What is Philosophy?

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Do Dictionaries or Etymology Help?
 
Philosophy can be defined or described in accordance with how it's been practiced in the Western tradition. It can also be defined simply in terms of dictionary definitions or even according to etymology.
 
This latter approach isn't very helpful. At least not from a metaphilosophical perspective.
 
For example, saying that philosophy (for the ancient Greeks) was simply the study of all examples of knowledge isn't going to get us very far – or even anywhere. For a start, it simply begs the question: What is knowledge?
 
The etymology doesn't really help us either. Viz., philo = love; phia = wisdom. One problem with taking the etymology of the word “philosophy” seriously (at least on one translation) is that it seems to be the case that philosophy should be all about the self – or about the “lover of wisdom”. In other words, “how to live well” or “live the good life”; how to be fulfilled and happy; etc. Clearly all this has only been a very small aspect of Western philosophy and, perhaps, a big aspect of Buddhism. (In certain strands of existentialism it's mainly about living a sincere life – sincere to one's genuine/real self.) It can even be classed as egocentric (as, literally, in self-centred).
 
Here questions abound? Why should philosophy be all about how to live one's life? Why should I live the good life rather than the bad life? Etc.
 
Some have explicitly said that “philosophy is committed to self-knowledge”. There's some truth, historically, in that Socrates said “know thyself”. Though was that really about the self or more about the self's relation to knowledge and the world/reality generally? In other words, if one knows oneself (therefore one also knows where one's going wrong – intellectually), then one will have a better philosophical grip on the world or reality.
 
We can now skip to 17th-century “natural philosophy”; which turns out to be science (i.e., physics). That too begs a question: What's the difference between philosophy and physics?
 
We can of course answer the question “What is philosophy?” by asking a similar questions about the sub-branches of philosophy. For example, we can ask: What is metaphysics? Here too we can become all etymological and say that the Greek word meta-physika literally means "what comes after physics". That's not very helpful either. (What's meant by “after” or “meta”?) So let's forget dictionary or etymological definitions and go with the following.
 
Metaphysics was/is “the study of existence, causation, God, logic, forms and other abstract objects”. Why isn't metaphysics the study of cups or cats? Can one study existence in the abstract? Etc. The point here is that we can't help but be metaphilosophical (or simply philosophical) in pursuit of an answer to the question “What is metaphysics?”.
 
Thus the question “What is metaphysics”, as well as the main question (“What is philosophy”), are seemingly metaphilosophical. Or at least we'd need to indulge in some philosophy of philosophy in order to get some answers or indeed some questions.
 
What is Philosophy?
 
Every stance on what philosophy is - or what it should be - will elicit the question:Why do you believe that philosophy is X? The philosophical opponent can easily tell the original philosopher his own view on what he thinks philosophy is (or what he thinks it should be). If that occurs (which it does, many times), then what will happen next? How is the what-is-philosophy question settled when rival views are on the market place? Surely the opposing positions on philosophy will be debated; though I doubt that the debate can be settled. And I also doubt that they can be settled by taking various metaphilosophical positions on the what-is-philosophy question.
 
Let's take a couple of examples.
 
One philosopher can say that philosophy is about finding the “fundamental nature of everything”. Why should a philosopher do that? And doesn't this stance on philosophy simply assume that there is a fundamental nature of things taken individually (or to “everything”)? What if there are no such fundamentals? And, even if there are, why should a philosopher see them as important? (Though classing something as “fundamental” sort of gives the game away.)
 
Alternatively, a philosopher may say that philosophy is about (or should be about) intellectual unification. Specifically, unifying the insights from other disciplines; particularly science and philosophy itself. Another philosopher may say that such a position is impossible. He may add that science itself is a meta-discipline which simply doesn't require philosophy. (Many scientists - particularly biologists - have said this.) Indeed such a philosopher may say that philosophy itself should incorporate science and its findings and thus - from such a place - it would be very difficult to take a useful (or genuine) philosophical position on science.
 
The Question itself: What is Philosophy?
 
Some of statements and arguments from metaphilosophers on philosophy seem patently obvious and also well-trodden. That is, they're simply of the traditional “What is philosophy?” variety.
 
