What is Philosophy and why is it important?
Philosophy literally translates to “the love of wisdom”. ‘Philia’ is the Greek word for one of the four loves, whereas ‘Sofia’ is the direct translation for wisdom. Fun fact! This is why the name Sophie or Sofia means knowledge. It derives from the Greek language.
That’s the direct answer to what philosophy is… but what exactly IS the love of wisdom?
You could say that the admiration for knowledge and continuous learning is a way to interpret the name. Philosophy is also used to describe the way in which someone lives their life. Essentially, their fundamental principles, rules, or laws they abide by which effects their behaviour and moral compass. Philosophy may have different interpretations and meanings, but the study of philosophy in essence is all about looking at the bigger picture and attempting to answer the questions of life as we know it. Many famous philosophers over the lifespan of humanity have tried to come up with theories, analogies and even written texts of ancient scripture that attempt to point towards our existence, how we live, and why we are living. In essence, the study of philosophy is the study of our existence, knowledge and reality as a whole.
It includes the study of:
Ethics – what is of value? What is and isn’t right? Famous theories include Kantian ethics (Also known as Deontological ethics), Utilitarianism (A consequentialist approach), and Virtue ethics.
Metaphysics – What is and isn’t real? This branch of philosophy looks into abstract concepts such as identity, time and space.
Epistemology – Looks into the nature of knowledge and how we validate it. This includes how we interpret but also distribute justice and or the claim of truth.
There are various other areas of philosophy including Ontology (A branch of metaphysics) as well as various branches and arguments within each said topic. An example is the Teleological argument which is famous for stating the aesthetic beauty of the world as a representation of a greater divine being.
An introduction to Plato and the Cave Analogy
One of the most famous philosophers that you may have heard about is Plato, a Greek philosopher who was believed to be alive somewhere between the dates of 428-348 BC. His predecessor and Sophist was Socrates. Plato went on to teach various students, the most famous of which was Aristotle. His work and literature, most notably the ‘Republic’ has been consistently read and studied throughout the last two and a half millennia.
The cave analogy and its representation of society
The analogy starts by stating that some people (referred to as prisoners) are chained together and in a cave facing a wall. There is a fire behind them, though they are unaware of the fire, casting shadows of animals and other creatures passing by onto the wall they are facing. Now suppose one of the prisoners is freed. He turns around and sees a blinding fire that hurts his eyes and makes it difficult for him to see the animals passing by. If he was told that what he was looking at was real then he would struggle to believe it, returning to the wall and the shadows. Should someone drag one of the prisoners out of the cave they would be angry. Upon reaching the cave entrance they would be blinded by the light of the sun, further triggering their anger. Despite this, their eyes would soon adjust to the light and the beauty of the world would empower them. The prisoner would then return back to the cave with pity for the other prisoners, blinded by the darkness now as opposed to the light. The prisoner would reason with the other prisoners that life on the outside was superior to that of inside the cave. The prisoners of the cave would look at the freed prisoner with suspicion, assuming his trip outside the cave had harmed him and that it was not beneficial. Should anyone try to free the other prisoners and take them out of the cave, the prisoners would likely retaliate with violence.
What does this analogy represent?
One argument is that it represents society, those who believed in philosophy and overcame the difficulty in understanding it had reached enlightenment, where as those who rejected it were still stuck in the cave, looking at the world in the dark.
Another consideration could be its representation of Plato’s mentor, Socrates. Socrates ended up being trialled and executed by a hemlock poison, charged with the indoctrination and corruption of his beliefs onto his students. This included failing to acknowledge the existence of a god. Socrates was the one to free the prisoner, but the other prisoners (representing society) rejected his ideas, retaliating with violence instead.
There are other theories about what the cave analogy could represent and if any of this has piqued your interest, then I genuinely recommend looking into the topic further!
This article only scratches the surface, mentioning just key theories and concepts. A few years back, I had the privilege of going to a talk by Peter Vardy, one of the modern philosophers of our generation. It was a truly fascinating and thought provoking experience. The topics raised and the questions asked may never have a definitive answer, yet they help you realise how small we are in the ever expanding cosmos.
Despite this, each and every one of us hold brilliance inside us, to change lives for the better, to search for our purpose in life. I will finish this article with a hopefully inspirational and mind boggling statement. “Many people may believe philosophy holds little value. But what we do is ask the most important question’s in life. Keep looking, keep questioning and never stop in the pursuit for the real answer to our purpose. These questions will plague and benefit humanity for years to come, yet the beauty of them is the enlightenment we, as individuals, should all strive for”.