Tuesday, October 12, 2010

What Is Philosophy?

A strange confluence of events recently has led me to consider more seriously the question above: What is philosophy?

One might think that this is a perennial question within the discipline of Philosophy, but one would be wrong. Truth is, most of us (professional philosophers) are too busy teaching/researching/thinking about our own projects, the history of philosophy and/or its core subfields (metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, logic, etc.) to step back and survey the whole. That's not to say that the question "what is philosophy?" is not, in most cases, implicitly present in most of the more-specialized work that we do on a day-to-day basis, only that it is seldom made explicit or taken up "as such" in that work. So, I have to admit, I was more than a bit embarrassed myself, upon reviewing the foci that generally occupy my attention, to realize just how little I ponder THE question.

Just a little backstory may be in order here. In no particular order, these are the serendipitously (or ominously, depending on your disposition, I suppose) converging events that have pressed this question to the fore in my mind of late:

~First, the most recent issue of Jobs for Philosophers was just released. (If you're not a member of the American Philosophical Association, you won't be able to read the JFP. So, you'll just have to take my word for it that it's a very depressing document for those who need it not to be.) I'm not "on the market," which means I'm not looking for a job in Philosophy, but I'm not far enough away from that yet to not still feel the "what's it all about?" anxiety that the JFP produces.

~Second, there's been a lot of buzz about the status of women in philosophy (as evidenced in my previous post, which was itself prompted by the new blog What Is It Like To Be A Woman In Philosophy?). Anytime these sorts of questions about who belongs (or doesn't belong) in Philosophy arise, people inevitably find themselves forced to "go meta" and at least try to define what they mean by "Philosophy" in the first place. Hilarity occasionally ensues. More often tragedy, though.

~Third, I recently had to turn in the text-adoptions for my department's Senior Seminar, which I will be teaching in the Spring semester. I've chosen Deleuze and Guattari's What is Philosophy? and the two "Right to Philosophy" collections of Derrida's essays, Eyes of the University and Who's Afraid of Philosopy?. I haven't worked this all out yet, but my idea is to center a part of the seminar around the question "What is philosophy?," attending to the many different valences of that question: historical, professional, cultural, political and ideological.

~Fourth, I had out-of-town family visiting last weekend and, because I'm on sabbatical this semester, I found myself (more than once) needing to answer the question about what exactly it is that I do with my time every day. Not to mention how it is that I get paid for whatever it is that I do.

~Finally, I just listened to the interview with Brian Leiter on the (very excellent) philosophy podcast program Why?, produced by the University of North Dakota's Institute for Philosophy in Public Life. Leiter was called upon to discuss the "profession" of philosophy, about which he had many interesting (and sober) things to say. Of particular interest to me was a question put to him by interviewer Jack Russell Weinstein, which went something like this (not an exact quote): "how would you describe Philosophy if you were on Ellen or Oprah?"

I like this question a lot, in part because it implicitly requires that the answer be straightforward, clear, jargon-free, sufficiently explanatory and accessible, if not to everyone, at least to the understanding of reasonably intelligent people. I've tried to formulate my own Ellen/Oprah answer, and it's more difficult than you might think. So, readers, I'd like to hear yours. You needn't be a professional philosopher to weigh in on this one, though some familiarity with philosophy (the discipline and the profession) would be helpful.

Let's hear it, then: What IS Philosophy?

Here are a few arbitrarily-imposed limitations on your answers, just to keep things interesting.
1. Answers should be NO MORE than 200 words or, alternatively, 4 (non-Teutonic) sentences.
2. Answers should NOT include vocabulary with which a reasonably intelligent (not necessarily college-educated) adult would be unfamiliar, nor should they employ familiar vocabulary in a specialized, discipline-specific or idiosyncratic manner (without explanation).
3. Answers should attempt to address both the discipline and the profession of "philosophy," assuming that Ellen or Oprah (or whoever else is asking) may not know the difference.

NOTE: If you got here through this blog's Facebook page, please be sure to post your answer in the comments section below, even if you have already posted it on Facebook.


e. said...

Philosophy tries to explain (break down, extrapolate, *discuss*) what is seemingly un-quantify-able about living, the world, or the subjective using its own form of scientific method. It IS everyday and everywhere, even if it appears like your shadow on a cloudy afternoon.

DOCTOR J said...

