Initiation of Philosophy ..

The Greek historian Herodotus (484-424 B.C.) appears to have been the first to use the verb “to philosophize.” He makes Croesus tell Solon how he has heard that he “from a desire of knowledge has, philosophizing, journeyed through many lands.” The word “philosophizing” seems to indicate that Solon pursued knowledge for its own sake, and was what we call an investigator. As for the word “philosopher” (etymologically, a lover of wisdom), a certain somewhat unreliable tradition traces it back to Pythagoras (about 582-500 B.C.). As told by Cicero, the story is that, in a conversation with Leon, the ruler of Phlius, in the Peloponnesus, he described himself as a philosopher, and said that his business was an investigation into the nature of things.

At any rate, both the words “philosopher” and “philosophy” are freely used in the writings of the disciples of Socrates (470-399 B.C.), and it is possible that he was the first to make use of them. The seeming modesty of the title philosopher—for etymologically it is a modest one, though it has managed to gather a very different signification with the lapse of time—the modesty of the title would naturally appeal to a man who claimed so much ignorance, as Socrates; and Plato represents him as distinguishing between the lover of wisdom and the wise, on the ground that God alone may be called wise. From that date to this the word “philosopher” has remained with us, and it has meant many things to many men. But for centuries the philosopher has not been simply the investigator, nor has he been simply the lover of wisdom.

An investigation into the origin of words, however interesting in itself, can tell us little of the uses to which words are put after they have come into being. If we turn from etymology to history, and review the labors of the men whom the world has agreed to call philosophers, we are struck by the fact that those who head the list chronologically appear to have been occupied with crude physical speculations, with attempts to guess what the world is made out of, rather than with that somewhat vague something that we call philosophy to-day.

Students of the history of philosophy usually begin their studies with the speculations of the Greek philosopher Thales (b. 624 B.C.). We are told that he assumed water to be the universal principle out of which all things are made, and that he maintained that “all things are full of gods.” We find that Anaximander, the next in the list, assumed as the source out of which all things proceed and that to which they all return “the infinite and indeterminate”; and that Anaximenes, who was perhaps his pupil, took as his principle the all-embracing air.

This trio constitutes the Ionian school of philosophy, the earliest of the Greek schools; and one who reads for the first time the few vague statements which seem to constitute the sum of their contributions to human knowledge is impelled to wonder that so much has been made of the men.

This wonder disappears, however, when one realizes that the appearance of these thinkers was really a momentous thing. For these men turned their faces away from the poetical and mythologic way of accounting for things, which had obtained up to their time, and set their faces toward Science. Aristotle shows us how Thales may have been led to the formulation of his main thesis by an observation of the phenomena of nature. Anaximander saw in the world in which he lived the result of a process of evolution. Anaximenes explains the coming into being of fire, wind, clouds, water, and earth, as due to a condensation and expansion of the universal principle, air. The boldness of their speculations we may explain as due to a courage born of ignorance, but the explanations they offer are scientific in spirit, at least.

Moreover, these men do not stand alone. They are the advance guard of an army whose latest representatives are the men who are enlightening the world at the present day. The evolution of science—taking that word in the broad sense to mean organized and systematized knowledge—must be traced in the works of the Greek philosophers from Thales down. Here we have the source and the rivulet to which we can trace back the mighty stream which is flowing past our own doors. Apparently insignificant in its beginnings, it must still for a while seem insignificant to the man who follows with an unreflective eye the course of the current.

It would take me too far afield to give an account of the Greek schools which immediately succeeded the Ionic: to tell of the Pythagoreans, who held that all things were constituted by numbers; of the Eleatics, who held that “only Being is,” and denied the possibility of change, thereby reducing the shifting panorama of the things about us to a mere delusive world of appearances; of Heraclitus, who was so impressed by the constant flux of things that he summed up his view of nature in the words: “Everything flows”; of Empedocles, who found his explanation of the world in the combination of the four elements, since become traditional, earth, water, fire, and air; of Democritus, who developed a materialistic atomism which reminds one strongly of the doctrine of atoms as it has appeared in modern science; of Anaxagoras, who traced the system of things to the setting in order of an infinite multiplicity of different elements,—”seeds of things,”—which setting in order was due to the activity of the finest of things, Mind.

It is a delight to discover the illuminating thoughts which came to the minds of these men; and, on the other hand, it is amusing to see how recklessly they launched themselves on boundless seas when they were unprovided with chart and compass. They were like brilliant children, who know little of the dangers of the great world, but are ready to undertake anything. These philosophers regarded all knowledge as their province, and did not despair of governing so great a realm. They were ready to explain the whole world and everything in it. Of course, this can only mean that they had little conception of how much there is to explain, and of what is meant by scientific explanation.

It is characteristic of this series of philosophers that their attention was directed very largely upon the external world. It was natural that this should be so. Both in the history of the race and in that of the individual, we find that the attention is seized first by material things, and that it is long before a clear conception of the mind and of its knowledge is arrived at. Observation precedes reflection. When we come to think definitely about the mind, we are all apt to make use of notions which we have derived from our experience of external things. The very words we use to denote mental operations are in many instances taken from this outer realm. We “direct” the attention; we speak of “apprehension,” of “conception,” of “intuition.” Our knowledge is “clear” or “obscure”; an oration is “brilliant”; an emotion is “sweet” or “bitter.” What wonder that, as we read over the fragments that have come down to us from the Pre-Socratic philosophers, we should be struck by the fact that they sometimes leave out altogether and sometimes touch lightly upon a number of those things that we regard to-day as peculiarly within the province of the philosopher. They busied themselves with the world as they saw it, and certain things had hardly as yet come definitely within their horizon.

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