What Is Philosophy?

    Copyright 2014 Bruce W. Hauptli

It is often surprising to non-philosophers that philosophers should find it difficult to answer this question.  Nonetheless, the very question “What is philosophy?” is itself a philosophical question!  To help us gain an initial understanding of the philosophical enterprise I will quickly discuss three views of the nature of philosophy (two of which, I will argue, are deficient). 

1. The “Wondering” Conception of Philosophy:

Philosophers as diverse as Plato, Aristotle, and Schopenhauer have contended that philosophy is, or begins with, a kind of wonder (or refusal to take things for granted)[1]  David Pears characterizes the relevant sort of wonder as follows:

...the question, why a particular species of animal exists, is answerable by zoology, but the question, why anything at all exists, cannot be answered by any science....the question whether a particular scientific argument is valid can be settled by reference to the accepted standards of...validity, but the question whether the standards themselves ought to be accepted cannot be settled in any such way.[2] 

According to Pears, “philosophy originates in the desire to transcend the world of human thought and experience, in order to find some point of vantage from which it can be seen as a whole.”[3] 

     The “wondering” is sometimes called the attempt to see the world sub specie aeternitatis.[4]  It certainly captures part of what philosophizing is.  But such wondering is, at best, only the beginning of the philosophic enterprise—if this was all there were to it, philosophizing would be a particular brand of day-dreaming.  Indeed, if the “wondering conception” were the whole story, such wonders would seem pointless and disconnected with our lives, and complaints like that offered by David Stove (in the “Preface” to his book The Plato Cult) would be appropriate.  Stove maintains that the “wonderings” of many philosophers are without purpose or meaning:

Parmenides [~500 B.C.E.] said nothing can move.  Yet he traveled and knew he traveled around Greece and southern Italy, defending his opinion; he defended it, of course, by moving his tongue and lips.[5] 

Plato [~427-~347 B.C.E.] held that no particular thing can be really white, or round, or human...that only whiteness is really white....In another and better world, he said, such ‘universals’ exist on their own, unmixed with space, time, or each other....Yet Plato was a particular thing himself, of course, and was human too....[6] 

Philosopher’s theories, then, are often so exceedingly strange that we are obligated to postulate some non-rational cause, in order to explain the philosophers’ believing them.[7] 

Later in his book, Stove summarizes his criticism of the “wondering” characterization of philosophy by saying that “...philosophy typically begins in pseudo-wonder....”[8]  His complaint is that the wondering of many (or most) philosophers seems idle.  That is, without a clear-cut goal (or end-in-view), it seems to be little more than day-dreaming.[9]  The “second” conception of philosophy, which I will now discuss, can help us see what is “missing” from the first one. 

2. The “Enduring Questions” Conception of Philosophy:

To get at what the “wondering conception” leaves off, let me ask you this question:

Is the discipline of philosophy famous for answering its questions or resolving its wonderings? 

While individual philosophers are, of course justly famous for their own particular “answers” to the questions which they address, in any introductory course in philosophy students easily come to see the inadequacy of several famous “answers.” [10]  Certainly, then, the answer to the above question has to be a resounding “No!”  In many cases, the same questions are debated anew with each generation. 

     What, then, is it that makes this discipline famous (or infamous)?  We could contend that philosophy is famous for its questions.  This leads us to what I will call the “enduring questions” conception of philosophy.  To understand it, we will need to distinguish two sorts of questions (or problems):

Removable questions are those that can be firmly and finally answered or resolved).  Here I have in mind such questions as “What is the boiling point of water,” or “How can we vacuum-pack potato chips?” 

Enduring questions, on the other hand, are questions that can not be firmly or finally resolved. 

-According to this conception of philosophy, these questions arise for all of us (they arise for each individual, generation, society, or culture) because we are the sorts of creatures we are, and because of the nature of the world, or environment, which we inhabit.  Examples of such questions include:[11]

--questions about our relationship to others (about our moral responsibility, political and social obligations, etc.);

--questions about “nature” (about the existence of a deity, the fundamental character of reality, the relationship of minds and bodies, the existence of a rationale for the world, etc.);

--questions about our cognitive abilities (about the consequences of human fallibility, the distinction between science and pseudo-science, the justification of our knowledge claims, etc.); and

--questions about ourselves (about the nature of personal identity, the meaning of our lives, etc.). 

