Why Philosophy is Important

[Education] must also stimulate students to consider a variety of perspectives on some of the fundamental questions posed by the human condition: “What is truth?” “What is reality?” and “What are my duties to my fellow man, to my country and to God?”

Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV,
Aga Khan Academies Vision Statement, 2003

Most people, when hearing the word philosophy, think of a highly abstract and purely theoretical body of ideas that have little or no impact upon their everyday lives. This may be true of the academic study of philosophy in some universities, but philosophy itself is embedded in all human activity — most people are simply unaware of it. Philosophy is ultimately about what is true, what is real, and what is good. It is philosophy that offers one an overarching framework to interpret and manage the other realms of human endeavor. Every person actually has a philosophy which is tacit and implicit in their entire way of living.

Some may think that philosophy is not based on “hard evidence” such as modern science. But they fail to notice that modern science — with its insistence that all truth be verified by empirical observations — is basing itself upon a purely philosophical claim (a claim that cannot be supported by empirical observation). The famous Cartesian slogan “I think therefore I am” is another statement about the nature of truth and reality. It implies, as a Cartesian may argue, that the realm of the mind is entirely separate from the external world. Some philosophers use this position to support materialism — the idea that only the external world is objectively real. But, if one’s philosophy exclusively affirms the reality of the physical world — made of matter, atoms, sub-atomic particles, etc., then everything beyond that — such as emotions, thoughts, intentions, values, and even consciousness — is unreal by implication. Thus, what is true logically points toward what is real. If someone were to claim that there is simply no such thing as universal truth — then they would have just declared a universal truth and contradicted themselves.

At first glance, it may seem of little importance to us whether Plato is correct in his view that justice, compassion, beauty, or goodness are universal truths that exist independently of our physical world. On the other hand, if these are just conventions or constructs made up by human beings — then how could they possess any intrinsic “good” at all? Why should we care about doing “good” or being ethical — if ethics is just a matter of cultural norms, profit, nationalistic agenda, individual preference or moral relativism?

To speak of end purposes, in turn, is to enter the realm of ethics. What are our ultimate goals? Whose interests do we seek to serve? How, in an increasingly cynical time, can we inspire people to a new set of aspirations — reaching beyond rampant materialism, the new relativism, self-serving individualism, and resurgent tribalism.

Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV
(Remarks at Evora University Symposium, February 12, 2006)

In the realm of religion and theology, philosophy must be used to understand statements such as “God exists” since this phrase already assumes a concept of “existence”, and a concept of “God”. But what does it mean “to exist”? And what is the nature of “God”? And how can one rationally support the “existence” of “God”? Philosophical theology may speak of God as the ultimate cause of all things that exist. In this case, the argument will focus on demonstrating why a series of causes and effects require a single first cause to keep them in existence at all times. Once again, such an argument will be philosophical — and employ concepts of cause, effect, and logical reasoning to make its case. The philosophical argument does not ignore empirical scientific evidence, but it can build upon it or generalize from it. For example, the fact that the spatial existence of certain quantum particles depend upon the observation of a conscious observer can be used to argue that mind or consciousness is more fundamental that matter (which, upon deeper analysis, is hardly “solid” at all).

Ultimately, philosophy is required to shed light on the key questions of truth, reality, and goodness. The question of truth concerns the very nature of knowledge (epistemology). Knowledge leads to the question of what is real (ontology). What is real leads to the question of what has value or goodness (ethics). What is good ultimately leads to the formation of one’s character. One’s character determines one’s actions, and therefore, one’s entire life. Philosophy, far from being a purely theoretical discipline, is actually a way of life.

The Isma‘ili Gnosis blog is dedicated to the explanation of Isma‘ili Muslim Philosophy — the philosophical insights of the Isma‘ili Imams, theologians and thinkers throughout history — in a modern intellectual context. Seyyed Hossein Nasr best summarizes the imperatives of Isma‘ili philosophy as follows:

For the Ismā‘īlīs philosophy possesses essentially an esoteric, gnostic, and soteriological character and is not simply meant to be mental learning. It is related to the ḥaqīqah or truth at the heart of the Qurʾānic revelation, and therefore can be attained only after proper training of not solely the mind but also the whole of one’s being, which then makes one worthy of receiving knowledge from the representative of true gnosis, who is none other than the Imām or his representatives. The role of the Imām and the hierarchy of those who know at whose head he stands is, therefore, essential in the disciple’s gaining of authentic knowledge.

Seyyed Hossein Nasr,
(An Anthology of Philosophy in Persia Volume 2: Ismaili Thought in the Classical Age, 2)

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