Wednesday, October 01, 2008

What Is Philosophy?

How is philosophy different from the other academic disciplines? What makes it worth funding as an academic department? Here, I'll check my email for a minute while you think about your answer....

We could go sociological: We could say that philosophy is whatever it is that people who call themselves "philosophers" do. Or we could say that it is whatever it is that fits best into an integrated tradition arising from the canonical works of canonical figures like Plato and Kant. While neat in a way, this sort of sociological definition seems to me at best a fallback, if no more substantive definition succeeds -- and it strains to accommodate ancient Chinese and Indian philosophers and the possibility of philosophy on other planets or in the distant future when all memory of us has been lost.

Method or content seems the better hope. But is there a distinctively philosophical method or a set of distinctly philosophical topics?

Philosophy cannot, I think, be defined methodologically as an a priori discipline distinguished from the sciences by its focus on truths discoverable from an armchair and immune to empirical refutation. There are, in my view, no such truths. (I know that's contentious.) Speaking more moderately, it doesn't seem that philosophy is limited to such truths. Philosophers of science take stands on the nature of spacetime and natural selection, stands presumably empirically grounded and open to empirical refutation. Atheists and religious philosophers appeal to the appearance, or not, of benevolent design. Philosophers of mind connect their views with those in empirical psychology. Is there then some other method constitutive of philosophy? What could it be? Philosophy seems, if anything, methodologically pluralistic (especially with the rise of experimental philosophy).

A topical characterization of philosophy is more inviting: Philosophers consider such questions as the fundamental nature of reality, the nature of mind and knowledge and reason, general questions about moral right and wrong. But physicists and psychologists and religious leaders also consider these questions. Are they being philosophers when they do so? And what about the possibility of new philosophical questions? Also, a laundry list of questions is not very theoretically appealing. What we want to know is what those sorts of questions have in common that makes them philosophical.

Here's my view: To practice philosophy is to articulate argumentatively broad features of one's worldview, or -- derivatively -- to reflect on subsidiary points crucial to disputes about worldview, with an eye to how they feed into those disputes.

On this view, the empirical is no threat to philosophy. In fact, it would be nuts to develop a broad worldview without one's eyes open to the world. And although the empirical is deeply relevant to philosophy, no set of experiments could ever replace philosophy because no set of experiments could ever settle the most general questions of worldview (including, for example, the extent to which we should allow our beliefs to be governed by the results of scientific experiments). No science or set of sciences could aim at the broad vision of philosophy without thereby becoming philosophy -- becoming either bad philosophy (simplistic naturalized epistemology or cosmology, with substantial philosophical commitments simply assumed without argument and masked behind a web of scientific technicalities) or good, subtle, empirically-informed philosophy, philosophy recognizable to philosophers as philosophy.

This view of philosophy also, I think, properly highlights its importance and its centrality in academia.

I have been accused of aiming to destroy philosophy -- especially metaphysics and ethics -- replacing it with something empirical. However, philosophy is indestructible. People will always argumentatively articulate broad features of worldview. And I myself, even in my most empirical inquiries, aim to do nothing else.

Update, Oct. 2: Joachim Horvath points out in the comments section that important aspects of our worldview include the evolution of human beings from earlier primates and the falsity of geocentrism. But should exploring such questions count as philosophy? My own view is that their being empirical questions doesn't make them unphilosophical, and I would count Darwin and Huxley, Copernicus and Galileo, as doing philosophy when they put forward and defend such broad theses about the position of human beings in the universe. Likewise now, when we know so little about consciousness, the empirical study of basic facts about consciousness -- facts basic enough to count as central to a broad worldview -- should count as philosophy. Of course, later biologists, astronomers, and maybe consciousness scientists who get into narrower questions not involving broad features of our worldview are no longer doing philosophy on my conception. Thus, on my view, doing biology, or astronomy, or psychology can be way of doing philosophy. Perhaps in this respect my view of philosophy diverges more from the mainstream than may be evident on its face from the original post.


Justin (koavf) said...


