What is philosophy?

15 April 2013

I have a few moments. So I want to ask the basic question: What is philosophy? Instead of answering the question, though, it might be useful to reflect on how the question might be answered.

It seems to me we have two basic options, whether due to the limitations of language, or cognitive capabilities, or both. We can say philosophy is what it is (that is, philosophy, which doesn't get us very far at all), or we can define it in terms of something else (e.g. the love of wisdom, critical thinking about X, Y, and Z, etc.). These two possibilities represent relations of identity and relations of difference. They are probably best termed strategies for analysis, not necessarily methods for getting at the truth of things. Relations of identity presuppose differences between identities, and relations of difference presuppose identities which are different. When I ask, What is philosophy? simply by using the word, I bring along a host on more or less (as yet) uninterrogated meanings.

If wisdom is identified with the divine and philosophy is the love of wisdom, for example, then philosophy is also the love of God--which raises questions about whether philosophy and theology and/or religion are so different. If critical thinking is identified with an inquirer ready to question every possible assumption, then philosophy is allied with critique, doubt, or skeptical stance towards knowledge claims--which raises questions about whether philosophy has anything in common with the dogmas of religion and theology. I don't want to ally myself with either of these definitions. I do want to observe the interrelatedness of definitions with other definitions.

Now, I have a Masters in Philosophy. However, I was warned, in a round about way, by my supervisor not to pursue a Ph.D. in the discipline. The result was that I ended up in Religious Studies, where I am quite happy teaching and thinking about subjects related to religion and its history. The reason given was that my thinking was much too theological in cast to succeed in a philosophy program. That's probably more or less true, though I ended up in a Religious Studies Faculty, not a Theology department, which was my preference.

You see, it seemed to me, for the same reason I wasn't prepared to do a Ph.D in Philosophy, I also wasn't prepared to do a Ph.D in Theology. Everyone was talking (that is, from my naive, undergrad and Masters degree perspectives) about philosophy and theology as if they were objectively describable things to be studied. With regards to theology, that made a small amount of sense, since theologians claim to be talking about something real, something 'out there', which has been mediated by scriptural sources and a long textual tradition of reflection on those scriptural sources. In the case of theology, there is something out there to objectify, something I can point you towards, something we can consider together and talk about.

What about philosophy? There appears to be a textual tradition going back to Plato and Aristotle that can be studied. Though I suspect philosophers prize at least the idea of freedom of inquiry too much to be explicitly tied down to any specific set of texts. One hears it suggested that philosophy is not limited to the study of a certain body of literature, but is a way of thinking about things imparted from teachers to students (much like Socrates was supposed to have imparted his wisdom). That may be the case. Such a definition only distracts from the omnipresent place the study of texts plays in philosophy departments or philosophical armchairs (whereupon the armchair philosopher sits).


At this point, in order to wrap up a blog post that is already much longer than I anticipated, I want to show my cards. I have soured towards the idea that separate academic disciplines (philosophy, theology, history, political theory, English literature, etc.) are as distinct from each other as many of our teachers have supposed. It seems to me that common too each of the so-called separate disciplines is the thinking human being, reflecting on some body of evidence. There is no thought without some object, as David Hume reminded his Cartesian interlocutors at least none that I am ever aware. The theologian thinks, the historian thinks, the philosopher thinks, etc. They think differently, however, according to their different objects of inquiry.

And it seems to me, if philosophy is anything, it is reflecting on (or thinking about) how we think about things. Full stop. The definition of philosophy needs to be made with reference to the human being who thinks about things, and not some set of abstract definitions. Not, say, the love of wisdom apart from the person who loves wisdom. Not critical inquiry apart from the person who inquiries critically. Not a definition considered at an abstracted remove from the person considering the definition. Rather a person who can say to themselves, I am thinking about things, and that's what I normally do; and when I philosophize, I think about what it is to think about things.

Comments (2)

Daniel Mullin's picture

Daniel Mullin

Wednesday, April 17, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

It's always fascinated me

It's always fascinated me that philosophers can't agree about the fundamental nature of their discipline. Allow me to suggest some possible reasons: 1) Philosophers are generally disagreeable in disposition. 2) Philosophy has a long history with many 'turns', i.e. metaphysical, epistemological, linguistic, which tend to dictate how philosophy is defined in any given era. 3) Related to 2, the Analytic/Continental divide. 4) There is, at bottom, no essence of philosophy to be found. These are not mutually exclusive, of course, and I'm inclined to affirm them all to varying degrees. I'm sympathetic to 4, and it seems you are too, that essentialist definitions aren't going to get us very far. As Richard Rorty said, philosophy is basically a genre of literature, a collection of texts or a particular tradition, with a particular historical lineage, occupied with particular questions and not with others. That's about all we can say about it. Not a profound definition, but quite possible true (in a deflationary sense of 'true').

Richard Greydanus's picture

Richard Greydanus

Thursday, April 18, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

Much of the contemporary

Much of the contemporary problem with constructing a definition of philosophy, I want to suggest, is that we have instrumentalized the discipline. We inherit a tradition of education, mediated to us by teachers and texts, that tells us philosophy is something people do--fundamentally equivalent to other things people might do, like farm the land, build houses, manufacture products, or teach English literature, etc. So that if the study of agriculture, engineering, or industrial processes, and English Lit amounts to the study of specific sorts of activities, the study of philosophy is also the study of a specific sort of activity with a definite objectifiable something to study. If it is something specific, you should be able to define what it is. That is, you should be able to provide an essentialist definition. It's the curse of the increasing compartmentalization of academic disciplines, I suspect, that philosophers would have to define themselves as doing something specific in order to justify their existence. My own reading of things is that how philosophy has been defined can be measured in terms of the metaphysical status of the human mind (as distinct from the physical brain). If the human being is believed to possess a mind, then there will also be philosophy. If not, philosophers will have an increasingly difficult time describing what they suppose themselves to be doing.