Last updated on 22 Jun 2018
From time to time, scientists with whom I engage (I know a lot of scientists, they being my study organisms) ask me what philosophy is. In fact they don’t ask me so much as aggressively assert that really, philosophy is just science, only without the facts, research or investigation. Jokes about erasers and trashcans often surface, again (and again, and again).
But it is really hard to describe, let alone define, philosophy. It seems to have no special topics, method, or data. The topics (including the Topics of Aristotle) seem to be shared across science, art, politics and literature. The methods seem to be universal (the use of reason, and occasionally, rhetorical techniques). The data seems either to be nonexistent (ask any scientist), or taken from the sciences or the experiential reports of other fields like theology and art.
And yet, every philosopher will say they know what are philosophical problems, although, like biologists trying to define “species”, they do not agree on a singular solution. For example, Heidegger wrote of philosophy that it was the “guardian of reason”; Kant wrote that it contains “the principles of the rational cognition of things by means of concepts” (p7) and separated theoretical from practical philosophy; while Russell refused to define it as what definition was to be given depended on the type of philosophy being adopted.
Others think it is a guide how to live, that it investigates the ultimate nature of things, that it is a kind of universal “first principles” and so on. A definition given to me by the then-ten-year-old son of a friend, “thinking about thinking”, is not too bad (also the title of a 1975 book by Antony Flew). Wikipedia, the source of all that is true these days, defines it as:
Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental problems, such as those connected with existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language. It is distinguished from other ways of addressing such problems by its critical, generally systematic approach and its reliance on rational argument.
But I have my own definition: philosophy is what you do when the facts do not fix the solution.
Consider the question: “how does an internal combustion engine work?” A scientist will tell you the facts about fuels, metals, physical processes of thermodynamics, and at the end these facts about the world, arranged together in an explanation rationally and coherently, will answer the question. Now ask the following questions: “what is explanation?” and “why are these facts of nature facts of nature?” No amount of factual statements can resolve these questions. Any answer you give by adducing more facts are themselves merely going to raise similar questions.
Suppose I answer that explanation is when you have done what we did for internal combustion engines. So you (being pedantic) respond by saying, “So, when I explain why I am late, I must appeal to fuels, metals, and the physical processes of thermodynamics?” I reply, of course not. You are doing the same general thing by making an explanation: giving the facts in a rational and coherent fashion. You respond that you don’t know what makes the explanation of being late the same as the explanation of the internal combustion engine, because they are of a different kind; the one appeals to physics, the latter to intentions. And off we go, doing philosophy. The facts are not enough – you have to have principles of reasoning.
When reasoning about reasoning, or being “meta” as popular slang has it, you are not doing science, art or any other kind of activity any more. You are now engaging in a tradition that goes back well before the early Greek philosophers (you can find philosophical reasoning in the book of Job in the Bible, in the Vedic literature and its predecessors, and in the words of Confucius, Buddha, Zoroaster and other figures at the beginnings of civilisation – literally: city-based society). There were probably many earlier ones, but as their words are not recorded or reported, we can’t discuss them. I suspect there were Pleistocene philosophers.
Philosophy is not a method, subject matter or data set, but it is the willingness to ask questions and follow them to their conclusions no matter what the cost or unpopularity of the result. Consider Epicurus. He argued that the world was not driven by the will and whims of deities, who were too distant to even care about humans, but by the inherent natures of things and what they were made of (he was an atomist). From then until now Epicurus has been disparaged as a materialist (he wasn’t), an atheist (he wasn’t) and a glutton (he wasn’t) by those who think questioning should cease at some conventional and comfortable point. I mean by this the religious. Epikoros is even the Talmudic term for atheist, because although the rabbis had not read him, they knew his questioning was dangerous to religion.
There are three kinds of philosophical question, however, anointed by tradition and practice. Often philosophy is defined in terms of these questions, and they do mark out how we teach it and write about it. They have technical names that often put the lay person off, so in first year I like to make the following plain language claims. Philosophy asks:
- What is there?
How do we know?
What is it worth?
