🤔Introduction to Philosophy 🤔


Heya 👋

This is my intro to philosophy. It isn’t meant to teach you all about philosophy, but it is meant to give you a taste of what philosophy is and why it matters (or doesn’t! Maybe it doesn’t matter at all for you and that’s fine too!) 

If you made it this far, good job. Internet distractions galore. Let us start by making a distinction: You can think of Philosophy both as a field of inquiry, and ask historical questions of who has called what philosophy or who has called him or herself a philosopher. And you can also think of  philosophy as the act of philosophising and then ask what is it and what good is it for? That’s what I aim to answer below.

But, before that, a short note on this whole essay: I’m very concerned with how easy I am to comprehend. This is not an easy topic and I’m trying to be as clear and simple and pithy as possible but I just don’t know what you already do and don’t have inside your head and how it does or does not overlap with what I have on mine. If what I say isn’t clear or doesn’t make sense I’m sorry and I hope you’ll try again, maybe read some of the primary sources this work draws on, come back, and try again. [1]


What is and how is philosophy useful

Ok, so let’s start with a thought experiment [2], a hypothetical. Let’s discuss two hypothetical, very unlucky people: 

Jane: Jane just can’t catch a break. She always aims to do the right thing but somehow things always go wrong for her. She’s late, she ends up breaking promises, she can’t be relied upon. She has excellent intentions and no luck.

Jack is equally unlucky, but other than that, the opposite: He is kind of a misanthropic ass that wishes nothing but ill-will to all others, but ends up always being on time, breaking, no promises, and unwillingly being useful and helpful and even kind(!) to everyone. 

So the question is: is Jane a good person? Is Jack a good person? [If this example is too contrived check this one instead: 3]

You can imagine a dinner party with people intensely arguing about this [4]: 

  • Jack just sucks, even though he ends up doing great things for others
  • Yea sure, but Jane… the consequences of her actions are just no good!

You can imagine this discussion going round and round in circles. 

And yet there seems to be a confusion about words here: the same word ‘good’ the the same string of four characters ‘g-o-o-d’ (I like to see it inverted to make this point: pooƃ) is actually pointing to two different meanings: good-in-intention vs. good-in-consequences. 

Once you get to this insight, and it might take a while, it’s actually really easy to set the debate.

  • Jane is good-in-intention and not good-in-consequences
  • Jack is good-in-action and not good-in-intention [5]

(it might feel like there is a real question here of ‘but which one is really good. This is a more advanced topic [6])

Philosophy is for making this kind of distinctions [7]. The kind of distinctions that settle arguments and get people to agree. 

Once you set this distinction you see that there actually wasn’t a disagreement to begin with, just a confusion over words. The same word ‘good’ was pointing both to good-in-intention to the person arguing for Jane being good and to good-in-consequences to in the person arguing for Jack being good. Once you’ve made this distinction things become clear and the argument is settled. 

Now, fascinatingly, some philosophers have thought that the whole 2500-years old field of philosophy has been nothing but these confusions: people using words out of context, or using the same word to refer to different things, compounded over years and years [8]. Famous Austrian philosopher Wittgenstein held that position, famously saying that he intended to “to show the fly the way out of the fly bottle”. He thought philosophers before him had confused themselves by using words out of context. 



Of course, not everyone agrees with this fateful judgement, least of all people paid to teach and do philosophy. 

As to my opinion, I’d like to give it via a demonstration[9]: 

Socrates is showing a boy geometry. He draws this figure in the sand:

Here, a two-unit square with four little squares inside: Captura de ecrã 2019-12-10, às 15.30.30.png

Then he asks the boy to notice: Each side is two. They get two squares from the top line, but since there are also two units down the side, you have another two. So there are four little squares inside, right?

Now Socrates asks the boy to draw a square twice as large as this one, so it contains eight squares. The boy thinks he knows the answer, and says to draw the line twice as long, which is four. When they do it, however, they find:

Here, a four-unit square with sixteen small squares inside: Captura de ecrã 2019-12-10, às 15.30.35.png

Counting up they see they got four from the top line, and four layers down the side, so they get sixteen little squares.