The “enduring questions conception” of philosophy holds that philosophers are concerned with asking and answering such enduring questions.  While this is partially the case, we must note that theologians, novelists, and science fiction writers (as well as many others) also raise and endeavor to answer such questions.  Thus, it is not the questions themselves (nor the endeavoring to supply answers to them) which constitutes what is unique or special about the philosophic enterprise. 

3. The “Dialectical” Conception of Philosophy:

In place of the “wondering” and “enduring questions” conceptions of philosophy, finally, I wish to offer what I will call the “dialectical conception.”  Rather than concentrating on the origins or objectives of the philosophical enterprise (the wondering and answering), this conception draws our attention to the particular methodology which philosophers employ as they respond to the wonders, questions, and problems.[12] 

     Now it should be noted that for many individuals (at many times), any sort of response or answer to an enduring question will be satisfactory.  After all if we have pressing questions, we often need to adopt some responsive stance [any stance] quickly.  In the long run, however, the dialectical conception of philosophy emphasizes that we will be best served by (and we often desire) critical or rational responses to these questions.  It is here that philosophy has a distinctive role to play:

according to the dialectical conception, philosophers seek to develop, critically examine, and rationally defend answers or responses to the sorts of questions (and wonders) noted above.  In short, philosophy is here conceived of as a critical enterprise

Dialectic[13] (in the sense in which I am using it here [in the “Socratic” as opposed to the usage of Aquinas, Hegel, or Marx)[14] consists of rational argument—it is the enterprise of meeting arguments with arguments:

-dialectical advancement, development, and critical examination of our rational responses to the enduring questions helps to ensure that the responses which we offer are meaningful, that their implications are clear, that they fit together in a meaningful whole (a consistent world-view), that they are adequate, and that they are rationally justified. 

-Toilet Paper Roll Example: (the “perennial question” as to which way it should roll off the roll, and the “rational” response regarding “outward” and patterned paper).  Of course, the problems or questions we will be concerned with are more “serious.” 

 A passage from James Rachels’ The Elements of Moral Philosophy summarizes this conception of philosophy nicely:

philosophy...is first and last an exercise in reason—the ideas that should come out on top are the ones that have the best reasons on their sides.[15] 

4. Ending a Philosophical Dialectic:

 A reasoned dialectic is completed when the participants rationally accept an argument, explanation, or problem-resolution.  Here we can see a parallel between philosophic dialectic and science:

why do we feel that the sciences and medicine have progressed during the last two thousand years?  Do we know the truth in science or medicine?  Might our present answers be wrong? 

-Do we have any idea what the endpoint would look like? 

-How are our present theories better in science and medicine? 

 Avoiding past mistakes and resolving (better than they did) past problems. 

 Philosophers may claim the same success!  Neither science nor philosophy arrives at an answer that is final but, rather, each finds an endpoint in a critical and tentative rational agreement amongst the participants

     What happens if other participants join in or if new considerations arise later?  The dialectic is again taken up!  This is why philosophical arguments are often characterized as “perennial”—they arise anew for each age as each group of individuals carries on the dialectic and assesses the answers of its ancestors.  To many this suggests that philosophers will never solve any of the problems (or answer any of the questions), and this leads them to think that the contrast between philosophy and science is not at all favorable to philosophy.  After all, the scientists are able to reach broad intersubjective consensus as to whether or not a scientific question is answered or a scientific problem is resolved.  In his “Thomas Kuhn, Rocks and the Laws of Physics,” Richard Rorty offers a discussion which may help mitigate such a critique:

the trouble is that intersubjective agreement about who has succeeded and who has failed is easy to get if you lay down criteria of success in advance [and, he suggests, this is what scientists are able to do].  If all you want is fast relief, your choice of analgesic is clear (though the winning drug may have unfortunate belated side effects).  If you know that all you want out of science is accurate prediction, you have a fast way to decide between competing theories (though this criterion by itself would, at one time, have led you to favor Ptolemaic over Copernican astronomy).  If you know that all you want is rigorous demonstration, you can check out mathematicians’ proofs of theorems and award the prize to the one who has proved the most (although the award will then always go to a hack, whose theorems are of no interest).  But intersubjective agreement is harder to get when the criteria of success begin to proliferate, and even harder when those criteria themselves are up for grabs [as they are, he suggests, in philosophy].[16] 

