What is philosophy

14th September 2020

The main questions of the course:

  • What is the meaning of the word “philosophy”?
  • What are the branches of philosophy?
  • What does metaphysics study?
  • What does epistemology study?
  • What does ethics study?
  • What does logic study?
  • What does history of philosophy study?

in particular:

  • What is Aristotle’s conception of philosophy?
  • What is Montaigne’s conception of philosophy?
  • Why philosophy is considered “a preparation to death”?
  • And why Spinoza thinks that it is “a preparation to life”?
  • What does Kant think about teaching philosophy?
  • And what does Hegel think about that?
  • What is Jasper’s definition of philosophy?
  • According to Nagel can we find ultimate answers in philosophy?


From the Greek philosophia: philein, to love, and sophia, knowledge, wisdom.

For long time, some scholars conceived sophia with two opposite interpretations:

  • on one side, Philosophy as a way of living life, practically
  • on another side, Philosophy as a way of theoretically interpreting life and the world

Pierre Hadot, quoting Philo of Alexandria, stated that philosophy is both. Most philosophers saw both terms as a unique therm, Philosophy can change life, it gives birth to the wonder which makes us good citizens of the world. Its purpose is to understand nature in order to change our life and the ways we connect to each other.

Those who practice wisdom […] are excellent contemplators of nature and everything she contains. They examine the earth, the sea, the sky, the heavens, and all their inhabitants; they are joined in thought to the sun, the moon, and all the other stars, both fixed and wandering, in their courses; and although they are attached to the earth by their bodies, they provide their souls with wings, so that they may walk on the ether and contemplate the powers that live there, as is fitting for true citizens of the world […] and so, filled with excellence, accustomed to take no notice of ills of the body or of exterior things […] it goes without saying that such men, rejoicing in their virtues, make of their whole lives a festival

~ Philo of Alexandria, ca20BCE-50CE, quoted by Hadot in Philosophy as a Way of Life. Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault, 1995

According to the passage, philosophers are not just feeling this love: they are erasteuein, whose root is eros, not philein: this is something which involves us directly. Eros is a more involving term, it means to actually be in love with wisdom and knowledge. Tight connection between philosophy and love.

  • Metis: brain, smartness.
  • Eros is always poor.

The birth of Eros:

On the birthday of Aphrodite there was a feast of the gods, at which the god Poros or Plenty, who is the son of Metis or Discretion, was one of the guests. When the feast was over, Penia or Poverty, as the manner is on such occasions, came about the doors to beg. Now Plenty who was the worse for nectar (there was no wine in those days), went into the garden of Zeus and fell into a heavy sleep, and Poverty considering her own straitened circumstances, plotted to have a child by him, and accordingly she lay down at his side and conceived Love, who partly because he is naturally a lover of the beautiful, and because Aphrodite is herself beautiful, and also because he was born on her birthday, is her follower and attendant. And as his parentage is, so also are his fortunes. In the first place he is always poor, and anything but tender and fair, as the many imagine him; and he is rough and squalid, and has no shoes, nor a house to dwell in; on the bare earth exposed he lies under the open heaven, in the streets, or at the doors of houses, taking his rest; and like his mother he is always in distress. Like his father too, whom he also partly resembles, he is always plotting against the fair and good; he is bold, enterprising, strong, a mighty hunter, always weaving some intrigue or other, keen in the pursuit of wisdom, fertile in resources; a philosopher at all times, terrible as an enchanter, sorcerer, sophist. He is by nature neither mortal nor immorta, […] and, further, he is in a mean between ignorance and knowledge.

The truth of the matter is this: No god is a philosopher or seeker after wisdom, for he is wise already; nor does any man who is wise seek after wisdom. Neither do the ignorant seek after wisdom. For herein is the evil of ignorance, that he who is neither good nor wise is nevertheless satisfied with himself: he has no desire for that of which he feels no want.’ ‘But who then, Diotima,’ I said, ‘are the lovers of wisdom, if they are neither the wise nor the foolish?’ ‘A child may answer that question,’ she replied; ‘they are those who are in a mean between the two; Love is one of them. For wisdom is a most beautiful thing, and Love is of the beautiful; and therefore Love is also a philosopher or lover of wisdom, and being a lover of wisdom is in a mean between the wise and the ignorant.

