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Philosophy is generally translated from the Greek as “love of wisdom”. In other words, freedom from ignorance. The ancient Greeks gave us our introduction to philosophy, through the writings of Plato, Aristotle and others. Plato didn’t write philosophy as a series of statements, assertions and declarations, but in the form of dialogues. We can read Plato’s Dialogues like plays. They are examples of conversations or dialogues that Socrates had with various citizens of Athens. Today, we have Facebook or Twitter or some such social forum to exchange ideas. Back in the days of Socrates’ Athens, over 2000 years ago, people went to the town’s marketplace – where people generally went to gather – to buy and sell things and to encounter one another, to talk. Socrates used to like to hang out there and engage various citizens in conversation.
He was very good at getting people to re-examine their ideas. He would do this by questioning people and following up their responses with more questions. For example, he encounters Meno and begins a conversation with him about learning and education. As the conversation continues we see there are all sorts of aspects of the learning experience that Meno – and us, the readers, perhaps – didn’t think about concerning the question to begin with.
At the end of the dialogue, we don’t necessarily have one answer but we’re wiser in that we’ve explored the subject from many different angles. We have a broader view.
After Plato, Aristotle – one of Plato’s students – began writing philosophy as a series of statements and assertions of what is right and wrong, in terms of thought, and resultant actions. He covered a wide range of subjects, including physics, education, metaphysics, friendship, ethics and more. He also was responsible for defining different areas of inquiry -- defining “subject areas”, which we take for granted today. Many of those categorizations are still with us. The idea of subdividing philosophy – the search for knowledge – into different discrete areas, such as mathematics, physics, biology, rhetoric, metaphysics, etc.
Many philosophers followed on after Aristotle. The Church in Europe began adapting Aristotle’s teaching to its own needs, and combining them with Christian dogma. For a long time, education and philosophy was dominated by the Church. You couldn’t really get to say anything meaningful and have it spread around unless it was approved by the Church. The printing press was the beginning of a wider dissemination of learning – books could now be read by a broad variety of people. And so learning and education became more widespread.
The philosopher Rene Descartes is known as the “father of modern philosophy”. He made his appearance in the 17th century and began questioning the traditionalist thinking of the Scholastics -- the men of learning in previous centuries who were considered the wise men of the time, specifically by the Church. He wanted to base all philosophy -- a meaningful inquiry into Truth – on reason, not on faith. Descartes began with doubt. He asked the questions: “What if all this around me – the table, the armchair, the window, etc. were all a product of my imagination” By beginning like this – attempting to doubt everything – he thought he could find the foundation upon which to build his understanding of truth, and reality. How did Descartes resolve the dilemma, when he doubted everything that exists? He said “I’ve found something certain – it is certain that I doubt. It is certain that I think. Thus, he concludes: “I think therefore I am.”
It’s the doubt which characterizes all philosophy since Descartes. Perhaps we could say that all philosophy has this in common – the doubting of what is taken as given. The questioning of what is taken for granted. Although we can’t doubt everything all at once, we can begin doubting certain presumptions, structures and methods to see if we can replace them with something more real. Something more True.
After Descartes, we had many thoughtful philosophers asking questions about reality, about Truth, in attempts to think more clearly and deeply about the world and all the beings within it.
There are too many thinkers to even give a brief summary here of their philosophies—what they questioned, what they concluded, what they became known for. We are not trying here to do a comprehensive history of philosophy. But we can mention briefly some of the interesting and profound thinkers we encounter in our travels through the history of philosophy.
(For those who want an overview of western philosophy, there is a book titled “Sophie’s World” which gives an overview of some of the important figures in philosophy – told as a series of stories from a father to his young daughter. There are, of course, many other books which attempt to give us an account of the history of philosophy – a very big task!)
There was Berkeley, who is known as an empiricist because he wanted to assert that only that which I perceive directly through my senses is real. He asked some tricky questions which philosophy students still ponder today. For example, he asked: “If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one nearby to hear it fall, does it make a sound?”
There was Hegel, who developed a new methodology for “doing philosophy” which he called the dialectical method. This involves putting forward a proposition -- the thesis – and then considering the opposite, which he called the antithesis, considering that as the truth. Now, out of this opposition arises a synthesis – a way of going beyond the two opposing views and realizing a higher truth, beyond the two opposites originally entertained in your mind. You can get a feel for Hegel’s method from the Preface to Phenomenology of Spirit, a wonderful work of philosophy in itself.
Hegel shows, brilliantly, how one can use this method to go from a naive understanding of the truth of the world, through to a final understanding of the highest order of Truth – the Absolute. Some might argue that this is a way of reviving Christianity as a philosophical practice, but most Hegelians would argue strongly against that interpretation.
