As my studies in Philosophy have broadened and shifted, I’ve been considering the role of Philosophy; not only for philosophers, but also in society in general. Often my thoughts on the subject are sparked by surprise and jest at my choice of major in college. I would like this post to appear more as an (admittedly limited) exploration of the changing roles of Philosophy, than as simple apologetics, but my own interests may shine through…
I found my studies in Ancient Philosophy to be valuable as a foundation and stage setting for future study. A very passionate professor once climbed onto a desk and exclaimed, “Ancient Philosophy is not the study of fossils!” This seems like the most fitting point of entry for my explorations. From my rather brief study of this period I notice a trend towards philosophies as a way of living, not just a way of thinking. Perhaps the apparent connection between these early philosophies with a reactionary attitude towards popular religious ways of life (and thinking) at the time is not without significance. As I project my exploration forward it seems popular religion and philosophy will remain connected in society. Whether the discussion be of Epicurus, the skepticism of Pyrrho, Stoicism or simply the Virtue Ethics of Aristotle the focus is on a way of living. I don’t intend to portray these schools of thought as simply focused on a way of living, for often the change in the way people think about the world is intimately tied to the way they live in it. Nonetheless, I think there is a shift in later Philosophy.
The transition from “Ancient” Philosophy to “Modern” Philosophy is not a clean break. So much of Modern philosophical thought seem focused on revising the Ancients, be it the scholastics or skeptics. The role of Philosophy seems to shift with the revisionist attitude. It isn’t that moral systems are left out, this is obviously not true. Rather, it seems that Philosophy is wont to move away a role in determining how people approach life on a practical level, leaving this instead for religion. Moral systems become entwined with religiosity in a role of justification. This is a shift away from the revision of even Platonic thought. Perhaps it is simply the presence of Christianity as such a dominant force in the thinking of the era that blinds me to obvious counterexamples. But the ever-changing role of Philosophy suggests a kind of pendulum action at work.
Post-modern Philosophy starts a shift back away from religious models of life. Perhaps this is a contentious generalization, though for the purposes of my exploration it seems a fit. Without a doubt, many post-modern thinkers do not shift away from Christianity, but Existentialism seems to move back towards a philosophy more concerned with how to live life, not just how to look at the world. The shift towards atheism would continue on beyond the initial reactions of post-modern Philosophy.
Western Philosophers begin to incorporate Eastern thinking and religion. The wall that Christianity constructed against these alternate worldviews collapses on many intellectual levels. I don’t mean to suggest that Eastern Philosophy had no prior impact on the West, but simply that the shift away from Christianity allowed it to be more drastic and pervasive. My brief exposure to Eastern Philosophy has me wanting to claim that these Religion/Philosophies line up more with the thinking of the Ancient West than with Modern Philosophy. Perhaps only because I see Modern Philosophy in the West at conflict with Christianity unless it plays the role of apologist, whereas in the Ancient West and East Philosophy and Religion are at times indistinguishable.
So, what is the role of Philosophy? At times it seems to temper religion with critical thought and high expectations for justification. Other times Philosophy seems to have stood directly at odds with popular religion in a revisionist role. Perhaps more often, in terms of number of schools, Philosophy becomes religious and offers an alternative to popular religion. I suspect there are a great many roles for Philosophy outside of these simple categories. If indeed there is a pendulum action at work, then we might suspect a shift back towards Religion and Philosophy tempering one another, rather than being so often at odds as they seem to have been recently.
- Quincy Faircloth