Searching for the Why Beyond the What

The earliest philosophers referred to themselves as wise men. It is believed that Pythagoras, in the 6th century B. C., made a most significant step forward when he spoke of philosophers as “lovers of wisdom”. Wisdom is both lofty and elusive. It seems that the philosopher cannot claim to be wise, but only be a seeker of wisdom and in a mood of humility. Philosopher Jacques Maritain, by all accounts a man of exceptional humility, said it well in pointing out that “The philosopher seeks to find, of course, but he does not normally find without having sought; and as a matter of fact, he spends more time seeking than finding, and he never stops seeking”. The philosopher pursues what he may not be able to possess. Nonetheless, his seeking is not in vain.

As a lover of wisdom, the philosopher needs humility because his enterprise is both vast and difficult. Love always demands humility because the lover is enraptured by the goodness of its object. The lover places himself at the disposal of what he loves. Therefore, with regard to philosophy, egoism, or any form of self-interest, has no place in the pursuit of wisdom.

Nonetheless, it is most tempting to use philosophy for the purpose of personal fame. Samuel Alexander identified himself as a philosopher, but his main concern was novelty. Alexander was famous, but only until his novel ideas ceased to be novel. On other occasions, the so-called philosopher limits his field of inquiry to something too small to be of any value to mankind. An interesting example of this deviation from true philosophy, and also a comical one, belongs to Thomas Nagel, whose major contribution to the world of thought is an article he had published in the 1974 edition of The Philosophical Review (Duke University Press). This learned scholar raised the question, “What Is It Like To Be a Bat?” He concluded that it would be impossible even “to know what it is like for a bat to be a bat”. His conclusion did not differ from his starting point.

A rather prevalent excuse for being a philosopher is to say what people want to hear and thereby become popular. There will always be spokesmen who claim to be philosophers, but their scope is limited to what happens to be trendy. To cite, Maritain, once more, “Not a whimsy spun out of his own brain, but the entire universe with its enormous multitude and variety of data must be the philosopher’s teacher”.

In teaching the history of philosophy, it was apparent to many of my students that the likes of Descartes, Hegel, Hume, Schopenhauer, Kant, Berkeley, Rousseau, Nietzsche, and others, did not have anything reliable to say, but what they had to say, was expressed in imaginative and intriguing ways. Why, then, we might ask, have there been so many bad philosophers? The answer lies in what philosophy requires, namely, humility, patience, self-forgetfulness, and a view of all things in the universe that begins with wonder. In wonder, we begin with the effects, and then inaugurate our journey to their cause.

Who, then, are the reliable philosophers? It is wise to seek wisdom, but it is also wise to seek the wisdom gained by philosophers who are worthy of the term. I suggest the following dozen thinkers who are not only sound and reliable, but have transcended the usual problems that get in the way of the search for wisdom. I have no reservations in inviting readers to study the works of St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Bonaventure, St. John Paul II, Venerable Fulton J. Sheen, Josef Pieper, Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson, Dietrich von Hildebrand, Ralph McInerny, Peter Kreeft, and Mortimer Adler.  It is not a mere coincidence that these twelve stalwarts are all Catholic (several of them being converts to the Church). Belief in God, and cognizant of the history of Catholic philosophy, is a great asset in becoming a true philosopher. We can soar on the wings of others. The wonder of it is not that philosophers (or their pretenders) have made so many mistakes, but that they have been right so often. 

Whereas few of us have the ability to be world-class philosophers, most of us do have the ability to recognize good philosophy when they study it. We are born with a disposition to search beyond the what in order to discover the why. If I reach into my pocket and, to my amazement, find a $100 bill, I want to know how it got there. Why do I now have $100 when I have no idea how it got into my pocket?  At this point, I become a detective, tracking the story of “what is” to determine its cause.  

My greatest problem over the years in trying to teach philosophy is the accusation that I claim something to be true simply because I said it. But philosophy, I would argue, does not begin with me. In this way, my students would fail to distinguish between my expressions from their intimate connection with reality. I would insist that they not credit me with what I say, but join with me in perceiving the wonderful intelligible of things. I saw my role not as a wall, but as a window. It is not easy, however, to recruit philosophers. I have very little, if anything, to say that has not been said before, but there are some philosophers, through their diligence and hard work, who have lighted our paths for us. We should not disregard their contributions.


Dr. Donald DeMarco is Professor Emeritus, St. Jerome’s University and Adjunct Professor at Holy Apostles College.  He is a regular columnist for St. Austin Review and is the author of forty books.He is a former corresponding member of the Pontifical Academy of Life.  Some of his latest books, The 12 Supporting Pillars of the Culture of Life and Why They Are Crumbling, and Glimmers of Hope in a Darkening World, Restoring Philosophy and Returning to Common Sense and Let Us not Despair are posted on  He and his wife, Mary, have 5 children and 13 grandchildren.  

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