Hegel influenced many thinkers who came after him. One notable disciple was Karl Marx, who took the dialectical method and stood it on its head, using it to analyze the economic reality of the world we find ourselves in. He defines capitalism -- the default state where business owners and the owners of land and capital use their resources to exploit others not so endowed to make profits through their businesses, factories and their castles. Marx proposed that economic systems would evolve, just as Darwin had shown that animals evolve over time, evolving from lower forms of life to higher ones. Marx suggested that economic systems would also evolve – from capitalism, through socialism and eventually to communism, where everyone shared the fruits of society’s economic labor equitably, and no one was exploited.
Marx and Engels also suggested in the Communist Manifesto that perhaps this economic evolution could be hastened along by giving encouragement to the forces of revolution. “Workers of the world, unite!” was the rallying cry.
In this way, philosophy begins to grapple with issues that relate directly to the way we live our lives and the ways in which society organizes itself.
A little later in the nineteenth century, Friedrich Nietzsche revolutionizes philosophy by making it very much something to do with the way we live our lives.
Nietzsche changes the philosophical project by not just talking about what is True, -- he also wants us to question the way we live life. He provokes us with observations of life, religion and the history of philosophy but also exhorts us to live life to the fullest. In this way, Nietzsche is regarded as perhaps the first existentialist. Nietzsche asks us questions about life – profound questions embodied in what he terms the Eternal Recurrence. He writes:
What if some day or night a demon were to steal into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live and have lived it you will have to live once again and innumerable times again; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unspeakably small or great in your life must return to you, all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!’
The question in each and every thing, ‘Do you want this again and innumerable times again?’ would lie on your actions as the heaviest weight! Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to long for nothing more fervently than for this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal? [From Die fröhliche Wissenschaft , translated as The Gay Science]
In Vienna, a young psychiatrist read Nietzsche’s works and was inspired by the general distinctions Nietzsche made – particularly the distinction between what Nietzsche sees as the two fundamental forces at play in the world – the Apollonian and the Dionysian. The Apollonian represented the intellectual, the poetic, the rational side of human beings, whereas the Dionysian stood for passion, love drunkenness and sexuality.
This young physician named Sigmund Freud developed a system he called psychoanalysis which posited that there were two fundamental forces or drives at play in our mental world – Eros, our drive for life, love and sex, and Thanatos, or the death (or aggressive) drive.
Freud observed that people were not always aware of how these forces played out in their lives. Freud distinguished between the ego (das ich) – the rational, thoughtful part of ourselves – and the id (das es) – that aspect of the indivisual which is passionate, irrational and chaotic – and is hidden from ourselves – the unconscious, in other words.
Freud believed that we learn to modulate and suppress our passions so that we behave in a socially acceptable, moral way, conducting ourselves appropriately in the social world. However, in the process of becoming acculturated, the individual may suppress aspects of him or her self which limits them in such a way that the individual becomes “neurotic” – that is, behaves in ways that are not rational, not conducive to living a fulfilled life. We could think of neurosis as a description of living in the “there and then” rather than the here and now!
Freud proposed a method for helping people free themselves of neuroses – a method for becoming more self-aware – a method that he called “the talking cure.” This method became the fundamental aspect of psychoanalysis – it was a method of healing through dialogue.
Freud asked his patients to lie down on a couch, relax and free associate – say whatever came to mind without self-censorship. This process takes place in the presence of the analyst – another person who does not have a stake in your life – not a husband or wife, or friend, or teacher. The analyst is something of a non-threatening blank slate. In the process of saying whatever comes to mind, the patient reveals aspects of the self – conflicts, dreams, desires and so on which are not generally freely discussed in everyday discourse. The analyst may make interpretations from time to time – commenting, based on his/her understanding of where the patient is coming from. The idea is that through this process, which continues session after session, the patient come to a fuller understanding of self, and through that, may make progress of freeing self from the hang-ups and impediments she or he experiences in life.
The aim of psychoanalysis, as Freud put it, is “to make the unconscious conscious” – essentially to help the client become more aware of self.
Although Freud wasn’t considered a philosopher in his time, we can see that he adapted aspects of philosophy to produce his method for freeing people from what holds them back in life – what makes them want to live in the "there and then", rather than the here and now. Essential to Freud’s practice is the dialogical method – a speaking and an open listening to what is reflected back to the speaker—a process which aims to heal – to make whole.
Philosophical counselling does not share in all the assumptions and practices of psychoanalysis, but does take as its starting point the importance and centrality of dialogue – a process for helping the client become more self-aware and in the process free him or her self from unreasonable self-imposed restrictions and hang-ups.
You don’t need to know anything about any particular philosopher, or have a broad understanding of philosophy in order to engage in philosophical counselling sessions. All you need is to have a question or questions about life – in particular, concerning your own life – your hopes, dreams, aspirations, your family and your work, Questions about how to free yourself from what holds you back, and how you can participate more freely in love, life and fulfilment. Contact us to arrange a free trail session, to see if it’s right for you.
P.O. Box 150136, Brooklyn, NY 11215
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