For example, a philosopher can say that philosophy doesn't rely on faith or revelation. Instead it relies on, say, reason; or, in 21st century pretentious terms, on “cognitive criticality”. Nonetheless, such a position of faithlessness or lack of revelation doesn't automatically make philosophy a science either. Traditional what-is-philosophy philosophers might have said that there's no need to rely on observations or experiments in philosophy..... A contemporary philosopher may say, on the other hand, that some philosophers indulge in thought experiments (as Timothy Williamson does in his The Philosophy of Philosophy) which are very like the thought experiments engaged in by scientists (Williamson cites Galileo). Nonetheless, they're still not physical experiments; as is commonly understood in science. In addition, observations may be said to be prerequisites for just about any kind of philosophy. And it can also be said that observation (or at least a posteriori reasoning) can defeat a priori claims and statements (see Laurence BonJour).
 
Bertrand Russell on Philosophy
 
Bertrand Russell seems to have believed that when it comes to the definition of the word “philosophy” (or to a description of the practice of philosophy), one can't help but be philosophical. (Of course Russell never used the word “metaphilosophy”; or even the words “the philosophy of philosophy”.) Russell wrote:
 
“Definitions may be given in this way of any field where a body of definite knowledge exists. But philosophy cannot be so defined. Any definition is controversial and already embodies a philosophic attitude. The only way to find out what philosophy is, is to do philosophy."
 
Surely it can't said that a definition of the word “science” won't be equally as problematic as that of the word “philosophy”. In addition, one will need to take a philosophical stance on what science is (if not on the word “science”). Similarly, would all scientists agree on such a definition? (I doubt it.) Thus it can't be the case that simply because the word “philosophy” is about, well, philosophy that all definitions will be more problematic or controversial than definitions or descriptions of science.
 
Similarly, let's rewrite a bit of Russell from the quote above. Thus:
 
The only way to find out what science is, is to do science. (Or at least see how science is done.)
 
So it can be said that this controversy or problem includes the definitions of many words; unless one stipulates: This is how dictionary X defines the word Y.
 
Despite saying all that, the analytic approach to philosophy, for example, certainly “embodies a philosophic attitude” and that attitude is “controversial”. The same can be said of deconstruction, phenomenology, structuralism, etc. - virtually any way of doing philosophy. Of course one would now need to distinguish positions within philosophy from positions on philosophy.
 
It's hard to grasp Russell's final sentence from the above. Namely: “The only way to find out what philosophy is, is to do philosophy." Surely there can't be such a case of a priori philosophising. Firstly, and at the least extreme, a student of philosophy must read the books of certain philosophers and only then can he write about the things they too have written about. He may even adopt the prose style of those philosophers. Later he'll probably make a self-conscious attempt to write a certain kind of philosophy in a certain kind of way. In no manner will he simply discover his own voice the first few times he writes philosophy. If he didn't do that, isn't it likely that he'd be doing stream-of-consciousness expressionism rather than philosophy? Unless, again, he's literally writing genuine philosophy from an a priori position; which, surely, is (almost) impossible. Sure, in order to “find out” if one can do philosophy one will need to “do philosophy”. And then one will discover which approach one likes. But an original position can't come from doing philosophy with a view from nowhere.
 
 

Comments

Leroy Added Jun 13, 2017 - 7:10am
To be honest, I didn't intend to read your article.  I was drawn into it.  It's a very well-written article, and it asks many questions of the reader.  But, want I don't know is, what is philosophy?  What is your definition?
Joanna Nutile Added Jun 13, 2017 - 9:10am
So what do you think it is?  Why is defining it an important question?
 
As for me, the dictionary definition does an adequate job of answering your question:
 
the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence, especially when considered as an academic discipline.
 
Paul Austin Murphy Added Jun 13, 2017 - 9:45am

“But, want I don't know is, what is philosophy? What is your definition?” - Leroy
 
Strangely enough (or not), I've never been that hard-pressed to tell myself or others what philosophy is. That's despite the fact that I've been interested in philosophy for over two decades. The problem was that everyone defined it it their own way. And that irked me a little. Nonetheless, people are free to define it how they will. But do we really want to be talking about different things when we believe we're talking about the same thing?
 
