One Way to Approach Philosophy

Although I cannot prove it, I suspect the ancient Greeks typically approached philosophy in the spirit of a contest, game, or sport.

One of their core values was areté. The word is usually translated as "virtue" or "excellence", but perhaps a better translation is "being the best you can be" or "reaching your fullest potential".

From what little I know, the Greeks believed the best way to bring out a person's areté was through competition.  And, for that and other reasons, I think it's likely they treated philosophy as a competition designed to bring out the best reasoning in the competitors.

Regardless of whether or not I am right about that, it seems that philosophy in their day had only one rule: You could advance any position you wished so long as you supported it with reason(s). Or, in other words, you couldn't simply say, "I think the gods exist" -- you had to state (and defend) your reasons for supposing the gods exist.

Today,  it might be the best way to approach philosophy is to think of it as a game you play in order to determine the scope and limits of reason.  That is, don't ask, "Do the gods exist", in order to discover whether or not the gods exist.  Rather, treat the issue as a case study in the application of reason to the question, "Do the gods exist".  After all, if you can learn anything from philosophy it is not whether the gods exist, but the scope and limits of reason in addressing the question of whether the gods exist.

The same can be said of most other well-known philosophical questions.  "What is truth?"  "What can be known?" "What is moral?" "What is the logic and method(s) of the sciences?"  etc.  They can all be treated as case studies in the application of reason.  The goal is not so much to arrive at a straight-forward answer to each question, but mainly to uncover the scope and limits of reason when applied to each question.  And if you come up with a defensible answer, so much the better.

Of course, there are many other ways to approach philosophy.  Obviously, one of those is to ignore it altogether.  But in that respect, philosophy is also like a sport -- it's not everyone's game.   


  1. "-- it's not everyone's game. True. I daresay most people couldn't reason their way out of a paper bag.

  2. "The goal is not so much to arrive at a straight-forward answer to each question, but mainly to uncover the scope and limits of reason when applied to each question."

    I just today told a friend that questions are so much more fun than answers. Reading this post reminded me of that idea. Thanks for great thought fodder, Paul.

    Also, I'm now looking for a place to use "areté" in conversation. Maybe it'll be the name of my next song...

  3. @ Songbird: Areté is a word with a beautiful meaning, no? Thanks for dropping by! I always like it when you comment, even though you're just a girl.

  4. @ Garnet: I would be forced to agree with if by "most people", you were to include me. At least most days of the week! :D

  5. I hadn't thought of this idea -- but it makes perfect sense.

    I'm wondering now whether it was true for the ancient Greeks particularly or whether its just as true today. One of my very good friends who teaches philosophy has so often told me about controversies in his field. He'll tell me(only half in jest) --- 'and I told that mo'fo [i.e., a philosopher on the other side of the argument] let's assume you're RIGHT on your first point. Well then you're STILL wrong, because ...'. And he would laugh at the fun of sticking it to the other guy. (And I'd laugh because of how he exaggerated it in such a fun way). In other words the sport, the gamesmanship of it, was obviously a big part of it.

    The other thing I wonder whether the primary thing is testing the scope/limits of reason, or testing the scope/limits of one's OWN reasoning abilities (compared to one's colleagues), or both.

    It seems like during the middle ages, when philosophers came up with arguments supporting God's existence it really did have to do (not with finding out the truth, but) with testing the limits of reason itself. Because in those days, when the church could 'weigh in' on the discussions, it was possible to say that philosopher X came to the 'wrong conclusion' in his reasoning about God, because his conclusions implied a kind of pantheism (real no-no's). That is, the correct answer was already known (it was the church dogma) - the question was whether philosophy had the ability to arrive at it.

    Great post.

  6. @ Jon: Thank you for your kind words. I like your idea of using philosophy to test both your own reasoning abilities and to explore the scope and limits of reason. It strikes me that both of those functions would be valuable.


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