I should also say that I expect most professional philosophers who read this blog to be very afraid of answering the question posed here, if only because they know it will be an invitation for attack. So, let me say at the outset that I hope you're ablt to suppress that anxiety and offer your answers anyway. If it helps at all, I promise to monitor the comments-- which I generally do NOT do-- and I will delete anything that is unecessarily antagonstic or "flaming" or which does not forward the conversation in productive ways. Promise!

DOCTOR J said...

@E: Nice! And only 41 words, which is itself impressive!

DOCTOR J said...

Here's my go at it, just to show that I'm not afraid:

"Well, Ellen/Oprah...

'Philosophy' is the science that examines and clarifies our ideas/concepts, independent of the conevntional or "usual" ways that we might employ them, and surveys our uses of them according to the rules of logic. As a profession, philosophy involves studying the history of ideas, to see what might be learned from the advances (or mistakes) made there. But at its heart, philosophy is about wonder and, consequently, involves creating concepts. We understand our world and all that is in it first through ideas, and philosophy aims as much as possible to coordinate those ideas with what is actually true."

(99 words. Respect.)

Anonymous said...

Philosophy experiments with the possibility of thinking differently unless it takes place at a university. In that case it is the attempt to always think the same thing, but then that is no longer philosophy.

Joey said...

Well Ellen, great question. In fact, it’s a rather philosophical question, asking what philosophy is! The Greeks invented the word, and it means “love of wisdom.” So think about parents telling their children to “be good.” What they mean is, “don’t hit your baby brother!” The philosopher wants to know why that’s a wise thing to tell your child. Obvious, right! But it’s hard to pin down “Why?” We usually call that ethics: answering why something is good or bad. And notice: philosophy is usually of or about something. So philosophy of science wants to know, “What science’s job?” For instance, there’s a big debate over whether or not “can I hit my brother?” is a philosophical question, or whether it’s science—say, psychology. And when we ask, “how do we know who is right?” we’re asking a question in epistemology, or the philosophy of how we know things. So that’s what philosophy is: trying to figure out these hard questions in a fairly robust way—these questions we can only answer, as far as we know today, by thinking about them. Philosophers are people who hopefully have picked up a knack for asking, and sometimes answering, these questions

These questions are always hard because you have to do a little teaching in them, if you want the answer to ‘stick’ for your average person. In my answer, I try and point to many examples of where philosophy is going on: 1) the question itself; 2) love of wisdom; 3) ethics; 4) philosophy of science; 5) epistemology. I then try and show what’s the same in all of these cases: hard questions we can only examine through careful thinking. Second, I try to rudimentarily model the way a philosopher might approach the question, rather than simply answering the question. So I model taking these disparate ‘inputs’ and finding out ‘what’s the same’ in all of them (though with word limits, I can’t explicitly talk about that activity). Third, I want to at least hint at the practical side of philosophy: not just farting ideas. I do this three places: 1) pointing to an ‘everyday’ ethical concern to illustrate how common philosophy is; 2) allude to ‘professional’ debates inside the school of philosophy; 3) point to a practical benefit we can maybe get from philosophy: knowing who is right. There are a few other things I throw in: 1) By saying ‘philosophy is of or about something’ and giving a few examples, I think it may encourage people to wonder what else philosophy could be of or about; 2) “as far as we know today” is to indicate that we’re not sitting on settled questions.

John said...

Hmmm... I keep wanting to say the answer has something to do with a theatrum mundi. I hope it does not sound like a cliche to advance the "All the world's a stage" idea here. What is specifically philosophical would be, on the one hand, distance and detachment from "world", knowledge obviously, as a possession, hermetic even, but on the other hand engagement with the world even to the point of a certain theatricality, advancing one's position in the agora, a throw of the dice, opening up of new and unforeseen paths, even at the risk of being specifically a persona or otherwise outside of philosophy proper.

Tom Hickey said...

I am a professional philosopher, now no longer teaching formally but still writing. My conclusion is that philosophy cannot be defined to anyone's satisfaction, let alone everyone's.

For me, philosophy is the study of the whole in terms of key fundamentals. In this sense, philosophy is general problem solving, and it is open to all approaches that advance knowledge.

Aristotle says that all theorizing begins in wonder. I agree. Small children are doing philosophy when they start asking questions like, Why is the blue?

From the beginning of human wondering, questions that were once the province of philosophy spun off into other disciplines as methods were developed to address them. However, some questions have continued to crop up. These are the enduring questions. Kant encapsulated them: What can I know?, what ought I do?, and What can I hope for?

