What is Philosophy?

Defining philosophy, like defining any complex subject, is challenging. It’s challenging partly because it’s been around so long but also because it has many parts. But plenty of people have attempted to define the discipline and I’m going to take a stab at it in this article.

Philosophy is the study of the fundamental structure of the universe. How’s that for not burying the lead? Actually, defining philosophy, like defining any complex subject, is challenging. It’s challenging partly because it’s been around so long but also because it has many parts. But plenty of people have attempted to define the discipline and I’m going to take a stab at it here.

Some stuff defies definition.  Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in 1964 couldn’t define pornography to anyone’s satisfaction, “But I know it when I see it.” he said in his opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio. But in general, any time we use a word to refer to something, the definition of that word not only singles out what the thing is but it also implies what the thing isn’t. A dog isn’t a cat. By calling something a dog, we’re implying it has stuff that cats don’t. That’s partly why we don’t call it a cat.

So in defining philosophy, I’ll describe what I think it is and also what I think it isn’t. If you’re reading ahead, you may get the sense that I’m already in trouble. In order to describe what philosophy isn’t, I must assume that my reader understands all these other things I’m comparing philosophy to. It’s wholly unhelpful to say philosophy isn’t x if you don’t know what x is.

So I’ll admit up front that my assumption is that you, dear reader, don’t have a good working definition of philosophy but that you do have some understanding of what these other things are. If that’s true, then by comparing what you don’t know to what you do know, you’ll know that what you don’t know isn’t what you do know and that will help you come to know what you don’t know. Make sense?

What Philosophy Isn’t

Philosophy is not science. Philosophy is a kind of science in the general sense of that term (as philosopher Bertrand Russell noted in the introduction to his famous A History of Western Philosophy): there are procedures to follow, hypotheses to test, outcomes to work towards, and experiments to run. By saying philosophy is not science, I mean that philosophy doesn’t study the things the hard sciences—chemistry, biology, some disciplines in physics—studies. The methodology might be similar in some respects but the objects of study are different.

Philosophy is not psychology. One of my graduate school professors frequently would ask people what they think philosophy is. One of his favorite answers was, “psychology misspelled.” The more philosophy I study, the more affinity I see between it and psychology. Both are generally focused on the mind and what it does, both worry about how the mind relates to the world around it, both are interested in behavior. But philosophy focuses less on how to live in the world as a thinking thing and spends more energy on what it means to be a mind. Philosophy also studies the mind’s contents--ideas or concepts. Psychology helps humans to understand why things go wrong and how to make them right again (and what that means) while philosophy is concerned with understanding the structure of things like beliefs, a moral behavior, and sense experience.

Philosophy is not linguistics. This one may be a bit controversial since philosophers spend a lot of time with words. Philosophy isn’t really about the structure of language but it is does focus on the content of words. Put differently, philosophers don’t care too much about why there should be number agreement between nouns and verbs in English sentences or why the nouns in Latin-based languages have a gender. But they do care what the definition of “existence” means and the difference between believing “God exists necessarily” and “Necessarily, God exists.”

Philosophy is not theology. Thomas Aquinas famously stated that philosophy is the handmaiden of theology. While I certainly would not want to attempt to cross intellectual swords with someone like Aquinas, I respectfully see things the other way around. The study of questions like, “Is there a god?,”What is good and evil?,”Do humans have a soul?” have all been studied by theologians but those theologians have been doing philosophy. Theology is particularly concerned with the nature of God (assuming God exists—a question philosophy tries to answer) and his relationship to the universe. Philosophy tends not to deal with such questions (though some philosophers play around in this space) and is concerned with whether a being like God is an idea that makes sense given everything else we think we know.

What Philosophy Is

Philosophy is the foundation of all subjects. When my kids were younger, they would yell “jinx!” when one or more of them said the same word at the same time. Often, they would all yell “jinx!” at the same time which would demand the necessary “double-jinx!” Simultaneous “double-jinx!” obviously meant they’d need to race to the “triple-jinx!” “Quadruple-jinx!” is beyond the pale so finally one would squeak out more quickly than the others: “jinx! to infinity!”

A philosopher saying philosophy is the foundation of all other subjects may sound at first like a “jinx! to infinity!” – a small-man's way of saying, “my discipline is the most important!” But saying philosophy is at the root of everything else we study isn’t so much a race to top as it is an observation. Philosophy studies concepts and the relations those concepts have to one other. It studies the meaning of terms, and the structure of the world around us. In this sense, all other disciplines must assume some framework before it can begin (philosophy, of course, does too and philosophers study that!). Whenever you start asking questions about the foundation of what you’re studying, you’ve entered the wide world of philosophy. Thomas Nagel once wrote, “We couldn’t get along in life without taking the ideas of time, number knowledge, language, right and wrong for granted most of the time; but in philosophy we investigate those things themselves.” (Nagel, What Does It All Mean?) That’s the general idea.

