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Philosophy: Its Meaning and Definitions

A discussion on a specific book on philosophy by a versatile author and professor of the subject can be rendered more meaningful in the backdrop of a preliminary reference to the meaning of philosophy, and a consideration of a few of its umpteen definitions. “Well, what do you think philosophy is? Most people can’t answer this question. It’s too abstract. It’s also controversial. Philosophers themselves can’t agree on any answer. Sure, the name “philosophy” derives from the Greek for “love of wisdom”, but what’s that?

There has been a long and glorious history of people called philosophers, but they talk about all kinds of topics in all kinds of ways. It is not clear what, if anything, they have in common that makes them all philosophers. ” (Sinnott-Armstrong, 2010). A few quotes by famous philosophers down the ages can perhaps help us to realize the subject matter and scope of philosophy (All About Philosophy, 2010). “Among the facts of the universe to be accounted for, it may be said, is Mind; and it is self evident that nothing can have produced Mind but Mind. ” (Mill, J. S. , 1969). Spinoza opined, “Without God nothing can be conceived. ” (Elwes, R.

H. M. , 1951). Descartes, the famous French scientist, mathematician, and founder of modern philosophy, has been quite immortalized by his pithy declaration, “I think; therefore, I am. ” However, he had also observed that, “I have concluded the evident existence of God, and that my existence depends entirely on God in all the moments of my life, that I do not think that the human spirit may know anything with greater evidence and certitude. ” (Descartes, R. , 1950). Immanuel Kant remarked over philosophical theology that “The sum total of all possible knowledge of God is not possible for a human being, not even through a true revelation.

But it is one of the worthiest inquiries to see how far our reason can go in the knowledge of God. ” (Kant, I. , 1978). The link between philosophy, atheism and religiosity has been reflected upon by Sir Francis Bacon thus, “It is true, that a little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism; but depth in philosophy brings about man’s mind to religion: For while the mind of man looketh upon second causes scattered, it may sometimes rest in them, and go no further; but when it beholdeth the chain of them confederate and linked together, it must needs fly to Providence and Deity.

” (Bacon, F. , 1875). If the plethora of preceding definitions leaves one little wiser about the subject matter of philosophy, there’s little to be ashamed about it, since humanity has fared little better during centuries of such ruminations. Philosophy may be understood as the quest for truth that leads to the evolution of a cogent worldview. Philosophy straddles across various disciplines, and presently encompasses subfields that are variously named the philosophy of religion, of law, of psychology, of physics, of computers, of music, and the like.

Hence, philosophy appears to be as much a discipline in its own right as a method that may be applied to various other branches of study. Mario Bunge: Philosophy Professor and Prolific Writer The process of analyzing and deriving meaning from an author’s works frequently becomes easier if one is acquainted with even a brief but representative profile or bio-sketch of the author. Hence, this section attempts to succinctly meet the man behind the words that the rest of this essay will seek to review and reflect on.

Mario Bunge is a world-renowned scholar, and holds four honorary professorships and is the recipient of 15 honorary doctorates. Bunge earned his PhD in physico-mathematical sciences from the Universidad Nacional de La Plata in 1952. Bunge was professor of theoretical physics at the Universidad de Buenos Aires (1956-66), at the Universidad Nacional de La Plata (1956-59), and professor of philosophy at the Universidad de Buenos Aires (1957-1963). Since 1966, Bunge has been Frothingham Professor of Logic and Metaphysics and Head, Foundations and Philosophy of Science, at McGill University, in Montreal.

In addition, over the years, Bunge has held umpteen visiting professorships of philosophy at such seats of learning as the University of Pennsylvania, Universidad de la Republica (Montevideo), Texas, Freiburg, Universidad Autonoma de Mexico, Aarus, ETH Zurich, and Geneve. Besides, Bunge has contributed as a visiting professor of physics and philosophy to Temple University, the University of Delaware, Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, Universite de Geneve, and Universita degli Studi di Genoa.

Figure 1: Mario Bunge: World-renowned Authority on Philosophy (Source: Spitzberg, D. , 2007, McGill Reporter, 40:06. ) Bunge was born in Buenos Aires. As he says, “I have been reading political news ever since I was seven. I learned to read in newspapers, not in school books, which bored me. ” (Spitzberg, D. , 2007). Bunge’s was influenced early in his life by the intellectual and political activities of his parents. His father was a leading Congressman who had pioneered legislation that was to later influence the pattern of the Canadian healthcare system.

