What is Philosophy?

What is philosophy? And why are we bothering to blog about it?

Even people trained in philosophy are often hard-pressed to come up with a pithy definition of it. The first time I taught Introduction to Philosophy, I stammered at the front of the class for a good five minutes trying to explain the sorts of things about which I was going to teach them for the next fifteen weeks. (Later in the semester, I stammered for significantly less time, but with the same significant stammering intensity, over the definition of “ethics”. So it’s not just the general term “philosophy” that’s the issue, I think.)

Of course, if you’re a philosophy aficionado you might well already know the problems attached to the process of defining terms. Wittgenstein, famously, in his Philosophical Investigations, took his readers down the rabbit hole in attempting to define the term “game” — even something so seemingly simple can be difficult to pin down with authority and without counterexamples getting in your way.

But it’s not just the general problem of defining terms that is difficult in the case of “philosophy”. The field to which the term attaches is so broad and so nebulous that it’s no wonder it’s so hard to describe.

It may be fruitful here to think of philosophy as a practice, rather than a field. And you learn about a practice (and how to participate in that practice) more by immersion than by definition. So, while it’s fairly unsatisfying to someone just starting out in the practice of philosophy, I think it’s actually not unfair to say at the beginning of a philosophy course “you’ll see what philosophy is by the end of the semester. For now, crack open your Descartes text and let’s talk…”

That doesn’t help you, our much-appreciated reader, to figure out what it is this blog is about, and whether or not you’ll still be a reader next week. So, despite my trepidation, let me take a stab at saying what philosophy is and why we’ll be blogging about it.

The roots of the word “philosophy” harken back to “lover of wisdom”. Indeed, philosophy is all about the love of knowledge, and unearthing pieces of knowledge wherever you can. And when I say “wherever” I’m not kidding. There are philosophical treatises on such abstruse topics as nonexistent objects, and on subjects as far ranging as everything from humor to subatomic physics.

What, you might ask, makes some bit of knowledge about subatomic physics a piece of philosophy rather than a piece of physics? There have actually been scientists who have argued that philosophy of science is about as useful as astrology; and even the great philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote: “as soon as definite knowledge concerning any subject becomes possible, this subject ceases to be called philosophy, and becomes a separate science.” (Bertrand Russell (1912). The Problems of Philosophy. New York: Henry Holt & Co.) His thought was that the sciences provide definite knowledge, while philosophy provides insightful burrowing into ideas that may someday become science. (Of course, Russell was writing in the heady days when it seemed as if science and mathematics would explain everything, but that’s another story…)

Whether or not that’s true, it is most assuredly true that the philosophy of science has hit upon and explored many important areas of knowledge that scientists, busy doing the important work they’re doing, might never have explored. The importance of exploring these areas remains an open question, but if you have a philosophical disposition, you would seldom if ever doubt the importance of what you were studying. Not because your area of exploration might yield anything, say, scientifically fruitful, but simply because if it’s an avenue of knowledge, whatever lays at the end of it, you want to go down that path. It’s the journey itself that is as important as what you find, along with the fact that whatever you’ve found, it was something that needed discovering.

I remember my first day as a graduate philosophy student, going to the library and just wandering down the aisles. At first, I stuck to the philosophy stacks, marveling at the breadth and depth of the tomes there. But eventually I wandered into the math stacks — a second academic love of mine — and spent some quality time there, once again marveling at the results of humankind’s curiosity. Then it was off to the psychology stacks, and the science stacks, and before I knew it, somehow I was in an aisle of books devoted to 18th Century England. I grabbed a book at random and read a chapter on witchcraft and its relation to the social norms of the times, and marveled at it, even though it was not really something I’d normally be interested in — someone had trodden down this path with great intellectual fervor, and had unearthed theories, knowledge, and connections that no one else had ever thought about in quite the same way. Before putting the book back, I noticed that no one had checked it out of the library for decades. This made me melancholy for a moment, until I realized that if I had written this book, though I’d certainly want people to read it, there would be a big part of me that would be content to have done the work and written it, regardless of my future audience. At least it was in a respected library, filling in a nook in our intellectual history.

If this story resonates with you, you might have a philosophical disposition.

Have I explained what philosophy is yet? Not really, I suppose; though I believe I have explained why we’re bothering to blog about it.

So what is philosophy? The first thing to keep in mind is that it’s always “philosophy of X”, where X can be just about any field. So we have philosophy of existence (generally called metaphysics), philosophy of knowledge (or epistemology), philosophy of morality (ethics), philosophy of art (aesthetics), philosophy of science, philosophy of mathematics, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, philosophy of humor, philosophy of law, and so many other philosophies-of that it could make your head spin.

I was recently browsing for provocative philosophy paper titles (I thought it would be instructive to look at such titles in order to start to get a sense of what it is that philosophers do), and I came across this essay by Karel Lambert from back in 1974: “Impossible Objects”.

I haven’t read the article (come to think of it, I have to add that to my to-read list!), but I’m guessing that it’s a piece about such “things” as round squares. So now put yourself in a philosopher’s mindset for a moment. Someone says offhandedly to you: “why that’s as likely as a round square,” and you start thinking about that idea. A round square. Well, that’s impossible — such things couldn’t possibly exist. And this gets you thinking… there are things that don’t exist but could if the circumstances were right. Things like a 200-story building in Jamaica or six-legged cows. So there are two classes of things that don’t exist: possible (mammoth buildings in Jamaica) and impossible (round squares). Now you’ve begun carving up reality into interesting categories, and this is a particularly philosophical endeavor.

But wait… “Things” that don’t exist??? How could a thing be nonexistent? Is this really a problem of existence or just a trick of words? This well trod path leads one into the philosophy of language, where we ponder sentences like “The round square doesn’t exist.” Is this sentence true? Does “round square” refer to something in the same way that “George Washington” refers to something in the sentence “George Washington existed.”? These are very philosophical questions as well.

To be interested in why no skyscrapers exist in Jamaica is to be (probably) some sort of historian, sociologist, economist, or architect. To be interested in the difference between non-existent Jamaican skyscrapers and non-existent round squares, well, that’s being a philosopher.

See you next time. (?)