Philosophers and the search for truth

Aristotle_Bust_White_Background_TransparentIt was some twenty-four centuries ago that Aristotle declared wonder (θαυμάζω, “be astonished”, “marvel”) to be the starting point for philosophy as well as its fundamental motivator, for it is because of wonderment that we seek to be freed of ignorance (Aristotle, Metaphysics 982b). I love this description of philosophy, and believe that we who philosophize need to preserve that sense of wonderment, that amazement that first drew us to ask “But how can this be?” and “what is the truth about this world we live in?” For what we want is the truth… the facts about the deepest principles of the world and ourselves.

However, a budding philosopher will soon run up against the fact that those who have taken this path have only rarely been in complete agreement, whether the disagreement is about superficialities or about the deepest questions we can ask. One of the more common responses to this universal disagreement, sometimes even experienced during one’s first class in philosophy, is becoming convinced that the universality of disagreement in philosophy means that truth is nowhere: none of the positions taken by philosophers throughout history is more true than any other.

This skeptical response is certainly tempting, but isn’t the only way we can respond. Instead of trying to become philosophers all by ourselves, and falling victim to skepticism, we can seek out those whom we might call “true” thinkers, and adopt them as our guides to the fantastically complex world of philosophy. When we call a philosopher “true”, we are saying something more than that his or her doctrine is faithful to the world as it is. Rather, we are pointing to those philosophers who feel themselves to be prisoners of the truth, to be enslaved to the search for knowledge, and whose hearts are in love with reality as it lets itself be known.

Every time we turn to read or listen to a great philosopher we become possessed in this way; we feel a pressuring necessity. At every step of his or her arguments, we are pulled along by the internal logic of their position: once we see that if this is true, that must be true. The philosopher cannot go in any direction that the truth does not permit. We can see, upon reading such philosophers, that they are “dragged along” to places they perhaps never expected to go, impelled by the necessity inherent in the fundamental positions they have taken. And it is in a philosopher like this that we will find the truth about the world and ourselves, if we find it anywhere.

This means that when seeking truth in philosophy, we will often do better to first identify the traits of a true philosopher in the philosophers we are studying, seeking to discover how their own experience of wonder is transformed over the years into a mature doctrine that reflects reality deeply, a doctrine that reflects both a mature certainty and a continuing sense of wonder, insofar as the search for truth takes the philosopher ever deeper. The great philosophers are thus a guidebook, so to speak, to the empire of reason.

By entering into the philosophical traditions within which these thinkers work, we find ourselves taking part in a great conversation, a discourse where the philosopher teaches how to seek truth and how we will know it when we find it. And while it may turn out that this philosopher erred in this or that question, he or she may still embody wisdom, which is the result of a lifetime spent seeking truth.

It seems that there is a paradox at work: somehow, in a way that is not entirely transparent, the philosophers we study sometimes achieve wisdom, even though their doctrines may have been decisively refuted. Perhaps it is because of the necessity that the search for truth imposes, or perhaps he or she has delved deeply into reality, and has surfaced with a new respect for the transcendental depth of the world, together with a new respect for those people that struggle to attain to truth. And this includes ourselves, insofar as we too surrender to truth: from wonder, we progress to truth, and perhaps end up wise thanks precisely to that surrender.

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