From Plato to this day, what leads people to philosophize is that they view themselves as in-between. People are stranded between nature that surrounds them and infinity (God) that transcends them. Ever since Plato and Aristotle, this in-betweenness has always been an object of wonder and curiosity. This curiosity is about objects, facts, events, and the riddle of the universe, but it is also felt regarding the inner world of humans.

All attempts to provide solutions throughout the history of philosophy, whether positive or negative, have aimed to comprehend this state of in-betweenness. Many philosophical arguments have been put forward starting from this basic position, and various disciplines of thought have emerged.

Philosophy is not a phenomenon found at the roots of human culture or that has emerged simultaneously with humans; it has emerged in quite recent times and been a late addition to human culture.

In other words, philosophy has emerged at a certain stage in the development of human culture, as a form of thinking and reflection used to satisfy the need to learn about and understand ourselves, the universe, and the environment in which we live.

It started with questions about the essence, meaning, and causes of things that exist, and philosophy emerged when these questions, previously answered by religion and mythology, were subjected to critical thought and observation.

The word philosophy comes from Greek, and consists of two words with everyday (practical) meanings.

Sophia means, first and foremost, skill, ability, and intelligence. Knowledge and wisdom are secondary meanings of the word.

The first thing Greeks understood from sophos” was someone who had ability and power. Sophist, then, primarily meant an able person with life experience, and over time, it also came to mean a wise person as well.

Philos, on the other hand, means a friend, or someone who loves.

– The compound word philosopher means someone who is, first of all, willing to acquire experience, and second, likes and shows an interest in knowing (so as to be able to do).

– Today, the movement of thought, or philosophy (philo-sophia), is also used to mean love of knowledge, love of wisdom, and being a friend of knowledge.

Philosophy in Prehistory expressed the thoughts people had and the knowledge they acquired about the world they lived in.

Philosophy in Antiquity

  • According to Socrates, it is knowing what you don’t know.
  • According to Plato, it is making intellectual efforts to find the truth.
  • According to Aristotle, it is the science of principles or first causes.
  • According to Epicurus, it is the science of life. It is an action system designed to lead a happy life.

Philosophy in the Middle Ages

  • According to St. Augustine, it means knowing God. Real philosophy is identical to religion.
  • According to Scholastic thinkers, philosophy is demonstrating the consistency of reason and dogma.

In this age, philosophy was theology.

Philosophy in the Modern Age

  • According to Bruno, the function of philosophy is to know the nature.
  • According to Bacon, it means thinking about data based on experiment and observation.
  • For Descartes, philosophy is a form of science, and geometric methods need to be applied to philosophy to turn it into science.
  • According to Leibniz, it means understanding what is actually true.
  • According to I. Kant, it means teaching how knowledge can be possible.
  • In Hegel, philosophy is the science of how thought progresses by contradicting with its opposite.

In our contemporary age, the dialectical perspective has completely turned philosophy into science. Today, engaging in philosophy means thinking about scientific data and reaching practical conclusions based on these data.

Sufism / Tasawwuf (Mysticism):

This is the religious worldview based on the idea that there are supernatural forces and it is possible to contact them. Derived from the root suf, it means attaching one’s heart to the Love of God. Mysticism is different from public religions in that it tries to reach religious goals through mystic methods that contradict religious methods.

Religions order a life consistent with the God’s command. Mysticism, on the other hand, aims to unite with and live in God. To achieve its aims, it relies on intuition and love rather than sensory and intellectual methods.

Mystical elements such as ecstasy, trance, reaching God, and being one with God have entered philosophy through the religion of Bacchus and through Pythagoras, who was a reformer of Orphism, and later shaped with Platonism and Neo-Platonism.

In short, philosophy is based on reason, works through reasoning, and tries to reach knowledge using this method. Sufism, on the other hand, aims to reach knowledge through intuition, love, and ecstacy, and creates methods to realize this through an inner experience.

Interpreted as mysticism in the Western world, Sufism (Tasawwuf) aims to know secrets (mysteries), the unknown, or what cannot be known through intellect and senses.

According to another view, Sufism is the path of knowing the truth through intellect (aql) and wisdom (hikmah), which characterize capability and wisdom, and mysticism is the path of reaching the truth through inner experiences. According to this view, Sufism is the effort to evaluate and conceptualize mystic experiences through intellect or thinking.

