The Meaning of Philosophy.

Recently a colleague asked me: “What is the meaning of philosophy?” This happened in a discussion in which she and I had agreed to define philosophy as the quest for the meaning of life. My preliminary answer was: “Philosophy is a part of life, so when you’ll know the meaning of life, you’ll know the meaning of philosophy.” My reply was actually an attempt to confuse her, so as to kill the discussion for the moment, thereby to conceal the fact that I didn’t have a real answer to her question. But though my attempt was successful, I wasn’t satisfied.

Since then, I’ve thought about it some more, and have come to the following line of thought.

The question as to the meaning of philosophy is itself a philosophical question. The logical response, therefore, is: “You tell me! For apparently, you know! For apparently, you consider it meaningful to philosophise—otherwise you wouldn’t have asked that question!”

This does not just hold for philosophising, however, but for all activities—including living. Apparently you consider it meaningful to live, otherwise you wouldn’t be doing it; otherwise you would not keep yourself alive, would not protect yourself against lethal danger.

So for you, life evidently has meaning. What, then, is the meaning of philosophy? Philosophy does not need to establish that life has meaning. What, then, does it need to establish?—The exact nature of that meaning. Apparently, the knowledge regarding that nature is subconscious. Therefore, it must be called up: it’s lying dormant within yourself. To make this knowledge conscious is the meaning of philosophy.

Can you clarify why it is apparent that the knowledge regarding that nature is subconscious?

If you mean “why it isn’t conscious”, the answer’s simple: because otherwise philosophy (the quest for the meaning of life) would not exist. If you mean “why it’s subconscious rather than unconscious”, it’s because apparently, that knowledge lies just beneath the surface: for its presence shimmers through to the consciousness (for this senses that there is such a meaning: otherwise the being whose consciousness it is would not be living).

Would it not be more meaningful to ask: What is the purpose or the use of philosophy? Philosophy is an activity of the intellect, it has no meaning. It is like asking what is the meaning of sitting?

Okay, then…

What is the purpose of sitting?

2: something meant or intended : aim

The meaning of sitting’s obvious.

Don’t we live because we have an instinctual tendency to avoid death? What does it have to do with meaning? Or is that the meaning: life is all about following your instincts?

Simply put Philosophy is the pursuit of wisdom. As the philosopher is the lover of wisdom, philosophy is the study of wisdom. This is obviously my most simple and generalized answer but probably the only one worth giving out.

Another thing to note is that the meaning of philosophy varies just as much as the meaning for happiness does to people. So your question is more personal rather than intellectual.

Lastly, just to point out what philosophy could be and was you should know that all knowledge and sciences were actually categorized under philosophy (about 2500 years ago). Back then science was called natural philosophy, and even Isaac Newton when he invented calculus called his famous book “The Principles of mathematics and natural philosophy”. Nowadays everything is so specified that its taken on its own field and name, like political philosophy is now called political science and etc.

What kind of meaning are we looking for here? Are we looking for something linguistic (as in, sitting is the act of placing your arse on a surface of some sort) in which case we’re going to have to look at the etymology of the word, how it is generally used today etc. Or are we looking for something more personal i.e. what meaning do you find in philosophy. I think searching for any kind of ‘universal meaning’ over and above the linguistic is useless, and someone is free to get just about whatever meaning they want to out of philosophy.

I mean, what would a mathematician say to the question “what is the meaning of mathematics?” He could either give an account of how we use the word and maybe a few examples of the definition in practice, or he could talk about how much he enjoys doing it. Why should the philosopher be any different?

No, you miss the point entirely. Why do we have an instinctual tendency to avoid death?

[F]ear of death, however powerful it may be and however useful it may be as a motive for seeking peace and, hence, law with teeth in it, cannot be the fundamental experience. It presupposes an even more fundamental one: that life is good. The deepest experience is the pleasant experience of existence.
[Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind.]

