A Scientist, or a Man of Wisdom?

Galina Kirilenko & Lydia Korshunova

Do we become philosophers if we start pondering the issues of life and death, happiness, and the choice of which path to take in life? This is a serious enough question. Indeed, we say it is a wise man who can realise his own errors and give valuable advice to anybody in need of it; this kind of wisdom usually comes to man only in his old age. But philosophy is a love of wisdom; does this mean that anybody who knows how to avoid false steps in life can be called a philosopher? It would appear not. Yet there is something in common between a man who has worldly wisdom and a philosopher who is busy tackling problems which are of vital importance to man. Many contemporary bourgeois philosophers are trying to divest philosophy of its unique features and turn it into a branch of particular knowledge; they maintain that wisdom is incompatible with theoretical, genuinely scientific knowledge. "Is there such a thing as wisdom," argues Bertrand Russell, an outstanding representative of contemporary philosophical thinking, "or is what seems such merely the ultimate refinement of folly?" [1]

What, then, is there in common between worldly wisdom and philosophical knowledge, and what is it that sets them apart? The main feature of wisdom was understood by ancient philosophers. Avicenna (ibn Sina), for example, wrote: "In our mind, wisdom can be of two kinds. First, it is perfect knowledge . . . Second, it is perfect action." [2] Hence, a distinctive feature of wisdom is the unity of knowledge and behaviour, that kind of knowledge which helps man to choose which path to take in life, and not that which is abstract and far removed from vital human needs.

Ancient Indian philosophy, for example, aimed to provide man with a guide to an enlightened life and perfect behaviour. Modern Indian philosophers write in the same vein that "the aim of philosophical wisdom is not merely the satisfaction of intellectual curiosity, but mainly an enlightened life led with far‑sight, foresight and insight." [3]

Thus we see that wisdom is always a "practical" philosophy and that it is always connected with man's interests, requirements and goals.

Nobody would object to this. Yet, while some think that knowledge is indispensable in solving vitally important problems, and that the real "wisdom consists only in the Truth" (J.‑W. Goethe), others argue that knowledge and science serve no purpose when man's personal fate is at stake. Quite the contrary, knowledge brings doubt, disillusionment and grief in its wake. According to the book of Ecclesiastes: "He that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow." [4] It is much more important to enjoy emotional comfort and peace of mind, say the pragmatists, an extremely popular trend in modern bourgeois philosophy. From these positions, a genuinely wise man will not engage in doubt, meditation, or a search for the truth. No matter what kind of superstitions and false information fill our mind—let them remain; the only thing that matters is to believe they are true.

The stand of such a "wise man" reminds one of an ostrich which hides its head in sand at the first sight of danger, but in the world we live in, when the issue is being decided whether mankind is to be, or not to be, whether it will be annihilated in a nuclear holocaust, or will be able to defend its right to peaceful existence—in this world of ours, true wisdom consists in each man's ability to see the need for a struggle for peace all over the world, and to understand that man's personal welfare, his fate and happiness depend directly on the outcome of the struggle for peaceful coexistence being waged by the progressive part of mankind and each individual in particular.

We can assert with confidence that "wisdom" which is in conflict with the knowledge of the real world and contradictions inherent in it is more often than not used to justify the most inhuman actions. Life itself, and our age in particular, refute such a "wisdom" which is contrary to the main progressive trends in society's development.

It has already been shown that while bringing man's relationships with the surrounding world to light, philosophy tackles issues that are vitally important to him. Philosophy, however, is distinct from so‑called worldly wisdom. As a form of theoretical knowledge, it seeks to prove its tenets and present them all in a consistent manner; its principles and main concepts are a result of the generalisation and analysis of a vast number of facts pertaining to the most diverse spheres of man's life and activity; it relies on scientific data.

Philosophy is not concerned with man's relationships in all their unique variety or with the concrete conditions of his life; neither is it concerned with his life story. Each man consists, as it were, of two persons: an individual, "little Ego", in which the unique nature of his destiny and life circumstances is reflected, and a "big Ego", which makes him part of his people and mankind as a whole. It is with the problems facing man's "big Ego" that philosophy is concerned—i. e., the general problems of human existence.

We are now in a position to give a concise answer to the question—What is philosophy? It is a world outlook. It is a view of the world—of nature and society, and of man's place in it—and an analysis of the possibilities of understanding and transforming it. But it is also a conviction, a belief in the necessity for action on the basis of the acquired knowledge. It is a blend of knowledge and assessment, knowledge and conviction, the emotional and the rational. So, philosophy is a special form of theoretical knowledge, involving not just an objective generalisation of the entire human experience, but also the identification of moments in that experience which are of particular significance for man.

The Marxist definition of philosophy as a form of theoretical knowledge resolving the most general issues relating to world outlook, is essentially different from all former ideas about the tasks of philosophy, as well as from its modern bourgeois interpretations.

In the past, philosophy claimed to solve many problems of the existence of nature and society "from the point of view of Eternity" and lay down, once and for all, the laws of both. Nowadays, some philosophers seek to substitute a specific attitude to the world taken from the point of view of purely individual human existence, the human "little Ego" with petty human cares, fears and concerns for the general problems of world outlook. Such a position is typical, for example, of the existentialists.

Thus, while some reduce philosophy to the study of the laws governing the world, forgetting as it were that man is not only a particle of that world but also its transformer, others dissolve it into individual emotions, ignoring the fact that all human emotions are a result of man's interaction with the world, that they do not arise out of nothing. The true boundaries of philosophy's "territory" are determined by interaction between man and nature. Philosophy studies the most general laws governing the universe, man and humanity as a whole; it studies the very foundations of the unity of man and society, of man and nature.

Man's links with the world around him are extremely diverse. Is it possible to identify amongst this multitude of links and relationships the main thing underlying the unity of the natural and the social world? This issue will be dealt with in the next chapter.

[1] Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1945, p. XIV.

[2] Ibn Sina, Danim—Name, Dushanbe, 1957, p. 193 (in Russian).

[3] Satischandra Chatterjee and Dhirendramohan Datta, An Introduction to Indian Philosophy, University of Calcutta, 1950,  p. 12.

[4] The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, London, Oxford University Press, 1956, p. 50.


SOURCE: Kirilenko, Galina [Kirilenko, G. G. (Galina Georgievna)]; Korshunova, Lydia. What is Philosophy?, translated from the Russian by Lilia Nakhapetyan (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1985), pp. 37-42.  (ABC of Social and Political Knowledge; 4)


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