A philosopher holds a unique, almost exalted position in academia, a position distinct from that of the other sciences, the hard sciences; such as physics, math, engineering, and biology; as well as other, similar branches, psychology and theology. It is the discipline of questions and inquiry. The willingness to question, while now applauded and admired, was once quite dangerous. This is also the reason for the enduring popularity of famous philosophers. Another is their willingness to answer, or attempt to answer, questions in matters science has yet to discover.
The dangerous part of being a philosopher is to question long-held traditional, religious, and spiritual beliefs. This has cost philosophers their lives and livelihood. Socrates was sentenced to death; Galileo was put on house-arrest for being a proponent for the Copernican model of the solar system, and he was kind of being a dick about it.
There are countries in the modern world where questioning religious or political beliefs can get you sentenced to death. No person in the history of the world has brought pain upon anyone by being curious except for the pain imposed upon them by those who think it is dangerous. The impulse to ask the kind of questions philosophers normally ask seems to be a uniquely human impulse. While I am sure that how factors into an animal’s rationale in nature, such as How can I get to the food? I doubt, however, Why do I need food? is a question considered by River Bison. (I apologize for any thinking River Bison I may have offended.)
Douglas Adams said there are three stages of civilization: the how, why, and where stages: How do I eat? Why do I eat? and Where shall we have lunch?
What makes a philosopher? How is someone given the title of philosopher? What does it mean?
In Charles Darwin’s era, before we split the atom and mapped the human genome, biology was natural philosophy. This label was applied to those who offered theories regarding long-standing, unsolved questions in regards to our knowledge about nature and the universe.
The choice one makes when becoming a philosopher or studying philosophy, knowing it to be a thankless profession of challenging beliefs and institutions upon which millions depend, for one reason or another, for purpose, or meaning, for comfort.
Philosophical and theological institutions cater to a unique human need, perhaps a pertinent expression of our genes to survive at all costs and because of our higher brain functions, capable of expressing our resistance to mortality. The system of philosophy arose to facilitate the existential resistance to our own non-existence: to cultivate the idea that purpose feeds worth to what is fleeting, allowing a sort of compromise between mortality and immortality through what we think of as our legacy, an acceptance of our inevitable end if, we can put purpose to chaos, which gave rise to our oldest mythological beliefs. It was a way for us to explain the inexplicable in a time where the systems we now take for granted didn’t exist. It is a unique and storied branch of academia put in place to ennoble the highest aspirations of our creativity, intelligence, and patience.
To explain lightning, we had Zeus; for the explanation of winter, we had the story of Demeter’s sadness regarding Hades’ kidnapping of her daughter. We now know that lightning is caused by positive and negative charges built within cloud-banks, producing a spark when the two clouds collide. Well, there goes Zeus. We know that winter and all of the seasons are caused by the Earth’s 23 degree axial tilt. So, there goes Demeter, Persephone, and Hades. The Norse believed that Thor was the God of Thunder and that winter was caused by Ice Giants. The philosophy of the Norse culture is more pessimistic than The World as Will and Idea by the pessimist: Arthur Schopenhauer. Even the Gods are killed in Norse mythology–by the Midgaard serpent.
The skeleton key for understanding a civilization is their mythology; it represents their fear, desire, their psychosexual and subconscious urges towards the profane and taboo; the characters representative of these attributes are the externalization of a rich, curious culture, representing the collective unconscious of an entire civilization, and it allows a unique glimpse into the mind of ancient thinking peoples. Looking at the way past civilizations are described and the way we learn of them, and what we learn, affords us an idea of how we may be remembered someday, either by analyzing our heroes and villains, as it has been with Greek and Roman mythology, or the teachers and their schools of thought, which is more a type of ancestor-reverence than mythology in China and East-Asia, or by the histories embedded into their religious traditions, as it is with many cultures in the Middle East. The value of philosophy is, more than anything, despite its pretentiousness and abuses, an invitation to think. The brain, like our muscles, becomes stronger the more you use it, and it is the most powerful weapon we have. We may not have the speed to outrun a cheetah or a tiger, but based on precepts developed by philosophers, such as the scientific method, and techniques of measurement and engineering developed by Greeks, we can build machines that can get us the hell away from animals that would have caught and enjoyed the greater majority of our ancestry, the strongest as easily as the weak. Philosophy is systematized questioning, whose answers are not always either right or wrong: rather useful an individual or not. It is a system that sets us apart from animals, figuratively and literally, as anyone who has had to flee a rampaging T-Rex would attest.