Philosophy is the name given to the intellectual effort to discover-the-ways-things-are. For example, philosophy seeks to discern the nature of government and what makes a government good. Philosophy attempts to understand the essence of human rights so that it can determine if these rights are by nature or by choice. Philosophy tries to comprehend the meaning of life. Philosophy tries to get its-mind-around tough concepts such as eternity, the infinite, freedom, the divine, beauty, truth, death. The topics in which philosophy is interested are very diverse.
Though philosophy’s range of interest is very wide, there is a limitation to what philosophy investigates. Philosophy is interested in understanding a thing or event’s essence, and accomplishes this by uncovering the categories, the groups, to which the thing or event being considered, belongs. This act of categorizing is what it means to define something. A definition is the act of assigning a subject to a specific predicate; an example being, “Morgan is a person”. “Person” is the predicate to which the subject called Morgan is assigned. “Person” is a category. All predicates are categories to which the associated subjects of the definition are assigned.
All things and events belong to many different categories. The hard work philosophy sometimes has to do involves determining which categories reveal the essence of the things which belong to them, and which categories are superfluous, superficial, accidental, trivial, trite.
Philosophy seeks to understand things and events by discovering the categories to which a particular thing or event belongs. Philosophy limits itself to a consideration of those things which can be categorized and the categories which can reveal essential information about the thing or event being considered. For example, “Morgan is a person” gives us important information about Morgan, that we are speaking of a human being, and not a horse used in harness racing. “Morgan is pretty” is an example of categorizing that is not helpful in distinguishing one type of Morgan (the human kind) from the horse kind.
In order to reach its conclusions about the nature, essence, and meaning of things and events, philosophy makes use of information taken from nature, from human experience, and from the logic of reasoning itself. Philosophy takes this information and forms them into what are called premises. One then uses these premises to develop and discover valid conclusions.
An example of information taken “from nature” would be that all things fall to the ground.
An example “from human experience” would be that, unlike a rock which cannot be taught to defy gravity and float, a cowardly person can be trained to be courageous.
An example “from logic and human reasoning” is the realization that nearly every idea we have, concept we form, thought we formulate, and assertion we make is some form of categorization; of predicating a subject; of definition.
Theology, like philosophy, is interested in discovering-the-ways-things-are. In fact, theology uses philosophy to do much of its work. Philosophy is so essential to doing theology that in the middle ages philosophy was called the handmaid of theology. Though theology is like philosophy in that it is interested in the ways-of-categorizable-things, theology tends to limit its focus to consideration of divine realities, spiritual things, and human events impacted by divine and spiritual realities. Theology also differs from philosophy in that, in addition to forming premises from information taken from nature, from human experience, and from human reason; theology also uses information obtained from divine revelation.
An example of information taken from divine revelation would be acceptance of the ideas presented in the writings of the Bible that there is a God who is a loving person, and that the essential nature of human persons is that they are creatures of this loving God. Another example of the information Roman Catholic theology would accept as divinely revealed would be the magisterial teaching that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was born without original sin. The word magisterial refers to specific teachings of the Pope and of the Pope in union with the Bishops of the Church.
When not acting as theology’s assistant, philosophy as philosophy can use information taken from revelation, but only in a hypothetical manner. It uses hypothetical premises drawn from the information believers assert to be divine revelation just to see to what conclusions one might be led should the data from revelation be assumed to be true. Philosophy might do such a thing to see if there is something within a dogmatic teaching that is self-contradictory. Philosophy might make such an exploration to see if revelation, accepted hypothetically, can cast any light upon particularly difficult examinations of topics of nature or humanity.
By contrast, theology assumes the information it takes from divine revelation is true. Theology assumes the conclusions it reaches by the use of revelation are as true as any conclusion reached by philosophy using its non-revelatory sources of information. For example, theology assumes that its conclusion of the hypostatic union of the nature of Jesus (that he is one person who is both fully divine and fully human) concluded as it is from its sources of revelation is just as true as philosophy’s conclusion (drawn from premises taken from logic) that the existence of truth is affirmed when one deny’s the existence of truth (i.e. You, sir, just said “truth does not exist”. Are you saying that “truth does not exist” is “true”?)
An example of theology taking information from divine revelation at face value and as being true would be the information contained in sacred scriptures that there is a God who is a person and is loving. This revelatory insight provides the premise that God is a person. From philosophy, one observes and decides that human beings are persons as well. Combining these two premises, one reaches the conclusion that God and human beings have a great deal in common.