These experiences are the bases of Hobbes’ and Rousseau’s philosophy, respectively. There is, however, a stark difference between Rousseau’s and Nietzsche’s conceptions of the pleasant experience of existence:

The satyr and the idyllic shepherd of later times have both been products of a desire for naturalness and simplicity. But how firmly the Greek shaped his wood sprite, and how self-consciously and mawkishly the modern dallies with his tender, fluting shepherd! For the Greek the satyr expressed nature in a rude, uncultivated state: he did not, for that reason, confound him with the monkey. Quite the contrary, the satyr was man’s true prototype, an expression of his highest and strongest aspirations. […] Here archetypal man was cleansed of the illusion of culture, and what revealed itself was authentic man, the bearded satyr jubilantly greeting his god. […] The idyllic shepherd of modern man is but a replica of the sum of cultural illusions which he mistakes for nature. The Dionysian Greek, desiring truth and nature at their highest power—he sees himself metamorphosed into the satyr.
[Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, chapter 8; cf. ch. 19, and Nietzsche’s “bon sauvage”.]

Philosophy is the pursuit of wisdom in the sense of “knowledge”. According to Aristotle, science was also philosophy; but “first philosophy”, actual philosophy, was metaphysics: the pursuit of knowledge regarding existence as a whole. Heidegger has aptly explained this, and according to him, the fundamental question of metaphysics (that is, of actual philosophy) was: “Why is there something at all, and not rather nothing?”—that is, the question as to the meaning of Being. If someone were to ask me what the meaning of life (Living) was, I could answer: “Life is a part of Being, so when you’ll know the meaning of Being, you’ll know the meaning of life.” But:

Being—we have no idea of it apart from the idea of “living.”—How can anything dead “be”?
[Nietzsche, The Will to Power, section 582.]

Hence Nietzsche transferred the will to power, the principle of life, to “lifeless” existence as well.

[W]hat formerly happened with the Stoics still happens today, as soon as any philosophy begins to believe in itself. It always creates the world in its own image, it cannot do otherwise; philosophy is this tyrannical drive itself, the most spiritual will to power, to the “creation of the world,” to the causa prima [first cause].
[Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, section 9.]

The interpretation of the meaning of philosophy, as of the meaning of happiness, differs from man to man; but interpretation is will to power…

The meaning of life is “happiness”, that is, the feeling of power; and the meaning of philosophy is to raise that feeling to the highest level of awareness.

Like I said on another forum, the meaning (or rather, purpose) of philosophy is to bring about a tragic age. Simple.

Sauwelios, the last sentence of your last post misses something: that for decadents, thought is poison. The height of happiness for a decadent is a circular set of lies (‘the sea’- see The Seven Seals, Z). But philosophy, or rather thought, is always against this, always at war with the sea. Philosophy then (in it’s purest sense- not some lame German idealist sense) only brings happiness to tragic (ie Dionysian) people, and the final goal in this regard is to bring about a tragic age like that of Hellenic Greece or Renaissance Europe. Nietzsche was the first decent human being; he was also the first decent philosopher (and in that, the first entirely tragic philosopher). Before him all conscious thought contained an element of non-thought; he was the first person to bring true and proper (ie entirely tragic) philosophy to man.

Are those your only two options? I already picked the applicable entry from Merriam-Webster, above.

As for the etymology: I suspect the phrase “the meaning of life” is a translation of the German, ‘der Sinn des Lebens’, which in English would be “the sense of life” (but note that ‘Leben’ is a nominalised verb meaning “to live”: so it literally means “the sense of Living”). Compare the word ‘Unsinn’, “nonsense”. The etymology’s definitely interesting:

prob. a fig. use of a lit. meaning “to find one’s way,” from PIE base *sent- “to go”

Compare Nietzsche’s description of nihilism (which in WTP 55 he describes as the feeling of meaninglessness) and his way out of it:

We have discovered happiness, we know the way, we have found the exit out of the labyrinth of thousands of years [Christianity, which he designated as a nihilistic religion]. Who else has found it?—Modern man perhaps? “I have got lost; I am everything that has got lost”—sighs modern man… [Thus Nietzsche elsewhere says that the question as to the meaning of life would become the most urgent philosophical question in the near future.] This modernity was our sickness,—lazy peace, cowardly compromise, the whole virtuous uncleanliness of the modern Yes and No. This tolerance and largeur of the heart [compare the notion expressed by drifter above that everyone can have his own meaning of philosophy…], which “forgives” all because it “understands” all, is sirocco for us. Rather live in the ice than among modern virtues and other south winds!.. We were intrepid enough, we spared neither ourselves nor others: but for a long time we did not know where to turn with our intrepidity. We became gloomy, we were called fatalists. Our fatum—the abundance, the tension, the damming of strength. We thirsted for lightning and deeds and were most remote from the happiness of the weakling, from “resignation”… In our atmosphere was a thunderstorm, the nature we are became dark—for we saw no way. Formula for our happiness: a Yes, a No, a straight line, a goal [‘Ziel’]…
[The Antichrist, section 1.]

What Nietzsche’s goal was is evident from the next three sections;

The Superman is the meaning [‘Sinn’] of the earth. Let your will say: The Superman shall be the meaning of the earth!
[Thus Spake Zarathustra, Prologue.]

The word ‘Sinn’ is closely related to ‘Zweck’,—and ‘Zweck’, in turn, to ‘Ziel’.

“Liberalism leads to nihilism.”
-Harvey Mansfield

Well, for one thing, as Heidegger says, science does not think; only philosophy does.

That the meaning of life is joy, I agree. This joy, however, is what Nietzsche called “the eternal joy of Becoming […] which also includes the joy in destroying” (Twilight of the Idols, Ancients, 5). The proper aim of philosophy is to realise this.

Sauwelios, please consider what I wrote above. Again you mistake the sense of the tragic (a Dionysian joy) for joy itself. The decadent wants nothing to do with the truth- and feels ashamed where we feel joy. You imagine decadent thinkers? What a ridiculous image, on par with the gentle cyclops…

This makes sense, but must be understood in the light of my thesis on truthfulness, I think. Philosophy, in the sense of “the quest for knowledge”, must kill itself before a new Tragic Age can begin: this death is itself that age’s first tragedy.

What’s tragic about this age is its inevitable end… We spectators, we philosophers, know it; the tragic hero does not. And all he does is bring himself closer to his doom.

New order of rank of spirits: the tragic natures no longer to the fore.
[Nietzsche, Nachlass.]

To see the tragic natures perish and still be able to laugh, beyond one’s profound understanding, feeling, and compassion for them,—is divine.

Recently a colleague asked me: “What is the meaning of philosophy?”

For starters ‘philosophy’ is a bit like ‘science’ - a term that although acedmics and the vox populi tend to use as if it signifies one paticular methodology or pursuit, it in fact doesn’t. There are plenty of different things that go under the label of philosophy - empiricists and rationalists, existentialists and anlytical philosophers all have different aims, interests and ways of working. I doubt demarcation of ‘philosophy’ is any more possible than demarcation of ‘science’.

I sit largely with the school of analytical philosophers - to me philosophy is largely about the study of arguments and the formulation of principals. In day to day life good and informative arguments start with a principal everyone agrees with and reasons towards something that is contraversial. Much of what philosophy does is similar to this.

In Ethics, for example, we start with speicifc statements or examples that everyone seems to agree with and argue towards coherent principles or laws, from which action guiding principals can be produced. The meaning of this is quite clear - if a good principals can be found then we would not only know what was good, but why. We would also have grounds for solving ethical disputes and dillemas. In Philosophy of Science, attempts to find demarcation criteria for the who of science have provided much insight in to the methodologies of different types of science, and have challenged the general reliability of the scientific method. This should have its own meaning to scientists, and also if we are lucky might eventually start filtering down to the mistaken vox populi aforementioned.

All of these enquiries are also interesting because they examine the coherence of our own beliefs, as well as the compatibility of our beliefs with theoretical belief structures. Seeing as we are rational beings - it seems to me intrinsically desireable that all of our beliefs would cohere with each other. At least - this is why I studied philosophy.

Tragic is just another word for Dionysian; there is no negative connotation unless you’re ignorant.

PS. my last post has been edited.

The meaning of life is the meaning of ascending life, of course.

So has the post to which you reply here (I’ve added two quotes for you).

Oh. Glad you cleared that up. What you said is quite right then. 8-[