What is philosophy?

Jabr asked:

What is Philosophy?

I want to come up with a definition of philosophy as succinct as the definition of physics as the study of the nature of matter and energy at the most fundamental levels using rational thinking, observations and experimentation.

If I would venture to arrive at an equally concise definition of philosophy, I would say it is using logic and critical thinking to study articulated thoughts and questions about anything plus the construction of good arguments to answer fundamental questions not dealt with by any other field of expertise.

What do you think?

Answer by Hubertus Fremerey

Start from the most obvious difference of sciences and humanities: The sciences have an ideal object : To understand the true nature of nature as contained in the as yet unknown complete set of natural laws in the right mathematical formulation.

There is no comparable objective truth in the humanities. There is logic, but as the word says, logic is just the way we use words and arguments in the correct way, not the value of the content. To put it bluntly: You can utter complete nonsense in perfectly consistent and logically meaningful sentences. You can write great books of deep thoughts in hundreds of pages describing the nature and workings of God — even if God does not exist.

So, the first problem is to get form and content apart. In the sciences you try to re-construct “the” truth that is “out there”. But in the humanities you try to con-struct “a” truth that is only in the mind of the beholder.

Thinking means “to be free”. Thinking is a way of “world-making”! Mere facts are meaningless. We have to construct some frame of reference that gives meaning to the facts. In the case of Sherlock Holmes we assume that there has been a real crime, since there is a body. Thus what Sherlock does is: re-construct a deed in the way a scientist does. But in the case of the theologian it is not even clear whether there has been a crime and a body. So, what does a theologian try to show? He has not only to show us “how it happened”, he even has to show that there has happened anything at all.

In this way, the philosopher may try to show us that a certain state of human affairs is “un-just”. But to do that, the philosopher has first to define a concept of justice. Another philosopher may disagree and reject the definition of the first philosopher. There is no way to tell who is right.

You see the problem here: There are no objective criteria of justice. Justice is in the eye of the beholder. People may struggle for a “more just world”, but they need not agree on what this comes to. The same applies with progress, human dignity, mental sanity etc.. Philosophers are always trying to convince each other and themselves that a certain answer is good and meaningful, but they cannot prove it. It is just a matter of intellectual honesty, never more.

Philosophers try to build houses for humans to live in. There is no such thing a “the right house”. But there is “good craftsmanship” and “sloppiness” in building a house.

Logic does not help. You always need content. To know everything about good craftsmanship as a buildings-engineer does not get you a house. To be a good logician does not make you a good philosopher. To be good with colours does not make you a great painter. You cannot reduce philosophy to logic and methodologies. Those are technical preconditions only, not the work to be done. To be good at the piano does not make you a Beethoven.

Thus your question should be: What is expected of me as a philosopher? You should become able to counsel people on the many aspects of a problem to be solved. You should become an expert on good arguments and on the many faces of concepts. But you will never be able to tell anybody “the truth”. There is no such thing in philosophy. But there is ignorance and awareness, naivety and seasoned wisdom.

Philosophy is not science — and never will be. Socrates was right on this. Wittgenstein did not think otherwise. Philosophy belongs among the humanities.

2 thoughts on “What is philosophy?

  1. Philosophy is the search for truth, but not only “a” truth. It’s the search for “the” Truth, the one absolute objective Truth. If you think otherwise you reduce it to a game; a sophist pastime meant to amuse and confuse, maybe an exercise in thinking, maybe a teaching of prudence and awareness, but not philosophy.

    Sure, you can never prove this truth and you can’t even achieve certainty for yourself that truth has been reached. You don’t know and you never will know, but that’s not to say that the truth isn’t out there. If it wasn’t, there would be no point in struggling.

    Fair enough, science pursues a physical truth which obviously is more tangible. You can take your visible evidence and show it to another person and he just has to believe his eyes. But even in science there is no absolute evidence. Old “evidence” is frequently discarded, and new theories emerge, and nothing could ever convince the most ardent skeptic. Still, I for one think it’s the Truth that the earth is round just as I am quite convinced that certain ethical theories express the truth.

    Science deals with physical evidence and that makes it easier to convince other people and yourself of your beliefs. But that’s the only difference between natural science and the humanities in this regard, and it’s not something absolute.

    All the humanities, except philosophy (and theology), concern themselves with some sort of physical facts that produce semi-physical evidence (e.g. psychological experiments, sociological observations). Only philosophy is removed from the world of experience and deals with pure thought (metaphysics being the purest form of philosophy). Of course, the evidence will be more elusive in such a realm but that’s not to say that evidence is not being sought and that there isn’t an ultimate truth that the philosopher is seeking.

    For me philosophy is at the extreme end of a continuum, with natural science at the other end, where the determining factor is the purity of thought.
    Philosophy is the science of pure thought.

  2. Thank you Prof. Hubertus for reflecting on my definition of philosophy; I gained more clarification as a result. But I want to make one thing clear:

    In my trying to find a concise definition for philosophy, by using the definition of physics as an example (I am a physicist), I was not confusing the scientific pursuit of physics with that of philosophy. That is why I confined the field of philosophy’s interest to the realm of articulated thoughts or what we think and say about the world, not to measurable objects.

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