International Society for Philosophers

International Society for Philosophers

Wisdom begins with wonder

PHILOSOPHY PATHWAYS                   ISSN 2043-0728


Issue Number 8 20 May 2001


I. 'One Question is Worth Many Answers' by Karolos Gikas

II. Society AGM 26 May - Inaugural Lecture by Brenda Almond

III. Online Conference: Applying for an observer's password



My choice of the "First Philosophers" program among the various options of "Pathways", 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 nave 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 Platos 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 Michelangelos 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.

(c) Karolos Gikas



                     Annual General Meeting                    
                   Saturday, 26 May 3.30-5.00                  
                 Bordick Room, Council Chambers                
                 Malet Street,  London WC1E 7HZ                
                 (opposite the Students Union)                
  3.30 Inaugural Lecture: PROFESSOR BRENDA ALMOND, President  
       of the Philosophical Society of England, will talk on  
       the topic "Biomedical Technology in Humanist Culture"  
    Members and Non-members are cordially invited to attend    

Next Saturday is a red letter day for the Philosophical Society! We are getting a new President. Taking up the post from Professor John Wilson of Oriel College Oxford is the leading moral philosopher Brenda Almond, Professor of Moral and Social Philosophy at the University of Hull, and author of the best-selling books 'Exploring Philosophy' and 'Exploring Ethics'. Brenda Almond, who has said she intends to take an active role in promoting the Society, will be be giving her Inaugural Lecture to the AGM on the topic "Biomedical Technology in Humanist Culture".

I had the good fortune to meet Brenda Almond when I was invited to give a talk on the problem of Solipsism at the University of Hull a few years back. She led a lively discussion and after the meeting was over took me out for dinner at a country 'pub'. The Pathways web site had recently been launched, and she was very encouraging and supportive. It will be good to see her again.

The AGM, which is open to non-members as well as members, takes place at 3.30, in the Bordick Room, Council Chambers, Malet St, London WC1 immediately after the meeting of the Council of the Philosophical Society (1.30-3.30). Notice of Brenda Almond's lecture has been posted on PHILOS-L, the e-mail list for professional philosophy in the UK and Europe. We are hoping for an excellent turnout. Do come along and support the Society!



The next issue of Pathways News will be featuring one of the contributions to Round 3 of the Pathways internet conference on the 'Use and Value of Philosophy'. [See Issue 4 for Cliff North's contribution to Round 1, Issue 6 for Chris Schmaling's contribution to Round 2.]

For anyone who would like to visit the Conference and follow the discussion, Dr Martin Gough has now provided an observer-only username and password. The password enables you to read all the contributions, but not to take part in the discussion.

To observe the Conference, you do not need to be a Pathways or Diploma student, or even a member of the Philosophical Society. If you would like to be issued with an observer's password, just write to me!

Geoffrey Klempner

© Geoffrey Klempner 2002–2020