Bunge had founded the Society for Exact Philosophy at McGill in 1976. He believes that even political science lends itself to exact methods of research. “You have much less randomness when you deal with large numbers of people. It is like dealing with a large number of molecules — there are well-established laws of behavior. ” Bunge’s love for mathematics becomes evident when he says, “Quantifiable evidence is immensely important, I am in favor of mathematizing everything you can.

” (Spitzberg, D. , 2007). Dr Bunge is the author of over 80 books and more than 400 articles on “theoretical physics, applied mathematics, systems theory, foundations of physics, foundations of sociology and psychology, philosophy of science, philosophy of technology, semantics, epistemology, catology, value theory, ethics, science policy, etc. ” (Interscientia, 1999). Indeed, he is regarded as having authored more books and articles than the average person might have written grocery lists.

Besides, Dr Bunge is a member of various elite academic bodies, such as Academie Internationale de Philosophie des Sciences, Institut International de Philosophie, Academy of Humanism, a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and of the Royal Society of Canada. One might conclude this author’s introduction with the surmise that Mario Bunge appears to have excellent credentials for the books and articles that he has churned out on various aspects of philosophy and other subjects. Reconstructing the Crisis of Philosophy

According to Bunge, “There seems to be consensus that philosophy is currently at a low ebb. Some even claim that it is dead…. Moreover, there is a whole Death of Philosophy industry. Ironically, some professors make a living from burying, exhuming, and reburying philosophy: their activity is more necrophilic than philosophical. ” (Bunge, 2001). However, Bunge believes that philosophy is not dead, but is merely stagnant, since no new and cogent philosophical idea is presently being added to the existing repository.

Most of the modern philosophers simply analyze, teach, remark upon, or embellish other scholars’ intellectual efforts. Bunge adopts an optimistic approach by asserting that “However, if the philosophy looks barren, the genuine philosopher will attempt to cultivate it instead of just lamenting its decay. ” In the book, Bunge attempts to do precisely that, and quite effectively. (Bunge, Philosophy in Crisis – The Need for Reconstruction, 2001). Fundamental Causes of Philosophy’s Crisis

Bunge elaborates upon “a diagnosis of the ailments of contemporary philosophy. Every one of them ought to suffice sending the dear old lady to the emergency wing. ” These may be briefly discussed under the following captions reproduced from his book as follows. Excessive professionalization: In the yesteryears, philosophy attracted only those who genuinely thirsted for knowledge and were wont to offer their original, if weird, ideas. Bunge believes that in the post-Kant era, philosophy has ‘degenerated’ into just one other profession.

As a result, technical expertise and conservatism have displaced the erstwhile passion that fired former philosophers. Hence, the profession of philosophy is today overcrowded with adherents who are neither enthusiastic about it nor advance it, and these have all but strangled the true growth of the discipline. Mistaking obscurity for profundity: Bunge observes that deep thought is difficult to understand, but it can be grasped with due striving.

However, it seems that in philosophy, vague writing serves merely to “pass off platitude or nonsense for depth. ” Bunge illustrates his point by observing that Heidegger gained a repute of being an original thinker by offering such literary gems as “Time is the ripening of temporality. ” Bunge notes that had Heidegger not been the favorite pupil of Husseri, he might have been regarded as a fraud or a lunatic. Obsession with language: Bunge names philosophers’ obsession with language as another shackle on the development of philosophy.

He concedes that philosophers ought to be as careful in their choice and use of words as other intellectuals, such as journalists and mathematicians. He notes that “Only poets can afford to write about lucky winds or drunken ships. ” Bunge observes that language has become quite a central concern in philosophy, and this is a healthy sign neither for philosophy nor for linguistics. Idealism: Bunge accepts that idealism remains among the prominent academic philosophies, but it is now virtually as barren as Marxism is, with no new ideas having been spawned in recent years.

Bunge holds objective idealism – reminiscent of Plato, Leibniz, Bolzano and Frege – to be viable only in the philosophy of mathematics, and insofar as the mathematicians are ignored. Bunge asserts that “All the other disciplines, whether scientific or technological, are tacitly materialist since they deal with concrete objects. ” Bunge is cynical about the description of social facts as “texts or like texts” and doubts that such a thesis can practically influence the formation of social policies.

