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Of religion and philosophy

Wednesday, 05 June 2013 / Published in Articles / 1,572 views

By Damodar Prasad das (BCaiS)

Bertrand Russell, famed agnostic philosopher, has criticised Thomas Aquinas, famed Catholic philosopher for knowing in advance the outcome of his argument. He has claimed “The finding of arguments for a conclusion given in advance is not philosophy, but special pleading.” (Russell, 1967: 463). Aquinas himself responded to this type of criticism by saying:

“If any point among the statements of the philosophers is found contrary to faith, this is not philosophy but rather an abuse of philosophy, resulting from a defect in reasoning. (quoted in Beyond Illusion and Doubt: p63)”

This puts us in mind of a well known saying of His Divine Grace, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Srila Prabhupada: “Religion without philosophy is sentiment, or sometimes fanaticism, while philosophy without religion is mental speculation”. This saying is given in the purport to verse 3 of the third chapter of Bhagavad-Gita As It Is, explaining the distinction between two classes of men who try to understand the self, one by philosophical speculation, and the other by devotional service. In the purport, Srila Prabhupada states that both yogas are interdependent, as religion and philosophy. He also writes that of the two, the path of devotional service is better, because it is both the means as well as the end of a purifying process.

But just what is this thing called “philosophy”? The word itself originates in the Greek phrase “love of wisdom”, and was contrasted with sophism, which referred to the practice of peddling a kind of wisdom for money. True wisdom, and true love for wisdom was not something bartered for in the market place, and if there was any price on it, it was only the sincere yearning of the inquisitive soul.

If philosophy as the unmotivated love of wisdom is what Bertrand Russell was referring to when he insisted that it have no a priori conclusion to refer to, then the implication is that wisdom is not something given, or transmitted to the philosopher, either by divine revelation or by other philosophers, but is something “out there” waiting to be discovered by a self-referrent philosophical process, or something produced out of mental speculation.

This is an idea which has been rejected even by materialistic philosophers (philosophers who make no reference to scripture or religious doctrine), the most prominent of whom is Bertrand Russell’s own student, Ludwig Wittgenstein. In the only philosophical work published in his lifetime, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, a work which Bertrand Russell himself found flawless in its logical reasoning, Wittgenstein states that philosophy is not one of the natural sciences, dealing with propositions about the natural world, but is an activity aimed at the logical clarification of thoughts, and which consists essentially of elucidations (Wittgenstein, 2010: 44). A thought is known to be true by its self-evident nature (Wittgenstein, 2010: 31). Philosophy does not, therefore, generate knowledge, but makes knowledge clear to the philosopher.

For Wittgenstein, knowledge could only be generated by the natural sciences, which in itself proves unsatisfactory because such sciences depend on the limited and imperfect senses to generate imperfect propositions which have only tenuous relations to reality. Philosophy for Wittgenstein therefore was confined to a therapeutic exercise of exposing the flaws of so-called philosophers who claimed to be able to know the truth just through philosophy.

But, false philosophy is a departure from true philosophy, which always precedes the false. Thus, true philosophy cannot be confined to exposing the flaws of false philosophy: it must exist in its own right, bringing us back to the real meaning of philosophy, the love of wisdom. The real question then, is not “what is philosophy?”, but “what is wisdom?” It is the true thought. His Grace Suhotra Swami, beloved disciple of Srila Prabhupada refers us to the Srimad Bhagavatam 6.3.19 for the essential difference between self-evident propositions and everything else:

dharmam tu saksad bhagavat pranitam

na vai vidur rsayo napi devah

na siddha-mukhya asura manusyah

kuto nu vidyadhara-caranadayah

“Real religious principles are enacted by the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Although fully situated in the mode of goodness, even the great rsis who occupy the topmost planets cannot ascertain the real religious principles, nor can the demigods or the leaders of Siddhaloka, to say nothing of the asuras, ordinary human beings, Vidyadharas and Caranas.”

In the purport to the verse, Srila Prabhupada explains that real religious principles are nistraigunya, or transcendental to the world of appreciable facts. True propositions, which are self-evident and which are the true subject matter of philosophy are directly enunciated by the Supreme Personality of Godhead or His special representatives. In the words of Suhotra Swami “for logic to be meaningful, it must be directed by truth beyond itself, just as a hang must be reset by an operator external to the computer itself.” (Suhotra Swami, 1996: 20)

For Srila Prabhupada, wisdom is revealed. It is self-evident, as with Wittgenstein’s “true thought”. It does not draw justification from any other system of thought, but shines forth with its own revealing light. In a room conversation with a Sanskrit Professor, who famously begins the discussion with Liebniz’s question “Why is there anything?” Srila Prabhupada explains the real function, not only of philosophy, but even of empirical or natural science:

Srila Prabhupada: First of all, you receive the message, and then apply your logic and see that it is fact. Therefore it is perfect. When you receive the knowledge and when you directly apply it to your perception, when you see it is correct, that is the proof that the message which you received, that is correct.

(RC, February 13, 1975)

A little later he says:

Srila Prabhupada: That is called realization. Yes. First of all you receive the sound, then apply your instruments, and when you find it, it is correct — that is the realization. So our process is to receive knowledge from the perfect. That’s all.

(RC, February 13, 1975)

That wisdom which is the true subject matter of philosophy must of its nature be eternal, unchanging, self-effulgent and beautiful. Else, how can we truly love it? And it is a gift. It is transmitted to us from a perfect source, which itself must become the object of our love. Philosophy is that process by which we learn to appreciate the self-evident beauty of wisdom, of the teacher of wisdom, and of the divine characteristics which true wisdom imparts. It is notable that true philosophers exhibit perfect character, and their dealings are such as to move our hearts. Alcibiades, a notable hedonist of Ancient Athens confessed to weeping profuse tears when Socrates spoke, so moving were his words. Philosophy firmly based in revealed wisdom exhorts us to live better lives, and makes us keenly conscious of the unendurable state of our present ones. Philosophy can be no less than this.

Damodar Prasad das (BCaiS)


His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami. (1999). Beyond Illusion and Doubt. Los Angeles: Bhaktivedanta Book Trust

Russell, B. (1947). History of Western Philosophy. London: George Allen and Unwin

Suhotra Swami. (1996). Substance and Shadow. Retrieved from on June 4 2013.

Wittgenstein, L. (2010). Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Project Gutenburg.

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