Defining philosophy

While I am travelling, of course an interesting net phenomenon occurs: people trying to define what philosophy is.

It began with Simon Critchley opening a philosophy blog in the New York Times. As pleased as some are to see such a beast, they objected to Critchley being the blogger, and his claim that philosophy is, at least in the public eye, silly. Given this blog’s recent skirting of the issue of what a philosopher is (here, here and here), this is relevant. I can’t do an indepth analysis while on the road, and anyway, I’ve already said what I think is interesting, but here’s a nice interview of Hilary Putnam, who may be said to know as well as anyone, on the nature of the philosophy of science. I think that the issue is not whether philosophy is a science, though, so much as science is where philosophy grounds all the rest (including metaphysics and logic).

In the meantime, here’s Michael Dummett on that very topic.

A couple of random thoughts:

Is philosophy its own discipline? Well that depends on whether one is an essentialist about disciplines, or a traditionalist. The former requires that a subject have clear demarcation of subject matter from other subjects, a view that goes back at least to Aristotle, especially the Metaphysics and the Posterior Analytics. The latter is a term of my own devising, and means basically that a subject is defined, or rather formed, from historical traditions that remain largely decoupled from other such, a kind of social phylogenetics, as it were. In this case, philosophy is a discipline not because it is definable in a way that excludes science and other reasoning-based subjects, but because it remains a cohering tradition or set of traditions, aiming at questions and targets that are traditional, all the while developing as the social and cultural context changes around it.

So to ask if so-and-so is a philosopher is to ask, in effect, are they embedded in that tradition of issues and methods and topics that philosophers are? It’s not, quite, that philosophy is what philosophers do, any more than science is what scientists do, but an essentialistic definition is impossible for such a fluid set of cultural and intellectual traditions in either case. We can’t get a demarcation principle for philosophy any more than we can for science.

25 thoughts on “Defining philosophy

  1. As with science, philosophy is like pornography. I may not know what it is, but I know it when I see it.



  2. The study of fundamental issues (such as existence, knowledge, reality, language, etc.) without, actually, doing the dirty work of research.


  3. Kant famously explained the business of philosophy as an attempt to answer three questions: what can I know? what should I do? What can I hope? Late in his life he intimated that these questions come down to an even more central question, what is man? I’m not sure that I’m quite that anthropocentric, but it does sometimes strike me that what’s absurd about philosophy is mostly just what is absurd about being human.


  4. This is something I’ve been thinking about lately. The historical tradition of philosophy is an important part of it, and I think there’s something unique that we’re doing when we’re doing philosophy. I have a suggested definition that I think pretty much covers the good and unique thing that philosophers are doing, as such:

    Philosophy is a rational, critical, creative engagement with the concepts underlying an account (hopefully accurate) of some area of human activity or experience (“human” could be changed to any kind of sentient, rational agent), whether that be fishing, soccer, scientific research, or living together in a society. Because philosophy is a conversational and conceptual discipline, it is significantly distinct from science.

    I think investigations of this kind have a strong tendency to back up into the familiar corners of epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, and aesthetics, and maybe this is because the fundamental concepts of accounts of all activities and experience bottom out in those general areas, but I think that simply defining philosophy as a collection of particular historical discussions or the investigation of a list of particular problems is a bit arbitrary, and misses something important.


  5. Philosophy leads to science which leads to art. I’m not talking about paint or sculpture. An idea about numbers or quantity (philosophy) leads to mathematics (science) which leads to a kind of perfection (art.) Philosophy is pre-science.


  6. I would argue that Ockham cleaved philosophy from the0logy with the Razor. And that science is the branch of philosophy that remains grounded in each step to observation.


  7. Philosophy is the metaawareness of the processes of thought, concept and reason by which ideas shared between people are made legitimate, clear or persuasive. Metaawareness (or metacognition) is the awareness such as knowing that speech is made of phonemes, and sentences made of individual words in syntactical relationships. Philosophy seeks to expand human awareness in this way in regard the processes of human intellectual intercourse.


  8. Essentialistic definitions and strict demarcations are probably beyond our reach. But traditionalist approaches create their own problems. For example, assuming Thales was a philosopher, what tradition was he embedded in?


    1. “what tradition was he embedded in?”

      One that shaped how the elite of western Europe came to identify itself and those of others.

      It’s a rather interesting tradition with regard to European identity.

