Is philosophy just a word game?
How can I argue that it is not? What words might I use? Perhaps, only those who have engaged seriously in philosophy can definitively answer this question–only they can confirm or deny whether it entails an authentic engagement with reality.
Yet, we might head off a certain misconception which is apt to arise, even within strands of traditional philosophy (Platonic, Aristotelian, Thomistic, etc.). The essential or first philosophical act is not that of definition. This is a somewhat radical statement. After all, wouldn’t the road be clearer, misunderstandings be avoided, and long-winded verbosity be avoided if we first defined what we were talking about?
How can we even talk about what has not defined? If we mean by definition a scientific or dictionary definition, we indeed manage to successfully communicate all the time without ever having even known such. When was the last time you defined ‘love’ before you told your wife, or child, or friend that you loved them?
That we may not begin by defining our terms (the things we are most centrally concerned with at a given moment in philosophic inquiry), that our object of inquiry must remain imperfectly delineated at first, represents the throwing down of a gauntlet. It also represents the preservation of philosophy over mere rhetoric and sophistry.
The Evidence Against
First, it may be useful to note that this is not how we often think of good writing, communication, or thinking. Textbooks on composition and argumentation consistently remind us that ambiguity of terms (or a failure to define) results in poor writing and fallacious arguments.
OWL, Purdue’s online writing lab, for instance, has a page dedicated to definition. Peter Kreeft’s most excellent text, Socratic Logic, spends much of the book on terms and ensuring that one knows how to recognize whether they are clear or ambiguous.
But we must keep in mind that scholarly college essays and even logic (as a tool by itself) is not philosophy. In such essays or in pure logic, we are often working out what we already agree upon. Strangely enough, this is also true in philosophy. Good philosophy depends in some sense on what we already know, even if we do not yet know it as we ought.
It is by philosophic inquiry that we discover whether we really know what we think we do. It is also in such inquiry that we test and discover what we truly believe about such realities: Is love real? Does virtue matter? Can one be courageous and yet unwise? Is the world or God good?
To provide yet stronger evidence against my thesis, we can turn to numerous platonic dialogues which seem to do just this at the outset–to define the central object of inquiry. Yet on close examination, we can note three points.
First, no one is ever so unclear on the topic of inquiry in these dialogue as to say something like, ‘I have never ever heard of this thing called ‘justice’. Can you define it first so that I might know what you’re talking about? No one is ever wholly without a clue.
Second, the definitions which serve as starting points is treated as tentative. Whether finally affirmed or rejected by the over all dialogue, Socrates certainly sees them as jumping off points for thinking, points of commencement which are often problematic. In some sense, the heart of the philosophic act only begins in the recognition of this probelm. It is only in recognizing the inadequacy of a definition or one’s understanding that the philosophic act unfolds. In a dialogue like the Meno, the failure to achieve just such an existential recognition of this kind proves to be a insurmountable roadblock to the chief interlocutor.
Third, this entails that dialogue is itself a conversation of friendship which implicitly agrees on the object of inquiry. If we are going to talk about the nature of a plant, or justice, or anything, we need not first ‘come-to-terms’, not if that is mean in some pseudo-scientific or prematurely technical sense. Rather, as Socrates says in the Theaetetus:
The easy use of words and phrases and the avoidance of strict precision is in general a sign of good breeding; indeed, the opposite is hardly worthy of a gentleman, but sometimes it is necessary, as now it is necessary to object to your answer, in so far as it is incorrect. Just consider; which answer is more correct… (Plato, Theaetetus, 184c)
Or in the Meno:
But if, like you and me on this occasion, we were friends and chose to have a discussion together, I should have to reply in some milder tone more suited to dialectic. The more dialectical way, I suppose, is not merely to answer what is true, but also to make use of those points which the questioned person acknowledges he knows. And this is the way in which I shall now try to argue with you (Meno, 75d).
Coming to Know What We Know
Philosophy, if it is to stand as an authentic and genuine pursuit of wisdom, must remain not a schema of definitions, but rather a mode of pursuit and discovery, of testing, trying, and asking, and sometimes even affirming. Perhaps the ultimate payoff of philosophy is affirmative in the deepest sense.
But philosophy is not the teachings of any one person or school, nor a series of lessons or truths in general. For instance, that all composite beings are matter and form, or that virtue is the excellence of the human soul.
Such conclusions may result from and occur within the act of philosophy, but they are not themselves philosophical unless they are arrived at and understood in a certain manner. For instance, it takes the entire first book of the Nichomachaen Ethics to arrive at a definition of virtue. Why?
Aristotle is not interested in writing a mere treatise or encyclopedia article. He is interested in thinking with his readers about the nature of the human condition. He therefore cannot dogmatically assert something about happiness or the work of man, but must arrive there by examining and meditating dialectically upon reality .
This does not mean he takes nothing for granted in the manner of a radical skeptic. For instance, Aristotle takes for granted that men exist, that happiness is, that his readers know the general meaning of the words he is using. Stipulative or ostensive definitions are sufficient for philosophy to find its beginnings. If scientific definitions or a premature precision with words is insisted upon, we have not a beginning, but a false start. Perhaps much of the work of the Platonic dialogues is to disengage us from such false beginnings.
What this means is that when we genuinely engage in philosophy, it is not our job to ensure that every term, particularly the one’s in question, are well-defined up front, but rather to discover whether we can come up with such definitions, whether such terms are indeed meaningful.
Plato and Aristotle do not de facto describe their systems or beliefs because they are not interested in propagating doctrine; they are interested in knowing and pursuing reality, and inviting us along with them in that pursuit.
Such a pursuit is messier than a syllogism (though it will necessarily rely on the use of syllogistic reasoning). It is also more satisfying. In fact, valid syllogisms, our knowing their validity–particular the validity of the most important things–means doing philosophy, not just constructing compelling premises and conclusions.
The act of philosophy both validates arguments, but more significantly validates our proximity and connection to reality, the world in which such arguments live and breath. Philosophy done right is an existential act which confirms the reality of the objects of inquiry and the individual’s relation to such objects. Love, truth, goodness, being, form and material, potency and act, are merely terms without the pursuit of wisdom.
It is this that distinguishes philosophy from mathematics or any natural science, which proceeds from first principles to further conclusions. Philosophy is ever interested in the first principles themselves.
Is philosophy just terminology? Is the vast scheme of human terminology empty of real import? I cannot answer that question for you. But I would like to suggest that we hear an echo of the human failure to earnestly seek out what we most of all need to know, we hear perhaps the archetype of stillborn philosophy in one man’s dismissive utterance: “What is truth?”