When asked about the nature and purpose of Philosophy, philosophers often feel embarrassed to have to offer a univocal reply, so multifarious and contrasted are the definitions and uses of their field of enquiry. All the definitions, schools and polemics which have accumulated from the period of the pre-Socratics to the present day, revolve around the inherent dual identity of Philosophy, namely, introspection and action.
Classical Philosophy is primarily concerned with what Michel Foucault called ‘the care of the self’, that is, the rational management of our passions, leading to an absence of physical pain and psychological anxiety as illustrated in the Epicurean ‘ataraxia’ or in the best of cases, a pure and simple state of virtuous happiness, as developed by the Stoics through the cultivation of ‘apatheia’. When Plato describes the best possible form of government in The Republic, he first takes great pains to delineate the psychological and epistemological parameters of his utopian state. Philosophy starts with a work of critical introspection before any external change can be imagined. In this respect, Aristotle’s Politics only makes sense if accompanied with the acceptance of his moral teaching in the Ethics.
Medieval Philosophy turned introspection into spiritual meditation; a term redefined by Descartes in his new method of investigation of the self (‘cogito’) and its central place in the physical world. With the exception of Plato’s eternal Forms, knowledge is only accessible to the philosopher through slow stages, culminating in rare moments of self-discovery. From Descartes to Wittgenstein, the human, psychological dimension ultimately takes precedence over the scientific search for an elusive, ultimate truth.
Bertrand Russell, for one, ‘creator’, along with A.N Whitehead, of an entirely new system of logic (Principia Mathematica, 1910-1913) dedicated several works to allegedly trivial topics such as love (Marriage and Morals, 1929) or laziness (In Praise of Idleness, 1932. Was Russell more of a philosopher because of his discoveries in logic and mathematics or is he more to be admired for his political engagement against the proliferation of nuclear weapons during the Cold War?