What is philosophy? Simply put, it is our attempt, as humans, to explain the world around us. Philosophy is anything and everything that seeks to provide an answer to, or even consider, some question. As a result, philosophy as a field encompasses all human thought and all human explanations – law, religion, culture, even science are all fundamentally philosophies. Our personal philosophies and the philosophical viewpoints held by our society and governments form the basis of our everyday lives: they provide us a direction and a meaning for everything that we do and experience. As such, they are vitally important to us; without them, we would have no basis for our society, our culture, or ourselves.
Yet it is also important to remember that we are profoundly shaped by our environment. This touches upon the ‘nature versus nurture’ debate – are humans more shaped in their thoughts by their environment, what they were exposed to when raised and what they are exposed to through life, or by their nature, the fundamental and inherent qualities and characteristics of the human creature? Many different perspectives on which is more important in forming our beliefs and our values – nature versus nurture- have been put forth. In response to them, I believe it is of importance to recognize that we are the products of our place and time. Consider yourself and the people you know… chances are most likely that they believe in a set of values and beliefs which are common, or at least not uncommon, in your culture and society. For example, Americans tend to put faith in the philosophical principles behind representative democracy, value the principles of liberty and freedom, and are rooted in a worldview that is likely built off of Classical and Christian thought. Yet most Americans today do not harbor a deep hatred and fear of communism and do despise slavery, both values which were once prominent in our society. This is evidence of the fact that our beliefs, and in turn worldviews, are shaped by our environment. If we learn about what to and how to believe from the people around us, then it is no large surprise that our local environment profoundly influences the development of our ways of thought. If we still lived with a ‘Cold War’ mentality or in a world where slavery was not abolished, it is entirely possible that we may still fear the specter of communism and support the enslavement of other people as core, personal values.
This leads to a serious question: if our values are the product of the environment in which we live, then what would they be if we lived in a different time, place, or course of history? If we lived and were raised in Nazi Germany in the 1930s, would we believe in the values of Nazism? Chances are we would, as the people who were raised and lived in that place and time largely did. If we lived in a world where history was radically altered, fundamentally changing the development of our thought, might we believe things that are diametrically different from our current ones? Again, if our values are the product of our place and time, then chances are we would. If Christianity or Islam never became the prominent religions that they did in our history, would so many people root their worldviews in their tenets? Probably not, and we can see this by the fact that other religions which no longer exist, such as Hellenistic paganism, were once followed as faithfully by large populations as modern religions are today.
Considering that our values would change in a different environment, what does this mean about the inherent ‘truth’ of our values? We consider our worldviews and beliefs as fundamental, ‘self-evident’, and “true”… if we did not, then they would be incapable of providing answers and guidance. But if our values are so easily changed, and if we could as easily hold absolutely opposite values if we were raised in a society that was opposite to ours, then there does not appear to be any inherent truth or value to those beliefs. This leads us to another consideration: is there anything inherent about things that are the product of human thought? If humans were not around to think said things, then they would not exist. We as humans give meaning and value to our beliefs; it is necessary if we hope to live any sort of life with direction or meaning to us. If we were unable to give value to something, would there be any value to it? If we could not give meaning to something, would it have any inherent meaning? No…all meaning ascribed to the world around us is done through the human mind and is thus the product of the human mind. If humans were not around to think of philosophies and create philosophical beliefs, these beliefs (which accordingly would not exist) would not have any meaning or truth. Thus, we can argue that no philosophy has an inherent truth, and thus no philosophy is inherent superior or inferior to another.
Of course, this is a dangerous perspective. It places Adolf Hitler into the ranks of Mother Teresa… if neither of the philosophical foundations which formed their worldviews had any superiority or inferiority to each other, then both of their worldviews and thus their actions would be equally condemnable and condonable. As I had said earlier, we humans ascribe value and meaning to things and to thought. It is important to consider that, although the beliefs we hold may not inherently be more or less ‘true’ than any other, and even if we hold them only by virtue of our living in an environment which espoused them, we hold and believe in them nonetheless. As humans, we make meaning out of our philosophies like we do the rest of the world, and thus those we hold have a more ‘true’ meaning to us as individuals. This, in turn, allows us to question, disagree with, and thus oppose philosophies which differ from our own.
Still, the recognition that philosophical thought might not inherently have meaning or truth to it is an important one. It enables us to view all human thought in an impartial, removed manner; this allows us as philosophers and students of thought to more deeply and comprehensively question and understand thought from across the world and across time. By not trying to decide how ‘good’ or how ‘correct’ or how ‘true’ a philosophy may be, we can study the characteristics of that philosophy in a much more objective and perhaps insightful manner. It additionally allows us to remove our own perceptions on philosophy and our personal beliefs from the equation, and therefore better appreciate and attempt to understand opposing philosophies from our own. This recognition has given us a new lens to view philosophy through, and thus adds to the tool-set we as philosophers posses in our attempt to make sense of the world.