What is philosophy?
I think the best place to start is with the very basic question of what exactly philosophy is all about. What's the point? What's the purpose? Is there a structure to it? What are the options? Do we have to pick any of them? And why study philosophy in the first place. There's a bunch of questions here that need to be looked at.
By the way, if any of you haven't seen the Importance of Philosophy website (http://www.importanceofphilosophy.com/), you should definitely check it out.
So to start, Objectivism doesn't ask first "what's the right philosophy"? Instead, it looks to the purpose it serves. It asks whether we need philosophy in the first place, and if so, what exactly is that need. So that's what this thread is going to be about. What is philosophy?
I'll quote Rand:
A philosophic system is an integrated view of existence. As a human being, you have no choice about the fact that you need a philosophy. Your only choice is whether you define your philosophy by a conscious, rational, disciplined process of thought and scrupulously logical deliberation -- or let your subconscious accumulate a junk heap of unwarranted conclusions, false generalizations, undefined contradictions, undigested slogans, unidentified wishes, doubts and fears, thrown together by chance, but integrated by your subconscious into a kind of mongrel philosophy and fused into a single, solid weight: self-doubt, like a ball and chain in the place where your mind's wings should have grown.
Ayn Rand, Philosophy: Who Needs It
(I recommend reading the title essay of Philosophy: Who Needs It)
The point is simple. In life we're constantly getting data from reality through our senses. Our mind has to analyze the new information, and put it into perspective with the rest of our knowledge. A lot of this is automatic. There's a huge amount of information and ideas that you use for even simple tasks. Reading this post is a decent example. You see squiggly lines on a white background, and you interpret them as letters. The letters from words, and refer to concepts. You might even imagine a voice saying the words as you read them. You attribute a consciousness to the author, and know that these words have a meaning. These words are conveying ideas to you, so you have some understanding that they're meant to describe something in reality, and you're accepting that it's possible to grasp the meaning. You're assuming that the reality that I'm describing is the same reality you exist in. And on and on.
When you started reading, you might have only thought explicitly about what the words were conveying, but you should be able to see that there's a lot more going on in your head. You are reading the words, but it's happening within a context of your entire mental framework. That means you may not explicitly focus on the fact that you're actually reading (of course you are! But how often do you think about it?), or you may not explicitly think about the fact that someone else (me) is trying to convey information. All of these ideas, and a lot more, are not the specific thoughts you are focusing on, but they make up the background or framework. You can focus on them if you want to, but most of the time you don't. You just accept the framework as given.
But the most important point is that you always have some kind of framework, even if you're not thinking about it or can readily identify it. You have some view of how the world works, and what it consists of, and when you gather new data, you automatically view it from that perspective. Think of it this way. Imagine you're watching a sci-fi movie, with lasers, spaceships, and robots. In truth you know that the movie is fiction, and you may even believe the science behind the movie is questionable. But as you watch it, you shift from your normal day to day view of the world, and instead view the world of the movie as if it were real. For the course of the movie, you accept that robots can talk and think, and that lasers can be shot back and forth at slower than lightspeed. If the movie has some kind of villain, you accept within the framework of the movie that he's evil.
This isn't exactly philosophy, but it should help you understand the concept of a mental framework, or a worldview. When you see new facts develop, you integrate it into what you already know about the world. In fact, you see the new facts from the perspective of your worldview. An example is a magic trick. When the magician pulls a rabbit from the hat, you view it from the perspective of someone who doesn't believe in magic, and certainly doesn't believe some entertainer of children is able to perform it and stays in that job! So when you view the fact, you view it from the knowledge base that there must be a cause that you don't see, but is there nonetheless.
I wrote an article http://www.RebirthOfReason.com/Articles/Rowlands/Fundamental_Premises.shtml you should check out. My basic point is that you interpret data from the perspective of your world view. In other words, from your philosophy.
So back to one of fundamental questions. Do we need philosophy? The answer is yes. But to see it clearly, you'd have to ask what it meant not to have a philosophy. Imagine your mind is entirely blank. When you see something, say a squirrel climbing a tree, you have no framework in which you can understand it. The movement of the squirrel might catch your eye, but it wouldn't mean anything to you. The tree might be brown, but you wouldn't see it as a tree...just a brown object. In fact, it wouldn't even register as an object. Without a worldview, the things you'd see couldn't be analyzed. You couldn't compare them to previous things you had seen. No connections would be possible. The world would be chaos.