Mysticism is the science of the ultimate being and the experience of uniting with the ultimate being. The real mystic does not talk about the knowledge of the Absolute, but arrives at that truth. The proof of this arrival is being, not knowing. In other words, mysticism is not theoretical but practical. It is not something to be comprehended with intelligence, it is an organic way of living. Ideas about this experience can be remembered and expressed once the mystic returns to his/her earthly consciousness, but the mystic experience or the mystic consciousness does not involve any form of thinking.

In history, two different paths have been adopted to “seek the truth”:

  • The path of intellect and logic
  • The path of purification and enlightenment

The path of intellect and logic is called the science of Kalam if it follows a belief system, or a religion and shariah, and called Philosophy otherwise.

The path of purification and enlightenment is called Sufism (Tasawwuf) if it follows a religion, and Ishraq (Illuminationism) otherwise. In the mystic method, the experience is personal. Even though it aims to make the person happy and virtuous, the knowledge that is generated is subjective because it cannot be empirical or documented.

Such knowledge is real to the people who undertake the experience, but would be nothing more than dogmatic statements to other people, and thus turn into a belief and cause division and conflict in society.

Returning to our discussion of the concept of philosophy, this concept does not have a universally accepted and binding definition. Also, there is no common definition that would express the totality of the things that are meant by the term philosophy. However, it is known that philosophy involves people’s efforts to comprehend infinity and the “roots and causes” of everything, and a continuous search through questioning everything.

Therefore, we can say that philosophy is the effort to analyze and understand what happens and what exists, within their unique conditions. In this context, philosophy is an intellectual activity that aims to inquire, adopting a critical attitude, issues of being, meaning, and essence, and systematically organize the conclusions reached.

Philosophy examines existing things, the act of thinking, and language, as well as the relationships among them. Because “existence” is very comprehensive, philosophy deals with everything. Every being, regardless of their context or dimension, can be the subject of philosophy. In other words, everything that has meaning is the subject of philosophy.

The subjects of philosophy have remained more or less the same since Plato. What changed was the approaches and methods in examining the subjects.

In other words, philosophy is a process that deals with meanings, and tries to analyze what makes a thing a thing in terms of meaning. Philosophy starts from things, but certainly does not stop at them. It establishes what makes a thing a thing (which is no longer existential) in terms of meaning, makes it meaningful, and tries to capture its manner and process of being. In this sense, all questions about meaning are philosophical. The meaning in the question “What does it mean?” is the meaning of concepts. The medium of meanings is language, the words in a language, and the ordering of words. Meaning is what makes a thing a thing and questions about what it is are nothing but questions about its meaning.

Since philosophy deals with everything and is an effort to assign meaning to beings, there is a great debate about what forms the foundation of meaning. Where does meaning exist? What is the foundation of meaning? Does meaning dwell in beings (the existential dimension), in thought (the intellectual dimension), or in language? Which of these forms the foundation of meaning?

Philosophy is located at the intersection of these relationships. However, in the process of analysis, one of these dimensions may receive more emphasis than others. As this discussion shows, philosophy is a relationship that thinking forms with being.

Philosophy has tried, first, to find answers to the questions of reason, then to solve problems, and then to take action. In a sense, philosophy is a collection of different answers and attempted solutions to certain questions and issues, and of new questions and issues that arise from these attempts.

Gradually, philosophy turns itself into a subject as well, and philosophizes about philosophy (reflective thinking).

There is a continuity, through the ages, to the ideas generated, which thus create a history of thought, and each new school of thought has to stake its position by adopting a critical approach to other schools of philosophy in history. This is what gives philosophy its historical and holistic nature. Schools of thought become independent from the philosophers that produce them, and become part of philosophy as a discipline (order) of knowledge or thinking, providing a point of view to other thoughts.

Philosophical thinking is synthetic, and this synthesized knowledge about being is called a system or a philosophical system. A philosophical system is a synthesized and self-consistent view of being that tries to explain all of the universe and being. In this sense, the real agenda of philosophy is to comprehend the logic of existence.

The importance attached to logic, right after being, is an indicator of that. The most important subject that philosophers tackle is the structure of how existence works.

According to Kant, the aim should be to learn how to engage in philosophy rather than learning about philosophy, and to learn thinking rather than ideas.

In short, philosophy is a voluntary effort to search, question, and criticize, to seek the truth through reason, and to obtain knowledge and wisdom. Philosophy is undertaken by people who try to discover the structure and essence of existence and aim to lead a conscious, knowledge-based, and meaningful life, and is certainly not for everyone.

* Published in Düşünüyorum, no. 55, December 2014. Translated by Dr. Emre Eren Korkmaz, and revised by the editorial board.