Philosophy literally means ‘love of wisdom’ but it may well be defined as love of paradoxes, because most philosophers at most times have been engaged in different logical puzzles. A precise definition is difficult to achieve due to the diversity and variety of its topics, and also because what is viewed as ‘philosophy’ has been different through the course of history. The issue of definition and role of philosophy has gained importance in the 20th century, when the emergence of science as a successful institution has called into question the validity of philosophy. But here we might remember that all we consider as science was hitherto a part of philosophy. Science deals with all definite knowledge; it contains hypothesis, theories and laws, which can be tested, verified or falsified by experiments. But there are many theoretical issues and questions to which science cannot provide answers: What is the ultimate reality? Is there a being that may be called God? What is matter and what is mind and what is their relationship? Is there a purpose and meaning in our lives? Is there such a thing as free will or is it just an illusion? Is the universe moving towards a destiny or is it being governed by blind forces, in which we humans fantasize the existence of laws due to our love for order? Is there any way of life that we may call ‘good’ and another that may be called ‘evil’? Do we survive death in any sense? What is beauty? What is truth? No definite answers can be found to such questions and it is these very questions which philosophy attempts to study. Whenever a definite way is discovered to study a particular issue, that issue becomes a part of science and ceases to belong to philosophy. For example, the issue of mind and matter, and the question of free will is now being studied by cognitive science, using scientific methods of psychology, neurophysiology and artificial intelligence, yet these issues are traditionally a part of philosophy. In this sense, philosophy is the mother of science. There is a bit of truth in the satirical remark that science is what we know, and philosophy is what we do not know. Yet science is not independent of philosophy, because the validity of scientific method itself is based on the philosophy of science. Any change in the philosophy of science, such as brought by Popper and Kuhn, brings a change in the way science is viewed.

Theology, it is true, deals with many of these philosophical questions but unlike philosophy, it claims to provide certain answers to them on the basis of any authority such as that of holy scriptures; answers so certain that their very certainty makes them incredulous; philosophy accepts no such authority. As Allama Iqbal observes, “The spirit of philosophy is one of free inquiry. It suspects all authority. Its function is to trace the uncritical assumptions of human thought to their hiding places, and in this pursuit it may finally end in denial or a frank admission of the incapacity of pure reason to reach the Ultimate Reality. The essence of religion, on the other hand, is faith.”[1] Faith has no rational validity; faith is irrational. It is not my purpose to pronounce a judgment on the role of religion, but I believe Russell is making a very valid point when he writes, “[Theology] induces a dogmatic belief that we have knowledge where in fact we have ignorance, and by doing so generates a kind of impertinent insolence towards the universe.”[2] This is liable to give rise to fanaticism and fundamentalism, the evils from which the world is suffering terribly at the moment. It is the task of philosophy to dissipate such spirit of dogmatic fanaticism by showing that there is no sufficient reason to accept these dogmas. Even when a philosopher is religious, there is a lack of dogmatism which differentiates him from an average religious believer. The natural religion of Enlightenment or the aesthetic view of religion ('ultimate religion') presented by Santayana are distinctly lacking in fanaticism.

A student of philosophy learns neither to forget the philosophical issues nor to believe that he has found certain knowledge about them. He may form opinions on these issues, but they have the tentativeness of a scientific hypothesis. The greatest benefit of philosophy is that it teaches us how to live with uncertainty; it is an art of suspended judgment. “The first startling thing about philosophy, it might be discovered, is that there are usually no final answers.”[3]

Philosophy is often divided into four main branches: metaphysics inquires about the nature of ultimate reality; epistemology is the study of the origin and extent of our knowledge; ethics or moral philosophy is the study of ‘good’ and ‘evil’, and how we ought to lead our lives; aesthetics is the philosophy of art and attempts to know the nature of beauty. There are many other branches like logic, which deals with principles of valid reasoning; philosophy of religion, which analyses the fundamental axioms of religions; philosophy of history, which attempts to discover laws and patterns in history; political philosophy, which deals with the justification and mode of government of the state and philosophy of science which attempts to know what is science and what is the proper scientific method.

History of Western philosophy is divided into three major eras: Greek philosophy, Medieval philosophy and Modern philosophy. Modern philosophy is characterized by an emphasis on reason and experience, as opposed to scholastic philosophy[4], in which philosophy was a handmaiden of theology and its only use was to somehow prove the fundamental doctrines of religion. In this book, we shall attempt to understand different features of the modern philosophical thought.

The history of philosophy is of special importance for a philosopher, much more than says a history of science would be for a scientist. Unlike scientists, who share certain common experiments and phenomena which they can discuss with other scientists, philosophers share no such experimental data. What they do share is a history of common conceptual ancestory, the views and ideas of the great philosophers of the past. It provides a medium of philosophical inquiry. As Jay F. Rosenberg writes, “[History of philosophy] provides philosophers with a common expository idiom, a shared vocabulary of concepts and a set of paradigms of philosophical reasoning, which can serve as starting points for contemporary re-explorations of central philosophical concerns.”[5]

[1] Allama Muhammad Iqbal, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, Institute of Islamic Culture, page 1
[2] Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy, Routledge, London, page 14
[3] Religious Education: Philosophical Perspectives by John Sealey, page 2
[4] Scholasticism was the Christian theological and philosophical school of the Middle Ages.
[5] The Practice of Philosophy: A Handbook for beginners by Jay F. Rosenberg, page 10-11
[6] Gilles Deleuze, Nietzsche and Philosophy, trans. Hugh Tomlinson (1983: Althone Press, London)