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.