1902 Encyclopedia > Philosophy > Philosophy - Introduction; Historical Use of the Term

(Part 1)

Philosophy - Introduction; Historical Use of the Term

Philosophy is a term whose meaning and scope have veried very considerably according to the usage of different authors and different ages ; and it would hardly be possible, even having regard to the present time alone, to define and divide the subject in such a way as to command the adhesion of all the philosophic schools. The aim of the present article will be, however, leaving controversial details as far as possible in the background, to state generally the essential nature of philosophy as distinguished from the special science, and to indicate the main divisions into which, as matter of historical fact, its treatment has fallen.

Historical Use of the Term.-- The most helpful introduction to such a task is afforded by a survey of the steps by which philosophy differentiated itself, in the history of Greek thought, from the idea of knowledge and culture in general. These steps may be traced in the gradual specification of the term.

The tradition which assigns the first employment of the word to Pythagoras has hardly any claim to be regarded as authentic; and the somewhat self-conscious modesty to which Diogenes Laertius attributes the choice of the designation is, in all probability, a piece of etymology crystallized into narrative. It is true that, as a matter of fact, the earliest uses of the word (the verb philosopheo [Gk.] occurs in Herodotus and Thucydides) imply the idea of the pursuit of knowledge; but the distinction between the sophos [Gk.], or wise man, and the philosophos [Gk.], or lover of wisdom, appears first in the Platonic writings, and lends itself naturally to the so-called Socratic irony. The same thought is to be found in Xenophon, and is doubtless to be attributed to the historical Socrates. But the word soon lost this special implication.

What is of real interest to us is to trace the progress from the idea of the philosopher as occupied with any and every department of knowledge to that which assigns him a special kind of knowledge as his province. A specific sense of the word first meets us in Plato, who defines the philosopher as one who apprehends the essence or reality of things in opposition to the man who dwells in appearances and the shows of sense. The philosophers, he says, "are those who are able to grasp the eternal and immutable"; they are "those who set their affections on that which in each case really exits" (Republic, 480). In Plato, however, this distinction is applied chiefly in an ethical and religious direction; and, while it defines philosophy, so far correctly, as the endeavour to express what things are in their ultimate constitution, it is not yet accompanied by a sufficient differentiation of the subsidiary inquiries by which this ultimate question may be approached. Logic, ethics, and physics, physics, psychology, theory of knowledge , and metaphysics are all fused together by Plato in a semi-religious synthesis.

It is not till we come to Aristotle—the encyclopaedist of the ancient world -- that we find a demarcation of the different philosophic disciplines corresponding, in the main, to that still current.

The earliest philosophers, or "physiologer," had occupied themselves chiefly with what we may call cosmology; the one question which covers everything for them is that of the underlying substance of the world around them, and they essay to answer this question, so to speak, by simple inspection.

In Socrates and Plato, on the other hand, the start is made from a consideration of man’s moral and intellectual activity; but knowledge and action are confused with one another, as in the Socratic doctrine that virtue is knowledge. To this correspond the Platonic confusion of logic and ethics and the attempt to substitute a theory of concepts for a metaphysic of reality.

Aristotle’s methodic intellect led him to separate the different aspects of reality here confounded. He became the founder of logic, psychology, ethics, and aesthethics as separate sciences; while he prefixed to all such (comparatively) special inquiries the investigation of the ultimate nature of existence as such, or those first principles which are common to, and presupposed in, every narrower field of knowledge. For this investigation Aristotle’s most usual name is "first philosophy"; but there has since been appropriated to it, apparently by accident, the title "metaphysics."

"Philosophy," as a term of general application, was not, indeed, restricted by Aristotle or his successors to the disciplines just enumerated. Aristotle himself includes under the title, besides mathematics, all his physical inquiries. It was only in the Alexandrian period, as Zellas points out, that the special sciences attained to independent cultivation.

Nevertheless, as the mass of knowledge accumulated, it naturally came about the name "philosophy" ceased to be applied to inquiries concerned with the particulars as such. The details of physics, for example, were abandoned to the scientific specialist, and philosophy restricted itself in this department to the question of the relation of the physical universe to the ultimate ground or author of things. This inquiry, which was long called "rational cosmology," may be said to form part of the general science of metaphysics, or at all events a pendant to it.

By the gradual sifting out of the sciences philosophy thus came to embrace primarily the inquiries grouped as "metaphysics" or first philosophy." These would embrace, according to the scheme long current, ontology proper, or the science of being as such, with its branch sciences of (rational) psychology, cosmology, and (rational or natural) theology. Subsidiary to metaphysics, as the central inquiry, stand the sciences of the logic and ethics, to which may be added aesthetics, constituting three normative sciences -- sciences, that is, which do not, primarily, describe facts but rather prescribe ends. It is evident, however, that if logic deals with conceptions which may be considered constitutive of knowledge as such, and if ethics deals with the harmonious realization of the highest known form of existence, both sciences must have a great deal of weight in the settling of the general question of metaphysics.

Modern modifications of the above scheme will be presently considered; but it is sufficiently accurate as a starting-point, and its acceptance by so many generations of thinkers is a guarantee for its provisional intelligibility. Accordingly, we may say that "philosophy" has been understood, during the greater part of its history, to be a general term covering the various disciplines just enumerated. It has frequently tended, however, and still tends, to be used as specially convertible with the narrower term "metaphysics." This is not unnatural, seeing that it is only so far as they bear on the one central question of the nature of existence that philosophy spreads its mantle over psychology, logic, or ethics. The organic conditions of perception and the associative laws to which the mind, as a part of nature, is subjected, are nothing to the philosopher; and therefore the handing over of (empirical) psychology to special investigators, which is at present taking place, can be productive of none but good results. Similarly, logic, so far as it is an art of thought or a doctrine of fallacies, and ethics, so far as it is occupied with a natural history of impulses and moral sentiments, do neither of them belong, except by courtesy, to the philosophic province. But, although this is so, it is perhaps hardly desirable to deprive ourselves of the use of two terms instead of one. It will not be easy to infuse into so abstract and bloodless a term as "metaphysics" the fuller life (and especially the inclusion of ethical considerations) suggested by the more concrete term "philosophy."

We shall first of all, then, attempt to differentiate philosophical sciences, with the view of showing how far the usual subject-matter of each is really philosophical in its bearing, and how far it belongs rather to the domain of science strictly so called. We shall also see in the course of this inquiry in what these various philosophical disciplines differ from one another and how far they merge into another, or have, as a matter of fact, been confused at different periods in the history of philosophy. The order in which, for clearness of exposition, it will be most convenient to consider these disciplines will be psychology, epistemology or theory of knowledge, and metaphysics, then logic, aesthetics, and ethics. Finally, the connexion of the last-mentioned with politics (or, to speak more modernly, with jurisprudence and sociology) and with the philosophy of history will call for a few words on the relation of these sciences to general philosophy.

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