So yeah, you have a worldview. Everyone does. They have to. The fact that they don't study it, or even recognize it, doesn't change their ultimate need for it. They can't escape the need for it.
So now that we need it, what exactly is philosophy? Is it the worldview itself? Or is it only an explicit recognition of the world view. Or does it just cover certain things. I think there's going to be a lot of argument on this. The term philosophy is often used to mean your worldview. But the study of philosophy is usually limited to these fundamental views of the world. There are premises and principles that act as the support beams for your worldview. These are the big building blocks that the rest of your knowledge is founded on, and they shape the way you view the world. Some of these are far more fundamental and important to your life. There are philosophical ideas that are peripheral and if you get them wrong, it doesn't mean instant death. But some are so important that getting them wrong would end in tragedy. For instance, one's views on art may limit the potential of your life, but if some of your views on ethics are wrong, you won't survive to worry about it.
So that simple idea is that not all premises are created equal. Some are far more important. But there's another idea to consider. Some people inflate their view of the importance of certain premises. You may find that in many people's lives, politics plays a small role. But for others, it's all consuming, and they'd be willing to throw away their ethics, epistemology, and even metaphysics in order to believe what they want to believe about politics. A classic example is the good-hearted, humanitarian Marxist, who after seeing the disaster that is Communism in practice, decides that mankind is by nature evil, and they're not good enough for Communism.
Big picture point is that there are a ton of ideas floating in your head, and some of them you hold very dearly. Philosophy tries to analyze the major ones, and gives you a method of analyzing the rest.
Now lets get to the question of why study philosophy in the first place? So we have a world view. Everyone does. Why study the damn thing? Is it to sound cool at a party? Is it to smash your opponents in arguments? Is it to attract members of the opposite sex? Well, those are all great answers. But there are some others.
Since your philosophy, or worldview, is the means by which you evaluate everything, a flaw in it can lead to disaster in every endeavor. Or it can just make them all a little harder. One important point of my Fundamental Premises article I linked to above is that because you interpret data according to your worldview, when you make mistakes it may become hidden to you by your worldview. Bad results may seem inevitable, or you may interpret the cause incorrectly. And getting feedback from reality might not help when you interpret the evidence according to your philosophy. So that's a big reason to study philosophy. It effects every aspect of your life, and if you make mistakes, it may doom you to failure and unhappiness.
And of course, without a knowledge of philosophy, you won't know if you're own worldview is screwed up, inconsistent, or working against your goals. To understand how your framework affects your life, you have to understand what the framework is. That's where studying philosophy can help.
There are benefits to philosophy as well. Understanding how you understand the world (epistemology) can help you in your career or everyday life. By being consciously aware of what the rules of knowledge are, you can learn the skills to better grasp that knowledge, to find and integrate new knowledge, and reach new complexities of understanding not available to you before. It's like being able to do simple math in your head, and then being taught how "carrying" and "borrowing" works in arithmetic. Suddenly you can do far more complicated math, and by understanding it, you can move on to even high levels of knowledge. But since epistemology is the basis of all knowledge, a sound understanding of it helps in every area. And that's just one example. In ethics, you can learn to make better decisions, make them with less effort, and see more options than you were able to before, as just one more example.
And of course, in a culture hostile to a rational philosophy, you can learn to defend yourself, and help those around you that you value by giving them the words they need to defend what they already believe is right.
Let's go over the method of this post one more time. We don't start off saying what's a good philosophy, or what is Objectivism, or anything like that. We start with the basic human need that drives all of the rest. We ask why we need philosophy in the first place. We establish that we do need it by identifying the human need that it fulfills, and we know that it's so basic a need that we can't live without it. Then by understanding what the need is, we can see what we have available, and how it's used. We have a worldview, and we use it to comprehend the world around us by analyzing everything within a framework. And from there, we can see that if the framework has flaws, and it probably will, the flaws will cause problems. They'll contradict the need that we've identified, and instead of making sense of the world, they'll distort our view of the world.
By starting with the need, and developing the idea around it, we should be able to better limit the field of inquiry, and have a basis by which we can evaluate further ideas. We can ask if later ideas are really that important, and have a way of determining how central they are to philosophy. And further more, we've already started along the path that Objectivism tries to follow consistently. We start with reality, and we use it as a guide to judging our efforts and ideas.