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What is philosophy?

Last updated on 22 Jun 2018

“Were all men philosophers, the business of life could not be executed, and neither society, nor even the species, could long exist.” William Smellie, 1791

Chicago philosophy signFrom 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:

  1. What is there?

  2. How do we know?

  3. 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.


  1. Raving Raving

    What is there?
    There is ‘description’. That is all that there is …

    ‘Description’ paints out instructions for forming shaping and subsequently directing awareness. Albeit that the words ‘forming’, ‘shaping’ and ‘directing’ mean much the same thing, the intention is to suggest that ‘Description’ intimately involves the manner by which the ‘description is approached engaged and rolled out.

    ‘Awareness’ is fundamental to ‘mind’ and ‘body’. …
    In the context of ‘body’, awareness refers to the nature of the connectivity and the ordering of sequence in propagation. Even ‘propagation’ comes in a rainbow of shaded descriptive meaning.

    ‘Description’ behaves as a measuring register. It deeply involved in etching the connective feature with a view to constructing an embedding continuum.

    Description sets out the manner by which nature shall be aware of itself.

    When a person changes the manner of ‘description’, they simultaneously change the nature of the reality which they are describing.

    ‘Description’ is so deeply ingrained to all of ‘mind’ ‘body’ and ‘natural reality’ that it is universally fundamental.

    How do we know?
    What is it worth?

    … Good questions that are worthy of response.
    “Pending” and relative to otherwise …

  2. Jeb Jeb

    I was reading Claude levi-Strauss yesterday talking of mythic thought as one type of scientific knowledge.

    His discussion of the verb, ‘bricoler’ and the modern French, ‘bricoleur’

    “someone who works with his hands and uses devious means compared to those of a craftsman.”

    It always make’s me smile.

    I think just about all the master story -tellers in traditional culture I have come across are very low status itinerant odd job men. The have a skill with language and a means of analysing an audience that is a very rare gift.

    • I love the bricoleur discussion.

  3. Jeb Jeb

    “the myth of the rural philosopher”

    Not endorsing that one. My subject bares some responsibility here but then so do scientific and philosophical traditions and a range of other social and cultural factors.

    Melancholia had to be re-ordered to explain why thinkers from colder Northern European climates were brainy and not bog trotting savages. A vanity exercise.

    This merged with perspectives on race and romance and the notion that we Celt’s spend our time sitting up on the top of misty hills engaged in self-reflection.
    It’s persistent.

    Dylan Thomas’s poetry was often viewed in press reviews etc. as a product of this ‘racial characteristic’.

    It’s an insult. Racial stereotyping engaged in by what we in the frozen North term a numpty .

  4. Raving Raving

    The topic is What is Philosophy. As I started reading through the post, it became apparent that Philosophy is about definition.

    As I continued to read, it became apparent that I was being drawn to the author’s viewpoint which is something in the general direction of …

    by reason of convergence,
    by failure of misconvergence

    Being drawn to the author’s view is desirable. Having been lured therein, the author’s viewpoint is shared and in that sense it is now unavoidable while it is being temporarily adopted. The author is directing the gaze of my awareness to ‘follow the bouncing ball’ ( . . . Ok John)

    (In contrast … Compare this to being attracted to an author’s viewpoint in an adversarial manner. The recipient’s point-of-view and the author’s viewpoint are juxtaposed in conflict)

    |—————- revisiting that above ————-|

    The topic is What is Philosophy. As I started reading, discovering and adopting the author’s viewpoint, my own perspective on things were partially muted. My observer’s eye was an amalgam of myself and the author. … tempus fugit …. . . . Continuing

    Returning to my own position, having abandoned the author’s guidance, I also lose the author’s contextual appreciation which was part of our shared exploration. I retain the memory of having been there and done that but am unaware of the significance of what I had gone and done previously.

    To recover the significance, I must relive the memory so as to reconstruct a facsimile of the context. (Aside: Having the author’s viewpoint in a compact 2 line description makes it easier)

    Vigorous fluxing of context seems to erase memory. Natural born philosophers might have good memories.

    |——- up scaling ——— revisiting that above ————-|

    Each person has a point of view.
    That viewpoint is specific and intense.