5. How to Read Philosophy:

 I believe that a “successful” reading of any philosophical text will comprise the asking and answering of the following four questions:

      1. “What is being argued here?” 

      2. “What are the stages of the argument?” 

      3. “Were good reasons presented for the thesis?” 

      4. “Why is it being argued?” 

It is not as easy as it might seem to ask, and answer, these questions!  But if you are to understand what a philosopher says, you must know what is being argued, what steps there are to the argument, why it is being argued, and whether or not the arguments are adequate. 

6. Regarding The “Interpretations” Presented in this Course:

It is necessary to note that in this course I will be presenting you with interpretation of the thought of several philosophers.  The introductions and interpretations I will provide are meant to be just that however.  I am also asking you to read the thinkers themselves, and I want you to form your own considered views about their theories.  My interpretations and introductions are intended as aids to this latter process.  Here the remarks of another philosopher, Richard McKeon, are appropriate.  McKeon makes this statement in his “Preface” to his edition of The Basic Works of Aristotle:

...some aid is needed, however, and therefore a method of reading Aristotle’s works is suggested in the Introduction by a brief statement of the interrelations and continuity of his doctrines.  The reader is advised to treat this interpretation skeptically until and unless he can find it confirmed in his own reading of the text, for it is useful only as a device by which to permit Aristotle to speak for himself.  The achievement of Aristotle can be discovered only by reading and rereading his works, and the appreciation of that achievement depends quite as much on the deepened sense of value and the precision of criteria which he inculcates as on the materials he treats.[17] 

McKeon and I want you to develop your own appreciation and interpretation of the thinkers we are exposing you to, and our remarks are meant to facilitate that rather than to be taken as some privileged set of observations and interpretations. 

7. Philosophy vs. Rhetoric—The Goals of Philosophizing:

While the philosophical enterprise revolves around argumentation, philosophical argumentation must be distinguished from rhetorical argumentation.  The phrase “meeting arguments with arguments” may be misunderstood (and the characterization of philosophy which I have just offered may be misconstrued) if we think of ‘arguments’ simply as disagreements amongst individuals or as stylized debates where individuals seek primarily to “score points” against one another.  In short, the end-in-view of the philosophical dialectic must be kept clearly in mind. 

     Unfortunately, as you might expect, philosophers disagree as to the end-in-view of the philosophical enterprise.  Here are four of the many differing goals of philosophizing which have been advanced by various philosophers:

(a) Rational Understanding and Truth: many traditional philosophers contend that philosophy seeks rational understanding (that is, “truth supported by reason”).  They claim that we can attain this sort of understanding only if we develop a coherent system of critically-considered theories (or responses).  Such a coherent system of critically held theories is often called a “world-view”—these philosophers don’t claim that philosophers seek to master the many particular truths which are true of the world (the number of grains of sand on the beach, the age of the highest mountain, the exact amount of one’s check-book balance), instead a coherent set of extremely general truths are sought.  Here rational understanding is not sought because it facilitates some other goal, instead it is seen as intrinsically valuable (or the search for it is conceived of as an intrinsically valuable activity).[18]  In a similar vein, Robert Nozick contends that philosophy should be directed toward providing explanations: “many philosophical problems are ones of understanding how something is or can be possible.  How is it possible for us to have free will, supposing that all actions are causally determined?”[19] 

(b) The Happiness of the Rational Life: some philosophers contend that human beings can not be happy (or lead the good life) unless we develop critically-considered rational responses to the wonders and enduring questions noted above (or a critically considered overall world-view).  Here it is happiness which is claimed to be intrinsically valuable, and philosophy is conceived of as a necessary means toward its attainment.  While criticism is, of course, emphasized here, it is valued for what it can get us (happiness or the good life).  Often this view is raised not by talking about criticism but, rather, by talking about the “intellectual virtues”—it is claimed that the “life of reason” is the only truly fulfilling life for human beings. 

