What Is Philosophy?

When asked this question, philosophers themselves are known to pause or even stumble around a bit before venturing an answer, and when one does propose an answer, you can bet your collected works of Immanuel Kant that it’ll differ from the answer of any other.  This variance shouldn’t surprise us: the question, after all, is a philosophical one, and no two philosophers agree on everything.

Another difficulty comes from the variety of disciplines that fall under the title “philosophy.”  You have metaphysics, ethics, logic, epistemology, and aesthetics, to name a few of the fields.  You can also take a philosophical approach to just about anything and thus create philosophies of sciences, philosophies of math, of literature and of language, of interpretation, even of nothingness.  Ask a “what” question about a generality and you may be asking a philosophical question: “What is politics?” or “What is biology?” or “What is a fictional character?” for example.

Etymologically, the word “philosophy” means the love of wisdom, and that’s a lovely definition, but it doesn’t really define, i.e., set clear boundaries around what is meant by the word.  Personally, I lean toward defining philosophy as the creative and discursive study of general concepts and that which they disclose.  In other words, philosophy is not concerned with particulars, at least not in themselves, but with universals.  Its method is reason, as opposed to intuition or acceptance on authority, and it is creative because it uses language to produce something new and unique.

How would you define “philosophy?”

(H/T: Alex Knapp)

Kyle Cupp

Kyle Cupp is a freelance writer who blogs about culture, philosophy, politics, postmodernism, and religion. He is a contributor to the group Catholic blog Vox Nova. Kyle lives with his wife, son, and daughter in North Texas. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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18 Responses

  1. Patrick Cahalan says:

    Philosophy is the art of attempting to re-can knowledge worms that have been released from the can of ignorance.

  2. BlaiseP says:

    WVO Quine once observed philosophy and science were roughly in the same business. If science went about looking for great truths via repeated experiments, philosophy ought to approach its own discipline with the same rigor, applying organization and logic to the task of the philosopher.

    The student of philosophy will immediately see a problem here: the scientist often goes about his job attempting to prove or deny the validity of some pet theory. He constructs some particularly clever experiment lending credence to his theory, publishes in some journal, only to see someone else construct an even more fiendishly clever experiment with the sole purpose of defeating him. Truth doesn’t sort itself out neatly into empirical wisdom and metaphysics. Reputable philosophers are in the business of organizing thought: that’s their real job, untangling seeming contradictions.

  3. Rose says:

    I agree that a good chunk of philosophy has to do with conceptual analysis via argument. Also studying argument itself (i.e., logic). We also study value (aesthetics and ethics) which may or may not involve conceptual analysis. Also trying to describe what kinds of things there are, and how we know about them (or anything).

  4. Will H. says:

    Philosophy is what happens when you get a bunch of musicians around talking about music.
    There should be studies done on this.

    • Tom Van Dyke says:

      This relates to my own reply, which is that it’s the asking of “What is good?”

      This relates to one view that philosophy is “zetetic,” the doing of it, that is, the asking of that question: since the answers will always remain provisional, it’s about the seeking.

      As a not-bad musician and a duffer of a philosopher, “what is good” about covers it.

      • Will H. says:

        But what is music, and where does it reside?
        Is music something inside of you which is released by interaction with the instrument, is music located within the instrument itself and extracted by the musician, or is music something external with which the musician uses his instrument to interact?
        Or is it a co-mingling of these three, and to what extent?

      • James Hanley says:

        it’s the asking of “What is good?

        Have you seen the Beavis and Butthead interview from Rolling Stone?

        “Good” is stuff that doesn’t suck.

        I’m eagerly awaiting the publication of The Philosophy of Beavis and Butthead.

  5. John Howard Griffin says:

    Ahh, unfortunately, I think the word “philosophy” has many meanings beyond the study/search for basic principles and truth, using reason and logic. And these many meanings become conflated for all of us, I’m afraid.

    One can have one’s own philosophy. One can have a philosophy of a person (the philosophy of Reagan, or Thoreau, or Mickey Mouse). One can have a philosophy of science, or (ahem) art. And, others.

    I understand the version of philosophy you are attempting to define, but I find any definition to be missing these other pieces. One could almost equate some of these other definitions with “belief” or “system” or “doctrine”. Those definitions inherently change our understanding of the capital-P Philosophy, I think.

  6. paul stearns says:

    I teach philosophy and am getting a bit tired of the question. 🙂 Philosophy is the use of logic to explore the fundamental questions of existence. The fields of philosophy are logic, epistemology, metaphysics, and ethics. There are subfields as well. I think there is more agreement on this definition than assumed (interview 20 professional philosophers if you don’t believe me).

    As for ambiguity, yes, most words have ambiguity. For example, “stool in the garden” may mean excrement or a sitting chair. Philosophy too has several meanings. This only makes it confusing to those who don’t study it in depth. Philosophy has different meanings depending on the context (as does stool), but I believe I know exactly what it means in an academic context.

  7. John S. Wilkins says:

    Philosophy is what you aregue over when facts don’t fix the solution: What is Philosophy?.

  8. John S. Wilkins says:

    Philosophy is what you argue over when facts don’t fix the solution: What is Philosophy?.

  9. Robert Hagedorn says:

    Google First Scandal.