I don't have a strict definition. I simply stress argument(ation). Argumentation which includes facts, data, evidence, theory, interpretation, etc. As long as all that is embedded in an argument which moves from statements/premises to a conclusion. After all, if someone doesn't offer an argument for what he believes, why should we accept it or believe him? Well, there are reasons to do so: emotional, political, etc. Though, if that's the case, people can say anything and our emotions, prior politics, etc. will tell us whether or not to accept it.
 
Paul Austin Murphy Added Jun 13, 2017 - 9:53am

“So what do you think it is? Why is defining it an important question?” - Joanna Nutile
 
I partly answered that in the reply above your response.
 
To be succinct: it's the same for defining many words. There'll always be disputes; though offering a definition will at least help stop us from going around in circles. I'm not really talking about strict dictionary definitions either.
 
To take an extreme example. If one person defines the thing (not the word) water as "that which birds fly in", then you're not going to have a productive conversation about water, are you?
 
In terms of philosophy itself, some people I know think that Nostradamus was a philosopher. And “philosophical” is also deemed by some to be a near-synonym of “spiritual”.
 
Leroy Added Jun 13, 2017 - 12:24pm
I never thought about combining science and philosophy.  That's an interesting question.  What is science?  Who can be a scientist?  Maybe there is a scientist degree, but I have never heard of a degree by which you can call yourself a scientist.  Many mathematicians are scientists.  There is a world of difference between an engineer and a scientist, but many engineers become scientists.  Is following the scientific method sufficient to call yourself a scientist?  I think not.
Dino Manalis Added Jun 13, 2017 - 1:50pm
Philosophy comes from two Greek words meaning love of knowledge!  Inortant, but don't let philosophy or ideology get in the way of serious policymaking!  The people's business comes first!
Steve Bergeron Added Jun 13, 2017 - 5:44pm
One of the great failures in our society has been the devolution of philosophy.  We don't have the great thinkers of yesteryear, especially among our young people.  Why?  Because instead of being taught the posing of counter-positions, the presenting of evidence, the drawing of logical conclusions, the proposing of more convincing scenarios, etc., they have been taught to elevate the will over the intellect, which is described by the technical term "voluntarism."  The roots of this error can be traced through Jean-Paul Sartre and Michel Foucault, who were advocates of it in the twentieth century, and who got their insights from Friedrich Nietzsche, a nineteenth century theoretician.  Nietzsche proposed an Ubermensch, or Superman, who was supposed to be above good and evil, determining the meaning of life simply by his own will and power. The problem, of course, is what happens when two Supermen clash, when two limitless wills collide. The only path forward, Nietzsche correctly concluded, would be warfare. and let the strongest survive. What should be clear to everyone is that this has remained anything but high theorizing.  Unfortunately, it seems that Nietzsche's vision has now been firmly planted in the heads of most young people in our society today, especially if they attend our modern universities and colleges, and most especially if they focus on the humanities.  I believe that this will lead, eventually, to chaos and mayhem, unless it is somehow checked.  I blame the universities and colleges, who are no longer teaching our children critical thinking skills, but are instead indoctrinating them into a dangerous philosophy that can, eventually, destroy our culture, our nation, and many lives.  According to their viewpoint, "truth" is considered to be a function of the will of the individual. Their viewpoint is more along the lines of “I determine the meaning of my life, and you determine the meaning of yours.” “I decide my gender and you decide yours.”  And, therefore, the best we can supposedly do together is tolerate one another's choices.  There is no rational argument, or even room for any rational argument.  And, therein, lies the problem.
Jeff Jackson Added Jun 13, 2017 - 11:29pm
John Dewey's Reconstruction in Philosophy was one of the most interesting philosophy books that I have read, but to tell the truth I cannot remember much of it, being so long ago. It was fascinating, though. I wrote nine papers on Nietzsche, from truth to ethics. I'm with Steve on this as far as truth goes. As I recall if you see it as truth then it is, and that truth is ephemeral, applicable to certain situations. Nietzsche's "God is dead" was not an atheist declaration, it was that the ultimate, universal truths no longer existed, if they ever did in the first place, that the search for the truth was a fool's errand. Philosophy is the study of knowledge, as I remember it. The biggest point is the ability to defend your position, if you can do that, you can write philosophy papers. Philosophy involves a lot of critical thinking. I've cornered more than a few who could not philosophically defend their position, with, of course, the mandatory resentment.
Paul Austin Murphy Added Jun 14, 2017 - 12:47am