An example of philosophy using divine revelation in a hypothetical manner would be for philosophy to accept as a hypothetical premise that God is perfect, complete, and does not change. This theological premise, that God does not change, is then combined with a purely philosophical premise that time is the measure of change. The conclusion necessarily drawn from the combination of these two premises is that God could not have existed before creation because “before” is a temporal condition. Since God is not measured by time, does not exist in a temporal condition, is not affected by time; it necessarily follows from the hypothetical assumptions having been made, that God did not and could not exist before creation.
Philosophy as taught in the Schools of Philosophy within Roman Catholic Universities tends to be directed toward a theological use, tends to be systematic in its presentation, and tends to affirm an attitude of moderate realism.
An example of being “directed toward a theological use” would be the inclusion of courses dedicated to the examination of the nature of the human person and of human anthropology as a precursor to taking courses in moral theology. Another example would be taking the philosophical tool of making clear distinctions and applying that tool to the work of giving homilies which are easily understood and interesting.
An example of the “systematic” style would include having students take courses in logic (the rules of thinking) and metaphysics (the rules of existence/being) prior to taking courses in epistemology (analysis of human cognition and learning) and pedagogy (methodologies of instruction). Another example of a systematic instruction in philosophy would be exposure to scholastic and medieval philosophy prior to the undertaking of modern philosophy. Assertions made in modern philosophy often take issue with teachings found in medieval and scholastic philosophy. An easy way in which one can clearly express the meaning of the assertions of modern philosophy is by contrasting these assertions against those scholastic doctrines with which modern philosophy often takes issue. To effectively accomplish this meaning-revealing-contrast, it is necessary to have first been exposed to medieval and scholastic philosophy.
“Moderate realism” is the metaphysical belief that things and events are real, that they can be known of in themselves, and that they can spoken of in a meaningful manner. This attitude of moderate realism is a necessary component of that reasoning which is used to reach the moral and political conclusion that persons have natural rights; rights by nature.
Limitations and dangers
Intellectual activity alone, such as that found in philosophy and theology, cannot lead one to faith. This is the meaning behind that statement found in the movie The Song of Bernadette, “For those who do not believe, no explanation is possible.” Further, as indicated in another statement found in the same movie “For those who believe, no explanation is necessary”, a person can get to heaven without ever specifically engaging in philosophical thought. There are many good persons in heaven and experiencing God’s love who have never been able to handle abstract reasoning because of some brain disorder or who have simply never had the education or formation which introduced them to the abstract type of thinking involved in philosophy. One can even go so far as to say one can get to heaven and know the love of God without being able to do philosophy. One need only think of the infant which dies soon after its baptism.
In addition to these limitations, engaging in philosophy can pose real dangers for one’s moral, social, and spiritual development. In order to philosophize and theologize, one engages in seriously intellectual abstract reasoning. Such activity can lead to an intellectual pride which can be detrimental to acquiring faith, to developing a spirituality, to loving God, and to getting to heaven. Intellectual pride poses these dangers because intellectual pride tends to judge rather than love persons and intellectual pride tends to assume competency in areas in which it has none. In addition to these dangers, one can become self-absorbed; acquiring and posturing a loquacious self-absorption every bit as tenacious and dangerous as the self-absorption of being one of the “pretty people” or one of the “in crowd” or one of the “haves”.
Because of these limitations and dangers, it is wise to ascertain a certain maturity in the person desiring to undertake philosophy. Also, it is wise for opportunities in spiritual growth to be provided for the student during her philosophical formation. Such is always available in Roman Catholic education institutions where philosophy is taught and learned.
Necessity and Value
Despite its real limitations and danger, philosophy and theology must be taught and must be learned. The reason philosophy and theology must be learned and done well is that all human persons capable of abstract reasoning engage in philosophy and theology all the time. Every instance in which a person attempts to understand the nature, the essence, the meaning of some thing or event, that person is both engaging in philosophy and making use of philosophical assumptions.
Consider the academic discipline called physics. The subject matter of physics is limited to matter and motion. This is true of all modern sciences; their subject matter consists only of matter (and the various forms within which matter appears, such as energy) and motion (the changes which material things undergo). In analyzing matter and motion the physicist assumes that things and events (matter and its motions) really exist outside of the scientist observing them, that they can be fully understood in themselves, and that they can be described meaningfully using the language of mathematics and, occasionally, using the language of ordinary speech. This assumption is called objectivism. Objectivism is a philosophical assumption; this assumption cannot be discovered by the analysis of matter and motion; the only subject matters which physics has. Thus, in order to do physics, one must begin with an assumption which cannot be proven by science, and must be appropriated from philosophy.
