What is Philosophy?


It’s a question philosophers like to ask from time to time, never arriving at a universally satisfactory answer. If you start to read Hegel, you might arrive at the notion that philosophy is the science of Spirit coming to know itself as Spirit; and yet even once this strange thought has entered your brain, it will take a lot more patient study of the great philosopher’s work to unpack exactly what this means.

In the “Preface” to his Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel tells us that what is essential to philosophy is “universality”. Philosophy seeks to discover not just what is true, but what is universally or absolutely so. For example: “Cardiff is the capital of Wales”, “It is the 30th of July 2020”, and “I am hungry” might all be true statements, but these are not the kinds of truth philosophy is seeking. On the other hand, the question of what it is about these statements that makes us say that they are all “true” might be a philosophical question, since it has to do with the essential nature of truth, or what is true in all cases of truth.

Hegel’s approach to the history of philosophy is coloured by this notion that philosophy has to do with universality: it is not enough to take individual philosophers and their systems merely as particular instances, each to be refuted or argued for in isolation; instead, each philosophical system must be seen as expressing the universal truth, however incompletely or imperfectly. For Hegel, truth is something that has unfolded gradually and progressively throughout the history of humankind, and philosophical systems must be seen as connected and part of a long tradition, with philosophers learning from their predecessors, improving on what they find, getting closer to the truth with each passing generation.

To put it paradoxically: the result of philosophical investigation should not just be a result – a set of simple truths that can be easily reported to non-specialists once the philosophical work is completed. Instead, we should see that the result is the result and the process by which the result is reached. We cannot just take up what is true in particular philosophies and discard what is false: what is false must be worked through so that we can understand how the truth was reached, and the false as much as the true must be retained as an essential part of the journey.

Philosophy is the science of Spirit coming to know itself as Spirit, because it is the journey of discovery that each generation must work through afresh, making the same mistakes, only advancing one or two steps further than their predecessors each time. Philosophy never arrives at the end, with a full set of data that can simply be set down for the next generation to read and move on. The students of each generation must do the philosophical work, reading the philosophers who came before, coming to know themselves by seeing themselves reflected in the insights – and mistakes – of the past.

(Image is from Pixabay.)

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