    (See my earliest version of the post below the double cut. It provides further examples of the author’s viewpoint … and see it as development for that above. That above also help to explain that down below)

    It does not seem possible to hold a completely ‘context free’ understanding of things. The ‘context dependent adjustments’ that are required in moving from one individual’s viewpoint to another reveals this dependency. The need to revisit the experience and the subsequent memory loss after departure also supports this hidden residual context.

    I presume that ‘formal philosophy’ works very hard at removing context. Residual context in the participants dull and confuses the intended messages.

    Moreover, what I have described before scaling up is a timely experience where the understanding evolves and retreats across the passage of time.

    I presume that formal philosophy prefers to adopt a timeless reference frame. Doing it such a way removes context.

    Real experience and real nature is a local and timely activity. Holding to a requirement of timelessness which is void of context may create a limitation. Moreover that might be an unnecessary self-inflicted constraint.

    Having come this far I bring up the notion of tautology

    It seems that an individual’s habitual specific and intense viewpoint is something that might be interpreted as being a tautological blemish on a pristine objective landscape .

    I mention this because I am quite certain that the individual/collective viewpoint is intense and persistent and cannot be removed. I don’t wish to worry those who might be alarmed by such a possibility.

    For myself, tautological features are a beautiful things. They are like fractals. They describe ‘self definition’.

    When I am able to allow myself to listen to the description that the tautology provides … the embedding context is revealed

    Finding and respecting the tautology is how I discover unstated assumptions.

    Tautologies show me the reason for the convergence
    Tautologies indicate to me personally, the deep inherent meaning of a ‘description’.

    Tautologies are a WYSIWYG* in the sincerest and most pure form. It’s really hard to discern what they are saying often. Their description is so utterly sincere.


    Regrettably a ‘tautology’ seems to be like poison for philosophers. Almost as if they were the one unforgivable sin.

    It is probably the incumbent and inherent context which make them so distasteful … a sort of individual personality that cannot be exorcised from objectivity.

    Mentioning them makes me feel like the devil at a Christian church service
    I do not wish to offend by speaking of tautologies as I have done.

    (Not sure how that doesn’t make it offensive either)

    This is only my own personal opinion.
    It is unnecessary to agree with me.

    Ignore is fine

    Please remember …

    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.

    |======= Double cut === Preliminary response ======|

    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.

    *Philosophy is a problem of definition

    But I have my own definition: philosophy is what you do when the facts do not fix the solution.*

    *Philosophy repairs Bad definition via misconvergence

    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.*

    *Reasoning – a discussion of convergence

    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.

    * Being ^ with scale change
    ( ^ = inflection – -> convergence )

    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.

    *Follow the convergence.

    Consider Epicurus. He argued that the world was not driven by the will and whims of deities, who were too distant[1] to even care about humans, but by the inherent[2] natures of things and what they were made of (he was an atomist)

    [1] distal — converging — proximal [2]

    Definition and convergence:
    Philosophy is a problem of definition
    Biology is realized by converged context

    Raving says …

    philosopher by nature AND biologist by point-of-view
    biologist by nature AND philosopher by point-of-view

    Raving says …

    To reason with a nonlinear twist:

    It’s all description for me. …

    Description Definition and Convergence
    just Follow The Bouncing Ball

  5. Jeb Jeb

    Sorry if I am off topic.

    For me the most interesting aspect of the post looking from a historical/ ethnological aspect is the part when John discusses the historical development of the subject in contrast to the way understanding has developed in popular culture.

    So it throws up a very different question set for me particularly in relation to historical context. I would understand context as the key thing a historian has to think about. But looking at H.O.S. I feel Bloch may have some relevance and it’s an area I have little understanding in.

    “This faculty of understanding the living is, in very truth, the master quality of the historian”

    Still I can at least get back sort of on-topic with Bloch and explore his position further.

