What ist Philosophy?

Bertrand Russell describes in the prologue of his book Wisdom of the West, what philosophers are doing and what philosophy is not.

Wisdom of the West

First published in 1959 by Macdonald & Co. (Publishers) Ltd., 16 Maddox Street, W.1.
in association with Rathbone Books Ltd.
© Rathbone Books Ltd., London 1959
Printed in Great Britain by L. T. A. Robinson Ltd., London


What are philosophers doing when they are at work? This is indeed an odd question, and we may try to answer it by first setting out what they are not doing. There are, in the world around us, many things which are understood fairly well. Take, for instance, the working of a steam engine. This falls within the fields of mechanics and thermodynamics. Again, we know quite a lot abot the way in which the human body is build and functions. These are matters that are studied in anatomy and physiology. Or, finally, consider the movement of the stars about which we know a great deal. This comes under the heading of astronomy. All such pieces of well defined knowledge belong to one or other of the sciences.

But all this provinces of knowledge border on an circumambient area of the unknown. As one comes into the border regions and beyond, one passes from science into the field of speculation. This speculative activity is a kind of exploration, and this, among other things, is what philosophy is. As we shell see later, the various fields of science all started as philosophic exploration in this sense. Once a science becomes solidly grounded, it proceeds more or less independently, except for borderline problems and questions of method. But in a way the exploratory process does not advance as much, it simply goes on and finds new employment.

At the same time we must distinguish philosophy from other kinds of speculation. In itself philosophy sets out neither to solve our troubles nor to save our souls. It is, as the Greeks put it, a kind of sightseeing adventure undertaken for its own sake. There is thus in principle no question of dogma, or rites, or sacred entities of any kind, even though individual philosophers may of course turn out to be stubbornly dogmatic. There are indeed two attitudes that might be adopted towards the unknown. One is to accept pronouncements of people who say they know, on the basis of books, mysteries or other sources of inspiration. The other way is to go out and look for oneself, and this is the way of science and philosophy.

Lastly, we may note one speculative feature of philosophy. If someone ask the question what is mathematics, we can give him a dictionary definition, let us say the science of number, for the sake of argument. As far as it goes this is an uncontroversial statement, and moreover one that can be easily understood by the questioner though he may be ignorant of mathematics. Definitions may be given in this way of any field where a body of definite knowledge exists. But philosophy cannot be so defined. Any definition is controversial ans already embodies a philosophic attitude. The only way to find out what philosophy is, is to do philosophy. To show how men have done this in the past is the main aim of this book.

There are many questions that people who think do at some time or other ask themselves, where science cannot yield an answer. Neither will those who try to think for themselves be willing to take on trust the ready answers given by soothsayers. It is the task of philosophy to explore these questions, ans sometimes to dispose of them.

Thus we may be tempted to ask ourselves such questions as what is the meaning of life, if indeed it have any at all. Has the world a purpose, does the unfolding of history lead somewhere, or are these senseless questions?

Then there are problems such as whether nature really is ruled by laws, or whether we merely think this is so because we like to see things in some order. Again, there is a general query whether the world is divided into two disparate parts, mind and matter, and, if so, how they hang together.

And what are we to say of man? Is he a speck of dust crawling helplessly on a small and unimportant planet, as the astronomers see it? Or is he, as the chemists might hold, a heap of chemicals put together in some cunning way? Or, finally, is man what he appears to Hamlet, noble in reason, infinite in faculty? Is man, perhaps, all of these at once?

Along with this there are ethical questions about good and evil. Is there a way of life that is good, and another that is bad, or is it indifferent how we live? If there be a good way of life, what is it, and how can we learn to live it? Is there something we may call wisdom, or is what seems to be such mere empty madness?

All these are puzzling questions. One cannot settle them by carrying out experiments in a laboratory, and those of an independent frame of mind are unwilling to fall back on the pronouncements of dispensers of universal nostrums. To such as these the history of philosophy supplies what answer can be given. In studying this difficult subject we learn what others at other times have thought about these matters. And so we come to understand them better, for their way of tacking philosophy is an important facet of their way of life. In the end this may show us how to live though knowing little.

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