What Is Philosophy?

Por • 2 nov, 2022 • Sección: Filosofía

Collin Cleary

  1. Knowledge of the Right Use of All Things

To explain what philosophy is, we always have to go back to the beginning. Pythagoras (ca. 570-495 BC) is said to have been confronted by Leon, the tyrant of Philius, who demanded to know if he was wise. He responded that he was not a wise man, but merely a φιλόσοφος (philosophos), a “lover of wisdom”; a practitioner of φιλοσοφία (philosophia). Φίλος (philos) means “love,” and σοφῐ́ᾱ (sophia) means “wisdom.” Strangely, Pythagoras is usually assumed to have been sincere in this answer, though he may have been engaging in a prudent false modesty. He went on to compare philosophers to the spectators at the Olympic games. This is a point I will come back to a bit later. The comparison is puzzling at first, but it is of great significance.

Philosophers have always been taken to be “loving” wisdom in the sense of pursuing it. Thus, philosophers are people who are deliberately trying to become wise. Needless to say, this is only helpful if we have some general idea of what wisdom is, or might be. And we do not have to be wise in order to have such an idea. So, what can we say about the nature of wisdom? Many years ago at a campus book sale I picked up, for a song, a psychology textbook titled Wisdom: Its Nature, Origins, and Development.[1] The back cover promises us that the topic is cutting edge: “Wisdom is such an elusive psychological construct that few people have considered it a viable field until recently.”

The contributors, all of them psychologists, try to delineate the characteristics of a wise human being. In doing so, predictably, some of them manage to smuggle in the characteristics of a liberal human being: “tolerance,” “openness,” “relativism,” etc. Thus, in approaching the question of wisdom, we must be on our guard not to do something similar: to merely describe ourselves, or to describe according to modern cultural presuppositions. We should maintain our historical perspective, at least for the moment, and begin by dealing with how Pythagoras and the Greeks understood sophia.

The adjective σοφός (sophos) means “wise.” It was used by the Greeks to mean “clever,” “able,” or “skillful,” especially in the arts or crafts, so that a carpenter might be called sophos. It could also mean “cunning,” so that a man like Odysseus was also sophos. It could likewise mean “prudent,” which often involves cleverness or cunning, at least when one is being prudent around other human beings. The man who is sophos thus could be a bit of a tricky character. Indeed, we might think of the so-called sophist (σοφῐστής). The sophists were itinerate teachers in the fifth and fourth centuries BC. For a fee, they would teach you or your children about such things as music, athletics, and mathematics. They also taught rhetoric, the art of effective speaking — or what Aristophanes called the art of “making the weaker speech the stronger”; i.e., the art of convincing anybody of anything, no matter how implausible or base.

This activity earned the sophists their bad reputation as con artists and swindlers who undermined social order by corrupting the youth. However, the name σοφῐστής just means “wise one.” The prevailing view today is that theirs was a false wisdom, and they are contrasted with figures like Socrates. Nevertheless, it must be said that it is often hard to see much of a difference between the Socrates of Plato’s dialogues and the sophists, aside from the fact that Socrates didn’t charge a fee. Aristophanes certainly didn’t see much of a difference. See his highly entertaining play The Clouds, in which Socrates is depicted as a composite sophist and Pre-Socratic natural philosopher. Most of Athens’ male population didn’t see much of a difference, either, and they put Socrates to death essentially for all the things the sophists were accused of. A nuanced reading of Plato also reveals that his own view of the sophists was more than a bit ambivalent.

Speaking of Socrates, we should also consider the term σωφροσύνη (sophrosunē), an important concept in Plato’s dialogues. The word is formed from σώφρων (sophron, “wise”) +‎ –σ́νη (-sunē), a suffix which creates abstract nouns out of adjectives. Thus, sophrosunē is effectively just another word for wisdom. In its usage, however, it often had a narrower sense. Sophrosunē is a major topic within Plato’s Republic, where Socrates treats it as having to do with the control of desires (hence it is often translated as “temperance” or “moderation”). The entire dialogue Charmides is devoted to sophrosunē. However, what is said differs markedly from The Republic.

In Charmides, Socrates and his interlocutors formulate several definitions of sophrosunē without coming to any definite conclusion. At least some of the definitions are probably popular conceptions of sophrosunē, or ones put forward by sophists or philosophers. Six definitions are offered in all. Sophrosunē is described as doing things in a tranquil way, having a sense of shame, minding one’s own business (which Socrates will playfully identify with justice in The Republic), making good works, and knowing oneself (as in the Delphic exhortation). The sixth and final definition, which Socrates also rejects, is puzzling: “[sophrosunē is] the only science that is both a science of itself and of the other sciences.”[2] The word that is translated as “science” here is ἐπιστήμη (epistēmē), which can also mean “knowledge.” Thus, we can also read the definition as saying that sophrosunē is “the only knowledge that is both a knowledge of itself and of the other types of knowledge.”

Let’s consider this peculiar definition in connection with what Socrates says about happiness and wisdom in Euthydemus. There, he argues that we all wish to be happy, and that we become happy by using things rightly. All things can be used either rightly or wrongly. Right use typically leads to success and happiness; wrong use to failure and unhappiness (or some other unfavorable outcome). For example, you could use your inheritance to support your cocaine habit and blow it all in a few years and be poor again. Or, you could invest it wisely, increase it, and enjoy it for many years to come. Wisdom, Socrates says, is the right use of all things. It follows that everyone should want to become wise, since wisdom would seem to guarantee happiness (282e1-5). Thus, everyone should pursue wisdom, or be a philosopher.

This argument has the interesting implication that wisdom is something qualitatively different from everything else in the world. All things have the potential of being misused — money, influence, power, weapons, tools, eloquence, beauty, strength, charm, science, you name it. It follows that all things are only conditionally good — conditional on being used well or used rightly. But since wisdom is the knowledge of the right use of all things, it cannot be misused. The wise person would know how to use all things rightly, which includes the use of their wisdom (the wise person, if they are genuinely wise, could not misuse wisdom). It follows from this that wisdom is the one unconditionally good thing in the world, precisely because it cannot be misused.

This characterization of wisdom in Euthydemus has important parallels to the sixth definition of sophrosunē in Charmides. Like sophrosunē, wisdom is a “science” of all things — of the right use of all things. But it is also a “science” of itself, since wisdom would also enable us to use wisdom rightly. (Technically, this is “trivially true” since genuine wisdom cannot be misused.) Now, what we have learned in examining Charmides and Euthydemus dovetails nicely with our examination of the usages of sophos. The knowledge of the right use of all things is what the clever man has; the man who knows how to get things done.  Sigue en…

 7,590 words


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