Monday, February 1, 2010

Meta-philosophy: What is philosophy?

So the semester is begining and in most of my classes I start off with the standard question of "What is philosophy?"  My standard answer is "The discipline that studies and examines assumptions."  This is a pretty wide net, but it has to be, since philosophy is a very wide discpline.  It does the job of including everything that is philosophy, and excludes everything that isn't.

But inevitably people still mistake philosophy with other things.  Religion is philosophy.  Poetry is philosophy.  Novels are philosophy.  So why aren't these things philosophy?

The most accurate answer would be that some of these things are philosophy, sometimes.  Religion, poetry, novels, etc are philosophy when they question the fundamental assumptions that we make.  But questioning is only the first step in philosophy, otherwise everyone would be a philosopher.  If everyone is a philosopher, then that means everyone does philosophy.  But I'm pretty sure everyone doesn't do philosophy, or at the very least, everyone doesn't do good philosophy.

Science begins with a hypothesis, but making up hypotheses doesn't make someone a scientist.  So what comes after questioning?  An attempt to answer the questions that we've raised using good reasoning.  This is the philosophical equivalent of experimentation. 

Now I get friends telling me all the time that my definition of philosophy is too narrow, or elitist.  Only good reasoning = philosophy.  But I think its reasonable to make a distinction between good reasoning and correct conclusions.  People can have good reasoning and be lead to incorrect conclusions.... I think.  And even if not, I think we can make a distinction of the quality of reasoning that philosophers engage in, versus non-philosophers.  Non-philosophers usually crutch on relativism or subjectivism to attack arguments.  Philosophers will usually look past such strategies. 

But I'm open to finding a better definition of philosophy....  I have a nagging feeling that my definition of philosophy casts its net too wide, including things that shouldn't be philosophy. 


  1. I've always liked the simple translation from the Greek, although I guess it doesn't apply as much as it used to. Most people who are interested in philosophy do it because they really enjoy it. I tell people it is the desire for wisdom or truth even when these things are unattainable.

  2. I hate the "Love of Wisdom" answer.... It seems pretty empty to me. I don't think anyone would say that they didn't love wisdom. But clearly, not everyone is a philosopher. Moreover, philosophy is something we engage in, not a state that we are in. "Love of wisdom" implies that it's a state, not an activity.

  3. Perhaps "the Love of Wisdom" should be instead interpreted as "(To) Love Wisdom", which can be thought of as both a state and an action, the search for and the aquisition of.
    I like your standard answer Wayne. Though I initially would have replaced assumption with idea, I think perhaps assumption is less broad a term as idea, and as such, more exact.

  4. I like the article you linked to BTW. My girfriend and I have different religious views, we disagree on many points, though I think we're both reasonable people. Since we disagree due to different assumptions, you might say we're philosophically at odds with each other.
    Is there something in philosophy that separates it from debate or argument for a specific purpose? If I am running as a candidate for an office (president for example) and I am debating a particular controversial issue, am I "doing" philosophy? Or, am I just debating?

  5. But if it is "to love wisdom" then I think everyone would be a philosopher (which I don't think is true). I would have to call a person searching for the definition of "buttock" as a philosopher. That might be a bit of knowledge, rather than wisdom, but just ignorance, people simply don't like admitting that they have it.

    According to the article one of you is simply being unreasonable, since one of you is holding an assumption that isn't reasonable. You can't be reasonable people and hold different assumptions. Would it be reasonable for me to believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster? No. But if I held that assumption, and became a practicing pastafarian, then I can make all sorts of reasonable conclusions from that assumption. But the assumption itself is unreasonable, so I, as a reasonable person, shouldn't hold it.

    As for the debating thing.... I think we can debate on lots of things, that may not pertain to philosophy. I can debate that my cat is cuter than someone else's baby. So it depends upon what we're debating, and how we are debating it, that would make it philosophical.

    I think a useful distinction would be are we debating the grounds of why we believe XYZ, or are we debating how XYZ should be done? If its the former, its usually philosophy.... if its the latter, then its politics.

    That said... I think this distinction I just made is a little artificial.

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. I don't think that everyone does love wisdom. I think many (most) would prefer happiness to wisdom, given the choice between the two. The expression ignorance is bliss comes to mind. Is philosophy worth it? I say yes, but, there are many sleepless nights with my brain burning with philosophical mania. I haven't yet come to any conclusion that wisdom and happiness are mutually exclusive, but there seems to be something to the idea (why do philosophers wear black? Why do they drink so much? etc).

    I don't think I've ever met anyone who is entirely reasonable. We often hold to ideas or notions that are "out there" or unprovable, there always exists something that must be believed rather than prove. But for the most part, I think that She and I are reasonable... say 98% so. That 2% of unreasonableness is where we lay faith/belief, the foundation of our understanding. Example, I believe in my observation of the world, I am scientifically minded. I know that my perception/observation can be flawed, but that is where belief comes in. I believe that it is real and not the matrix.

  8. I don't think ignorance is bliss.... From casual anecdotal polling of my classes, most people would prefer to know the truth, even when it means that it would hurt their feelings or result in making them unhappy (e.g. would you want to know if your S.O. is cheating on you). Wisdom and truth have intrinsic value to them.