Philosophers on the nature of philosophy

Catherine asked:

Do philosophers agree on the nature of philosophy?

Answer by Massimo Pigliucci

In a nutshell: yes and no, it depends. It is not easy to catch philosophers on record — especially in peer reviewed publications — freely musing about how to best characterize their own field (then again, how many scientists have you heard lately who give themselves to discussions of the definition of science?). But we live in a world in which even philosophers are getting used to social media, podcasts and blogs, and it turns out that such outlets are friendlier to our quest. So for instance, the journalist Maria Popova[1] collected a variety of responses to the question ‘What is Philosophy?’ from a number of prominent contemporary practitioners, and some of the answers are illuminating.

According to the survey, Marilyn Adams thinks that philosophy is about ‘trying to bring analytic clarity both to the questions and the answers,’ while for Peter Adamson ‘Philosophy is the study of the costs and benefits that accrue when you take up a certain position.’ Richard Bradley says that it is ‘about critical reflection on anything you care to be interested in,’ whereas Allen Buchanan claims that it ‘generally involves being critical and reflective about things that most people take for granted.’

Don Cupitt simply says that philosophy is about critical thinking (an unfortunately much abused term, of late); for Clare Carlisle it is ‘about making sense of all of this [the world and our place in it]’; and Barry Smith agrees, saying that philosophizing is ‘thinking fundamentally clearly and well about the nature of reality and our place in it.’ For Simon Blackburn philosophy is ‘a process of reflection on the deepest concepts,’ something that Tony Coady describes as ‘a science of presuppositions.’

For Donna Dickenson it is about ‘refusing to accept any platitudes or accepted wisdom without examining it’; Luciano Floridi talks about conceptual engineering; and Anthony Kenny refers to ‘thinking as clearly as possible about the most fundamental concepts that reach through all the disciplines.’ For Brian Leiter, arguably the most influential professional philosopher who blogs, a philosopher is someone who ‘creates new ways of evaluating things — what’s important, what’s worthwhile,’ and Alexander Nehemas tells us that he became a philosopher ‘because I wanted to be able to talk about many, many things, ideally with knowledge, but sometimes not quite the amount of knowledge that I would need if I were to be a specialist in them.’

For David Papineau philosophy ‘requires an untangling of presuppositions: figuring out that our thinking is being driven by ideas we didn’t even realize that we had,’ while Janet Radcliffe Richards regards ‘philosophy as a mode of enquiry rather than a particular set of subjects… involving the kind of questions where you are not trying to find… whether your ideas are true or not, in the way that science is doing, but more about how your ideas hang together.’

Michael Sandel opines that philosophizing means ‘reflecting critically on the way things are. That includes reflecting critically on social and political and economic arrangements. It always intimates the possibility that things could be other than they are,’ and finally Jonathan Wolff identifies philosophical problems as those that ‘arise… where two common-sense notions push in different directions, and then philosophy gets started.’

(I purposely left out uninformative or purely poetic concepts of philosophy from the Popova survey, such as ‘Philosophy is the successful love of thinking,’ or ‘When nobody asks me about it, I know. But whenever somebody asks me about what the concept of time is, I realize I don’t know,’ for which — I have to admit — I have little patience.)

As for myself, I tend to think of ‘philosophy’ as a type of thinking activity based on discursive rationality and argumentation (DRA, for short). DRA-style philosophy has been a major (though not the only) mode of philosophizing in the West since the pre-Socratics, and it is definitely common in non-Western traditions as well, for instance in the case of the history of Indian logic and of a number of Buddhist schools of thought as exemplified by the work of Nagarjuna.

Why would I want to limit ‘philosophy’ to the practice of DRA? For two reasons, one historical, the other pragmatic.

Historically, as is well known, the term ‘philosophy’ comes from a Greek root meaning ‘love of wisdom,’ and the associated practice has been — largely — one exemplifying DRA. So DRA-style philosophy broadly construed (i.e., not only in the narrower sense of the modern so-called ‘analytic’ tradition) can claim historical precedence on any other type of human activity that people may wish to characterize as philosophy.

