If there is one thing philosophers agree about it is that philosophers don’t agree about what philosophy is. You might think that philosophers would limit themselves to disagreeing with each other’s theories. But no, they go farther than that, and claim that other philosophers have not only reached the wrong conclusions, but that they have been going about philosophy itself in the wrong way. The best way describe what philosophy is, then, is not to present a single definition, but rather to treat the issue itself as a philosophical problem. In other words we will begin by thinking about intuitive or common sense answers to the question, and, on the basis of problems arising for those answers, motivate some of the more theoretical solutions that have been proposed.
Perhaps the simplest, and least helpful, answer to the question “what is philosophy?” is to point at famous philosophers – to say that it is whatever Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and so on did. And what did they do? Well they did ethics, epistemology, and metaphysics, to name the big three categories. And maybe that could serve to answer our question: philosophy is anything that deals with ethics, epistemology, or metaphysics. But things are never so simple. The big three don’t exhaust the topics philosophers deal with. Logic, language, truth, mind, consciousness, aesthetics, the good life, ontology, politics, and culture are also topics that one philosopher or another has turned their attention to. And surely even that list isn’t complete; even if it covers everything philosophers have written about so far there it is likely that new philosophical topics will appear in the future.
But, for the sake of being charitable to this definition, let’s simply assume that we could list all the topics philosophy covers. Even so, it still wouldn’t be satisfactory. Consider the following: what makes religion distinct from philosophy? Religion covers many of the same topics as philosophy. The big three, for example, all find some reflection in religion. Ethics is clearly central to many religions, and inasmuch as they endorse faith and the existence of god they contain claims about epistemology and metaphysics, respectively. But clearly (or at least this is clear to philosophers, if not to the man on the street) philosophy is not religion and religion is not philosophy. The difference, to put it succinctly, is that religion is built on faith and dogma while philosophy is not. Philosophy embraces the idea that claims are to be argued for, or at least motivated in some way, and that every theory is subject to criticism and revision. Any satisfactory definition of philosophy will at least rule out faith and authority as a source of philosophical theories.
This motivates us to look for an understanding of philosophy that describes what it does rather than simply lists the topics it studies. This brings us the one of the oldest answers the question: philosophy studies the essence of things. Essence, in this context, is a fancy word to describe “what something is”, and explaining the essence of something often looks a lot like a definition. For example, a philosopher might describe the essence of a chair as “a thing that is for sitting on”. Essences have also been called forms, and occasionally concepts. But, whatever they are called, the idea is that they are abstract objects – they aren’t part of the physical world that science studies. Instead of having physical access to them we have intellectual access to them, it is claimed; we come to know the essence of a thing by reflection, by considering different examples, and by argument. This all sounds good in theory, but in practice problems arise. The theory implies that there is some one essence that all philosophers investigating a particular topic, such as justice, should be describing. However, there is widespread disagreement, not agreement, about what justice is among philosophers. This implies that, at the very least, our intellectual access to these essences is unreliable, and sometimes leads us astray. And, worse, since we have no other way of getting access to an essence, there is no way to tell which philosophers are successfully describing it and which are mistaken. And so the unfortunate consequence of this theory about philosophy is that, while we now know what philosophy is, we also realize that we don’t have any reliable way to pursue a philosophical inquiry or settle a philosophical dispute.
Obviously that’s not a happy situation for philosophy to be in, and wresting with such problems has motivated other understandings of philosophy. Some have seen the problems with the previous approach as stemming primarily from the way essences are disconnected from the physical world. Realizing that philosophy aimed at describing essences produces results that look a good deal like definitions, they suggest that philosophy is really about studying language and clearly defining terms of philosophical interest. This alleviates worries about the unreliability of our intellectual access to the subject matter, because it is clear that we can observe how words are used in a very mundane and ordinary ways. It also solves problems arising from disagreement among philosophers. That disagreement, they might say, is simply a sign that how words are used varies from person to person. But, ideally, the philosopher aims to give a definition that reflects the common understanding of the term; and there is only one right way to do that. Of course this approach is easily mocked by pointing out that under it Webster is the best philosopher, or at least the most comprehensive. Now that is not really a fair attack, there is room for those who subscribe to this approach to argue that the philosophically interesting terms are complex and that Webster’s simple and intuitive definitions miss how the words are actually used. However, when I entertain the idea that the goal of philosophy as being to write a better dictionary with respect to certain terms, it is not clear to me why we should care. People get along just fine without these precise definitions; and it is not clear to me how giving them a precise definition would affect their lives in any way besides changing how they use a term.* The end result of this theory then is that, while it is clear what the task of philosophy is and how it can be accomplished, it is no longer clear why we should bother.
