Wednesday, September 13, 2006

What Is Philosophy?

I’ve got both an undergraduate and an advanced degree in it, so you’d think I’d know what philosophy is.

Or maybe, like Socrates, you’d say my admission that I’m not sure what this thing I’ve been studying and teaching for several decades really is represents the appropriate philosophical attitude.

That’s what I’m hoping.

Still, I was talking to my neighbor about my work, and he stumped me when he asked what philosophy is and how it differs from other intellectual pursuits.

My standard answer is that philosophy has two parts: a content and a methodology.

The methodology is not unique to philosophy; it entails a willingness to reach conclusions based on the application of reason. In philosophy, we’re supposed to assess the justification for any given claim and decide whether it makes sense to accept it. Simple appeals to authority are to be rejected or at least assessed on some other grounds. “Because I (or God or the President or even Socrates) said so,” doesn’t cut it.

The content of philosophy is, however, more or less unique to the discipline. Philosophical questions are those that cannot, in general, be answered by simple observation or measurement. Philosophers tend to be engaged in speculative inquiries, questions like “What makes something true? Or beautiful? Or good?”

Sometimes students get frustrated with this; they point out to me that the definition of such terms can found in the dictionary. “Here’s what truth is; it says right here! Now, can we get back to something that makes a difference in the world?”

I’m quite sympathetic to that feeling; lots of philosophy is just so much intellectual hair-splitting, but even then, I think philosophy encourages us to do something extremely valuable:

It encourages us to think about thinking.

You may have seen this bumpersticker: Don’t believe everything you think.

Thinking about what you think to determine whether you really do think it: to me, that’s the essential attitude of a philosopher.

I think.


Anonymous Alberto said...

I don’t know and I can’t remember exactly (and I’m not about to look it up just now), but I think it was John Gardner who said: Philosophers – except those who are my friends – drink beer, watch football games and defeat their wives and children by the fraudulent tyranny of logic. (I suppose he meant contemporary philosophers.)

2:21 PM  

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