Pragmatically, it seems to me that it helps no one, and in fact only increases the general confusion, if we use the same term for what are manifestly very different kinds of activities. So, for instance, if you are invoking mystical insights, as some philosophical traditions from both the East and the West do, then you are not doing philosophy, but rather something else (mysticism, to be precise). Similarly, if your writings contain arguments that are not backed up by logical discourse but, say, by appeal to emotional responses, then you are doing something else (literature, essayism, or other things, depending on the specific cases). Again, examples can be found both within and without the Western tradition.

All of that said, I’m sure other philosophers will disagree…


1. Popova, M. (2012) What is Philosophy? An Omnibus of Definitions from Prominent Philosophers.


Euthyphro’s dilemma revisited

Catherine asked:

Is an act morally good because God approves of it or God approves of it because it is morally good?

Answer by Craig Skinner

This question is often called the Euthyphro dilemma because it is posed by Socrates in Plato’s dialogue ‘Euthyphro’ (10 a) as ‘is the pious being loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is being loved by the gods ?’

It is a dilemma for those holding a divine-command view of morality, because neither option in the question seems acceptable. Thus:

* if we say an act is morally good because God approves, this makes morality arbitrary – anything God approved of, however horrible, would automatically becomes good.

* if we say God approves of an act because it’s morally good, this makes God redundant: if the act is morally good, we can commend it ourselves for moral reasons, just as God does.

In short, either morality is arbitrary or God is redundant.

Most secular philosophers, and some theists, accept that morality is not arbitrary, rather that God is redundant.

But Christian philosophers don’t accept the dilemma, arguing that morality is not arbitrary and that God is not redundant.

Here’s how.

Morality not arbitrary: it is God’s nature to approve of only good things, never bad things. So the idea that God might approve of, say, torturing children for fun (well, our enemies’ children at any rate), so that such action becomes ‘good’, shows misunderstanding of God as the source of all goodness. So it is true that acts are morally good because God approves of them – he only approves of the good.

God not redundant: approval by God makes an act obligatory not just good. Many acts are good but not obligatory. For example it would be good of me to visit an acquaintance tomorrow in hospital (a kind act) but it is not morally obligatory for me to do so.

But Christians regard God’s commands as not just acts it would be good for us to do (and OK if we don’t), but rather as acts we are obliged to do. For example, Jesus’ command to his disciples to ‘love one another as I have loved you’, is not just recommending that loving one another is good, and an option they should try from time to time, but an obligation central to how they, and all humans, should live. Divine command, by a good and loving God, gives an act added value over and above its intrinsic goodness, so that God is far from redundant.

Naturally these arguments cut no ice for those who don’t accept the assumed theistic teleological structure and its vision of the ultimate good of human life. For atheists, the question of what the gods approve of and why doesn’t arise; the ‘dilemma’ is taken to simply show that morality doesn’t require any god as guarantor.


Implications of the disappearance of religion

Danish asked:

What if religion disappears today? What be the implication


1. Social point of view Is it not the religion that plays a major role in holding back 99 against 1 amongst other things? Will not it create anarchy as a very first reaction as the religion is the fundamental identity and bedrock of human principles (de facto legal too)?

2. Ethics/ Morality-Will then every legitimate/ legal action then have an inbuilt moral and ethical qualifier holding near to negligible intrinsic value? Will not anything intrinsic then be seen with a prism of hedonism? Will then incest be acceptable if agreed upon barring/ controlling biological complication resulting from it. In sum, any desire agreed upon and legitimized by state will then be deemed acceptable and moral.

Answer by Stuart Burns

It is clearly not the case that religion plays a major part in holding in check the majority and protecting the minority. History clearly shows that religion plays a major part in rationalizing the majority’s suppression of and discrimination against the minority. The minority, after all are heretics and non-believers. And as such, as is clearly stated in, for example the Koran, are subject to severe penalties. Religion is indeed a bedrock of group identity — hence the prevalence of discrimination against those not part of the group. But religion is not the bedrock of moral or legal principles.

Plato’s Euthyphro Dialogue documents what is called the Euthyphro Dilemma. In modern parlance, it can be stated as the question — ‘Is what God commands good because he commands it, or does God command what is good?’ The first option makes God’s command arbitrary and capricious. The second option accepts that there is a standard of moral goodness independent of God’s commands. The first option makes a sham of moral principles. The second option renders religious morality irrelevant.

