Everyone knows things are weird right now. There are Nazis, people who believe the world is flat, and others who just deny science and common knowledge as a whole. Sounds a lot like the world is regressing, doesn’t it? While we’re on our way back to the dark ages, why don’t we remember some of the good parts of the past too?
Philosophy is a word derived from the Greek word philosophia, which translates to “love of wisdom,” which is something we might want to embrace in a world where people are rejecting knowledge. Philosophy as a subject sometimes gets a bad rap even from people who enjoy learning; it’s often criticized as being too heady for those who don’t delve deep into it while also being too conceptual for scientists interested in concrete facts. When discussing questions of God, the meaning of life, and the nature of reality, Stephen Hawking famously wrote, “philosophy is dead.”
In some regards, Hawking is right. Physics has given us answers to the nature of reality, biology has given us answers to how mankind came to be, and astronomy has given us answers to what lies beyond the fringes of our atmosphere. However, Hawking may have hyperbolized the obsoleteness of philosophy as a whole.
Philosophy falls under multiple branches, and these definitions are very broad strokes of what some of those fields are. There is metaphysics, the study of existence and reality; epistemology, the study of knowledge and rationality; ethics, the study of human conduct; and aesthetics, the study of beauty.
These branches observe our world in a much different way than science, using only rational thought to come to build theories and conclusions. For example, the Hellenistic Epicurean school of thought came to the conclusion that everything is made up of atoms, small, indivisible pieces of matter, and that everything else was an absence of atoms. Though this isn’t scientifically true, it’s very close for people who used only logic in around 307 B.C.
Not only is philosophy the beginning of science, philosophy is perhaps most relevant today for its focus on rational thought and ethical practices.
Stoicism is one of the most recognized schools of ethical philosophy, mostly due to the English word “stoic,” which in itself is a good summary of the school’s way of controlling emotion and not letting yourself become unnecessarily happy or unhappy. It’s a valuable skill for those dealing with excessive anxiety, and this school was able to address a problem we have now, way back in the Hellenistic era.
Science may have replaced some aspects of philosophical reasoning, but the exploration of the world and ourselves using only our rational minds is still important and shouldn’t be replaced. While our capacity to hold on to the past or fear the future can help us, it seems to be a big source of hate and anxiety lately. Perhaps it’s time to take a break, read some philosophy, try to temper our emotional view on the world, and use our heads to help ourselves relax a little.
Graphics by Thai Sirikoone.