What is Philosophy?

Philosophy begins with questions and, as such, a good place to start is with this often overlooked question concerning the nature of philosophy itself.  Strangely, for a discipline that places such great emphasis on defining and clarifying concepts, there is no unanimously agreed definition of what exactly philosophy is.  The term ‘philosophy’ in its literal sense means ‘love of wisdom’ and we know that there have been, throughout history, a great many men [sorry ladies] that we call philosophers who have written ‘philosophical’ works on a wide variety of subjects.  Perhaps then, we could just say that philosophy is the collected works of all of these philosophers.  However, this doesn’t really enlighten us as to what it is that all of these thinkers and works have in common; what is it that means that we categorize them as ‘philosophical’ rather than scientific, religious, historical, or whatever?

The contemporary American philosopher, Thomas Nagel, states that:

The main concern of philosophy is to question and understand very common ideas that all of us use every day without thinking about them. A historian may ask what happened at some time in the past, but a philosopher will ask, “What is time?” A mathematician may investigate the relations among numbers, but a philosopher will ask, “What is a number?” A physicist will ask what atoms are made of or what explains gravity, but a philosopher will ask how we can know there is anything outside of our own minds. A psychologist may investigate how children learn a language, but a philosopher will ask, “What makes a word mean anything?” Anyone can ask whether it’s wrong to sneak into a movie without paying, but a philosopher will ask, “What makes an action right or wrong?”

Thomas Nagel,  What does it all mean?, 1987

Perhaps then, we could say that philosophy deals only with very particular types of questions; for example, moral questions of how we ought to act or metaphysical questions concerning the nature of reality.  However, it could be said that religion also deals with moral questions.  But whereas religion’s attempts to answer such questions resort to Authority or Revelation (e.g. ‘Do as God/ the Bible/ the Church tells you’), philosophy responds by way of a systematic method.  The philosophical method differs from its scientific counterpart in that it employs thought and reason over observation and experiment.  You don’t, for example, do philosophy in a laboratory, but rather in a classroom or a study.  Philosophers don’t need telescopes, or scalpels, or particle accelerators; the philosopher’s tools are ideas, concepts, and imagination; reason, logic, and arguments (his own and those of his predecessors and contemporaries).

A possibly fruitful approach to discovering what philosophy is, is to consider its origins.  Western Philosophy, for arguments sake, began around 600AD in the ancient Greek city of Miletus. Pre-Socratic philosophy was dominated entirely by questions concerning the origins and functioning of the universe until Socrates ‘called philosophy down from the sky’ (Cicero).  Socrates embodies the view that philosophy begins with wonder, which is to say that it springs from the desire to to know for yourself, rather than blindly accepting what you are told.  He believed that philosophy should be relevant to the everyday lives of all Athenians and is generally accepted as the father of political and moral philosophy. Socrates believed above all else that authority (both in real terms and in respect to what might be called received wisdom) should be challenged.  Ultimately, this led to his arrest and trial on charges of impiety and corrupting the young; he was sentenced to death by self-administered hemlock.

Most everything that we know about Socrates comes to us from his pupil, Plato.  Plato is a philosopher of such range, insight, and importance that it is often claimed that the history of western philosophy is nothing more than a series of footnotes to him.  An excellent way to introduce Plato’s thought is by considering his Allegory of the Cave (Republic, c.360BCE).

This short passage is one of the most famous in philosophy. The philosophically unenlightened are represented as prisoners chained from birth in an underground cave, able to see nothing but moving shadows cast on the back wall.  These shadows they take to be the whole of reality.  The philosopher, however, will not be content with this.  He will break his chains and turn towards the light, embarking on the perilous journey from the cave to the outside world.  At first he will be dazzled by the daylight – but eventually he will be able to see clearly and, in doing so, he will see that what he used to take for reality was nothing but shadow and illusion.  Only then may he attain true knowledge and philosophical enlightenment.

Apart from the epistemic, metaphysical, and political issues which Plato addresses [and which we will return to elsewhere], the allegory raises interesting questions concerning the nature of philosophy itself.  This notion of philosophy as liberating doubt is captured brilliantly by Bertrand Russell:

The man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the co-operation or consent of his deliberate reason. To such a man the world tends to become definite, finite, obvious; common objects rouse no questions, and unfamiliar possibilities are contemptuously rejected. As soon as we begin to philosophize, on the contrary, we find … that even the most everyday things lead to problems to which only very incomplete answers can be given. Philosophy, though unable to tell us with certainty what is the true answer to the doubts which it raises, is able to suggest many possibilities which enlarge our thoughts and free them from the tyranny of custom. Thus, while diminishing our feeling of certainty as to what things are, it greatly increases our knowledge as to what they may be; it removes the somewhat arrogant dogmatism of those who have never travelled into the region of liberating doubt, and it keeps alive our sense of wonder by showing familiar things in an unfamiliar aspect.

Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy, 1912

Today, philosophers are seldom sentenced to death [unfortunately] and the conception of contemporary philosophy is far removed from its Socratic origins.  Philosophers, rather than returning to ‘the cave’, are more likely to reside in ivory towers [philosophy departments] where they spend time writing obscure papers to each other [the more obscure the better] dealing with puzzles that, even if solved, will make little difference to the everyday lives of real people.  There are, of course, notable exceptions but for the most part academic philosophy is viewed by the general public as something remote, abstract, disinterested; a luxury for those that can afford it.  This, however, is a very recent ailment; if we look to the history of philosophy we are reminded of its relevance, importance, and potential impact on society.  As Edward Craig states:

Thomas Hobbes’ famous political theory […] tries to teach us the lessons he felt had to be learnt in the aftermath of the English Civil War; Descartes and many of his contemporaries wanted medieval views, rooted nearly two thousand years back in the work of Aristotle, to move aside and make room for a modern conception of science; Kant sought to advance the autonomy of the individual in the face of illiberal and autocratic regimes, Marx to liberate the working classes from poverty and drudgery, feminists of all epochs to improve the status of women. None of these people were just solving little puzzles (though they did sometimes have to solve little puzzles on the way); they entered into debate in order to change the course of civilization.

Edward Craig, Philosophy: a very short introduction, 2002

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