If religion disappears today, it would obviously be because it is replaced with a non-religious moral system. It could not disappear without such a replacement. Firstly, because it would not disappear on its own. It would have to disappear because it is replaced with something that serves its function more successfully. And secondly, even if it did disappear on its own for some odd reason, it would have to be quickly replaced with a moral system that provides legitimating authority to legal rules and social etiquette. Fortunately, there are plenty of candidates waiting in the wings offering something better than religion, and promising more rational and scientific basis for the authority of laws and social rules.

I think the biggest problem, if religion were to disappear overnight, would be what to do with all the now unemployed religious workers. But that would be only a temporary problem. Religions, after all, are the least productive industry we have. Surely most of those ‘interpreters of God’s will’ will find more socially productive work in other vocations.


How did Socrates know he was wise?

Steven asked:

How did Socrates know he was wise?

Answer by Graham Hackett

The words of the Oracle are actually in the negative. ‘Is anyone wiser than Socrates?’ was the question asked. The priestess answered, ‘No one’. So not only was Socrates declared wise, but in fact he was declared the wisest man in Athens. I recommend that you the answer by Tony Fahey, Socrates and the Oracle of Delphi. There you will find a good account of the pronouncement of the Oracle and Socrates’ use of it in his own defence before his Athenian accusers. I cannot do better than this article, so I will add just a few remarks of my own.

The difficulties in answering your question stem partly from our lack of direct knowledge of Socrates own life (how much of the account we have is due to Plato’s own views or genuinely objective, etc), and partly what we take to be the meaning of wisdom. Wisdom could refer to the possession of genuine higher level knowledge of such difficult key concepts as virtue, good, happiness, piety, justice etc. A key Greek word here is ‘Sophos’. This term used in pre-Socratic Greece refers to something like a sage, wise man something like a combined prophet, priest and therapist. The Sophos were interested in rational argument for proof of concepts in ethics and metaphysics. Sophos in this sense were not ‘professional thinkers’, such as were the Sophists active in the lifetime of Socrates .

What would Socrates have understood the Delphic Oracle to be saying about wisdom, and if so, would he have a convincing reason for his particular belief? Well, as is reported, he seems to have expressed puzzlement with the oracular pronouncement, regarding it as paradoxical. According to mainstream Greek thinking before Socrates, a truly wise man would have definitive knowledge, maybe, like Thales, Heraclitus and Pythagoras, even have constructed systems of knowledge. Socrates denied that he had this kind of knowledge and he was certainly not a system builder. In fact, he rather famously claimed ignorance, so how could he be the wisest man in Athens?

In support of this claim of lack of knowledge, Socrates, at least in the earlier Platonic dialogues used the method of elenchus, which proceeded as follows;

1. Socrates’ interlocutor asserts a thesis, e.g. ‘piety is doing according to the will of the Gods’, which Socrates questions.

2. Socrates secures his interlocutor’s agreement to other premises, e.g.; ‘what the Gods ask is pious’ or ‘the Gods may ask contradictory things.

3. Socrates then argues, with the interlocutor’s agreement, that these further premises imply the contrary of the original thesis.

4. Socrates then claims this shows that his interlocutor’s thesis is false and that its negation is true.

What seems to be the point behind the Oracle story is this; the claims of many to be wise (to possess knowledge) is wrong. Socrates use of the technique of the elenchus demonstrates this. His assumption of ignorance, and then gradually refining an initially unacceptable position in the direction of knowledge at least could be described as the beginning of wisdom. If you accept this interpretation of the Oracle, then you may judge that Socrates has some justification to believe he wise. You may have read Platonic dialogues where a final definitive position is never reached. For example, in the ‘Theaetetus’, Socrates attempts to get at the nature of knowledge, but the dialogue seems to end unsatisfactorily with no final acceptable conclusion. Should we regard this as a futile failure? Not a bit of it! Even if the characters in the dialogue never reach a final definitive position on the nature of knowledge, Socrates would no doubt take heart in having moved the search further onward.

Perhaps it is not too fanciful to suggest that there was shift in how we view wisdom at the time of Socrates. Today, philosophers are less viewed as having wisdom in the ancient sage-like sense and seen more as those who love and seek wisdom. Knowledge is not a final position; it is an ongoing search.

