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PHILOSOPHY'S RELATION TO OTHER DISCIPLINES

Philosophy is both related to most disciplines and yet different from them.  Almost from the beginning of both mathematics and philosophy in ancient Greece, relations were seen between them.  On the one hand, the philosophers were strongly impressed by the degree of certainty and rigor that appeared to exist in mathematics as compared to any other subject.  Some, like the philosopher-mathematician PYTHAGORAS OF SAMOS, felt that mathematics must be the key to understanding reality.  Plato claimed that mathematics provided the forms out of which everything was made.  Aristotle, on the other hand, held that mathematics was about ideal objects rather than real ones; he held that mathematics could be certain without telling us anything about reality.

In more modern times, Descartes and Baruch SPINOZA used mathematics as their model and inspiration for formulating new methods to discover the truth about reality.  The philosopher-mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm von LEIBNIZ, the co-discoverer (with Isaac Newton) of calculus, theorized about constructing an ideal mathematical language in which to state, and mathematically solve, all philosophical problems.  Similar views have been advanced in the 20th century as ways of resolving age-old philosophical difficulties.  Attempts to accomplish this have found far from unanimous approval, however.

Philosophy has both influenced and been influenced by practically all of the sciences.  The physical sciences have provided the accepted body of information about the world at any given time.  Philosophers have then tried to arrange this information into a meaningful pattern and interpret it, describing what reality might be like.  Western philosophers over much of the last 2,500 years have provided basic metaphysical theories for the scientists to fit their data into and as the data changed, their metaphysical interpretations have had to be adjusted.  Thus the scientific revolution of the 17th century, encompassing the scientific work of Johannes Kepler, Galileo, and Newton, was accompanied by a metaphysical revolution led by such thinkers as Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the prevailing philosophers in England and France came to the conclusion that the sciences are, and ought to be, completely independent of traditional metaphysical interpretations.  Instead, the sciences should just try to describe and codify observations and experiences.  This approach has led in the last two centuries to a divorce of philosophy from the sciences.  What has developed in response is a new branch of philosophy, the philosophy of science, which examines the methods of science, the types of scientific evidence, and the ways the sciences progress.

A third intellectual area that has been intimately involved with philosophy is religion.  In ancient Greece some philosophers like ANAXAGORAS and Socrates scandalized their contemporaries by criticizing aspects of Greek religion. Others offered more theoretical approaches about the evidence for the existence and nature of God or the gods.  Some denied the existence of a deity.

When Christianity entered the Greek world, attempts were made to develop a philosophical understanding of Christianity. Finally, toward the end of the 4th and beginning of the 5th century, Saint AUGUSTINE achieved a synthesis of some of the elements of Platonic philosophy with the essentials of Christianity.  Throughout the Middle Ages, philosopher theologians among the Jews, Muslims, and Christians sought to explain their religions in rational terms.  They were opposed by antirational theologians who insisted that religion is a matter of faith and belief and not of reasons and arguments. After the Reformation, philosophers like Spinoza and David HUME began criticizing the traditional philosophical arguments used by theologians.  Hume and Immanuel KANT sought to show that all of the arguments purporting to prove the existence of God and the immortality of the soul were fallacious.

Philosophers sought to explain why people were religious on nonrational grounds, such as psychological, economic, or cultural ones. The defenders of religion found themselves estranged from the philosophers, who kept using the latest results of science and historical research to criticize religion.  Some, like Kierkegaard, made a virtue of this estrangement, insisting that religious belief is a matter of faith, and therefore not a matter of reason.  More recently, since World War II, a group of theologians who are interested in recent philosophical developments and in the relationship between religion and contemporary culture have attempted to discover what religious statements can be intellectually meaningful.  The history of the relation between philosophy and theology is thus a long and mixed affair, running the gamut from clarifying religion and providing a justification for it to tearing apart its intellectual underpinnings and trying to see what is left that a 20th-century scientifically oriented person can believe or take seriously.

PHILOSOPHICAL QUESTIONS

Because the term philosophy has various meanings, the nature of the field can be most easily grasped by examining the kinds of problems and questions the field deals with.  In the beginnings of Western philosophy, the pre-Socratic thinkers dealt primarily with a metaphysical question:  What is the nature of ultimate reality as contrasted to the apparent reality of ordinary experience?  They tried to determine whether some ultimate constituents of the world would be the real and basic elements, whereas everything else would be ephemeral and merely a surface appearance.  If such a reality existed, would it be permanent and unalterable, or would it be subject to change or alteration like everything else?  The pre-Socratics generated some of the basic problems involved in defining reality, that is, in finding something so basic that it cannot be explained by anything else.  They found their attempts to present logical explanations of their metaphysical theories ran into paradoxical results.  Could a permanent, unchanging reality account for a changing world?  ZENO OF ELEA became famous for working out his paradoxes, which claimed nothing could really change or move.  Some of his paradoxes and some of those connected with the Greek ATOMISM still play a role in modern theoretical physics.

Over time, some aspects of the attempt to delineate reality became separated from the metaphysical quest and became the subject matter of the various natural sciences.  This development has accelerated since the 17th century.  The areas of study that have been peeled off from philosophy and assigned to the natural sciences include astronomy, physics, chemistry, geology, biology, psychology, and others.  An example of this process may be seen in the consideration of a major metaphysical question, the relationship of mind and body. Originally, Platonic metaphysics claimed that the body and the mind were two separate and distinct entities.  Plato, in fact, claimed the body was the prison house of the soul or mind.  In the 17th century, Rene DESCARTES contended that mind and body were two separate and distinct substances that had nothing in common although they interact.  Several Indian schools of philosophy hold a similar view.  In the West this problem was gradually taken over by psychologists and neurophysiologists. The present tendency is to reduce mental phenomena to brain phenomena and thereby reduce the problem from a mind-body problem to a body problem.

Another constant philosophical question, from Greek times up to the present, has been to try to establish the difference between appearance and reality.  Once people learned about sense illusions, the question arose of how to tell what seems to be from what really is.  Skeptical thinkers have pressed the claim that no satisfactory standard can be found that will actually work for distinguishing the real from the apparent in all cases.  On the other hand, various philosophers have proposed many such criteria, none of which has been universally accepted.

Another type of question raised by philosophers is:  What is truth?  Various statements about aspects of the world seem to be true, at least at certain times.  Yet experience teaches that statements that have seemed to be true have later had to be qualified or denied.  Skeptics have suggested that no evidence would be able to tell, beyond any show of doubt, that a given statement is in reality true.  In the face of such a challenge, philosophers have sought to find a criterion of truth, especially a criterion of truth that would not be open to skeptical challenge.

Philosophers have also traditionally raised questions about values:  What is good?  How can good be distinguished from bad or evil?  What is justice?  What would a just society be like? What is beauty?  How can the beautiful be distinguished from the ugly?  These questions all deal with matters of evaluation rather than fact.  Scientific investigation is of only slight help in determining if abortion is bad or if Vermeer's Milkmaid is a beautiful picture.  The values that are at issue are not perceived in the same way as facts.  If they were, much more agreement would exist about the specific answers to value questions.  The philosopher seeks to find some means of answering these sorts of questions, which are often the most important ones that a person can ask and which will exhibit the basis of a theory of values.

Note: The content above came out of a really old encyclopedia published in England.

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