What is Philosophy?

Philosophy is all about a journey. On this journey we are drawn by philosophical eros - the "love of wisdom" (philo-sophia) - towards the Truth we can never grasp but which alone can satisfy our hunger for reality. One possible summary of the different stages or levels of this journey is as follows (philosophy proper only really starts at 3):


  1. Data

  2. The "given" - raw material of sensation - colours, sounds, smells, feelings - mere "input".

  3. Information

  4. Patterns discovered or constructed in the data supplied by sense - the beginning of thought.

  5. Concepts

  6. Patterns discovered or constructed in the information – the abstract/ analytic level of thought.

    At this level we may still be content with opinions we have absorbed passively from others.

  7. Knowledge

  8. Patterns discovered or constructed among the concepts - the "evaluative" level of thought.

    Now we begin to think things through for ourselves: to take possession of our own mind.

  9. Understanding

  10. Connections established between pieces or areas of knowledge - the "integration" of thought.

    This is the level where philosophy begins to tackle the deep questions.

  11. Wisdom

  12. The intuition of a deeper level of living forms, the archetypes (logoi) underlying all reality.

    A new horizon appears, in which the world of time opens onto eternity.

  13. Contemplation

Theoria - the happiness of resting in the truth - wonder - praise - the Sabbath of thought.

Here is the root of human culture, the source of true charity and of artistic inspiration.


Religious faith need not (should not) bring an end to questioning. It should keep our questions alive, drawing us on beyond every limited conclusion towards the source of light. The essence of the mind is openness before the totality of things. The search for truth - even its attainment - should not withdraw us from the world but engage us more deeply with the world, and ultimately send us out to care for those around us. According to Plato, the philosopher who escapes the Cave must return to rebuild society.

"Truth melts like snow in the hands of one who does not melt like snow in the hands of truth" - Bistami

"Every truth - no matter by whom it is spoken - is of the Holy Spirit" – St Ambrose

"A theory can be refuted by another theory. But who can gainsay a life?" -  Evagrius Ponticus


Faith and Reason

In 1998, Pope John Paul II, himself formerly a philosopher – a phenomenologist of the Lublin school - wrote a letter to the bishops of the Catholic Church entitled Fides et Ratio ("Faith and Reason"), calling for a recovery of "the path which leads to true wisdom", and of a new philosophy brave enough "to ask radical questions about the meaning and ultimate foundation of human, personal and social existence", including metaphysical questions - a philosophy, in other words, "open to the supernatural" and capable of mediating the encounter and dialogue of different civilizations and faiths.

"Abandoning the investigation of being," the Pope writes, "modern philosophical research has concentrated instead on human knowing [i.e. the question of what and how we can know anything]. Rather than make use of the human capacity to know the truth, modern philosophy has preferred to accentuate the ways in which this capacity is limited and conditioned" (section 5). This has given rise, he continues, to the widespread assumption that we can know nothing (called "agnosticism"), or that all positions are equally valid ("relativism").

"The need for a foundation for personal and communal life becomes all the more pressing at a time when we are faced with the patent inadequacy of perspectives in which the ephemeral is affirmed as a value, and the possibility of discovering the real meaning of life is cast into doubt" (6). Philosophy must recover its original vocation, of seeking the deepest truths about life, and thus forming human thought and culture.

"Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth – in a word, to know himself – so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women can also come to the fullness of truth about themselves."


A Guide to the Encyclical


The meaning and importance of philosophy. The Pope’s challenge to renewal of the "path which leads to true wisdom".

Chapter 1
Revelation and philosophy are complementary to each other, not identical and not mutually exclusive.

Chapter 2
The "Wisdom Literature" of the Old and New Testaments.

Chapter 3
The universal search for meaning/truth, in all cultures and people. From philosophy to faith.

Chapter 4
The history of Christian philosophy and the origin of the present crisis.

Chapter 5
The role of the Church in defending the openness of reason, when philosophical opinions (false philosophies) threaten to close it against the supernatural.

Chapter 6
Theology NEEDS philosophy – especially in the light of the encounter with other cultures/religions (cf. Sections 103-4).

Chapter 7
The contemporary crisis in philosophy and the Pope’s challenge to philosophers (and theologians).

Final appeals to the reader.


The History of Ideas

The founders of Western philosophy were the ancient Greeks, Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Plato’s influence (Platonism and Neoplatonism) was transmitted via Roman civilization to Boethius, Plotinus, Augustine, Denys, Eriugena and Anselm. Much of Aristotle’s philosophy was thought lost for centuries, but it was recovered and transmitted to Europe in the later medieval period by the Arab civilization which dominated North Africa and the Middle East.

The synthesis of faith and reason by St Thomas Aquinas (d. 1272), developed in dialogue with the leading Jewish and Islamic philosophers of the day, became a benchmark for Christian civilization in the Age of the Cathedrals. However, it fell into neglect under the impact of Nominalism in the 14th century, which called into question the very possibility of philosophically investigating the nature of reality or "being" (the part of philosophy usually called "metaphysics").

Meanwhile the intellectual ferment of the Renaissance (centered on Italy) and the Reformation (centered on central and northern Europe) in the 15th and 16th centuries were followed in the 17th and 18th by a period called the Enlightenment. Its main tendencies were the attempt to separate reason from faith, and the rapid development of "scientific method" for the discovery of empirical truth.

The Enlightenment spawned not only Rationalism (Descartes, Diderot, Kant) but also many varieties of Romanticism (Rousseau, Blake, Goethe), Idealism (Berkeley, Hegel), Positivism (Comte, Mill) and Empiricism (Locke, Hume).

By the mid-20th century these movements of thought had been joined by Marxism (Marx, Engels), Existentialism (Sartre), Phenomenology (Husserl, Merleau-Ponty), Pragmatism (Dewey, Pearce), Logical Positivism (Russell, Wittgenstein, Ayer) and Linguistic Analysis (the later Wittgenstein, Ryle, Austin).


Further Reading

Richard Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences

Louis Dupre, Passage to Modernity

Readings in Aristotle and Aquinas

The St Thomas Institute in Utrecht

The Centre for Thomistic Studies in Sydney, Australia

‘The Radical Academy’

Writings of John Paul II