INTRODUCTION: The Love of Wisdom


By the end of this section you will discover:

  • What wisdom means and why it is valued.
  • How philosophy is largely about coming to better know yourself.
  • How philosophy will help you evaluate the claims and beliefs you and others hold.
  • How philosophy can make you a better thinker and defender of your beliefs.
  • How philosophy can broaden your mind by raising the larger questions about life.

Wisdom.  Think of someone you know who is wise.  What characteristics of behavior, speech, or demeanor convey that person’s wisdom?  It might be the wise words she shares, her calm presence in the midst of chaos, her keen insights into the nature of problems, her compassion for those around her.  Where does her wisdom come from?  You might say from life experience, but not all of those with long life come to wisdom.  You might say she was born wise, but then weren’t we all?  Why did she retain that innate wisdom while so many have apparently not?  Is it not the case that wisdom comes through practice?  By a thousand conscious decisions to cultivate an inner sense of truth and virtue.  If you agree with this, then you have a strong insight into the nature of philosophy.

Knowing Thyself.  When Socrates’ friend and disciple Chaerephon made his pilgrimage to the Oracle of Delphi he likely saw there inscribed on the pronaos (forecourt) of the Temple of Apollo the words γνῶθι σεαυτόν, “know thyself.” The first and most important claim we can make about philosophy is that it is about you.  Yes, philosophy explores many questions: What is the truth? What is real? What is the best way to live?  How can I be certain?, but in the end, the study of philosophy is about coming to a better understanding of how you think, how you understand your place in the world, how you can lead a good life.   Philosophy (from the Greek φιλοσοφία, “love of wisdom”) originally meant the passionate pursuit of a kind of inner understanding about the relationship between one’s true self and one’s world.   It still offers that today.  First and foremost, philosophy is about self-discovery.

Ponder if you will:

Have there been any moments in your life that have given you an “aha!” experience?  Moments when you suddenly realized something about yourself that had always been part of you but only now have you been able to put words to it?

Did any of these moments alter the direction of your life?  How so?

Do you believe that ideas can lead you to become a better person, to have a better life?

Assessing Claims.  Yet philosophy offers other, more practical gifts as well.  The study of philosophy can help you better assess the claims you encounter every day.  We are being “claimed at” constantly in this world.  In fact, that sentence is itself a claim.  Is it true or false?  Is it biased in one direction or another?  Is it self-evident or does it require more argumentation and evidence?  These are the kinds of questions philosophers ask themselves when others are trying to persuade them one way or another.  One branch of philosophy especially, Logic, can give us better thinking skills and aid us in determining which kinds of claims or arguments are strong and which are weak. You will find this an exceptionally useful tool for navigating this world of competing claims.

Making Strong Arguments.  In addition to helping you better evaluate the arguments of others, the study of philosophy can also make you a better arguer, a better thinker.  Logic will teach you how to build a strong, coherent and convincing argument when seeking to persuade others. One skill that helps in persuasion is the ability to anticipate the counterarguments you might receive from others and to address them before they are raised.  Philosophers learn to recognize both the ‘arguments for’ and the ‘arguments against’ any claim and in that way are better able to anticipate an opponent’s next move and respond to it with skill.  Attorneys, as you can imagine, especially benefit from this kind of thinking skill.

Finding Nuance.  Moreover, philosophy can give us a more nuanced approach to discussing difficult questions.  Instead of looking always to find the right answer, or to “win” an argument, the philosopher recognizes some truth in almost all arguments.  Life is rarely black and white. Reading and writing and thinking philosophically can help you learn to be comfortable with the ambiguity that so often attains to life’s hard questions.  Instead of judging a position as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, philosophers learn to discuss the arguments for and against a position as either ‘strongly argued’ or ‘weakly argued’. In philosophy we are not so much looking for right or wrong, true or false kinds of answers, but instead well-argued responses that can generate new and better questions.

Asking Better Questions.  Philosophers differ about whether we can ever get to certainty or absolute truth, yet most agree we ought to move toward it.  Philosophy is sometimes called “the art of asking questions,” and as we’ll see in the following section, this was a major skill exemplified by Socrates of ancient Athens.  Questions are powerful.  Questions challenge sometimes dearly held assumptions.  There are many in your world who do not want you to ask questions: some teachers, some bosses, some religious leaders.  Questions challenge authority.  Questions open new avenues to the truth.  Philosophy teaches us that easy answers are not the goal here, but new and better questions.  That is the road toward truth.

If these pursuits intrigue you, then you are already doing philosophy.  Philosophers have explored nearly every dimension of human experience.


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PPSC PHI 1011: The Philosopher's Quest by Daniel G. Shaw, Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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