Tuesday, October 29, 2013

How many philosophies are there?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, philosophy, history of philosophy, philosophers

The Wikipedia article "List of Philosophies" has nearly 450 entries. But this list is more of a grab bag of philosophical terminology: it includes Descartes' summation of Rationalism "Cogito ergo sum" and the Empiricist's shibboleth "Occam's Razor"; there are 37 collective terms such as "German Philosophy"; and it includes the major category terms Metaphysics, Epistemology and Ethics, plus Meta-philosophy (AKA Meta-metaphysics). Checking just terms ending in "-ism", I find 257. That is a more appropriate list of actual philosophies. Of course, it is in no way complete, but we'll return to that.

Long ago I learned that the major categories of philosophy are Metaphysics—concerning the causes and nature of things—, Epistemology—concerning knowledge and knowing—, and Ethics—concerning moral choices. To these some would now add Meta-metaphysics or Meta-philosophy—concerning philosophy itself, particularly the boundaries of Metaphysics. Having just read The Philosophy Book, I find another 11 categories added by the six authors/contributors, and a total of 59 "isms", all of which are on the Wikipedia list. The contributors of the 107 short articles in the book are Will Buckingham, Douglas Burnham, Clive Hill, Peter J. King, John Marenbon, and Marcus Weeks. In addition, another 58 very brief items are listed in a Directory assembled by Stephanie Chilman. These include the Objectivism of Ayn Rand, not covered in the main text.

The 11 extra categories are Chinese Philosophy, Eastern Philosophy, Philosophy of Religion, Philosophy of Science, Islamic Philosophy, Political Philosophy, Philosophy of Mind, Philosophy of Language, Ontology, Philosophy of History, and Aesthetics. The only one of these that I would include as a major category is Aesthetics. The others are in-between categories, as they incorporate elements of the major categories, or, indeed, cross with them in a mathematical sense. Methinks the taxonomy of philosophic terms is in need of cleaning up!

The articles, ranging in length from one to six pages, are gathered into six historical eras, showing the progress of philosophical thought over the centuries in the major cultures. A seventh era could have been included, a set of entries under the heading Egyptian Philosophy. Several of the earliest philosophers of "ancient" Greece studied in Alexandria, a hotbed of pre-European philosophy.

This leads to a side thought. I wonder what philosophical traditions existed in Africa south and west of Egypt, prior to being mainly eliminated first by the slave trade, then by misguided missionaries from Europe. I do recognize that there were a few truly godly apostles to Africa, but most missionaries were actually agents of colonial powers and destroyed the cultures of those they were trying to "save".

I considered discussing some of the articles, but I realized my motive was mainly to take cheap shots at those I don't like. In every category, the spectrum of thought is more broad than any of us could comprehend. Ethical thought, for example, ranges from a few kinds of Absolutism to a Relativism that denies Ethics exists. This book is like a flea market. It has a wide array of "products"—as wide an array as possible, according to the contributors' goals—and I am free to "buy" what I like and ignore the rest. On one hand, I don't consider myself a philosopher, but on the other, everyone is a philosopher, to whatever extent we think about why we do things and what we know and how we know it.

Any discussion of "reality", particularly if religion is involved, leads to someone saying, "Well, I have my own philosophy." My typical reaction has been to say (or at least to think), "That just means you don't know what philosophy is." But in more recent years I have realized that human thought exhibits such incredible variety, it is very likely that every one of the seven billion of us does indeed have a unique, personal philosophy.

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