When I was an undergraduate, I did not know what philosophy was. My ignorant assumption was that the role of a philosopher is to prove the existence of the Judeo-Christian God through specious reasoning. I steered clear of those courses; but now I wish I hadn’t. Because that’s not what philosophy is at all.

Having missed a college education in philosophy, I have in recent years been trying to catch up through self-study. Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy is a suburb introduction to the field. I read that tome more than a decade ago. More recently, I read the tome The History of Philosophy by A. C. Grayling, which aims to be a more objective and comprehensive history than Russell’s (which is considered more subjective).

In the introduction to Grayling’s book, I discovered a wonderful explanation and metaphor describing what philosophy is. This is the best description I have encountered in all my reading, and I carry it with me today as a foundational framework whenever I think about philosophy:

“We humans occupy a patch of light in a great darkness of ignorance. Each of the special disciplines has its station on an arc of the circumference of that patch of light, straining to see outwards into the shadows to descry shapes, and thereby to push the horizon of light a little further outwards. Philosophy patrols the whole circumference, making special efforts on those arcs where there is as yet no special discipline, trying to formulate the right questions to ask in order that there might be a chance of formulating answers.”

When Grayling says “special disciplines,” he means the different fields of science, such as biology, physics, psychology, etc.

This metaphor is reminiscent of Plato’s allegory of the cave. It is also reminiscent of the bubbling of alternate universes, a theory held by some modern physicists. So the metaphor encompasses classical and modern thought very nicely.

The meaning here is that philosophy attempts to go where science has not yet gone. Once a scientific discipline bubbles off and flourishes, philosophy is no longer relevant there, but it is relevant on the newfound edges of there.

Philosophy is thinking through all of the dimensions that have not yet been explored and explained.

No wonder there have been so many false starts—and also bold, intriguing ideas—in the history of philosophy! It is the nature of the field, out there on the edges, to be prone to wild errors and fantastical conceptualizations . . . and, with luck, a few actual truths.

The History of Philosophy, by A. C. Grayling, is an impressively thorough book that attempts to explain, in a single volume, all of those wild errors and fantastical conceptualizations and actual truths. At times, the density and ambitious scope of the tome can be overwhelming to the reader, but, overall, I think it’s a fabulous history of a fascinating field.

Do you see philosophical light amidst the darkness of ignorance?