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1. What is Philosophy?



By Paul Newall (2004)

Before we can consider some of the questions studied by philosophy it makes sense to ask what philosophy is in the first place, although this is itself subject to much debate. In this first part of a series introducing philosophy and philosophical ideas, we begin by looking at the word and some of the historical answers given before moving on to more recent opinions, also setting out the divisions typically made and the methods employed.

Historical interpretations of philosophy

The word philosophy has meant different things at different times, often reflecting the culture of the day. Usually we understand the term to denote the love of wisdom, from the Greek; in this sense, as it was apparently used by the famous philosopher Socrates, it gives the impression of someone who is seeking wisdom, rather than having found it. We would only call someone a physicist, say, if he or she actually had some knowledge of physics, but we describe as a philosopher someone who is aiming at wisdom without necessarily achieving it. On the other hand, philosophy has also had the negative sense of a subject full of idle speculation, useless to the practical business of finding things out and consisting mostly in irrelevant theorising.

Over the course of the history of philosophy its meaning seems to have shifted depending on the cultural climate. At some stages it was thought that the ideal state of human affairs could only come to pass when philosophers are kings or vice versa; conversely, we can find others insisting that the business of ruling is one of hard-headed practicalities with no time for worrying about philosophy. To Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher and Roman Emperor, the business of doing philosophy was more important than the conclusions we might come to; the idea was that philosophy is reflecting or thinking about life and our actions, attempting to measure our conduct or trying to act in the right way. This kind of behaviour led to the sense in which being "philosophical" in temperament still carries the connotation of being Stoic - the kind of person who thinks a lot before they do something and again afterwards to determine whether they acted wisely or might have done otherwise. A Stoic person might also be less disposed to be bothered by matters that in fact nothing can be done about, so in this sense philosophy can help by perhaps showing us what we have an impact on and what should be left well alone.

In the centuries that followed, philosophy was used or abused in differing degrees as it was applied to political, theological and moral matters. Some thought that by employing careful deliberation to the problems of their day they might arrive at wise and useful solutions; others reckoned that only religion could teach such things. In the end a compromise was reached and it was realised that one way of trying to answer a question is probably not enough and that other perspectives need to be considered.

In more modern times, philosophy took on another meaning as thinkers investigated the beginnings of what we now call science. For a long time science was part of philosophy, later being spoken of as natural philosophy and eventually experimental philosophy. At this point the philosopher Immanuel Kant made a distinction, though not rigidly, between the experimental method of the sciences and the rational method of philosophy. From around this period people started to ask questions of philosophy and wonder if it was good for anything given the apparent success of science. Even philosophers began to insist that the experimental method was the only way to answer questions about the world and that philosophy could no longer be thought of as anything but idle speculation. However, others cautioned that the arrival of another way to approach questions was a good thing and yet no reason to throw away the other methods that may, after all, still work better on some questions.

Some recent philosophers have continued these trends by arguing that philosophy tells us nothing, or that it can only show us - eventually - that philosophical problems were not really problems at all. Meanwhile, science continues to open up new areas of our universe and the term philosopher has again taken on a negative implication. Still others continue to insist that philosophy deals with fundamental questions that are not open to scientific investigation and have widely felt consequences for us all.

The purpose of this piece and those to follow will be to introduce what philosophers have said and done, how the various aspects of philosophy have tried to tackle the questions that we all ask ourselves at one time or another, and thus what we can say about philosophy as a result. Each of us can then make up his or her own mind as to whether it is worth bothering with philosophy or not.

The division of philosophy

The purpose of philosophy has often been very much a practical one: to consider by reasoned inquiry the ends to which we should aim, how we should live and how to structure our circumstances to best allow for these. To do this, it was often split into several areas:

  • Metaphysics: This is the study of reality, or what there is. Do gods or faeries exist? If not, why not? Why does anything exist at all?
  • Epistemology: This is the study of what can be known and how we can know about it. Given that we often assume something to have been real, for example, and yet it turns out we only dreamt or imagined it, how do we know anything at all? How sure can we be about our ideas and how much does the answer matter?
  • Ethics: Here we are studying what we mean by good and evil; the standards we use to judge our conduct; how we should act; how much or little we need to consider the wishes of others; and so on. This is the field of philosophy that is most obvious in its importance and we can see it in the many discussions that take place every day and in the relevance we all attach to the answers we each give.
  • Aesthetics: This is the study of concepts like art, music and beauty. Is there such a thing as true beauty or is it merely in the eye of the beholder? Are there mathematical harmonies underlying nature that should be imitated in our architecture or music?
  • Logic: Here we study reasoning itself: forms of argument, general principles and particular errors, along with methods of arguing. We see lots of mistakes in reasoning in daily life and logic can help us understand what is wrong or why someone is arguing in a particular way.
Today there are many more areas of philosophy but we will not consider them all in this first article. Later on we will devote other introductions to particular subjects and cover what philosophers have proposed.