“We don't have the great thinkers of yesteryear, especially among our young people.” - Steve Bergeron
 
I'm not sure about that. It may take time to realise who the great thinkers of today are. No matter how good or bad education is, great thinkers will arise. At least in theory.
 
“Because instead of being taught the posing of counter-positions, the presenting of evidence, the drawing of logical conclusions, the proposing of more convincing scenarios, etc., they have been taught to elevate the will over the intellect..."”
 
There are certainly elements of this in both British and American society. Indeed university departments are examples. I would stress, however, the elevation of one's emotions; not the will as such. Though they are connected.
 
In depends, though, on who we're talking about and which institutions we're talking about. Philosophy departments, on the whole, aren't to blame; though that's stating the obvious. Politics, Sociology, Media Studies, Cultural Studies, etc. departments are often to blame for stressing one's emotions (or one's immediate emotional attachments) and the correspondingly blind commitment to certain political ideas and goals.
 
Paul Austin Murphy Added Jun 14, 2017 - 1:01am

“John Dewey's Reconstruction in Philosophy was one of the most interesting philosophy books that I have read, but to tell the truth I cannot remember much of it, being so long ago.” - Jeff Jackson
 
John Dewey was an interesting philosopher; though I'm no expert. What can be said is that much of his philosophy was political (or at least sociological) in nature. Indeed, as a pragmatist, he admitted that. (I believe that Noam Chomsky attended what he calls a “Dewey school” in which kids could do what they liked - more or less.)
 
“As I recall if you see it as truth then it is, and that truth is ephemeral, applicable to certain situations.”
 
As I see it, the main point isn't that Nietzsche denied truth. (Did he deny that 2 plus 2 equals 4 or that water is wet?)  It's that he gave his own personal slant on it. Like Francis Bacon before, and Foucault after, Nietzsche believed that, in Foucault's words, “truth is a tool of power”. Bacon said something similar about both knowledge and science. In other words, even if claim X is indeed true; that truth can confer power on the person or institution that upholds it.
 
“Nietzsche's "God is dead" was not an atheist declaration, it was that the ultimate, universal truths no longer existed, if they ever did in the first place, that the search for the truth was a fool's errand.”
 
Yes, that's related to what I've just said about Nietzsche, Bacon and Foucault on truth, knowledge and science. Nietzsche didn't prove that God doesn't exist. (How can you prove this or any negative claim?) He was talking primarily about the consequences of God's death – even if God still exists (if you catch my drift).
 
 
Paul Austin Murphy Added Jun 14, 2017 - 1:13am

“I never thought about combining science and philosophy.” - Leroy
 
It's only deemed important in Anglo-American analytic philosophy; and then only by certain philosophers within that tradition. It just so happens that I agree with that position.
 
"What is science? Who can be a scientist? Maybe there is a scientist degree, but I have never heard of a degree by which you can call yourself a scientist.”
 
There have been very many great “amateur scientists”.
 
“Many mathematicians are scientists.”
 
All physicists require mathematics in a very big way. Most other scientists require maths in a smaller way. Many mathematicians are very interested in science; though some aren't.
 
“There is a world of difference between an engineer and a scientist, but many engineers become scientists.”
 
Yes, some stress the distinction between science and technology as an example of this. Technology requires science though not many technologists are scientists. For a start, much science is theoretical and deeply speculative. Engineering usually isn't either of these things.
 
“Is following the scientific method sufficient to call yourself a scientist? I think not.”
 
That's if there is the scientific method. Perhaps there are scientific methods in the plural. Feyerabend and Kuhn, for two, denied the existence of the scientific method; as have many other philosophers. Most scientists, on the other hand, think that it exists; though that may partly be because they rarely think about it.
 
