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A Student's Guide to Philosophy

There is a theory about the dialogues of Plato—at least some of them, the “Socratic” ones—that their function was to stir up interest in potential members of the Academy so that they would want to devote their lives to the pursuit of philosophy. Literary recruiting posters, as it were. The Greek adjective here is “protreptic.” The idea is that there is a desire that precedes and guides the pursuit of wisdom.

In his phlegmatic way, Aristotle put it thus: “All men by nature desire to know.” To be a human being is to have a built-in natural thirst for knowledge. A bent is natural if we have it whether or not we choose to. We become aware that it is already at work in us. Now this can seem a rather exalted thing to say about everyone. You might have an acquaintance or two, perhaps a relative, of whom it would seem outlandish to say that he has a natural desire to know. He might seem to have a natural desire not to know. Was Aristotle carried away by his intellectualistic and Macedonian tendencies? Not at all. He goes on to say this about our natural desire to know: “A sign of this is the pleasure we take in our senses. . . .” The general claim is verified in this modest and convincing way. Sensing is something we are engaged in without taking thought, so it is natural in the sense required, and it is by and large pleasant to sense, particularly to see, to take a look: “[F]or even apart from their usefulness they [the senses] are loved for themselves; and above all the sense of sight. For not only with a view to action, but even when we are not going to do anything, we prefer seeing (one might say) to everything else. The reason is that this, most of all the senses, makes us know and brings to light many differences between things.”

We find already adumbrated in this account of sensation the distinction between the practical and theoretical. Our senses are instrumental—we call them organs, after all—and their most obvious role is in helping us live our lives. We look out. We are on the lookout. The outlook is favorable or not. But surely Aristotle is right that just looking is sometimes its own reward. For all that, the pleasures of sense are dangerous if they become an end in themselves, but that is only because the human good embraces and transcends them. Experience retains (i.e., records) the history of perception and may give way to art. The experienced person has know-how, but it is the mark of the artisan that he knows both How and Why. When it is a question of the specifically human, Why marks the spot.

When Plato observed that philosophy begins in wonder, he was thinking of two senses of wonder—the wonder that is awe and the wonder that comes from not yet knowing why. The Athenian who witnessed a solar eclipse two and a half millennia ago felt much the same awe we do. His understanding of what was happening may strike us as risible, but a true explanation does not take away our wonder. The wondering involves the wonderer as well. What does it all mean? And what does it mean for me to be in this world? 

We are these questions, in a sense, and the pursuit of them, often latent in everyday activities, sometimes absorbing us completely, draws us through and beyond the world to the source of ourselves and all the rest. From its beginning, theology was the ultimate business of philosophy. When Plato said that philosophy is learning how to die he was not being morbid. It is the inescapable fact of our mortality that provides the horizon for our thinking.

“All men by nature desire to know.” This truth is a great leveler; it leaves no one out. It prevents us from thinking that some are thinkers and the rest are, well, the rest, the many, the hoi polloi. Everyone is already engaged, well or badly, in thinking and in that sense is already a philosopher. Potentially, as Aristotle would add. Latently. But the capacity is there in every human. The questions are inescapable. Perhaps we have to learn not to philosophize, making a real effort to put our minds to leading mindless lives. If being dumb is the achievement, one is not likely to preen himself on being a philosopher.

If I seem to protest too much this is because of the gall of Descartes. How could he induce us to doubt everything when all along we have to remember how to read French or Latin? What the return to Aristotle gains us is the realization that everybody already knows things for sure. Of course the observation is banal, but that is only one of its attractions. It is also true. Philosophy starts where everybody already is. The principles of philosophy are in the public domain. The modern tendency is to say, “Hang on to the brush, I’m taking away the ladder.” With Aristotle, we will keep our feet firmly on the ground.


Ralph Matthew McInerny was an American author and professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. McInerny was the creator of the popular Father Dowling Mysteries books.

Image by InSapphoWeTrust via Flickr.



Complement with Russell Kirk on the purpose of the liberal arts, Jane Clark Scharl on Josef Pieper and getting over FOMO, and George Carey's student guide to American political thought.

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