Philosophy can be an intimidating topic, but it is so important that everyone needs to put in the time and effort to learn the meaning and value of philosophy. To do so, it is helpful to go back to the origins.

Philosophy as we know it emerged in 5th century Greece. The term “philosophy” was coined within this context and it literally means “the love of wisdom.” This may be surprising but philosophers are first and foremost lovers and just like any lover the philosopher should be passionately committed to pursuing his beloved. What distinguishes philosophy from other kinds of love is its object, namely, wisdom. So the all-important question for understanding philosophy concerns wisdom. Just what is this wisdom that philosophers seek?

Although there were antecedents, Socrates is widely and rightly regarded as the father of Western philosophy. For Socrates, wisdom is primarily practical; it concerns the good. The wise man judges well about how to live. To be sure, Socrates does not think that wisdom is always a precise and certain form of knowledge, in fact, he often professes ignorance. Nevertheless, Socrates marks out a path for the development of wisdom.

It is necessary to focus on three specific questions.

  1. What is really important in life?
  2. Why is it important?
  3. How do you achieve it?

These questions are the focus of Socratic philosophy and they are permanently relevant. In fact, we should be taking this kind of personal inventory on a regular basis. If you do not go through this process on a regular basis then you are liable to waste your life and your energy and it is likely that you will be manipulated by politicians and advertisers into following their self-aggrandizing agenda.

Now all three questions are important, but the second question really distinguishes philosophy from many self-help imitators. The question, “why is it important” engages critical reasoning. It is a question that challenges and demands an argument, a justification.

Nothing distinguishes philosophy as much as argument. In this context, argument is of course not just any passionate disagreement. Rather argument is a form of logical analysis and demonstration. It is a rigorous exercise of critical reasoning that requires commitment and self-examination; it also cuts out lazy thinking and builds intellectual strength. The Socratic Method is a form of testing. Socrates engages with an interlocutor who professes to know something about how one should live. Socrates asks his interlocutor to define his terms and to provide a support argument. For example, what is rhetoric and why is it important? Usually Socrates finds that the supporting argument is weak or superficial. He shows with precision that the argument being used does not necessarily demonstrate the truth of the conclusion. The point of this is both negative and positive.

Going through the Socratic Method helps us to test our beliefs about life logically. What evidence really backs up my priorities and choices? When we go through this process we often find that our values and commitments are arbitrary or irrational. In this way, philosophy helps us to expose and rid ourselves of irrational ideas that misdirect our lives. More positively, philosophy can also confirm our beliefs about life or give us new perspectives. When a value is tested by the Socratic Method and it remains standing then we can say that it is confirmed. Similarly, once we come to examine carefully the relative values of leisure and work, for example, we may come to realize that work is not the most important thing in life. The argumentative character of philosophy brings in a social dimension that often goes unnoticed.

Philosophers need interlocutors. Philosophers need other lovers of wisdom and this is perfectly natural. People always come together around things they love. So genuine philosophers should be united by their shared love of wisdom. Understood in this way, philosophy is a form of friendship; becoming a philosopher means joining a community that stretches across countries and time. Practically this is important because it gives us a community of people who challenge us and make us better.

Philosophy has a lot teach us. Philosophy is for everyone. Don’t waste your life. Become a philosopher.

To learn more join Catholic Studies Academy and take my class, PHI 101 Introduction to Philosophy.