Can philosophy be defined?

Col asked:

What is your definition of ‘philosophy?’

Do you see any possible objections to your definition?

How would you defend your definition against those objections? 

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

I’m going to answer your question with another question: Why is it so important to ‘define’ philosophy? How does it help? What insight might such a definition give into the activity we call ‘philosophy’?

In a wide range of cases (and despite what Socrates repeatedly says in Plato’s dialogues) it is perfectly in order, in response to a request for definition, to cite a range of paradigm cases.

What is physics? Well, Newton’s laws of motion is physics. The structure of the atom is physics. The age of the universe is physics (or, if you want to be precise, the branch of physics known as ‘cosmology’). Still, it is useful to be able to say, with some degree of precision, how ‘physics’ chunks up physical reality in contrast to, say, chemistry or biology. That doesn’t seem too difficult a thing to do although although I won’t attempt that here.

What is science? is a more philosophically challenging question. Karl Popper in his 1934 book Forschung. Zur Erkenntnistheorie der modernen Naturwissenschaft (published in English as The Logic of Scientific Discovery in 1959) proposed a ‘falsifiability’ criterion as a means to demarcate science from what he called ‘pseudo-science’. Astrology and astronomy both deal with the heavens, but whereas astronomy is a science — putting forward theories about the stars, planets and galaxies that can, in principle, be overturned by empirical observation — astrology is arguably not falsifiable in this way.

A similar challenge to separating science from pseudo-science arises in philosophy. A lot of things go under the term ‘philosophy’ in popular parlance that professional ‘philosophers’, regardless of their individual differences, would not wish to describe as such. ‘Pop’ philosophy isn’t really philosophy, they would say. Although here the boundaries are more blurred. An increasing number of books have been written by academic philosophers popularising philosophy, and to make a subject accessible you have to make short cuts, over-simplify, paint things in black and white which are more like shades of grey.

Another challenge comes from a different direction. One might say, ‘That’s not philosophy, that’s psychology,’ or, ‘That’s not philosophy, that’s history of ideas.’ I’ve heard student essays criticised on both of these counts. Presumably, the critic has a clear notion of the difference between psychology and philosophy of mind/ philosophical psychology, or between history of ideas and history of philosophy.

For both these reasons — philosophy versus ‘pop philosophy’, or distinguishing philosophy from other disciplines — it would be nice if we could find a formula that would demarcate philosophy, properly so-called, from other things that we would not call ‘philosophy’.

I might state that philosophy ‘uses reasoning to discover things about the world,’ but that won’t do because Sherlock Holmes does exactly that when he solves a case. Certain aspects of ‘the world’, then? Mathematical reasoning discovers things about mathematical reality, the universe of numbers, sets and so on. By contrast, when a philosopher thinks about free will, or the mind-body problem or the problem of scepticism they are thinking about the actual we live in, our life, our place in the universe, not merely a world of grey abstractions.

In the absence of a simple formula, what I propose instead is a more like a template: in philosophical thinking, two fundamentally distinct but connected faculties are deployed in close harness: the faculty of logic (as in Sherlock Holmes) but unlike that great detective the philosopher always employs logic in combination with a faculty of intellectual vision. Philosophy describes the actual world, our world, that’s all it does. But it does this in a way that makes no additional empirical claims.

In a not dissimilar way, an art critic describes a painting, enabling us to see what we did not see before. The ‘facts’, the patches of paint on canvas, are already known. What is more difficult to grasp is the meaning, or the value of what we are looking at, how it all adds up to make a statement, as intended by the artist.

I’m not putting forward an argument for God as the ‘artist’. That’s not the point of the comparison (although a theologian might disagree). The point is that philosophers seek to uncover things that matter in our lives, by using vision and logic to make sense of the world. I wouldn’t even attempt to put this forward as a demarcation proposal, in the spirit of Popper. So ‘objections’ and ‘replies’ aren’t really to the point. But I hope that what I’ve said does help to make sense of the activity we call philosophy.

On this account, ‘pop’ philosophy is philosophy, it just isn’t very good philosophy, because it is marred by illogical thinking as well as false factual claims. Psychology can be philosophy, given a suitable context (for example, Nietzsche’s psychology). History of ideas, done by an historian who is gripped by the ideas in question rather than taking the stance of a detached spectator, shades imperceptibly into philosophy.

One thought on “Can philosophy be defined?

  1. The Oxford Dictionary defines philosophy as: “The study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence, especially when considered as an academic discipline.”

    Is this definition inadequate? If it is, might it be useful to discuss it and come up with an improved version here, and suggest it to the people at the Oxford Dictionary? I am reasonably sure they would be happy to listen to suggestions.

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