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.


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