Fortunately that’s not the only way to improve on the idea that philosophy studies essences or concepts. Another way to revise the theory is to move essences or concepts into the mind. Under the modified theory, then, philosophy studies essences (or concepts) that are revealed to us in experience. Again, this resolves both of the major problems facing the previous approach. It should be uncontroversial now how we have intellectual access to essences, since it is uncontroversial that we have access to our own experience. And it also explains why philosophers disagree: how we experience the world varies from person to person. As with the view that philosophy is all about language, the idea that some philosophy is better than others can be preserved under the assumption that the philosopher’s target should be a common form of experience, and not merely a reflection of their own idiosyncrasies. However, we also run into some of the same problems facing the view that philosophy is primarily about language, namely that it is not clear how it matters. It is true that how we experience the world does matter in some contexts: in understanding consciousness, in trying to communicate, and in producing art. However, it seems far too narrow for philosophy. And it also seems like a retreat from several important philosophical questions. For example, explaining why consulting a magic 8 ball is an objectively bad method for forming beliefs seems like the kind of question that philosophy should answer. However, if we confine ourselves to studying only our own experiences (or common forms of experience) the best we can say is that the magic 8 ball is not experienced as or conceived of as having the right qualities to serve as evidence. But this says nothing about why it really, objectively, is a bad idea.
I consider the three previous approaches to be failures in one way or another, as I have described, although this is far from a universally held judgment, and there are many philosophers who are willing to defend them and work under that conception of philosophy. What I see as the fundamental problem with those approaches, behind the specific problems with them, is their fixation on the idea that there is a right answer in philosophy, or at the very least that some philosophy is objectively better than others. If that is true then there must be something that philosophy aims to reflect or describe, such that it can capture it in a better or worse way. Essences, language, and experience are three possible such subjects. The problem with this, however, is that, if there is something worth studying that can be studied in a relatively objective** manner then science has probably gotten there first. Because that is what science does, it studies things in an objective manner as possible. This leaves philosophy either with subjects that no one cares to do a scientific study of (how words are used, the exact structure of experience) or with subjects that can’t be studied in an objective way (essences). Neither is any good.
But if we give up on right/wrong or better/worse in a universal sense then what is left? Wouldn’t moving away from these ideas leave us with an anything-goes approach to philosophy, where every theory, no matter how absurd or new-age, would have to be treated as equally worthy? Consider two hammers. Is there a sense in which one hammer is right and the other wrong, or a sense in which one is universally better than another? No. It is possible, for example, for one hammer to be better at hammering nails while the other is better at being a decorative item. One hammer may be more durable, the other may be a better prop for a movie. But, even so, it is not the case that simply everything is a worthy hammer. My shoe, for example, is not a suitable hammer in any way – of the things we expect of hammers the shoe is always the worse choice. My suggestion then is that we look at philosophy like a tool. Not a physical tool, like a hammer, but an intellectual tool.
But what is an intellectual too, exactly? This brings me to the second question: what can philosophy do for you? In the broadest sense philosophy is a tool for thinking – for thinking clearly and precisely, for drawing helpful distinctions, and for connecting different ideas via chains of argument. Of course while that is generally useful is also very broad, so broad that such skills could probably be learned by other means as well. To be more specific we would have to get into each of the specific topics that philosophers think about, and this isn’t the right place for that. Instead allow me to give just one example. A question that everyone thinks about, or at least should think about is: “what is a good life?”, where good ranges from ethical, to meaningful, to simply pleasurable. Only philosophy really addresses itself to such questions, and this is one way that philosophy can be useful. Many philosophical theories provide a perspective on what the good life is. And we can see that a particular perspective may be better or worse for someone, depending on the values they have, the situation they are in, and culture they are part of. Now you could read philosophy book after philosophy book to find the perspective on what makes a good life that is best for you. That’s probably better than not thinking about the issue at all. However, situations change, as do what people value. And so, just as one perspective on the good life won’t suit everyone, a single perspective on the good life won’t suit someone forever. And so what’s really important to take away from this class is not, for example, Plato’s opinion on how to live, but rather an understanding of how Plato addressed such questions, so that you have the ability to tackle such issues for yourself, as many times as you need to.
* Even when it comes to ethics. If you tell some authoritatively “this is what other people mean by the term ‘right’” and they accept that, and modify their usage of the term to comply, that doesn’t meant that they will also alter their internal measure of right and wrong that guides them, nor does presenting them with this definition give them any reason to do so. In other words, changing how people use terms does not necessarily change how they think about thing, nor is their reason to believe that correcting small deviations from the norm in the way a term is used is beneficial.
** By objective here I mean only that it is possible to come to an agreement, at least in the long run, about which theories are better and worse (i.e. as Peirce would have it).
Adapted from a presentation on 9/26