    “The framework of institutions which governs a society can in the last resort be understood only through a knowledge of the whole human environment. For though the artificial conception of man’s activities which prompts us to carve up the creature of flesh and blood into the phantoms homo ecconomicus, philosphicus, juridicus is doubtless necessary, it is tolerable only if we refuse to be decieved by it.”

  6. I really like your attempt at explaining what philosophy is.

    What do I think philosophy is? I have no idea, but I know that the question itself is a deeply philosophical one. ‘Philosophy’ is one of those things that I think I know what it is until I’m asked to define it.

  7. bwana bwana

    Being a “rural philosopher” I take exception to the idea philosophers are a suburban creature. I view myself looking like The Thinker statue; however, what I’m sitting on is normally the toilet since no one will listen to my ravings!

  8. gtr gtr

    philosophy is meaningful itself

  9. philosophy is the compassion of the man with open hands when the other sciences ll turning to him back in an moment of weakness,this man surelly ll punishe it back in an moment of strongness and beg the science to warmth his body with an holding tight to his brain ,after anothers weakness and same shames and compassions for this man and his body is close to the end ,he ll open arms to this heart for once and one time only for his choice in this life.

  10. •”the human brain is the most complex and orderly arrangement of matter in the universe.” – Isaac Isamov (1920-1992), professor of biochemistry at Boston University, USA. (descriptive of that of all intelligent life in the cosmic community of intelligent life).

    Empathy and compassion – settling the question of why the Universe and intelligent life exist – are Universe forelaws constituting a cause and way forward on all planets with intelligent life. At work cosmically in cosmic genealogy (explaining the phenomenon of “races”), empathy and compassion bring clarity and understanding as well to questions concerning the origin of intelligent life on Earth (and on all planets with intelligent life).

    Future human activism in cosmic genealogy has linkage and roots in the 1970/80s to pioneering investigation of organic matter in space conducted by astronomers Fred Hoyle (1915-2001) and Chandra Wickramasinghe – giving birth to the new science discipline of astrobiology (merging astronomy and biology). Chandra Wickramasinghe is currently the director of Buckingham Centre for Astrobiology, UK. Since 1996 Brig Klyce, Director, Astrobiology Research Trust, USA, has chronicled this unfolding paradigm change in the website Cosmic Ancestry. Part and parcel of naturalist Nature (everything is connected to everything else), the forelaws principle and cosmic genealogy coalesce as intelligent life philosophy, cosmology and the common good . . . on Earth, ending war, racism and terrorism while beginning the transition to united albedo regions.

    United Albedo Regions on Earth – addressing droughts, desertification, floods, tornados, lightning-induced wildland fires, and ice ages – becomes the way forward to achieving and sustaining relative benign stability in energy, weather and climate. While influenced by unmanageable geophysical phenomena – revealing the vulnerability of nuclear energy (e.g. Fukusima), and of nuclear weapons, to natural disasters (and to global terrorism) – weather and climate remain governed by planet atmospher and surface reflectivity of solar radiation referred to as planetary albedo. United albedo regions . . . optimizing planetary albedo for favorable energy/weather/climate stability, i.e. albedoism . . . engages, interconnects and incorporates – creatively – atmospheric science, permaculture, the plant kingdom, civil engineering, architecture, urban and rural planning, materials technology, e.g. polymers changing color with temperature changes.

    •”The historian of science may be tempted to claim that when paradigms change, the world itself changes with them.” – from The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Thomas S. Kuhn, 1962, 2nd ed. 1970).

    The coming of age of empathy and compassion on all planets with intelligent life exemplifies progressive science grounded on the forelaws principle and the common good, shaping intelligent life philosophy and cosmology against the backdrop of life procreation. A cause and way forward for Universe intelligent life, empathy and compassion (imbedded decisively in early childhood education) – in settling the question of why the Universe and intelligent life exist – interrelates intelligent life meaning, purpose and fulfillment . . . highlighting intelligent life as a gift with indefinable promise and potential both locally and cosmically.

    Robert E. Cobb

    Forelaws on Board

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