Book Review: “In Defense of Philosophy” by Josef Pieper

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Some of the most interesting points of this small but powerful book, In Defense of Philosophy by Josef Pieper (Trans. Lothar Krauth. Ignatius Press: San Francisco, 1992) include a defense of the wisdom of a variety of classical and medieval philosophers as their ideas apply to the modern person.  Naturally, as the title alludes, Pieper defends philosophy’s paradoxical purpose, he quotes Martin Heidegger who said, “It is entirely proper and perfectly as it should be: philosophy is of no use” (p.41).  Pieper’s book answers why philosophy exists at all.

Firstly, Pieper points out that it was Aristotle in his Metaphysics who provided insight into the different types of knowledge.  Pieper says that Aristotle uses the word ”…’free’ there [to] mean the same as ‘non-practical.’  Practical is everything that serves a purpose…Philosophy, rather, is an endeavor containing its own meaning and requires no justification from a purpose “served.”(p.43)  In other words, philosophy is sovereign to seek the truth of reality as such, for what it is, as it is, where and how it is, being as being.  Pieper says, “Man indeed makes his home in this world, as is his task and his nature.  And yet, it is incumbent on him, and he himself must embrace this responsibility, to actualize, every so often and in every unregimented way, the inborn potency of his spirit…”(p.65)  One may understand Pieper here to be saying that philosophy really is for everyone, and everyone in some way or another should make philosophy his own in order to understand the reality of the world.  This is what makes philosophy good to know by itself.  It is philosophy that will unleash his spirit from a materialist outlook of the world toward a transcendental understanding of the world and Pieper quotes Anaxagoras who asked, “Why are you here on this earth? His reply: to behold in contemplation…the sky and the order of the universe.”(p.59)  As a Pres0cratic philosopher, Anaxagoras was close to answering very well the broad questions about the meaning of life, but his mechanistic explanations frustrated Socrates which caused Socrates to turn philosophy toward spiritual wisdom, virtue, and the soul.

Pieper discusses some of the differences between a philosopher and a scientist in the book.  He says, “Alfred North Whitehead…asserted that the true problem facing the philosopher is ‘to conceive a complete fact.'”(p.68)  But Pieper himself disagrees with the framing of Whitehead regarding the problems for the modern day philosopher.  Pieper retorts that “I contend he is no longer concerned with this specifice event but rather—he is concerned with the universal interwovenness of all human existence, therefore witht the totality of all that is, with ‘God and the world.'”(p.68) He goes on to say that this limitless perspective of the philosopher is what makes him a philosopher, everything that exists is before him a possibility for truth, this  breadth of perspective is not the aim of the scientist.  The interwovenness of human existence bespeaks of interrelations between things and their properties and that it is the job of the philosopher to make sense of it all, to search and to find.  Pieper says, “Only then will he behold, in wonder, the true dimension of ‘his’ world , which indeed is nothing less than everything.  This precisely makes the philosophical endeavor necessary and noble and “meaningful in itself.”(p.65)  Pieper points to the beauty of philosophy, there is no-thing it will not consider, everything is a subject of inquiry and that process of inquiry, of discovery and of awe at the meaning of all things, the philosopher is motivated to continue his inquiry.

So the philosopher always falls back on the question, “Why is there anything at all?”(p.114)  The philosopher is the one who can and should ask, “From where did this come?” “Where is it now and where is it going?”  Pieper says that “…all things in themselves are entirely knowable because they originate in the infinite lucidity of the divine Logos, and that they are, nevertheless, inexhaustible for us…”(p.79)  In other words, the essence of a thing is intelligible through the operation of our mind in apprehension and because the thing’s origin is God and God is infinite, the possibilities for apprehension are inexhaustible for a philosopher.

Pieper ends the book saying, “A believer neither ‘knows’ nor ‘sees’ with his own eyes; he accepts the testimony of someone else…Socrates was never embarrassed to admit that the ultimate, the ontologically decisive truths were known to him not by his own accomplishments but…’because he heard them.'”(p.116) It was this very philosopher who changed all of Western civilization because he had the humility to believe the truth of someone else’s testimony.

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