I'm reluctant to comment because this might be too ephemeral even for a blog comment, but I've contended that the thing that sets philosophy and history apart from all other disciplines is that there is a philosophy (and history) of all other disciplines. In some cases, there are several. Precisely because philosophy asks the most fundamental questions about being or ontology, there is a philosophy of anthropology because we can ask "what is anthropology?" In chemistry, we can explore what constitutes change or becoming. In fact, for any field, there are substantive and rich philosophical questions - usually beginning with "why" that analyze the assumptions, methodology, and legitimacy of those fields. As this post illustrates, there is even meta-philosophy.


ToneMasterTone said...

This is directly from Schopenhauer and in my mind the best summation of philosophy I've read:

The mode of explanation employed in various fields of study explains things in reference to one another, but it always leaves unexplained something that it presupposes. In mathematics, for example, this is space and time; in mechanics, physics, and chemistry, it is matter, qualities, original forces, laws of nature; in botany and zoology, it is the difference of species and life itself; in history, it is the human race with all its characteristics of thought and will. And in all these it is the principle of sufficient reason in the form appropriate to each. Philosophy has the peculiarity of presupposing absolutely nothing as known; everything to it is equally strange and a problem, not only the relations of phenomena, but also those phenomena themselves.

Anibal Monasterio Astobiza said...

Nice and very reflective post!
I m always feel atracted to G. E. Moore´s definition:

"... the most important and interesting thing which philosophers have tried to do is no less than this; namely: to give a general description of the whole universe, mentioning all the most important kinds of things which we know to be in it, considering how far is likely that there are in it important kinds of things which we do not absolutely know to be in it, and also considering the most important ways in which these various kinds of things are related to one another. I will call all this, for short, "giving a general description of the whole universe," and hence will say that the first and most important problem of philosophy is: to give a general description of the whole universe."

that definition it´s very similar to yours Eric.

With my own words: philosophy is a systematic examination of all things conceible.

An the method, the criteia, the motivation underlying that examination... whateve that achive the best results.

Joachim Horvath said...


I like your characterization of philosophy, but maybe just because it is so vague and elusive. In this respect, it is akin to Sellars' famous "how things - in the broadest possible sense - hang together - in the broadest possible sense". One immediate question that it invites is: What is a "broad feature", and what is a "worldview"? Is it a broad feature of my worldview that human beings evolved from ape-like ancestors? Intuitively it is, yet it is certainly not something that philosophers have discovered, nor is it a paradigmatic philosophical claim. The same holds for "Our universe began with a big bang" or "The earth revolves around the sun". These are certainly broad features of my worldview, and science articulates them in an argumentative way. So, I'm afraid, your characterization of philosophy is simply too broad to distinguish philosophy from other academic disciplines in an adequate way...

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the thoughtful and helpful comments, folks!

Justin: I agree that there is a philosophy of X for all X where X is an academic discipline and that it has roughly the character you describe. But I don't know if that sets philosophy and history apart specifically. Is there also at least a sociology of X, and plausibly a psychology of X, an economics of X, etc.?

Tonemastertone: That's a nice characterization, but perhaps a little too self-congratulatory? I do think that in philosophy as a discipline, unlike other disciplines, you can question or challenge any of the big presuppositions. I'm not inclined to think, though, that that quite qualifies as making the discipline presuppositionless in any very strong sense. This fact fits with my own view of philosophy, since the big presuppositions are big parts of one's worldview.

Anibal: That's a nice description, too, though it seems to privilege ontology in a way I would not.

Joachim: That's such an excellent point that I'm not going to address it here but rather revise the post to discuss it. However, I will say here that I think the big bang isn't as good an example as the denial of geocentrism. In the sense of "worldview" I have in mind whether the universe is static or starts with a bang or something else doesn't make too much of a difference one's overall worldview, unless that fact is somehow incorporated into a larger overreaching philosophy.

Justin (koavf) said...


In my mind "sociology of philosophy" would really just be doing sociology with philosophy as an example, whereas "philosophy of sociology" would be using the tools of philosophy to learn more about sociology itself. That is probably just sloppy thinking, but that's the distinction for me.


Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Hm, an interesting thought, Justin. I find it hard to draw the lines here in a very precise way. I feel that I'm learning something about philosophy as I'm reading Collins's tome The Sociology of Philosophies, but maybe I'm just learning sociological facts about philosophy (like what kinds of positions tend to recur, what gets attention, etc.). Is part of my big picture worldview *how* big picture worldviews tend to emerge and evolve?

kvond said...


