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Relations to other Intellectual RealmsAfter Plato, Medieval And Renaissance, Early Modern, Modern Times, Bibliography

According to an ancient tradition deriving from Heraclides of Pontus (388–310 B.C.E.), a disciple of Plato (c. 428–348 or 347 B.C.E.), Pythagoras of Samos (c. 580–c. 500 B.C.E.) was the first to describe himself as a philosopher. Three types of person, he is alleged to have said, attend the festal games: those who seek fame by taking part in them; those who seek financial gain by selling their trade goods there; and those ("the best people") who are content to be spectators (Diogenes Laertius, De vita et moribus philosophorum, I, XII). Philosophers or "lovers of wisdom" resemble persons of this third class: spurning both fame and profit, they seek to arrive at the truth by means of contemplation. Pythagoras distinguished the wisdom (sophia) sought by the philosopher—knowledge of the truth—from the mercantile skills of the merchant and the physical prowess of the athlete. Whether or not these distinctions derived from an actual utterance of Pythagoras, they can most certainly be found in the works of other ancient thinkers such as Plato, who was much preoccupied with the question of what philosophy is and how it differs from other forms of intellectual inquiry. Many of Plato's contemporaries had thought his teacher Socrates (c. 470–399 B.C.E.) a sage; some considered him a Sophist, while others believed him to be a cosmologist. In Plato's eyes and in the judgment of posterity, Socrates was none of these things; he was first and foremost a philosopher. But what made him different from a sage or Sophist? What made him recognizable as a seeker after wisdom and truth? In attempting to find answers to these questions, it is possible to learn something of the manner in which philosophers have traditionally characterized their métier, and how their different views on the scope and point of philosophical practice has led them to speculate on the relations between philosophy and other forms of intellectual labor.

Many ancient savants believed Socrates to be inimitable for the reason stated by Marcus Tullius Cicero (106–43 B.C.E.): he "first called philosophy down from the heavens" and thereby made the study of nature instrumental to human happiness (Tusculan Disputations, 5.X–XI; cf. Diogenes Laertius, De vita et moribus philosophorum, II. 16, 45). In other words, Socrates' life as a philosopher was devoted not to the scientific description of the universe in the manner earlier advanced by Ionian cosmologists, but to the pursuit of wisdom in order to secure genuine human happiness. For this reason a philosopher, according to Socrates, could not devote himself simply to the study of the requisite arts and sciences, but had to have his mind attuned to the requirements of wisdom in the context of striving to live the best possible life. Such a life had to be lived, even if it entailed the bitter fate of drinking a draft of hemlock.

For Plato, the first characteristic of philosophical wisdom is that it meet the needs of rational inquiry. As he suggests at Apology 22, this criterion precludes all types of quotidian knowledge and other homespun verities in favor of genuine philosophical insight. Neither the statesman, the artisan, nor the poet can explain why he is doing what is he doing, for none of them has formulated a clear, tractable, and explicit method of self-reflexive reasoning. That some members of humanity may act wisely on occasion does not prove that they possess genuine wisdom, for to be wise such persons must be able to offer explanatory and justificatory reasons for their deeds that will stand up to dispassionate scrutiny. The philosopher has this ability, and by means of dialectic, he can make progress in the quality of his self-understanding by criticizing received opinions. Philosophy thus liberates the space of reasons and never imposes itself upon the human mind by means of arbitrary techniques or conflated methods. Even mathematics, which for Plato is the most developed and admirable of the sciences, is subject to philosophical criticism. Philosophy is the highest form of speculative thought because it alone involves no presuppositions and is predicated on gratuitous reflection.

Unlike other branches of human learning and industry, philosophy has direct access to a "true reality" as distinct from the phenomenal world of ever-changing things. Having access to such a world, philosophy can offer pertinent and definitive criticisms of received opinions about the nature of meaning, beauty, and goodness. And since it concerns itself with the relationship between eternal and unchanging entities and verities, philosophy can validate its claim to possess certain knowledge of what actually exists rather than what seems to exist. At Phaedo 98–99, Plato suggests that the Ionian cosmologists did not possess true philosophical learning because they could not explain the purpose and nature of things. Being ignorant of the reality that upholds and sustains the universe and its objects, the cosmologists could not explain anything of real value concerning the nature of the world.

Lastly, and on account of a philosopher's certain knowledge of an eternal and unchanging reality, he can know how people ought to live. For Plato, this entails that the speculative excellence of philosophical thought can be applied to the variable conditions of action, thereby reforming the moral quality of human life. Echoing the earlier pronouncements of Socrates, Plato readily castigated the proud claim of the Sophists to teach their charges the art of immediate worldly gain by means of quick wit and self-serving judgment. Such "fruits" of sophistical learning can never amount to genuine knowledge, since the mere exertion of intelligence is not comparable to the exercise of wisdom. Though the philosopher might look forlorn and foolish next to those who claim to teach the most efficacious route to fame and fortune, he is privileged by being in receipt of a form of understanding whose enduring qualities stand in stark contrast to the fleeting glories and superficialities of the world. For Plato, any attempt to explain and interpret the nature of the universe and human beings must involve philosophy. That is why the ideal ruler must be a philosopher, and those who would claim to be wise must be imbued, like Socrates, with a spirit of critical reflection.

What can be learned from Plato's specification of the differences that separate philosophy from other branches of human learning is the idea that philosophy is quite unlike anything else. It is not reducible to another art or science, and its subject matter as well as its point and scope are not circumscribed by considerations that are external to its method of enquiry. Philosophy, then, belongs at the very summit of human knowledge. If prosecuted appropriately, it bequeaths to the individual mind a form of sagacity and judgment that will enable any human being to live well. Like Socrates, the philosopher stands apart from the world while seeking to make sense of it; philosophy is a sui generis activity.

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