A New Lexicon

[Philosophical problems] are, of course, not empirical problems; but they are solved through an insight into the workings of our language, and that in such a way that these workings are recognized – despite an urge to misunderstand them. The problems are solved, not through the contribution of new knowledge, rather through the arrangement of things long familiar. Philosophy is a struggle against the bewitchment of our understanding by the resources of our language.
~Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, 1953

As part of our endeavors to philosophize in the field, today begins a fresh series: the New Lexicon. Entries will be added as regularly as possible with only a few hiatuses. Each one should contribute a better comprehension of terms used most often in academic philosophy but very rarely in the public sphere. The motive is to encourage a more conversational tone in philosophizing.

As I have noted in a previous blog, high-falutin’ verbage often gets in the way of even beginning a conversation with someone outside the academy. While technical language is made for the sake of precision and clarity, if you have to start by defining a 50 cent term, you already are throwing up a hurdle.

Rather, we would like to suggest starting in the most conversational tones while using everyday words that build up to a point of naming a term that can take the place of a long, descriptive sentence or paragraph.

This is a Socratic enterprise. So our path will begin with looking at the term we want to grasp, seeing how it appears in common usage, looking at any historic info on its development, and suggesting descriptive alternatives that naturally lead us to a deeper communication.

Let us do PHILOSOPHY itself.

Since before the American Revolution in 1776, philosophy’s meaning at large has been that of a  a “system” adopted to conduct our lives. In this sense, we can say that it is a directed and directing world view. This reveals philosophy as being an active practice of life. Method oriented programs, like Alcoholics Anonymous or Weight Watchers, could be said to be systems of proper moderation so that our lives do not spin further out of control due to hasty choices or bad habits. We can then speak of the philosophies of AA and WW.

Another common meaning is a “teaching” or “doctrine.” In this sense, philosophy intends passing along an objective knowledge. Rather than being a broad way of conducting our lives, philosophy becomes a focused way of looking at other things and/or processes. When we wonder why the highest degree to achieve in most academic disciplines is the Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy), we are forgetting that each discipline is in fact a narrowing that allows us to focus on one specific kind of thing or process. So someone with a Ph.D. in Physics focuses on quantum mechanics. She uses a method not to conduct her overall life but to conduct research into “this”, be it change, uncertainty, quanta, probability, etc et al. So the disciplinary names by which we designate a person–Physicist, Historian, Chemist, Psychologist–are in this sense shorthand for Philosopher of Physics, of History, of Chemistry, of the Psyche.

Neither of these two meanings are exclusive. In fact, they co-imply each other. The development of new knowledge funds the broadening of world views. And the expansion of our viewpoint leads to the discovery of new things and processes.

An old move–beginning with Socrates really–runs the risk of giving too much importance to the “origin” of a word by analyzing the component parts of the term from its ancient roots. As some have rightly stated, this make us slaves in a sense to the situation of another time/place. But I think that there is something that can be gained by looking at these traces of others in our everyday world.

Philosophy is a foreign word that enters into English through old French in the 1200′s, a few generations after the Norman conquest. That word–filosofie–itself comes into the French from the Latin philosophia, the Romans taking it up from the Greeks, φιλοσοφία.

The Greek components then are philos + sophia.

And for those with a liberal education, who has not heard the definition always trotted out that philosophy is “love of wisdom”?

And who has not then been reminded by some classics person–probably someone not unlike myself–that the Greeks had three (3) words for love? There is eros, philos, & agape. So we have here love as desire, love as friendship, and love as charity. So if we are going to play the game of original meanings, philosophy more probably intended the befriending of wisdom.

But what is wisdom and how would the search for it be likened to friendship? And how, in the course of generational drift, would this get us to a point of using philosophy to mean a practice of life as well as a search to know “this” thing or process.

Well, like “love” the Greeks had more than one word for wisdom. There was phronesis (practical wisdom) and sophia (speculative wisdom). The former is being able to see what is needed in a situation. The latter is being able to see how things fit together: natural & artificial; divine & human.

We are entities that have to make choices, and our choices are always made within a context. When we choose, we either do so with the facts at hand (informed choice) or we are forced to do so without previous thought (guessing). Obviously, it is more practical, more wise, to make an informed rather than an uninformed choice. Our word “wise” in fact is related to “vision.” So to be “wise” is to “see.” Practical wisdom, then, is looking before you leap.

But seeing the whole context is not looking to go forward but looking by stepping back, seeing broadly. We do not know what will happen next but we imagine possibilities. Speculative wisdom, then, is envisioning how things come together in a meaningful fashion.

Like our contemporary popular usages of philosophy, the two words for wisdom among the Greeks co-imply each other. Every major choice leads to a reimagining of what’s going on and every envisioning of the whole opens up or closes off particular choices.

Seeing how the word comes to us, we can understand a little better how the term means what it does for us today. To philosophize is a careful engagement with our choices as well as a careful consideration of what is going on in our world or in a very particular situation. It requires that we communicate with our own selves, with our fellows, and with the world.

So after all of that, philosophy is the careful, situating critique through engaged communication.

I welcome critique and comment. The New Lexicon is not suppose to be definitive without correction but an ongoing dialog.

This entry was posted in New Lexicon, Public Philosophizing and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to A New Lexicon

  1. Britt Holbrook says:

    Ha! Great idea, Keith.

    But perhaps ‘lexicon’ could be the next word you address in the New Lexicon?

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