Joanna Nutile Added Jun 14, 2017 - 1:55pm
No offense but I don’t see the importance of defining something unless you provide the context on why the definition is important.  It just feels like we, the reader, entered a conversation you were having where defining philosophy suddenly became important.  Perhaps you were debating the differences between one that is spiritual and one that is philosophical.  If yes, that’s the article I wanted to read, as it would provide context for this article.      
Leroy Added Jun 14, 2017 - 4:05pm
"Feyerabend and Kuhn, for two, denied the existence of the scientific method; as have many other philosophers. Most scientists, on the other hand, think that it exists; though that may partly be because they rarely think about it."
 
Kuhn has been the subject of debate here lately.  I am not familiar with his work, but he apparently prefers consensus to the scientific method.
Doug Plumb Added Jun 14, 2017 - 8:55pm
I think philosophy is in trouble, it is the pre-science of knowledge. Before becoming dogmatic science a body of knowledge is a philosophy.
  On the deeper subjects such as God, right and wrong, constitution of reality, etc, to engage in this sort of thought intelligently, one must read all of the previous works, else you end up working with ideas that have been shown not to work, recycling bad ideas. If we don't know why they were bad, we must experiment again and find out, repeating old patterns. Science doesn't do this, a science has a set of non contradictory related principles that philosophy struggles for in the explanation of reality.
  It takes a lot of reading to be a philosopher, to be one you must come up with new ideas. People who read philosophy aren't philosophers any more than people who listen to music are musicians.
  Imagine if you had to study all the previous works of music before picking up an instrument. Philosophy has this problem.
Paul Austin Murphy Added Jun 15, 2017 - 1:45am

No offense but I don’t see the importance of defining something unless you provide the context on why the definition is important.” - Joanna Nutile
 
I'm not sure if I get your point. The context is the nature of philosopher; or whether or not it has a nature. Unless you mean my own personal context.... 
 
As I said, definition isn't that important in the sense of a dictionary definition. I also said that dictionary definitions aren't much help.
 
Are you suggesting that philosophical pluralism is the solution or answer?
 
It just feels like we, the reader, entered a conversation you were having where defining philosophy suddenly became important.”
 
It's important to some people. It's profoundly unimportant to other people. I still don't get your point. I often hear people say “provide a context” and I don't know what they mean either. Perhaps they mean provide a context that I can relate to and one which is important to me. I don't know.
 
Perhaps you were debating the differences between one that is spiritual and one that is philosophical. If yes, that’s the article I wanted to read, as it would provide context for this article.”
 
No, that would be a context for you; though not for all others. Now I think I know where you're coming from. I didn't see that distinction between philosophical and spiritual as the prime reason for my piece. Would you have liked that to have been the main "context"?
 
Paul Austin Murphy Added Jun 15, 2017 - 1:46am
I forgot to say that defining the word "philosophy" is only part of the piece. Commenting on the nature of philosophy is the other part.
Paul Austin Murphy Added Jun 15, 2017 - 1:52am

Kuhn has been the subject of debate here lately. I am not familiar with his work, but he apparently prefers consensus to the scientific method.” - Leroy
 
Science is a communal activity (with strands of individualism, etc.) in which consensus is important. That means that if there is a scientific method, then that too must also involve scientific consensus.
 
I don't see why Thomas Kuhn would see consensus and the/a scientific method as being mutually exclusive.
 
Justin Zhao Added Jun 15, 2017 - 4:18pm
A lot of philosophizing about philosophy.
 
If this is you philosophy 101 class I can barely imagine what the more advanced lessons are going to look like!
Paul Austin Murphy Added Jun 16, 2017 - 12:40am
Justin, I had to check what "philosophy 101" is. Though I appreciate the joke.
Paul Austin Murphy Added Jun 16, 2017 - 11:06am
The Other Side, Nietzsche for many - though not all - things! A philosopher who was also a good writer. A very good writer. 
 
