what type of food an apple is (a fruit!), or how a rocket works (science!). Those comprehensions would most likely fall into the scientific domain, not the philosophical one. No, fundamental understanding is the understanding of understanding (or meta-understanding if you prefer). For example, the understanding that an apple is a fruit is built upon the understanding that we know what an apple is, and that understanding is built upon knowing what knowledge is. To clear things up, here’s a personal example of meta-understanding.
1) I have a cat.
2) My cat sometimes scratches the upholstery.
3) I understand that my cat sometimes scratches the upholstery.
4) If I understand the understanding in 3), I might gain insight as to what kind of creature a cat is or why he would do these things. Those fundamental understandings are what the understanding in 3) is built upon.
So what do we do when we have gained this fundamental understanding? What use is it? Well, here’s a more relevant example than the previous one:
1) Society agrees that criminals should be punished.
2) In other words, society has a collective understanding that those who commit crimes should be brought to justice.
3) If we can understand this collective understanding, we could comprehend what our society believes to be criminal behaviour and what code of ethics our society follows. These fundamental understandings could change our current views on how criminals should be treated and potentially rehabilitated.
I feel that this is a vital piece to philosophy because our world is built upon countless scientific, social, moral, and philosophical understandings. By moving from understanding to meta-understanding, I believe that we can delve into important issues far more deeply than ever before.
Piece 2: Strive
“And that is precisely what [philosophers] were mocked for: always pursuing and never attaining.”
Robert Pasnau, “Why not just weigh the fish?”
As we have covered in recent class readings, philosophy is often mocked for its “lack of results”. To me, this seems to be folly. I see philosophy as an ongoing study, one that builds on top of previous work in order to reach new understandings that are relevant to today’s world.
Another reason I believe it to be laughable to mock philosophy for its “lack or results” is because conclusions and understandings may be subjective. To clarify that, here’s another example from my life.
1) I see myself as the “ruler” of my cat, due the the fact that I am physically and mentally superior to him.
2) My cat sees me as his slave, the big thing who feeds him when he is hungry and lavishes him with attention.
Neither of these understandings are wrong; since my cat and I have different viewpoints and backgrounds, it makes sense that our understandings would differ on some key issues. Another common example is how I would perceive a red apple differently from a person who is colourblind; again, neither of us are wrong, we simply have different understandings because of our unique circumstances.
Piece 3: Expansion
To conclude, philosophy serves as a useful tool for the understanding of human ideas new and old. It can benefit society by looking at our basic understandings in a new way, and it can also benefit the individual by helping them understand themselves and their own life.