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Pathways to Philosophy

One question is worth
many answers

by Karolos Gikas

My choice of the "First Philosophers" program among the various options of Pathways to Philosophy was based on a rather simplistic reasoning. I tried to find some navigation method in the seemingly vast ocean of knowledge and information that we call philosophy. I thought it would be inappropriate to base my decision on any kind of comparative valuation of different fields, since this very valuation would be of questionable validity itself. Simple interest didn't sound very "philosophical" as a criterion, so I ended up using a principle that seems of more objective nature: age. For me philosophy has a lot to do with a quest for order (rather than truth), so it would be consistent with my principles to make an orderly start: at the beginning.

After reading the first unit, I realized some less obvious reasons for this selection. First I was thinking that the problems discussed would be less complicated and less loaded with references to other, earlier problems, giving me an easier start — not to mention here my Greek origin and the respective familiarity with the language of the Presocratics. But most important was the naïve hope that by dealing with the First Philosophers I would be somehow able to become a philosopher myself, through a sort of a rite of initiation. The fragments of wisdom would serve as magical invocations, written in a language both familiar and strange to me.

How mythological was my thinking! I realized this hope of mine, by reading paragraphs six and seven, and thinking about my emotional response to them. At first reading I completely overlooked the warning that "a short-cut to philosophical insight" is not what should lead us to the study of the Presocratics. On the other hand I really enjoyed the remark that "the vision of philosophy that is to be imparted by investigating its historical beginnings can only be fully appreciated by those who are beginners themselves". Now that I look back at my motives more clearly, I realize that there is indeed a deep mystery in the moment that someone realizes it is worth to philosophize. And since philosophy's battle grounds are within the mind, the birth and first steps of philosophy can be experienced by each person as if they happen for the first time. Or not?

It is obvious that Thales' motives, needs and background are not accessible to today's interpreters of his views. But I think that it's fair to assume that if the human mind hasn't changed in its core over the last few thousand years, the feeling of awe and wonder he experienced in front of the fundamental questions, is not different from the feelings of a philosophy student today. Of course in Thales time there were only philosophers — who nobody called philosophers at that time — and the process of philosophical thinking. There was no philosophy as such. Even in Plato«s time, the quest for wisdom was enough to define who is a philosopher, without a need for referring to a body of knowledge or a discipline. Today though, the pair of the wisdom seeker (or lover) and of the hidden attractor towards which he moves, is complemented by a third entity: philosophy.

The problem we face is similar to the one of art. Here we have the artist, the art works and the notion of art itself. Can someone be an artist without ever creating a work of art? Can somebody be called a philosopher, inasmuch he loves wisdom, without producing any original philosophical thinking? Thank God Plato and Xenophon saved Socrates from this fate by creating in his name. The importance of originality should also not be forgotten. Coming back to the art analogy, how would we call somebody, who, without knowing it, created a replica of one of Michelangelo«s masterpieces? Would he be called an artist? The example of Michelangelo is not arbitrary. The Italian artist was famous for copying ancient Greek and Roman works of art, a practice he considered legitimate. He was even involved in the first recorded scandal of forgery. But originality was just about gaining an importance in Italy at his time. In China, originality in art matters was first considered a virtue in late 19th century.

But what about philosophy then. Can we, beginners, approach the old questions directly or we are only able to think in relative terms? Can we ever think like Thales or we should be only thinking about Thales? Someone might laugh at my wish to think like Thales, since, after all, we know that our world is not made of water. Yes, but what is it made of? Atoms? Energy? Quarks? Leptons, bosons or just mathematical formulae? Except for a limited number of scientists who might claim they understand what the world is made of, the rest of us just claim we know the right answer without really understanding it. So if we do not understand what the world is made of, do we have an answer? Of course even without knowing the right answer to a question, we can always disqualify another answer — Thales« in that case. This is fair provided that in the process we do not disqualify the question too! So if we give a relative value to Thales« answer as a good scientific approximation for his time, I believe that the value of the question is not affected in the same way. We can even claim that this old question hasn't been finally answered. It is also questionable if an answer expressed in mathematical formulae is a valid response to a question laid out in plain language. So let's assume for a moment that an answer cannot be found. Was then the question in vain?

Definitely not. An open question defines the horizon of all possible answers, right or wrong. So Thales opened in a philosophical way the possibility of the science of Physics. Furthermore an open question may be able to charge people's hearts with its own special energy, which does not need the justification of an answer, just the expectation of it. And this expectation which is enough sometimes to give meaning and purpose to someone's life, reveals more about him, I mean the one who asks, than about the problem in question.

© Karolos Gikas 2001