He didn't like Wagner's music - which I do. Or Wagner's Jew-obsession. (Wagner conducted Mendelssohn in gloves!) His theories on very many subjects are all worth a read. (He was also a mediocre composer.) He wasn't entirely a racist; though his non-racism has been over-stressed (like his ostensible racism). For a start, even if he was a racist, he wasn't a Nazi. He hated the state and any form of collectivism. Nietzsche's Superman would work alone. He'd not be the servant of the state.
Donald Swenson Added Jun 18, 2017 - 1:22am
My favorite Philosopher was Socrates. He died around 399 B.C. as the elites wanted him dead for corrupting the youth. His model was to go out in the marketplace and ask questions. Questions on mostly moral issues but his view was that a person should examine their life to understand reality. His questions led to the conclusion that most everyone does not know what they claim to know. People assume that they KNOW but they really don't. This infuriated the elites of his day who discovered their ignorance. Socrates was sentenced to die by these elites. He chose to take a brew of hemlock (a tea substance) to create his death. His belief was that he was immortal in that his soul was immortal. This left him to accept his death without any anger or remorse. Quite a philosopher IMO. D
Paul Austin Murphy Added Jun 18, 2017 - 10:31am

My favorite Philosopher was Socrates.” - Donald Swenson
 
You probably already know this. Almost everything we know about Socrates comes from Plato. That's a strange state of affairs, isn't it? It's like the situation with the ancient Greek historian, Herodotus: much of what we know about ancient Greek history comes from him.
 
He died around 399 B.C. as the elites wanted him dead for corrupting the youth.”
 
Yes; though the elites might have been right about some things. Though not about killing Socrates!
 
His questions led to the conclusion that most everyone does not know what they claim to know. People assume that they KNOW but they really don't.”
 
He said that the only thing he knew was that he knew nothing. Yet I think this was slightly rhetorical on his part. Though scepticism is a very healthy position; as long as it's not selective.
 
On Plato's account, he was indeed a great philosopher and a great questioner of the authorities; and, indeed, of other philosophers.
 
Donald Swenson Added Jun 18, 2017 - 3:04pm
The concept of dualism derived from Socrates and Plato. Reality is both material and spiritual. Mind is separate from body/brain. D
Paul Austin Murphy Added Jun 19, 2017 - 12:38am

Donald: It's true that, in philosophical terms, Plato had a massive impact on philosophy when it comes to dualism. He also had a huge impact on Christianity in this same respect. However, dualism can also be found in Pythagoras, which pre-dates Plato. In can also be seen in various religions which predate Plato.
 
As for Socrates, he didn't have much to say on dualism, as far as I know. (The word "dualism" wasn't used in this period.) Though Plato did and he gave us Socrates' words.
 
Donald Swenson Added Jun 19, 2017 - 12:59am
I assume that Socrates believed in Dualism as Plato developed his philosophy. The idea of 'forms' being higher than 'matter' is a development from Plato which probably goes back to Socrates. Aristotle was the counterparty to Plato. Aristotle was a monist and focused mostly upon matter as ultimate. Plato's philosophy has created all the religious doctrines which are mostly dualistic. Would you agree with this? D
Paul Austin Murphy Added Jun 19, 2017 - 9:11am
"I assume that Socrates believed in Dualism as Plato developed his philosophy." DS
 
As I said, I don't believe that dualism is a major aspect of Socrates' stuff. He was interested in - to use 20th century terms - epistemology and morality philosophy. I may be wrong.
 
"The idea of 'forms' being higher than 'matter' is a development from Plato which probably goes back to Socrates."
 
Does it? I'm not sure that Socrates had anything to say about 'forms'; unless Plato put it in his mouth.
 
"Aristotle was the counterparty to Plato. Aristotle was a monist and focused mostly upon matter as ultimate."
 
Focusing on matter doesn't automatically make you a monist. You can be a "spiritual monist" or a monist like Spinoza (a pantheist or someone who believes in "God's modes").

"Plato's philosophy has created all the religious doctrines which are mostly dualistic. Would you agree with this?"
 
I think I would agree with that. Though I suspect that many Christians will downplay Plato's influence. In any case, it's Plato via Plotinus, Saint Augustine, the neo-Platonists, etc.: not Plato raw.... To answer this question correctly I'd need to be an historian of Christianity and a theologian. 
 
 

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