Ask a Philosopher: I often get questions in emails about my blog or books. I have been replying to these on email but decided I might also start posting answers as part of a series “ask a philosopher.” Who wouldn’t want to ask a philosopher something?
Question: What does it mean to renew philosophy?
Reply: Renewal philosophy is the study of how to achieve knowledge of the answers to the basic questions philosophy has always asked. In the history of philosophy attempts to give a theory of knowledge face challenges and result in the antinomy of skepticism and fideism (see: The Natural Moral Law). The current stage of history is sometimes called post-modernism to denote that it comes after the failure of modernity in its bold claims to knowledge through philosophical naturalism and radical empiricism attached to the technological achievements of science. This skeptical age of post-modernism is asking for a renewed attempt to find knowledge as a ground for public discourse and personal choice.
Skepticism, when consistently lived out, leads to nihilism. Skepticism is supported by false antinomies that result in an impasse. These are produced by uncritically held but shared presuppositions. Examples of these are the tensions between hedonism/utilitarianism and legalism/deontology in ethics; or literalism/empiricism and allegoricalism/rationalism in interpretive theory; or naturalism and supernaturalism in metaphysics. By shining the light on these presuppositions we can begin the process of examining them for meaning.
Skepticism, and its attendant nihilism, empties concepts of meaning. This lack of meaning extends throughout a person’s worldview and a culture’s shared life. When concepts are emptied of meaning then thought is not possible. When thought is not possible there is a move made to non-cognitivism.
This renewal comes through application of the philosophical dictum: know thyself. Specifically, know your basic beliefs. Know how you have answered the basic questions of life and how these answers shape what you think and do. This is true at the individual level, and this is true at the cultural level.
Knowing oneself involves application of another philosophical dictum: the unexamined life is not worth living. This teaches us that to be wise we must seek wisdom. Without seeking we will not be wise; we will not know the truth or ourselves. If we are leading the examined life then we will know our basic beliefs. If we are seeking wisdom then we will critically examine these beliefs for meaning and truth. Individuals can lead the examined life, and cultures can lead the examined life.
The history of philosophy involves an attempt to answer basic questions that support all other questions (see: Retrieval Philosophy). For instance: 1) how do I know?; 2) what is real?; 3) what ought I to do? The answers given to these questions shape what other questions are asked, and answered, and give rise to a worldview. A worldview is used to interpret, or give meaning to, the experiences of life. It shapes an individual and it shapes a culture.
Renewal philosophy attempts to: 1) study how these basic questions have been answered in the past and by all of the human philosophies/cultures that have come to expression in history; 2) study the dynamics of these answers in history as they work through a process of challenging each other and responding to each other; 3) apply these insights to the present age of skepticism as the world comes together in a new way in the pursuit of knowledge and shared human good.
If knowledge is not possible then it is futile to seek knowledge. If we cannot know the answers to the basic questions outlined above then we cannot know the answers to questions built on these basic questions. The work of philosophy, to know thyself, to lead the examined life, assumes that knowledge is possible. It assumes that some things are clear because the denial of this is existentially and logically impossible (see: Philosophical Foundation).
To deny what is clear to reason about what is good is without excuse. To seek what is clear will result in knowing what is clear. The failure to know what is clear is culpable ignorance and results in the failure to do what is good. By studying what is clear renewal philosophy also studies the reality of the problem of evil and the need for restoration from failing to seek wisdom. This reality permeates human history and ours is a unique time of studying the need for restoration and how this is accomplished.
Renewal philosophy seeks to reinvigorate the study of the basic questions philosophy asks and to inspire a more in-depth understanding of how these questions shape all of human life, culture, and history. Philosophy done in this way will result in a life full of meaning. This is a renewal of philosophy, but also a renewal of our own lives.