The methods of philosophy

There are several ways we can do philosophy. These will be the subject of the next essay but the questions we can ask include some or all of the following:

  • What do the terms in the problem mean? Can this meaning be clarified such that we are not confusing ourselves before we start? If not, does the question make sense at all? This can be the beginning of our investigation.
  • Does the structure of the question make sense? It could be that the words used are understood but the form of the question is in error in some way, like asking "are you a married bachelor?" This is the start of analysing the language in which the question is posed.
  • Are there any helpful sources of information we can refer to? If so, we may want to ask if they apply as they are or if there are limitations to be borne in mind. If we want to call upon evidence to aid us, we first need to know if our question is open to experimental proof or disproof.
  • What kind of answer are we looking for? Does the question require a definitive yes or no response, or are we perhaps being asked for a best guess? We need to consider the form of answer we want to aim for or whether any answer is possible.
  • What are the consequences of the possible answers? Do they tell us anything important enough to influence which answer to choose, if any? If one or more of the options seems to lead to consequences that are impossible or seem highly unlikely, we can narrow our search considerably. On the other hand, if people have already based other decisions on a certain outcome of the question, how will changing it alter their ideas?
  • Are there any errors in the reasoning we apply to the question? If so, can we avoid them?
Although this introductory treatment is limited, we can begin to see what philosophers are considering when they do philosophy and why the very idea has meant different things to many people throughout history. The essays to follow will expand on these points and explain philosophy in more detail. The series is aimed at beginners but will hopefully be of interest to all readers.

Dialogue the First

(Note: As part of the Introducing Philosophy series, this is the first of several dialogues that attempt to explain the essay content in the form of a play. Although the stories and characters are not to be taken too seriously, hopefully they provide another way to understand how philosophy is involved in everyday life.)

The Scene: A small clearing in an unspecified but inviting forest. A stream passes through, flanked by several boulders on which Trystyn is sitting, apparently reading. Steven and Anna enter from the west, perhaps thirty minutes before sunset.

Steven: (Indicating Trystyn) Here's the fellow—just as I said.

Trystyn: (mutters) Here we go again...

Steven: How goes it, my philosophical friend? (He slaps Trystyn good-naturedly on the back, causing him to drop his book.)

Trystyn: As well as can be expected. (He picks up the book.) Are you back for more fun at my expense?

Steven: What's that you're reading? (He hasn't listened and makes a grab for the book.) Feyerabend? Never heard of the fellow.

Trystyn: No doubt. (Indicates and smiles at Anna.) Who's this?

Steven: Of course! May I present Anna—a scientist, thank goodness...

Anna: Not yet...

Steven: (Interrupting) ... but given to literary pursuits. I told her about you and she insisted on meeting you.

Trystyn: Well... (smiles at Anna.)

Steven: You see, my dear, the fact is that Trystyn can be found here as regular as clockwork, head in a book or in the clouds—very much the subject of an uninteresting experimental study. You could probably set your watch by him. A splendid fellow, of course, but no concern for the real world at all.

Anna: You're a philosopher?

Trystyn: Better ask him... (he rolls his eyes...)

Steven: Well that's the point, isn't it? Reading and thinking a good deal but not getting anywhere. A philosopher is a well-intentioned creature that achieves nothing of any consequence.

Anna: What do you study?

Trystyn: Ideas; methods; their foundations; justification. What is there and how can we know anything about it?

Steven: He paints a pretty picture, I'm sure you'll agree, but nothing comes of it.

Anna: What have you learned?

Trystyn: That I have much to learn.

Steven: A noble sentiment, but really: what have you achieved—any of you? You're still struggling with the same questions as the Greeks.

Trystyn: Of course, but that's the point.

Anna: How so?

Trystyn: (Puts his book down.) The matters that bothered the Greeks concern us still precisely because they're the questions that we all ask ourselves—they never go away.

Anna: Such as?

Trystyn: How are we to live? To what end?

Steven: (Sits down next to Trystyn.) But these are things we scientists ask ourselves too; meanwhile, we set about tackling questions we can answer. You never get anywhere.

Trystyn: Perhaps you're right? But it needn't be a bad thing: maybe all we can do is go over the old arguments and rehearse them, but we learn then that these questions are not so easily answered.

Anna: And we ought to be careful how we go about our lives...

Trystyn: Right. We study the past and find that people have struggled with many of the same questions, to which none of the suggested answers seems completely satisfactory. Perhaps there are no answers, or perhaps we aren't asking the right questions?

Anna: But surely the fact that these things are still undecided would make us wary of choosing one answer or another?

Trystyn: Yes—ideas have consequences. Hence the philosophical temperament: stop and think rather than charging on ahead. Are we attacking a problem in the right way? Are we using the right tools?

Steven: In the meantime, I guess I'll keep working to make your lives easier while you fritter it all away...

Trystyn: Philosophy isn't opposed to science, Steven, but what can we do with the things you discover? Whether we live in a mud hut or a space station, we still have to ask how we'll treat each other.

Anna: That's it.

Steven: But where are the results of your questioning? (He strikes a triumphant pose.)

Trystyn: You're missing the point. We keep asking these questions because it isn't enough to just be told that you should live in one way or another, like you can be told how far away the sun is. That no one knows the answers is what makes life interesting and not just a collection of facts, however helpful they may be.

Anna: So you keep asking.

Trystyn: I keep asking because I'm not content to leave these questions alone. Maybe I missed something? Maybe the goals I'm aiming at are too much for me? Maybe the people I meet are more important than resolving factual matters that fascinate us but ultimately don't tell me how we can all live together?

Steven: I don't see how philosophy can compete with all we learn from science, though. Every day we discover new things.

Anna: They're separate things, surely?

Trystyn: Kind of. No amount of facts can tell us what to do. We can find out that doing A will result in x and doing B in y, but before we get to that information we have questions like "what do I want to achieve?" "Are there limits on what I'll do to get there?" "How certain do I have to be before I'll try?" And so on. The facts help us but we have limits beforehand on what use we'll put them to. (He looks at his book and smiles.)

(There is a long silence.)

Anna: Maybe we should watch the sunset?

Steven: Let me tell you about the sunspot cycle...

(Curtain. Fin.)

Array

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