(c) Rational Understanding and Worship: still other philosophers contend that the end-in-view of philosophy is the understanding (and proper worship) of a deity.  These philosophers contend that the appropriate end for man is philosophical understanding of a deity (that such rational understanding is our primary purpose, obligation, and the only appropriate form of worship for a rational creature). 

(d) The Empowerment of Individuals via Reason: finally, some philosophers contend that the goal of philosophizing is the empowerment of individuals via the liberation of their thought, culture, and lives from the prejudice and provincialism which culture, upbringing, and convention instill in us all.  For example, Martha Nussbaum maintains that the “...pursuit of logical validity, intellectual coherence, and truth delivers freedom from the tyranny of custom and convention, creating a community of beings who can take charge of their own life story and their own thought.”[20]  Nussbaum cites Epicurus who says that:

empty is that philosopher’s argument by which no human suffering is therapeutically treated.  For just as there is no use in a medical art that does not cast out the sicknesses of bodies, so too there is no use in philosophy, unless it casts out the suffering of the soul.”[21] 

As noted above, the rhetoricians had their students study logic and argumentation to help them become more facile in arguing for (or against) whatever these students happened to want to argue for (or against).  The critical orientation that the dialectical conception of philosophy champions is, similarly, “plastic” in that it allows for a variety of ends which one might pursue with this methodology. 

      The dialectical methodology is uncompromising, however, in its adherence to the ideal of rationality—it is to be used to offer others (and to help oneself find) rationally-persuasive responses to enduring problems or questions.[22]  Where the dialectical methodology in philosophy is pursued without keeping the enduring questions in sight, it is perverted from one of its primary controlling factors.  Similarly, when philosophy focuses on the questions while loosing sight of the dialectical arguments, it is perverted from the other of its primary controlling influences.  In his Pragmatism: An Open Question, Hilary Putnam says that:

philosophy which is all argument feeds no real hunger; while philosophy which is all vision feeds a real hunger, but it feeds it Pablum.[23] 

8. Philosophy as Conceptual Geography:

 The above characterization of philosophy is incomplete.  Our ordinary “conceptual scheme,” or world-view (our day-to-day set of beliefs and theories), is full of various “responses” which allow us to “cope” with our “wonders” and “enduring questions.”  Unfortunately, this conceptual scheme is not consistent and doesn’t always present rational responses.  Conceptual inconsistencies are often readily apparent when we try to bring together our fundamental views from distinct areas of concern.  For example:

mind-body dualism arises as we consider our unshakable faith in the physical sciences and their fundamental understanding of our world while also trying to hold onto our undeniable consciousness and our conscious experiences (which seem impervious to physicalistic explanation). 

similarly, people who hate the present crime-ridden society and would like to “lock up” all “suspicious persons” find themselves torn when they reflect upon what makes this society so attractive (its commitment to the political freedom of individuals and the recognition of their basic or inalienable rights).  These individuals, for example, demand that the Internal Revenue Service prove that they intended to defraud the government rather than merely miscalculated a sum before they can be “locked away”—no matter how “suspicious their tax-returns may be! 

     These examples remind us that we don’t confront the enduring questions (or philosophical wonders) in a vacuum—we have a lot of conceptual baggage that we may find helpful or harmful as we approach philosophical questions.  We often discover that “we don’t know what we believe,” that what we believe on one topic conflicts with what we believe on another.  Thus one important aspect of philosophy is the clarification and elucidation of our basic background concepts—it is a form of “conceptual geography” designed to map (in both a descriptive and a prescriptive fashion) our conceptual landscape. 