Now the boy understands that four is too big, and answers “three,” and now:

Here, a three-unit square with nine little ones inside:Captura de ecrã 2019-12-10, às 15.30.40.png

Counting, up that gives nine. Now the boy grasps the situation. To get twice the area of the two-unit square, three is already too big. This time when Socrates repeats the question, the boy says, “I don’t know.”

Socrates now asks Meno who has been observing: “Isn’t the boy in a much better position now, in relation to what he does not know?”

The point here is not only that he doesn’t know the answer, but that he does know that the answer is more than two, but three is already too large, so the answer has to be between two and three. In saying “I don’t know” the boy does not draw a blank. Rather, he has a felt sense of the answer.

Rather than saying “I don’t know,” the boy might have said:

“I don’t know ….., uh, uh …..

Or, speaking from this “…..” the boy might have said:

“I do know the answer is between two and three, but Socrates, there is no way to say it because there is no number between two and three!!”

The boy does know, but what he knows is more than he can say. And this is not because it simply can never be said. Rather, he cannot say it in the usual words and numbers. To go on from his “…..” one must change the usual way of saying such things. One must devise new terms like “the square root of eight” or one must break up the little boxes.

Socrates then shows that if we break some of the little boxes, we can make a new square with a diagonal across each quarter of the big square that has sixteen boxes:

Captura de ecrã 2019-12-10, às 15.30.51.png

Earlier Meno had asked Socrates about the following puzzle: If we don’t know something how can we even ask about it? We wouldn’t know what we are asking about. But if we already know it, why ask about it? So it seems we cannot inquire into anything, since we must either know it or not know it. Socrates had answered the puzzle by saying that the soul has lived before and knows all things. We need only “recollect” them.

When the boy says “I don’t know”, Socrates shows what sort of a thing it is, which we do know in a way, but not in another way. It is what the boy has there, when he does know, but cannot yet formulate it — a kind of knowing and not knowing that is more than what we simply know.

Since Socrates only asked the boy leading questions, the boy really did understand from himself that two is too small and three is too large, so there is no sense proposing more numbers. Of course we call this “good teaching,” rather than rote learning. But Socrates now turns to Meno and asks: Did anyone ever teach this boy geometry? He has lived in your house since birth, so you would surely know. Meno says no, nobody taught the boy geometry. Socrates asks: So, do you agree that his soul must have learned everything in a previous life, so that he is only “recollecting” it now? Meno says “Somehow I believe you are right.” But now Socrates says “I wouldn’t swear by it myself, but I am sure that we can and should inquire into what we don’t yet know.” (86b)

We can say that the myth of recollection is a way to point to our inwardly arising capacity to understand more and more. The puzzle of either knowing or just not knowing is solved because we can think on the edge of what we know, and enter there.

When the boy says “I don’t know”, he knows in one way, but not in another: he knows but cannot yet formulate it – a kind of knowing and not knowing that is more than what we just know.

I like this example because it points to the fact that there does seem to be an edge to our knowledge where we both know and know more than we can say with our current words and that new and fresh distinctions help us say it and that  a valid use of philosophy is drawing us to that edge and carving new terms for us.

Pithily: Philosophy is for confusions. Either to show that there isn’t a there there – just a linguistic confusion – or to show that indeed our current concepts have taken us as far as they could and that to make sense of our new knowledge we need new concepts.


A final, paternalistic, Addendum

If you are reading this because you think or feel that you have a philosophical problem you probably don’t. If you are neurotic as in prone to prolonged or frequent bad emotions or feelings or moods and/or are having some sort of existential crisis then your problem is first and foremost psychological. I beg that you look for help online, find someone you can vent to, find a licensed professional if that’s more comfortable.


Further reading

[1] On Inferential Distance

[2] Thought Experiment

[3] But Does it Make a Sound?

[4] Dialectic 

[5] if this seems contrived see that this distinction has been discussed for centuries: consequentialism vs virtue ethics

[6] But Is it Really a Blegg?

[7] The Method of Philosophy: Making Distinctions

[8] It is for some reason common that philosophers are radicals that claim that everything before them was misguided in a particular way 

[9] Adapted from Introduction to Philosophy by Eugene Gendlin