These are called, respectively, metaphysics or ontology, epistemology, and ethics or aesthetics. Such fields as political philosophy, philosophy of science, and so forth fall under one or more of these questions. As I am a moral vacuum, I focus upon the first two questions in the philosophy of science. Why science? Because that’s where the knowledge is made, and so that is the best place to research (and of course it has values). Also it’s fun. But justifying things in terms of fun is a matter for value theory, and as I am a moral vacuum…
Those three questions lead to higher level questions, a kind of ascent of queries. If you ask how we know some matter to be true, we must ask what “true” means, and “know” as well as try to give an explanation of what it is to know things (and what are “things”?). So we start doing philosophy of language, of ideas, and of meaning. This leads to questions of what it is to even ask a question, of what the nature of reasoning is, and logic. Pretty soon, you are writing papers for the Journal of Philosophical Logic. It doesn’t take long once you get the bug.
The thing is, though, none of this is restricted to professional philosophers. Computer Science professionals ask questions about reasoning, logic and meaning. Mathematicians ask about the ontology (the study of being) of numbers. Scientists ask philosophical questions about the reality of species or the Higgs Boson if ever it is found. The thing is, we are all philosophers to some degree. The real issue is whether we are good philosophers. Many scientists who write on philosophical topics aren’t. Of course, many are. Like the definition of philosophy itself, the list of which ones are and aren’t is unique to each person who gives an answer.
So there needs to be a professional tradition of philosophy to ensure that the philosophy that gets done is done well. Traditions generate their own standards and professions. This can be a good thing, in that it means we can evaluate bad attempts, or it can be a bad thing, in that it can become so internal and self-referential, not to mention technical, that it cannot affect the rest of the community (which can then ask why it supports such endeavours).
The community often does ask that, especially since philosophy is held to never come up with Answers and indeed never makes Progress (words with initial capitals are so much more significant!). But philosophers do come up with answers and they do make progress.* The problem is that they do not do this in ways that all philosophers, and all readers of philosophy, agree upon. They come up with too many answers!
And so a dialectic occurs, in which people make claims and arguments to back them up, and opponents make counter claims and counterarguments, and so on. Philosophy is very much like a tennis match, only the rules are written on the fly and not agreed upon by all. But most of us recognise good play when we see it, whether it is done by Putnam or Levinas, Lewis or Deleuze. And it really is about critical reasoning.
In fact, philosophy is often critical reasoning about critical reasoning. When philosophy is done badly it is almost always because of a failure of reasoning skills. I often think this of the very bad philosophy that sometimes presents under the rubric of “Christian” philosophy, but not merely that – some philosophy of mind is equally as bad. No names, no pack drill, as the (incredibly opaque) saying goes.
Also, philosophy is something done, slightly or extensively, well or badly, by everyone. If you think at all, if you reflect upon “things”, then you do philosophy (philosophy is an act, not a set of doctrines). That you lack the time or energy to do it extensively is a function of our modern society. [That you lack the interest may be more a function of you and television, or your social context, however.]
Either way, philosophy is an agrarian and largely urban activity. Despite the myth of the rural philosopher, mostly critical reasoning in a philosophical mode is something that happens in the leisure moments of city-dwellers. As a profession, it is something that arose less than 500 years ago, along with industry, capitalism and mass communication. So my lack of employment as a professional philosopher is something to be expected – it is highly unlikely that anyone would be so employed (prior to the 19th century, they rarely were). So the fact that anyone is at all is amazing.
Those who wish to learn to do philosophy have a wealth of books before them to learn from. Apart from these standard introductions (to get an idea of what to read, go check the reading list in Philosophy 101 courses at reputable universities), I strongly recommend Antony Flew’s wonderful An Introduction to Western Philosophy: Ideas and argument from Plato to Sartre, published in 1971. Copies start at $1 on Abebooks. This has commentary, discussion and original texts, and Flew coins some memorable terms for argument styles (“No True Scotsman” was coined in this book, p388).
Finally, let me just decry the use of the term “philosophy” for policies in education, politics, administration and business. These are no more philosophies than wish lists. Often they are the exact opposite of philosophies – dogmas that are just asserted without any critical reflection at all. Paralyse and bury alive all policy writers that use the term in their statements. And at last Google would work properly when you search on the term!
- See the discussion in Flew, pp18-33.