Another reason all who are able to philosophize should receive instruction in doing it properly has to do with the fact that there is a great deal of ground between those persons “who do believe” and “those who do not believe”. This ground is occupied by almost all youth as they pass through stages of spiritual development and for most adults as they come to terms with the various limitations and dysfunctions of their own maturation processes. Many of these, like the apostle Thomas, “want to believe”. Many of those who sort-of-believe are hammered by various challenges to their faith. Some of these challenges are indirectly pointed at them; for example some scandal of the Church causing one to distrust the teachers within the same Church. Other challenges are more direct such as the conversations and arguments one faces in college with persons who try to tear down their nascent faith, for example, by showing that some aspect of bible history is not factually correct.
Philosophy and theology which uses philosophy become very powerful and useful tools for the person to investigate the truth of these challenges and come to understandings which support the faith he has. The use of these tools in response to faith challenges can cause her to reach a higher and better plateau of faith. In these cases, the challenges of the human condition, of the places where people spend their actual lived-lives, in the work-a-day-world, in the realm of the incarnation; in these cases and in these places, good Roman Catholic instruction in philosophy and theology can result in one being even stronger in one’s faith and stronger in one’s desire to evangelize.
Speculative and Dialogical
Finally, it needs to be said that philosophy and theology are both speculative and dialogical activities. Philosophy is speculative, that is, philosophy is thought-full. It uses thought to discover-the-ways-things-are. Philosophy is also dialogical. It uses disciplined speech for the purpose of displaying the realities discovered through speculation.
Dialogue is disciplined speech. It is not shooting the breeze, chewing the fat, working one’s gums, talking to hear oneself talk, or simply enjoying a conversation. It’s purpose is to display the truth for the purpose of allowing those engaged in the given dialogue the opportunity to see the truth displayed. Then, without coercion, the participants in the given dialogue are allowed to choose to accept or not accept the truth displayed. Dialogue does not seek to persuade others to accept ideas presented. It does not attempt to coerce or manipulate acceptance of an idea presented. When disciplined speech is used to persuade, it goes by another name; rhetoric. Both rhetoric and dialogue make use of disciplined speech, but their goals are different, Dialogue seeks to display truths. Rhetoric seeks to persuade acceptance.
Because dialogue seeks to display truth and not to persuade, there are certain rather obvious rules of dialogical courtesy which pervade philosophical discussions. Examples include avoiding repetition of ideas already stated and understood, clearly indicating when one is done talking, avoiding the use of rhetorical questions, allowing others to speak their minds without distraction or disruption. There are others.
It is much easier to understand verbal and written philosophical statements when one is engaged in dialogue with others about those statements. Though one can, with assiduous effort, understand good theological and philosophical writing or lectures alone, it is often the case that understanding philosophical and theological concepts happens best when one is engaged in dialogue with others about those same concepts.
It is worth noting that in his eucharistic homily of January 24, 2014, and in his Apostolic Exhortation of November, 2013, Evangelii Gaudium (“The Gospel of Joy”) Pope Francis stated the necessity of those whose functions includes political craftsmanship and homiletics, to engage in dialogical preparation.
The articles I write and present here might be good. The blogged conversations we have regarding and evolving from points made in the articles might be good. But these cannot match the quality of insight and understanding which arises in a truly dialogical forum.
I have had hundreds of experiences of engaging in dialogue with adolescents or young adults or older adults about some philosophical or theological text we have all read. Time and again I have seen them come to a clear understanding of the essence of some very difficult topics presented by some philosopher or theologian, by means of struggling to articulate their understanding of the concepts they have read and by listening to to others attempt to explain the same. Time and again I have seen them evidence the impression that they were part of a timeless table of dialogue in which the texts being discussed were no longer frozen speech, but the ancestral voices of philosophers and theologians sitting with us in dialogue. Time and again I have seen adolescents become so animated by their philosophical discussions that the dialogue continued among them out the door, into the hallway, and as much as an hour later where, across a lunch room table, they had on their own recreated and continued the dialogical forum.
The functionality of this webpage and blog will impede this fuller dialogical insight from happening. Yet, from time to time, it will come close; very close. We will know its happening when we feel, and when we share, that we so wish we could move the monitor out of the way, we could reach out and touch one another; that we could sit down and think together.