Bunge faults the subjective idealists — like Berkeley, Kant, Mach and Goodman – for ignoring the material objects and processes altogether. As Bunge remarks, “To understand or alter reality, whether natural, social, or mixed, we must start by assuming that it is concrete rather than a subjective experience. ” Exaggerated attention to mini-problems and fashionable academic games: Bunge poses the disturbing question, “Why kill time thinking of a handful of artificial mini-problems when knowledge and action pose so many authentic and urgent problems?

” Bunge illustrates this by pointing out that moral philosophers appear to be more concerned with abortion and euthanasia, which affect the few, rather than with poverty and unemployment, which involve the numerous. Bunge implies that this tilt might be merely because religionists are more upset by the fringe issues of abortion and euthanasia than with the other greater problems that are so widespread as to be ubiquitous. Insubstantial formalism and formless insubstantiality: Bunge recalls that William James had categorized philosophers into the tender-minded and the tough-minded ones.

Bunge regrets that in the present times the tough-minded, while adept at using the formal tools, rarely confront the weightier problems. They generally work on the premise that logic will suffice to solve the mysteries of the universe, which only science might aspire to do. In glaring contrast, there are some tender-minded philosophers who boldly tackle difficult problems without the aid of formal tools. The respective results of tackling inane problems with tough tools and of applying soft methods to tough issues are triviality and disappointment.

“And handling bland problems with soft methods, in the manner of the linguistic (Wittgensteinian) philosophers, only elicits yawns. ” Fragmentarism and aphorism: Bunge believes that philosophy has had to render a steep price for the failure of the grand philosophical systems that were associated with Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, Leibniz, Wolff, and the like. This has led to diffidence toward new attempts to build philosophical systems, and the ensuing inclination to content oneself with brief essays or aphorisms.

Bunge maintains that “What is wrong is not to systematize (organize) ideas, but to cling dogmatically to this or that product of such effort. It is wrong because all things and all ideas come in systems. We ought to systematize ideas because stray ideas are unintelligible; because we need logical consistency; because deductive power is desirable; and because the world is not a pile of unrelated facts but a system of interrelated things and processes. ” Detachment from the intellectual engines of modern civilization: Bunge identifies these engines as science, technology, and ideology.

Bunge notes that disassociation from them fuels unruly and anachronistic conjectures. Bunge is apparently not at all impressed by the present lot of philosophers, for he writes, “Most contemporary philosophers have neither their feet on the ground nor their eyes fixed on the stars. ” The Solution that Bunge Offers Having performed a systematic diagnosis of the sundry ailments that beset the “old lady of philosophy”, Bunge calmly states, “The adequate treatment of the patient is obvious. ” Not every reader, including I, would be inclined to agree with the remedy being obvious.

Bunge’s prescription to resuscitate philosophy includes: “the transfusion of new and tough problems whose solution would advance knowledge; intensive exercises in conceptual rigor resulting in the elimination of pseudophilosophical toxics; selected morsels of mathematics, science, and technology; training in the detection and inactivation of ideological minefield; and renewal of contacts with the best philosophical tradition. ” Bunge ominously warns that if the patient doesn’t follow his treatment, or a similar one, it risks imminent death owing to hunger or boredom.

Bunge welcomes the entry of amateur philosophers, noting that, “After all, none of the fathers of philosophy held a philosophy chair, or even a doctorate in philosophy. ” The Significant Growth of Neuroscience Bunge notes the growing convergence between neuroscience and psychology, and perceives it as an inevitable and welcome trend. Decades back, no self-respecting scientist would have ventured to study the nature of consciousness, much less trace its location to the brain.

Lately, neuroscientists are turning their focus to such areas of study as memory perception, emotion, ideation, consciousness, and behavior. This is bridging the sharp gulf that earlier existed between mind and matter. Psychobiology, or cognitive neuroscience, is emerging as a discipline of considerable consequence. In like manner, the apparent chasm between mind and body is also being dispensed with. Bunge charges the theological tradition with having “invented the myths of the immaterial, immortal, and inscrutable soul, and of the radical discontinuity between man and the other primates.

” By Way of a Conclusion Bunge concludes his diagnosis and prescription for the stagnant and ailing discipliner of philosophy with trying to reconcile the need for specialization with that of a comprehensive and philosophical scheme of things within which the problems might be located. Such a weltanschauung would enable one to the better view the problems in the right perspective, select the best means to tackle them, and be able to draw from pertinent knowledge belonging to other disciplines even by integrating hitherto incongruent research fields.