      For so much of history the mind required to produce philosophy (a dry wit) depended on certain climatic conditions and a particular sanguine humour that the moist and fickle mind, the product of a Northern European climate could not hope to emulate to the same extent.

      It has greatly shaped the way the West has imagined itself. Given form and substance to a range of traditional perspectives that have impacted far outside the shifting boundaries of the subject itself.

      Its a tradition that poses a wide range of questions and problems.

      A bit like trying to work out you’re true form by purchasing a ticket for the hall of mirrors at a fun fair.


      1. jeb – My point was that there was no such tradition at the time of Thales. That makes it a bit of a stretch to say he was embedded in said tradition.


      2. sorry for posting prematurely…

        A second “point” of my querey was to draw attention to the fact that traditions are at least as “vague at the margins” as more “traditionally” conceived criteria for classification.


    2. A tradition of mysticism and religion, of course. It no more needs there to be a prior definition of philosophy than the origin of mammals needs there to have been a prior mammal.


      1. If Thales was “embedded” in a tradition of mysticism and religion, then why call what he was doing ‘philosophy’?

        The issue here is not the origin of philosophy, but what distinguishes it from what came before.


        1. That’s an essentialist reply. If traditions evolve, then there will be a point at which they are not, and later point at which they are. Milesian philosophy is philosophy, and, say, west Semitic thinkers like Koheleth (the “preacher” of Ecclesiastes) are not, just because it is the source of later philosophy. Like any evolutionary process, if the tradition had been extinguished then, there would be little significant to distinguish Thales from any other Anatolian or Mesopotamian thinkers.


      2. I don’t think my reply was “essentialist” at all. I’m not assuming that philosophy can be defined by a list of necessary and sufficient conditions. But I do assume that if it is, indeed, different from mysticism and religion, then it has certain characteristics that those things lack. No need to make those characteristics into some sort of timeless “essence”, but they are, nonetheless, distinguishing features.


        1. But you are assuming that “philosophy” is a coherent and unitary tradition, which Thales does not fit neatly into. Consider again the evolutionary analogy: the “first” mammal has properties it shares with other lineages to which it is closely related. It is not particularly special. Only after the clade expands (and the close relatives either change or go extinct) does that first mammal have any special significance – this is entirely a post hoc honorarium. Likewise, Thales is a thinker of his time and place but he happens to start a tradition that becomes complex and unique. Hence he is a philosopher retrospectively.


    3. I grasped what you were saying Bob. I was not sure why you were saying it.

      The features you point to are what I would expect to find at the historical horizon of a tradition.

      It is a retro activity and has to be looked at in that context.

      I think the problems you note are features that are helpfull in defining something as a tradition and are not so problematic once you examine the retrospective context in which they are formed.

      This one may be vague at it’s margins but it does retrospectivly define a clear historical horizon. Which is a role tradition often plays.


  9. … and what is the awareness of “metaawareness”. A higher representation–our awareness that speech is made of words and these words of phones is greatly aided by symbols (written words with spaces, alphabetic letters) that mark them out. Thanks to these we can focus not only upon the meaning of utterances but also its underlying linguistic and phonetic mechanics. Philosophy provides the same mirror for the processes underlying the thoughts, concepts and persuasions of intellectual intercourse.

    The awareness itself I would guess is made up of attractors “dancing” around neural circuits in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.


  10. John – Honoraria are bestowed post hoc — appropriately so. But the appropriateness _also_ depends on the recipient having certain characteristics that lead to it’s being granted the honor in question.

    BTW, while I do think philosophy has a coherent tradition, I don’t think it is even close to being unitary. The closest I can come to an actual definition of philosophy is “the art of framing questions with sufficient clarity to permit the rejection of facile answers.” Maybe there should also be some limits on the domains being addressed by the questioning; but I’d need some convincing on that score. So I’m happy to acknowledge a lot of things as “philosophy” — including the various formal and empirical sciences.


  11. jeb – I was trying to draw attention to the unclarity of the notion of “embedding” and, as noted, the “vague margins” of traditions. Why? Because these correspond to the most commonly observed problems with philosophical accounts of species/types/kinds.

    I’ve got nothing against the sort of “traditionalist” approach John takes in “defining” intellectual disciplines. I am, after all, the product of training in HPS. But that very training has impressed on me that _tempered_ essentialism and _tempered_ traditionalism are very hard to distinguish — and it’s only _tempered_ versions of either sort that can stand up to even cursory examination.


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