Both philosophy and philosophers have bad reputations. They nonetheless influence the way we live at the deepest level. From morals and personal identity to science and art, philosophy—with religion and science—is one of the hands that mould our world.
Everyone is to some extent a philosopher, because everyone has some basic ideas about the way the world works, what we ought to do, and what kind of person we ought to be. For the most part, however, those ideas take the form of assumptions, largely unquestioned unless a person undergoes some personal crisis (hence we have 'existential crises' and we hear people say that their 'world fell apart'). What makes the vocation of the philosopher is the need to critically examine those basic ideas or assumptions about the nature of reality, right moral conduct and what it means to be a human being in the midst of all of this in the first place.
So a philosopher is a person who gawks at things which normal people think are unimportant (for whatever reason) to get at what lies beneath the way we do things and the way we think things. Of course, what we think is the source of what we are. As it is written in the Book of Proverbs: As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.
For this reason, it isn't politicians or corporations that rule the world, it's philosophers. Why? Because the very notions of who you think you are, what the world is at bottom—matter or spirit, all there is or a only stepping stone to a future life, meaningful or meaningless—are all inherited from philosophers, and schools of philosophy.
To illustrate this point, consider the idea of the 'person' (so basic to our way of thinking today). The reason we have the idea of the person is because of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. The doctrine of the Trinity wasn't just given to us explicitly in the Bible. Philosophers and theologians were forced to modify the Greek word 'prosopon' to make sense of the idea that God could be both one and three and not admit the existence of three Gods. The Trinity is the cornerstone of Western Christian civilisation in that it differentiated our religion from every other religion in the world and has determined our anthropology even up to today, giving us the notions that human beings are 'made in the image of God', with its attendant properties of intelligence, free will, and inalienable dignity. Human rights and the notion human dignity, emerging from the 18th century in Western Europe, are a natural consequence of such a philosophical and theological framework.
Now, what we think is what we are, but obviously, what we are is also what we do. As the Buddha said: 'Effects follow their causes, as the wheels of the cart follow the foot of the oxon.' This is the doctrine of karma, of action, or cause and effect. What we think determines what we do, and not only individually. Today, we are collectively, as community, society, nations and world, beginning to realise what an extraordinary power of thought we have been given, and the possibilities of creation or destruction that are open to us as the world becomes ever more malleable.
The responsibility of knowledge lies in the freedom to challenge what was previously unquestioned and to transcend the systems which define us and our world. Philosophy, at its highest level, and in any culture, is for this reason liberative, a cure for the ailments that we suffer in virtue of being told what and who we are in this world from the day we were born. Epicurus said: 'Empty is that philosopher's argument by which no human suffering is therapeutically treated. For just as there is no use in a medical art that does not cast out the sickness of bodies, so too there is no use in philosophy, unless it casts out the suffering of the soul.'
Philosophy begins with wonder—wonder not just about the bottomless mystery of reality, but also about the unfathomable ability of the human mind of returning to union with the cosmos and finding peace for itself.
Haoyu Yang 楊昊宇 (Anthony Haynes) is founder & director of Clear Water Academy 一清社, based in Edinburgh, Scotland. He has tutored the 'Atheism in Debate', 'Ethics & Society' and 'God in Philosophy' modules at the University of Edinburgh and is an experienced private philosophy tutor of students at masters and PhD level. He also provides meditation and philosophy classes for schools, having given classes at Firhill High School and Portobello High School, and is currently teaching The Way of Emptiness and The Way of Taoism seminars at Clear Water Academy 一清社. Haoyu's publications include 'Jacques Maritain’s Definition of Art’, New Blackfriars, (2015) and 'Jacques Maritain’s Ethics of Art’, New Blackfriars (2016).
Join Haoyu this summer and autumn at Clear Water Academy 一清社 An Introduction to Japanese Philosophy