Bunge reiterates the desirability of the growing convergence among various disciplines, as exemplified by the meeting of the twain between neuroscience and psychology. Bunge comes down rather harshly on the claim that the soul is beyond the purview of science. He incisively asserts that “Indeed, science does know something about the soul, namely that It does not exist any more than the phlogiston, the aether, life force, penis envy, collective memory, or the manifest destiny of a certain nation.

It also knows that the soul is an invention that began as a naive explanation of certain daily life events — such as dreams and unexplained phenomena — and ended up by becoming the nucleus of a whole family of ideologies used for social control. ” Bunge continues his harangue against religion by observing that it was easy to discern that science and religion were mutually exclusive rather than compatible. Bunge bases this conclusion on the apparent differences between science and religion, with the former assuming the world to be “material and lawful” and the latter viewing it as “spiritual and miraculous.

” Bunge appears somehow keen to conclude that every scientific and technological breakthrough worked as a blow dealt at religion and philosophical idealism. My Reflections on Bunge’s Ruminations I enjoyed reading Bunge’s book under discussion, but certainly cannot bring myself to agree with a few of his assumptions, and thereby several of his conclusions as well. If Bunge appears enamored of a developing synchronicity among various disciplines, the benefits of a multidisciplinary approach to viewing life and tackling its problems might possibly be merely accentuated further if the gulf between religion and science were to be also bridged.

Bunge holds science to be lawful and religion to be miraculous. I find this description to be extremely shallow and juvenile. The miraculous is not antithetical to the lawful, but is perfectly lawful, if one is willing to accept that one’s existing knowledge and understanding of the laws might be limited. I certainly do not defend the religious or supernatural blindly. My perception is that the laws of quantum physics in any case indicate several interesting parallels between science and religion.

If philosophy is about love for wisdom – as the best of philosophers have stoutly maintained — and Bunge has stressed the importance of a “scheme of things”, then it falls to reason that one’s constricted beliefs and biases might effectively prevent one from realizing the truth. I found the earlier part of Bunge’s book to be coherent and meaningful. Toward the close of the book, Bunge’s hostility towards religion served only to detract from the objective worth of his overall message. In any case, the reader would willingly agree with Bunge that philosophy has witnessed almost no major new development, and seemingly suffers from stagnation.

Any attempt to inspire growth in a significant study ought to be welcomed by the academia and others alike. References Agassi, J. & Cohen, R. S. (eds). (1982). Scientific Philosophy Today: Essays in Honor of Mario Bunge. Dordrecht: Reidel. All About Philosophy. (2010). “Philosophy Quotes. ” Retrieved on August 25, 2010 from http://www. allaboutphilosophy. org/philosophy-quotes. htm Bacon, F. (1875). The Essays of Lord Bacon. London: Longman & Green. P. 64. Bunge, M. (1962). Intuition and Science. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall. Bunge, M. (1973). Philosophy of Physics. Dordrecht: Reidel. Bunge, M. (1974-1989). Treatise on basic philosophy.

Dordrecht: Reidel. Bunge, M. (1980). The Mind-Body Problem. Oxford: Pergamon. Bunge, M. (1996). Finding Philosophy in Social Science. New Haven: Yale University Press. Bunge, M. (1998). Dictionary of Philosophy. New York: Prometheus. Bunge, M. (2001). “Philosophy in Crisis. ” Free Inquiry, 21:2, p. 29. Bunge, M. (2001). Philosophy in Crisis – The Need for Reconstruction. New York: Prometheus. Descartes, R. (1950). “Les Meditations” in The Meditations and Selections from the Principles of Rene Descartes. Chicago: Open Court Publishing. Par. 155. Elwes, R. H. M. (1951). The Chief Works of Benedict de Spinoza, Vol. II. Mineola: Dover

Publications. P. 60. Interscientia. (1999). “Mario Bunge Biography. ” Retrieved on August 25, 2010 from http://www. uottawa. ca/publications/interscientia/biographies/bunge. html Mill, J. (1963). Essays on Ethics, Religion, and Society. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. P. 439. Sinnott-Armstrong, W. (2010). “What is Philosophy? ” Dartmouth College, Department of Philosophy. Retrieved on August 25, 2010 from http://www. dartmouth. edu/~phil/whatis/wsa. htmlZxc! Spitzberg, D. (2007). “Profile — Mario Bunge: Philosophy in flux. ” McGill Reporter, 40: 06. Retrieved on August 25, 2010 from http://www. mcgill. ca/reporter/40/06/bunge/

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