Why we really philosophize


Lucie Buisson, Contributing Writer


There's a lot more to the history and meaning of the word "philosphy" than you may think.  –Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
There’s a lot more to the history and meaning of the word “philosphy” than you may think.
–Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

While translating Cicero’s “De Natura Deorum” for my Latin class, I came across an interesting verb. That verb was “philosophor, philosophari, philosophatus” – “to apply oneself to philosophy, to play the philosopher, to philosophize.”

What caught my eye is that this is one of Latin’s deponent verbs. In Latin, deponent verbs have passive endings, but an active sense. This is because deponent verbs were once middle verbs. The middle voice is something we don’t have in English, but it existed in the Indo-European language and was preserved in other languages, such as ancient Greek. The deponent verb in Latin is the sad whisper of what once was a great voice.

As English speakers, we are familiar with the active and passive voices. The active voice shows that something is performing an action on something else (e.g., “Homer taught his brother”). The passive voice shows that something is having an action performed upon itself (“Homer is taught by his brother”). The middle voice, however, shows that something is performing an action for its own benefit. Thus, in Greek, “ho Homeros epaideusato ton adelphon,” in which the verb “taught” is in the middle voice, would mean “Homer taught his brother,” and it carries the implication that Homer had some sort of vested interest in his brother’s education. If the verb in that sentence were in the active voice (“ho Homeros epaideuse ton adelphon”), it would simply indicate the fact that Homer taught his brother and would carry no implications about why Homer decided to teach his brother.

Although sometimes it isn’t very obvious why a particular verb is in the middle voice (especially in Greek, in which the middle voice is used frequently for many different verbs), the reason for the middle voice is clear in some verbs.

For instance, Latin has the deponent verb “utor,” or “use.” One uses an object to benefit himself in some way. Other examples of verbs with obvious reasons for employing the middle voice are Latin’s “furor,” or “enjoy,” and Greek’s “boulomai,” or “wish, want.” Words such as fruor, utor and boulomai are only found in the middle voice.

So, why would Latin use the deponent for “philosophize”? (One of Greek’s words for “learn” – punthanomai – also only has a middle sense.) I think the Latin reveals something about the nature of philosophy that we don’t necessarily notice in English – namely, that we ourselves are intimately involved in our learning. We do not merely engage in the action of philosophizing, only to toss away its results when we are done. We do this because we have a personal interest in acquiring knowledge. We are here, at the University of Dallas, in Irving, Tx, not simply because we want a piece of paper that will help us get a job (though we do want that); we are here because we want the knowledge that our professors can help us gain. We love knowledge (and what is philosophy if not the love of wisdom?) because we want to become better and wiser men and women.

So the next time you’re annoyed with that Lit Trad paper, frustrated at that lab report or stressed out over that terrifying exam looming in the near future, remember: We really are doing this for our own benefit.


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