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Lesson Explainer: Characteristics of Philosophical Thinking Philosophy

In this explainer, we will learn how to identify four characteristics of philosophical thinking.

The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates said, “Wonder is the beginning of philosophy.”

Socrates meant that philosophical thinking begins at that moment when we stop taking things for granted, marvel at them, and ask questions about them.

Key Term: Wonder

To wonder is to marvel at and/or ask questions about something.

If you have ever looked up at the sky and wondered why it is blue, you have felt wonder. If you have thought about what makes you different from other people, you have felt wonder.

Those initial stirrings of wonder can be the start of philosophical thinking.

It was his wonder that led Socrates to ask questions about the complicated ideas that people around him seemed to take for granted.

His friends would talk about ideas like justice and truth. They would say things like “Justice means paying your debts.”

Socrates was always puzzled by these ideas. He would ask his friends question after question to try to understand what they meant.

Socrates’ questions revealed that his friends did not understand justice or truth any better than he did. The difference between Socrates and his friends was that his friends were content with a limited and often incoherent idea, whereas Socrates was inspired by wonder to investigate further.

Key Figure: Socrates

Socrates was an ancient Greek philosopher. Socrates did not write anything. Instead, he practiced philosophy by talking with people. We know about Socrates through the writings of his students, especially Plato.

A Roman portrait of Socrates
Figure 1: A Roman bust of Socrates, the Greek philosopher who lived from 470–399 BC.

Example 1: Wonder Is the Beginning of Philosophy

According to Socrates, why is wonder the beginning of philosophy?

  1. Wonder makes us realize that we cannot explain or understand the world.
  2. Wonder stops us from taking the way that the world is for granted.
  3. Wonder makes us realize how unimportant what we are doing is.
  4. Wonder requires us to use complicated philosophical words and concepts.

Answer

When we are consumed by our everyday practical concerns, we are not thinking about why the world is the way that it is or what things mean.

That is because just getting along in life requires us to take the way that the world is for granted.

Much of philosophical thinking is concerned with examining the things we often take for granted.

That is why Socrates said that the beginning of philosophy is wonder; it is because wonder happens when we stop to ask why the world is the way that it is. The correct answer is B.

Example 2: Wondering and Questioning

What did wonder inspire Socrates to do?

  1. Go around barefoot and unwashed
  2. Pursue fame and fortune
  3. Betray Athens by selling secrets to Sparta
  4. Refuse to eat
  5. Question people who had a reputation for wisdom

Answer

Multiple possible answers concern behaviors that are commonly attributed to Socrates. However, not all of these behaviors are inspired by wonder.

For example, although Socrates was known to walk around barefoot and go unwashed for long periods of time, neither of these behaviors are inspired by wonder.

Questioning others who have a reputation for wisdom demonstrates a desire to understand things better. Socrates was famous for questioning his friends and other wise people to improve his own understanding.

It is wonder that makes a person want to improve their understanding.

The only behavior that we can say is inspired by wonder is described in choice E.

Often, when we wonder about something, we contemplate it. To contemplate something is to give it your attention. It usually involves thorough and deep consideration of the issue.

Key Term: Contemplation

To contemplate is to give something your attention.

For example, Socrates contemplated his friend’s conception of justice, that justice means paying your debts. He thought about whether there is anything more to justice than paying debts. He also thought about whether there might be any cases in which paying debts should be considered unjust.

When Socrates contemplated the conception of justice that his friend proposed, he was able to see that it must not be true.

Socrates asked something like, “What if you have borrowed a weapon from your neighbor and they demand it back when they are in a homicidal rage? Would it be just to repay your debt in that case?”

The answer is no. This means that justice must not only and always mean repaying your debts.

A depiction of justice from the Egyptian Book of the Dead
Figure 2: A depiction of justice from the Egyptian Book of the Dead. In many societies, justice continues to be represented by scales.

Example 3: Contemplation

How does contemplation facilitate philosophical thinking?

  1. It allows us to give things our attention.
  2. It helps us realize that nothing in life really matters.
  3. It allows us to think that other people’s ideas are not important.
  4. It helps us ignore our own feelings.
  5. It allows us to detach from all practical concerns.

Answer

Philosophical thinking does not mean ignoring our feelings or investigating things in a way that is completely detached from all practical concerns. On the contrary, philosophical thinking is often based on feelings and practical concerns, both of which are important parts of life.

Philosophical thinking is concerned with life and why it matters. Philosophical thinking is facilitated by giving our attention to a matter. This is what contemplation consists of.