~ Plato, Symposium, 204a-b

We can love only if we acknowledge that we miss something.

Why Philein instead of Eros at the beginning

Philein is to love in general, love to anybody or anything. Several philosophers in different times noted and pointed out that philosophy isn’t general love, but something which shakes our deep self. Philosophy isn’t just a task, it’s something which profoundly involves us.

Philosophy is the only free science, because it has no real end, it has no purpose other than knowledge.

Strict connection between the search of knowledge and the fear of death. Knowledge is the best way to fight the fear of death.

15th September 2020

Our body is a prison for our soul, thus we have to free ourselves from it in order to philosophize.

Philosophy as a preparation to die, or else not to fear death. We have to live the fear in order to live the peace of the afterworld. It’s in our essence to be mortal. Nietzsche point of view close to the one of Montaigne, the common source of Epicurus.

(knowing the answer but not knowing the question, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy)

We become free because we we know how to live and not fear. He who has learned to die has unlearned to serve, Michel de Montaigne

Is fear of death part of our nature? Not all philosophers conceived philosophy as a medium to understand death. Spinoza: we need not to feel negative emotions, since they make our being less powerful, we need passions which add power to our lives.

What we’re part of continues to exist even after we perish. The only way to be eternal is to think about eternal things, being conscious about eternal entities.

Being aware of ignorance is the first step to become a philosophy

16th September 2020

Philosophers’ definition


Philosophy cannot be learned; we can at most learn to philosophize. Where is it, who possesses it, and how shall we know it? We can only learn to philosophize. In other words, we can only exercise our powers of reasoning in accordance with general principles, retaining, at the same time, the right to investigate the sources of these principles, to test, and even to reject them

~ Critique of pure reason, Doctrine of Method, 1781

We can’t have a definition, some precise notion of what it is, we just do it, it’s a way, a “how”, not a “what”. Philosophy isn’t something given, but an approach to reality. Not a set of knowledge, but an approach.


This science [philosophy] must often submit to the slight of hearing even people who have never taken any trouble with it talking as if they thoroughly understood all about it. With no preparation beyond an ordinary education they do not hesitate, especially under the influence of religious sentiment, to philosopise and to criticize philosophy. Everybody allows that to know any other science you must have first studied it, and that you can only claim to express a judgment upon it in virtue of such knowledge. Everybody allows that to make a shoe you must have learned and practiced the craft of the shoemaker, though every man has a model in his own foot, and possesses in his hands the natural endowments [≈skills] for the operations required. For philosophy alone, it seems to be imagined, such study, care, and application are not in the least requisite.

~ Encyclopedia of the philosophical sciences, § 5, 1817

People think they can understand philosophy and philosophize because they can reason, but philosophy as to be studied, before, to be understood and criticized.

We have to know something (have the necessary tools) in order to philosophize. Not anybody who can think can philosophize.


the Greek word for philosopher (philosophos) connotes a distinction from sophos. It signifies the lover of wisdom (knowledge) as distinguished from those who consider them wise in possession of knowledge… the essence of philosophy is not the possession of the truth but the search for it. Philosophy means to be on the way. Its questions are more essential than its answers, and every answer becomes a new question.

~ Way to wisdom. An introduction to Philosophy (1950)

Love for knowledge as opposed to thinking to possess knowledge. The essence is searching for the truth, not possessing (or believing to possess) it. The search makes Philosophy, not the final findings


Thomas Nagel on Wikipedia

The main concern of philosophy is to question and understand very common ideas that all of us use every day without thinking about them. A historian may ask what happened at some time in the past, but a philosopher will ask, “What is time?’… Anyone can ask whether it’s wrong to sneak into a movie without paying, but a philosopher will ask “What makes an action right or wrong?”.

We couldn’t get along in life without taking the ideas of time, number, knowledge, language, right and wrong for granted most of time; but in Philosophy we investigate those things themselves. The aim is to push understanding of the world and ourselves a bit deeper. Obviously, it isn’t easy.

~ What does it all mean? A very short introduction to Philosophy (1987)

The point of philosophy isn’t taking a position or strongly fight for a belief, but dive into the roots of the original questions and try to understand them.

next topic: Fields of Philosophy



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