Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Defining 'Philosophy'

I wonder if anyone out there has a good definition or characterization of philosophy that is ideal for teaching and/or public-relations (such as interactions with non-philosophy faculty) purposes. It's easy to characterize philosophy in the negative ("it's not science or social science, but empirical results can be relevant..") and by "pointing" ("philosophy addresses these topics... all of which are philosophical topics.." [thanks!], as well as by mentioning a few common methods or activities (conceptual analysis, identifying and evaluating arguments, etc.), but I wonder if anyone out there has something worked out that they think is a very good definition or characterization. Thanks!


  1. Hi Nathan -

    The definition I use: Philosophy is

    thinking about
    how we should think about
    things we don't know how to think about

    (If I have another 30 seconds, I tell the story of how, back in the day, the study of every subject was called "philosophy" until a way of thinking about it was established. At which point it got kicked out of philosophy and became its own discipline; philosophy is the study of all of the stuff we *don't* have sciences for.)

    On the plus side, it's (somewhat) catchy. And it's (somewhat) paradoxical - how can we think about things we don't know how to think about?! The "should" captures the normativity of philosophy. And it allows that theoretical studies at the edge of an existing discipline are philosophy.

    One downside, the idea that philosophy tackles deep/fundamental issues is buried in an implicit distinction between "how to think" and "what to think".

    I'm hopeful that others have better answers ...

    - Cathal

  2. I use Simon Blackburn's definition on the first day of my Intro classes: "The study of the most general and abstract features of the world and categories with which we think."

    It's not as catchy or alluring as Cathal's proposal, and it is perhaps a bit on the analytic side, but I haven't yet found a better one-liner.

  3. On the first day of class I tell my students that philosophy is the use of reasons, arguments, evidence, and analysis to answer non-empirical questions in all domains of human inquiry (I lifted this from Ron Sandler's excellent first day lecture). I then go on to spell out each bit of that methodology by latching those terms on to general philosophical tools. I don't worry too much about accuracy. For example, I let reasons stand for thought experiments, evidence for empirical evidence, and analysis for conceptual clarification and distinctions (rather than providing necessary and sufficient conditions).

    I find this really helpful for discussing what philosophy is over the course of a single lecture. Not sure how useful it would be outside that context.

  4. Philosophy is thinking really, really, really hard about metaphysical (nature of reality), epistemological (nature & scope of knowledge), and axiological (nature of value: moral, aesthetic, monetary, political) issues.

    Philosophy = The academic activity engaged in by people who believe that their lives would be significantly less fulfilling if they weren't doing the above.

  5. Nathan,

    For a shorthand, Dewey used the phrase: "Philosophy is critique of critique." Less technically, he would say that it is "Thinking about thinking." That's the really quick version, when you've got one sentence. I'm not sure that really interesting bioethics is always study of the most general and abstract etc. like Blackburn, though some philosophy is like that.


  6. What I've been using is along the lines of Blackburn--'the critical examination of fundamental concepts and ideas'--though I'm interested to hear what others say, as I'm not entirely happy with that. I find Cathal's characterization quite appealing (and it fits with what I go on to say about philosophical questions tending to be "weird" in the sense that, as Cathal puts it, it's not clear how we should think about, and pursue answering, them...)

  7. I've always thought of philosophy as: framework for explanations.

  8. The best definition of philosophy I have found was the following:
    "Philosophy is the ungainly attempt to tackle questions that come naturally to children, using methods that come naturally to lawyers."

    from David Hills at Stanford.


  9. In some moments I have described philosophy as involving asking questions that many people prefer to not ask, using methods they would rather not use.

  10. I usually begin my classes by characterizing philosophy in two ways: in terms of the activities historically associated with it (the search for wisdom and the critique of that search) and the basic questions asked by each of its subfields (e.g. "what is knowledge?" for epistemology, "what is being?" for metaphysics, etc. I usually use this framework of basic questions for metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, political philosophy, and ethics. A basic discussion of logic and argument can be worked into the critique activity pretty easily as well. I find that the nice thing about this is that it works as an introduction to history courses as well as topics courses, and since I'm the only philosophy professor at my small college, I teach a wide variety of both sorts of classes.

  11. A friend once shared with me his opening-day questions for Intro to Phil: What is there? How do we know? What should we do about it?

  12. Here's what I suggest to my students at 101 classes. In other disciplines, you learn more and more about less and less, until you know everything about nothing. In philosophy, on the other hand, you get to know less and less about more and more, until you know nothing about everything.

  13. My favorite definition is from an interview with T.M. Scanlon on Conversations with History. It runs something like this:

    Philosophy tries to answer questions that are raised by methods/ways/systems we use to figure out what the world is really like and how we should act in it, but that can't be answered by the systems themselves.

    Religion, for instance, is a way of understanding the world and how to act in it, and a basic principle of religion is that god exists. The question "does god exist" is a philosophical question because it's raised by religion but religion can't answer it - you're not going to look in scriptures to find out because religion presupposes there's a god.

    Likewise science is a way of understanding the way the world works and a philosophical question is "what's the difference between a chance regularity and a genuine law of nature?" This is is a philosophical question because it's raised by science but science can't answer it - you're not going to do more experiments in the lab to find the answer because science presupposes that a finite number of experiments demonstrate laws of nature.

    In essence, philosophy is the study of questions that are raised by the methods in which we try to figure out the way the world works and how we should live in it that cannot be answered by those methods. Or, in other words, philosophy tries to answer questions about the presuppositions/fundamental principles of those methods by which we attempt to understand the world and our place in it.


If you wish to use your name and don't have a blogger profile, please mark Name/URL in the list below. You can of course opt for Anonymous, but please keep in mind that multiple anonymous comments on a post are difficult to follow. Thanks!