Nevertheless, it does not require us to focus on only one question or try to solve it once and for all. That is because philosophy is concerned with almost everything and encourages us to be aware of how things change.

The correct answer is A.

Above all, philosophical thinking is characterized by rationality. Rationality means believing what is supported by reason. It also means acting on the basis of reason.

Reason is not reserved for professional philosophers. We use reason all the time. Often, our beliefs are based on reasons. Even more often, our decisions are based on reasons.

Key Term: Reasons

Reasons are the foundations supporting our beliefs and choices.

Suppose that you decide to spend the day studying. If you make that decision, it will be for some reason. Perhaps you are interested in the topic or think that getting a good grade will improve your career prospects.

Walking on directional sign on asphalt road
Figure 3: Making decisions often involves reasons. A choice is rational if it is chosen on the basis of reasons.

Suppose that you decide to spend the day with friends instead. There will be reasons for that, too. Perhaps you think that nurturing your relationship with your friends will make your life fuller, or you just find spending time with them enjoyable.

Every decision you make, from the biggest—such as what kind of job to get—to the smallest—such as what to have for a snack, is made for reasons.

Example 4: Rational Thought

What is rational thought?

  1. Thought that is supported by reasons
  2. Believing whatever you want
  3. Thought that is supported by tradition
  4. Ignoring everything except logic
  5. Ignoring your emotions

Answer

Thinking rationally is thinking that is supported by reasons.

This means that it is not possible to believe whatever you want and still be thinking rationally. Instead, your beliefs must be supported by reasons.

That does not mean that rational thought requires ignoring your emotions. On the contrary, emotions can provide compelling reasons.

For example, the fact that spending time with your friends makes you happy may be a good reason to believe that it is worthwhile.

Rational thought does not rely solely on the use of logic. Rather, it often applies logic to the information provided by our senses and feelings.

Rational thought can align with what is supported by tradition, or it can ignore it.

The correct answer is A.

Although we all use reason, philosophical thinking aims to ensure that the reasons we rely on are good ones.

According to most philosophers, having good reasons is the only criterion for accepting a belief.

If there are good reasons to support a belief, philosophers argue, a person should accept that it is true. They should believe what is supported by reasons, regardless of whether they want to, whether it is popular, or whether it is condoned by authorities.

Intellectual independence is another characteristic of philosophical thinking. Independence means thinking for yourself.

A person demonstrates independence when they can form their own judgments. This means that they will not necessarily come to the same conclusions as their friends, parents, or media figures.

However, independence does not mean being a contrarian. A person who disagrees with whatever is said to them just for the sake of argument is no more independent than a person who believes whatever they are told.

In either case, they are only forming their positions in reaction to the positions of people around them.

An intellectually independent thinker comes to their own conclusion after considering the evidence and arguments available to them.

This might make it sound like independence can be attained by ignoring what other people say.

In fact, independence requires paying attention to what other people say, assessing their reasons, and then forming one’s own conclusions.

A woman reading at a desk
Figure 4: A woman reading at a desk. Reading is one of the ways we learn about other people’s beliefs and the reasons supporting them.

Example 5: Intellectual Independence

What does intellectual independence mean?

  1. Coming to your own conclusions
  2. Ignoring other people’s opinions
  3. Believing what authorities say
  4. Arguing against people who disagree with you
  5. Denying the legitimacy of other people’s views

Answer

Believing what authorities say just because they are authorities is incompatible with intellectual independence. That is because if you just believe what authorities say, you fail to form your own independent opinion.

On the other hand, denying the legitimacy of other people’s views without giving them a fair hearing is just as incompatible with intellectual independence. That is because if you are denying what other people say, you are still neglecting to form your own opinion. You are only positioning yourself in opposition to whatever the views of others happen to be.

Ignoring other people’s opinions is not necessary for intellectual independence and, in fact, often stands in the way of it. That is because we learn from others.

Even when we achieve intellectual independence, we only achieve it by first paying attention to what other people have to say and only then do we form our own views.

Intellectual independence means coming to your own conclusions and not forming your conclusions merely on account of what other people say. The correct answer is A.

Let’s summarize some of the key points we have covered in this explainer.

Key Points

  • Four characteristics of philosophical thinking are wonder, contemplation, reason, and intellectual independence.
  • Wonder is when we stop taking things for granted, marvel at them, and ask questions about them.
  • Philosophical thinking involves contemplation, which is giving something your attention.
  • Rationality means believing what is supported by reasons. It also means acting on the basis of reasons.
  • We use reason all the time. Often, our beliefs are based on reasons. Even more often, our decisions are based on reasons.
  • Independence means thinking for yourself and forming your own judgments.

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