Philosophy is a framework. This means that philosophy is an approach to questions rather than a bunch of answers to the questions themselves. Logic, a sub-discipline in philosophy, gives us a way to frame ideas so we talk about things more orderly. For example, if I said, “I’m not voting for that politician.” You could reasonably ask why. Suppose my response was, “I don’t know, I’m just not.” You would know that I probably wouldn’t be voting for the politician but you wouldn’t know much else. You wouldn’t know whether my claim was reasonable or not or if you shouldn’t vote for that politician. If I want to convince you that something is true, I offer reasons to support the thing I want you to believe and you can either accept my reasons or offer some reasons for a different conclusion. This method of “argumentation” is a framework for discussion and has formed the basis of rational discourse since recorded time. This framework is based in philosophy.

Philosophy is practical. This one may surprise you a bit but I’ve found philosophy to be immensely practical. Humans exist in a sea of ideas and concepts. We live and die by them. We discuss them and work on problems involving them. We exchange ideas at work, at home, in relationships, and politics. We are constantly trying to bridge communication gaps and refine ideas and get more precise about them. In short, humans existence is wholly dependent on ideas (jinx! to infinity!). Philosophy, as a discipline that is all-consumed with better understanding ideas, affects every area of life. The better we can get at framing and discussing ideas, the better and more precise our definitions, the clearer we can become about the limits of our knowledge and the importance (or unimportance) of the things we believe, the better we might be at living. That seems pretty practical to me.

Philosophy is truth-conducive. Sorry about the technical term (I need it to maintain my ‘philosophy is’ list). “Truth conducive” simply means that philosophy can help get us nearer to what is true about the world. When I say that to people who aren’t professional philosophers, I typically get a raised eyebrow and a smirk. After all, aren’t philosophers still studying the problems that Plato was dealing with 2500 years ago? Yes and that’s partly why I used the phrase nearer to what is true. Philosophers attempt to study the structure of the world and insofar as we make progress on that task, we learn stuff about how the world works. For example, philosophers study beliefs. We want to know what a belief is, how it works, how it relates to other things in the world and so on. When philosophers chip away at that problem and come up with some good ideas about it, we are actually uncovering facts about the world that we otherwise would not know.

Disciplines in Philosophy

In this section, I describe a handful of sub-disciplines in philosophy to give you an idea of the areas of study professional philosophers focus on.

  • Epistemology – this is the study of the scope, limits, and possibility of knowledge. Epistemologists wrestle with questions like, “what can I know?,” “what is knowledge?,” “what are the limits of what I can know?,” “how do beliefs work?,” and “how are beliefs related to other things in the world?”
  • Metaphysics – metaphysics has taken on a kind of new age meaning in modern society. But metaphysics in philosophy is generally the study of the structure of the world. For example, metaphysicians study the nature of existence. Have you ever wondered what it means for something to exist? Can “square circles” exist? If not, why not? Can you understand what it would mean to exist without a body (is this even possible)? What is a physical object as opposed to other types of objects? Metaphysics tackles these questions.
  • Philosophy of Mind – here we attempt to look at what it means to say something has a mind. Philosophers of mind also wrestle with topics like whether the mind and the body are distinct things or whether other animals like fish or “inanimate” things like computers have minds. You most likely have opinions about these questions and in philosophy of mind, you create a framework for those opinions and are able to test them.
  • Ethics – ethicists study the nature of the good and how humans should live based on how the good is defined. Talk about practical.
  • Philosophy of Religion – philosophers in this discipline attempt to tackle questions like, “does God exist?,” “is there life after death?,” “is any religion true?” and “how can we believe in a good God with so much evil in the world?”
  • Logic – Logicians study arguments and the relationship between ideas.

As you probably notice, each of these disciplines relate to each other and there is a lot of overlap. That’s partly why philosophy can be so time consuming and difficult. But I hope you also get the idea that the payoff for investing time in these subjects can be immense.

For Further Reading

*By purchasing books through the links below, you help support Philosophy News.

Irrational Man a Study in Existential Philosophy
Barrett, W. (1963). Garden City, New York: Anchor Books.
The Denial of Death
Becker, E. (1973). New York: The Free Press.
A History of Philosophy
Frederick Copleston, S. (1993-1994). A History of Philosophy (Vols. I-IX). New York: Image Books.
The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America
Menand, L. (2001). New York: Farrar, Straus, Ciroux.
What Does It All Mean?
Nagel, T. (2004). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
The Theory of Knowledge: Classic and Contemporary Readings
Pojman, L. P. (1993). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company.
Introducing Philosophy: A Text with Integrated Readings
Solomon, R. C. (2001). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
image Talking Philosophy: A Wordbook
Sparkes, A. W. (1991). London: Routledge.
Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America
Turner, J. (1985). Baltimore, Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
A Rulebook for Arguments
Weston, A. (2008). Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company.
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