Such questions are still alive in people’s minds, and all thinking people have to come to grips with them. As Socrates famously observed, A life not reflected upon is not worth living. This is doing philosophy. It’s about formulating a rationale for one’s way of life. There are vastly different approaches to this, represented by Western, Oriental and Indian philosophy.

Christopher Long said...

Philosophy is neither a discipline nor a profession. Philosophy is an activity. Philosophy is the attempt to weave the good, the beautiful and the just, however elusive they remain, into the fabric of life.

anotherpanacea said...

It is the creation, elaboration, and analysis of concepts and arguments. Or if you're feeling romantic, you can't go wrong with Irigaray:

"The philosopher would be someone poor, dirty, rather down-and-out, always unhoused, sleeping beneath the stars, but very curious, skilled in ruses and tricks of all kinds, constantly reflecting, a sorcerer, a sophist, sometimes exuberant, sometimes close to death. [...] He is a sort of barefoot waif who goes out under the stars seeking an encounter with reality, the embrace, the knowledge or perhaps a shared birth, of whatever benevolence, beauty, or wisdom might be found there."

David O'Hara said...

Speaking as a professor of philosophy (I prefer "student of philosophy," but in this context that is misleading) I like the ways Christopher Long and Anotherpanacaea put it. (Full disclosure: I also like both of them as people, so that might be affecting my judgment a bit.)

In his "Seventh Letter" Plato adds something that might help, namely what philosophy is not: it's not just learning a bunch of doctrines or teachings or proofs. To put it more simply, it's not information to be memorized. As Plutarch put it, philosophers don't think of minds as containers to be filled up but as fires to be kindled so they can blaze with their own light.

Christopher Long said...

@David O'Hara I don't think your judgment is being clouded at all! Sharp, clear, on the mark.

anotherpanacea said...

Thanks David!

"When I am feeling thoughtful and imprecise, I like to say that philosophers embrace disagreement and pluralism because we are not, ultimately, ‘friends of wisdom’: we are practitioners of an ancient art of ‘wise friendship’ in which our disagreements and disputes are understood as a part of a larger project of amicability or relation. We obsess over metaphysical minutiae because these are a source of the distinction by which our friendships flourish."
(from here: http://www.anotherpanacea.com/2009/12/the-parable-of-the-three-rings/)

Anonymous said...

Philosophy is the body of logical processes and methods used for discovering (or inventing) and articulating truths. The pursuit of truths is driven by the philosopher's love of truths. The truths' discovery or creation is a function of the rigor and depth of philosophers' exploratory and creative processes. In addition to potentially discovering or inventing truths, professionals are charged with the curation and dissemination of previously discovered or invented truths.

Though not explicit in my definition, I would hasten to add that physicists, biologists, mathematicians, and other academics all qualify as philosophers. More importantly, non-academics who exercise logical investigations to discover (or invent), and articulate truths are also philosophers.

Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

Philosophy is a set of loosely connected ways of exploring questions and producing experiences. Where most academic disciplines are trying to create knowledge, philosophy questions, critiques and revitalizes the conditions under which knowledge can be created. Certain concepts like "truth," "goodness," "wisdom," "beauty" and "justice" have often proved useful to this endeavor. Philosophy is also the name for a formal institution based on the history of doing philosophy. This institution probably succeeds in actual engaging in philosophical with slightly more regularity than "non-philosophers" thinking outside of the institution.

Emma B. said...

We can start with an etymology - the love of wisdom.

We can start with a feeling, a comportment - wonder.

We can start with with a question; the broadest kind of question. The question of being.

We try to formulate the question. What? What kind of thing? Made of what? (which takes us in a scientific direction). Why? (which takes us in a theological direction). Through what? (which takes us in an epistemological/linguistic direction).

For me, though, the question that emerges as the primary philosophical question is "how"? This "how" is meant to remain in the region of the question of being, and yet also asks us to follow its tendrils into history, into specificity, into culture, into the ethical and political, into the everyday, into the constructions and movements of power and knowledge, of norms, phantasms, and signifiers, of the macrocosm and the microcosm, of reason and feeling, of responsibility and pleasure, in a way that returns us again and again to wonder and to life.

Chet said...

I've offered a longer answer to this question on my blog. Pardon the off blog reference.


Anonymous said...

Philosophy: the systematic critical examination of whatever prompted this definition.