Notes: [to return to the note's text, click on the note number--emphasis has been added to several citations]

[1] Cf., Plato, Theaetetus 155 d, trans. F.M. Cornford, in The Collected Dialogues of Plato, eds. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Princeton: Princeton U.P., 1961); and Aristotle, Metaphysics Book I: Chapter 2; 982, trans. W.D. Ross, in The Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. Richard McKeon (New York: Random House, 1941). 

[2] David Pears, Ludwig Wittgenstein (Middlesex: Penguin, 1969), p. 13. 

[3] Ibid., emphasis added to citation. 

[4] That is, “under the aspect of eternity”, or “in its essential or universal form or nature,” or “from the outside.” 

[5] David Stove, The Plato Cult (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991), p. ix. 

[6] Ibid., pp. ix-x. 

[7] Ibid., p. x. 

[8] David Stove, “‘I Only Am Escaped Alone to Tell Thee:’ Epistemology and the Ishmael Effect,” in his The Plato Cult, op. cit., pp. 61-82, p. 69. 

[9] Where one substitutes ‘explanations’ for ‘wonders’ it may seem that the appearance of day-dreaming can be avoided.  We need to remember that explanations must also be in service of some end however.  Individuals may offer explanations to escape blame, to clarify causal connections, to cover-up actions, to elaborate what they take to be the truth, etc.  Unless a standard of explanation is offered, little more “progress” toward what an adequate conception of philosophy is will be made here—magic, religion, statistics, and chance are all appealed to by various individuals as “explanations” for certain phenomena. 

[10] Thus introductory students learn the deficiencies of Plato’s conception of the state, Anselm’s ontological argument, Descartes’ dualistic conception of the self, and Kant’s moral theory. 

[11] This sample “division” of the questions is not meant to be exhaustive, nor does it perfectly parallel the “standard” division of the philosophic terrain into ethics, metaphysics, epistemology, etc. 

[12] Of course, as the ensuing will show, the origins and objectives may not be ignored by this conception. 

[13] Philosophers use single quotes to surround a word when they are mentioning it rather than using it.  For example in the sentence “‘Long’ is a short word,” the word ‘long’ is mentioned (discussed) while the word ‘short’ is used

[14] Aquinas’ method was called “dialectical” because it proceeded by first asking a specific question; second his opponents’ objections to his thesis (in regard to the question) were stated; third he stated his own position (beginning with “On the contrary...”, or “I answer...”); and finally, he replied to the objections which were raised.  Hegel’s method consisted of the statement of a thesis, then of an anti-thesis, and then a “synthesis” was developed.  Marx’s “dialectic” defies simple characterization, but was central to his “historical” and developmental conception. 

[15] James Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy (New York: Random House, 1986), p. vi. 

[16] Richard Rorty, “Thomas Kuhn, Rocks and the Laws of Physics” [1997], in his Philosophy and Social Hope (London: Penguin, 1999), pp.175-189, p. 180.  The essay originally appeared in Common Knowledge v. 6 (1997). 

[17] Richard McKeon, “Preface,” in The Basic Works of Aristotle, op. cit., pp. vii-x, p. ix. 

[18] An intrinsically valuable goal, or activity, is one that is pursued for its own sake.  Such values are contrasted with extrinsic values—here the goal or activity is valued for what it will allow one to achieve.  Health, for example, might be intrinsically valuable (good-in-itself), while wealth is usually conceived of as extrinsically valuable (good-for-what-it-can-get-us). 

[19] Robert Nozick, Philosophical Explanations (Cambridge: Harvard U.P., 1981), p. 4.  Emphasis added to passage. 

[20] Martha Nussbaum, The Therapy of Desire (Princeton: Princeton U.P., 1994), p. 5.  Emphasis added to the passage.

[21] Ibid., p. 13. 

[22] Of course, two of the ends-in-view may require a qualification of this statement.  The skeptical conception of philosophy which sees philosophical criticism aiming at the suspension of belief, and the religious conception which sees it as ending up in worship both constitute “compromised” commitments to the ideal of rationality.  But this is a complex story that requires extended argument. 

[23] Hilary Putnam, Pragmatism: An Open Question (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995), p. 23. 

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