What is Philosophy?

11 06 2010

It’s a chestnut – some would say a kettle of fish – but it’s a question worth reflecting upon from time to time: what is philosophy?

Lieter has compiled a brief list of responses from a number of Names in philosophy (with a little help from the talented photographer, Steve Pyke).

Isaiah Berlin

They make for noodle-scratching reading, particularly for those who call themselves philosophers (or are working towards being a philosopher, like myself). After all, we apparently do philosophy quite regularly, but, clearly, we don’t have one clear, uniform idea of what it is we’re doing. Or do we?

I am tempted to wonder, in my more cynical of moments, whether philosophers almost don’t want to settle on a definition of philosophy. To do so would be to get all presumptuously ontic-ontological (as I believe Heidegger was fond of saying), or metaphilosophical, and raise (if not beg) the question that philosophy seeks to answer before philosophy has even had a chance to have at it. But to think that would just be cynical…

So, I ask, what is philosophy? Tell me your definition. Your motivation. I’m genuinely curious, not because I think there is one robust definition, but more because it informs about other philosophers’ approach to the sport.

While we’re at it, here’s my definition:

Philosophy asks why things are the way they are, and more importantly, why things aren’t the way they’re not.

Or, on a methodological tilt:

Unlike science, which asks ‘why’ to the limits of experience, or religion, which asks ‘why’ until it runs up against the brick wall of faith, philosophy asks ‘why’ until it cannot ask ‘why’ any longer.

Or, on a more sociological level:

Philosophy is the meta-discipline; all other disciplines that involve concepts, abstraction or reasoning – from art, to mathematics, to science, to history, to plumbing – are sub-disciplines of philosophy. Academic philosophy is but one branch of super-philosophy; it’s the philosophy-of-the-gaps that deals with those remaining questions that haven’t been subsumed into these other sub-disciplines of the super-philosophy. That’s why philosophy (of the academic flavour) is so often lambasted or ignored, for many of the triumphs of philosophy now go under the name of science, politics, psychology, economics, or plumbing.

What do you think philosophy is?




4 responses

11 06 2010
James Gray

There are different kinds of “philosophy.” What many of those academics describe is pretty much what sophists and non-philosopher academics used to do. Philosophy could be very general (trying to make sense) or more specific based on current academic essayists (trying to make sense out of difficult issues that science cannot yet answer).

When we try to answer the most difficult questions we often rely on speculation and epistemic merit. We can try to make sense out of the world even when we speculate beyond the limits of natural science by talking about “which hypothesis is the most legitimate” based on our current information and epistemic merit.

I use a pretty broad idea of philosophy, but I think “philosopher” is supposed to be someone who tries to gain knowledge and wisdom to live a good life. If “philosophy” is what such a person does, then academic essays and speculation is merely part of what should count as “philosophy.”

12 06 2010

I think that the sociological answer is the one closest to the truth, but maybe also the one least likely to be given by a practicing philosopher. I mean, within that answer is the admission that of all of the questions philosophers have asked throughout history, only some have produced fruitful lines of inquiry. Those fruitful lines of inquiry have become disciplines in their own right, and philosophers are left mucking about in the previously unfruitful lines of inquiry. Unless of course they specialize within philosophy, and focus primarily in their career on the philosophy of a certain discipline, such as someone like Amartya Sen, or a philosopher of psychology, etc.

12 06 2010
Mark Sloan

Rather than talking about what philosophy is, I’ll try for what philosophy ought to be.

Philosophy ought to be a combination of the first part of the quote from Delia Graff Fara “By doing philosophy we discover eternal and mind-independent truths about the real nature of the world…” and Willard Van Orman Quine’s conception of philosophy as continuous with science.

I like the aptness of Paul’s phrase “philosophers are left mucking about in the previously unfruitful lines of inquiry“. If more philosophers adopted Willard Van Orman Quine’s conception of philosophy I expect their necessary “mucking about” would be considerably more productive.

7 09 2010

Wonderful article. I like your blog. Keep up the great work! Best, Sascha

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