Wisdom is also often used as referring to a more practical prudential knowledge. Socrates and Plato seem to have regarded this as a lower form of knowledge; an art, or a skill; how to build a boat, how to conduct oneself in the public arena etc. Aristotle held prudential wisdom in higher regard (it was referred to by the Greeks as phronesis). You may argue that considering his own wilful neglect of Athenian public life and his ability to irritate important citizens, Socrates could have used a lot more of this form of wisdom. It is a pity that the Oracle did not warn Socrates of his dangerous lack of this kind of practical knowledge, by providing more detail in their pronouncements. But then the Oracle never had the virtue of clarity.


What is the age of the Earth is time does not exist?

Robert asked:

What is the age of the Earth if time does not exist?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

This is a nice question, which illustrates the difference between a metaphysical proposition and an empirical or mundane claim.

If it is a metaphysical truth that time does not exist, or is ‘unreal’ as McTaggart argued in The Nature of Existence (1921-7), then there is no past or future, nothing is young or old, time does not pass. Does that mean that everything remains the same? No, because ‘remaining the same’ itself implies temporal distinctions. The houses outside my window remain the same while the clouds move.

A similar point could be made about the size of the Earth if matter and the physical universe do not exist, as Berkeley claimed in his philosophy of immaterialism. From a metaphysical standpoint, there are no ‘material’ objects. All reality exists as ideas in the mind of God. Yet the world of our experience exhibits differences of physical size and mass ‘as if’ there were material things.

Even for a McTaggart, there are mundane or empirical truths which are unaffected by one’s metaphysical theory. ‘It’s now time for tea,’ as the tea lady knocks on the door of the philosopher’s study and McTaggart takes a break from writing his great metaphysical treatise. In these terms, the Earth has an age whether metaphysically time is real or not.

In the heyday of Oxford philosophy, this double stance was regarded with great suspicion. J.L. Austin put the point succinctly in the context of theories of perception: ‘There’s the bit where you say it and the bit where you take it back’ (Sense and Sensibilia, 1962).

Would Austin similarly complain that my desk top is solid wood but also from the point of view of fundamental physics mostly empty space? It seems a perfectly reasonable thing to say. Depending on one’s interests — which include theoretical interests from physics, or metaphysics, or some other way of describing the world — the properties we attribute to things vary. The very meanings of the words we use vary. I don’t have a problem with that.

Puzzle about BCE and CE dating

Anon asked:

Transiting from B.C.E. TO C.E.

If the dates during the B.C. era moved backwards, e.g. from 1000 B.C.E. to 400 B.C.E to 350 B.C.E. and down towards zero, then was the first month of the year December or January?

What did the people who lived during the B.C.E. think would happen when the year reached 0000? End of time?

Was the first date of the C.E. (A.D.) era 01.01.0000 or 01.01.0001?

If, say, the first date of the C.E. was 01.01.0000, then what was the date the previous day? Was it 01.01.0001 B.C.E., 01.12.0001 B.C.E. or 31.12.0001 B.C.E.?

And if the first date of the C.E. era was 01.01.0001, then was the date the previous day 01.01.0000, 01.01.0001, 01.12.0000, 01,12,0001, 31.12.0000 or 31.12.0001?

Answer by Stuart Burns

People who lived during the B.C.E. eras did not think about what would happen when the Gregorian Calendar reached zero, because they did not use the Anno Domini year numbering system. The Anno Domini year numbering system was introduced by the 6th century Monk Dionysius Exiguus. Hence, until the advent of the Anno Domini numbering system, there was no B.C.E. or A.D. (C.E.)

The people living before the introduction of that numbering system, used year numbers related to relevant events in their lives. Such as the 5th year of the Emperor Whosits. So for those people living in the BCE era, years did not decrease. And the first month of their years was whatever was equivalent, in their calendar, to the January of the English version of the Gregorian Calendar. (Ianuarius in the Julian calendar, introduced by Julius Caesar in about 46 BCE.)

Also, the Anno Domini year numbering system has no year zero. So the first date of the AD era was 01.01.0001. And the day before 01.01.0001 AD was 31.12.0001 BCE (assuming a notation).