I agree with many of your sentiments, but I have heard philosophy described as simply thinking about thinking. Whether this is done in instutitions, or religiously or while walking down the street, there is something utterly irreducible to the recursivity of this kind of action.

Further, I feel that metaphysics, the most ungroundable, now least esteemed of philosophy's products, as acts of the imagination have provided some of the riches sources, that is frameworks, for scientific examinations of the world. I part company with some who say that we need no metaphysics. Rather, we need new metaphysics, in the plural. Perhaps metaphysics not for the world, but for individual disciplines.

Anonymous said...

I realize you are geekending, but after you are done ducking fireballs and dual-classing your elf, you might check out a recent-ish article of mine on just this topic that was driven by, among other things, reflections on experimental phil, the Randall Collins book, and accommodating/integrating stuff in comparative philosophy. It is a bit wild and wooly, and it starts internal to some metaphilosophical questions in Latin American phil, but it quickly converts into a paper firmly on the subject of your post and the attendant thread. If you are interested you can find it here:


Joachim Horvath said...

Eric, you seem to have a certain preference for biting-the-bullet choices, even in cases where no one else is willing to do the relevant biting! :-)
So, you say, my proposed characterization of philosophy implies that Darwin, Galileo and probably also Newton and Einstein count as philosophers too - well, then, they are philosophers after all!
But surely this is not a descriptively adequate characterization of philosophy, for Darwin and Galileo are not typically mentioned as major philosophers in histories of our discipline. You are, of course, free to propose a slightly revisionary characterization of philosophy (which you do anyway, given your denial of armchair truths). But there is still a certain tension in your post, for you complain about the sociological definition that it fails to accommodate Asian philosophy. So, here you seem to be guided by the constraint of descriptive adequacy - why, then, not in case of Darwin and Galileo?

Anonymous said...

Merleau-Ponty says a very similar thing in his article, "The Philosopher and Sociology." He argues that philosophy complements, not contradicts, the empirical discipline of sociology and anthropology because they rely on establishing the objective conditions for certain perceptual schemes or worldviews. And it is the purview of philosophy to examine these worldviews and uncover their tacit logic. (Unfortunately, a great deal of ethnography tends to be philosophically illiterate, given the botched analyses of "meaning," etc.)

I am also partial to the view that tonemastertone quotes from Schopenhauer, namely that philosophy uncovers presuppositions. In my encounters with physicists I have tried to indicate certain assumptions of their method which could not be verified by that method, but they were highly reluctant to do so.

Excellent post and excellent blog. I still come back to the graduate school section every now and then as I prepare my applications!


kvond said...

Kevin Lande said...
"Merleau-Ponty says a very similar thing in his article, "The Philosopher and Sociology." He argues that philosophy complements, not contradicts, the empirical discipline of sociology and anthropology because they rely on establishing the objective conditions for certain perceptual schemes or worldviews."

The sociologist and philosopher Pierre Bourdieu presents a very good example of this. It is his synthesis for instance of Wittgensteinian arguments (among many other philosophical influences which include Merleau-Ponty and Husserl) which facilitate his concrete sociological studies; for instance his use of the concept of the "habitus" which I speak about some here: [ ] is an interesting framework for observation and hypothesis.

if any are unfamiliar:

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Manuel: Actually, it was Champions this year. I played a mutant eight-year-old girl with shape-shifting and mind-control powers, with a penchant for the PowerPuff Girls and a superhuman need to eat candy bars and beef jerky. (Could I have been just such a girl, if my DNA were radically different and certain psi phenomena real?)

I'm printing out your essay now. It sounds very interesting!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Back from Geekend!

Kvond and Kevin: Thanks for the kind remarks. I completely agree that sociology complements rather than contradicts philosophy in (at least roughly) the way you attribute to Merleau-Ponty. I also wouldn't deny that metaphysics can be a fruitful source of hypotheses for the sciences -- something which could be true even if the subdiscipline had no merit at all. (I don't think metaphysics entirely lacks merit: I just think its meritorious views consist of recommendations for conceptual structures that usefully map onto the empirical facts.)

Thanks for the tip on Bordieu, too. He's high on my list now that I'm almost done with Collins. I had a strictly "analytic" training in grad school and need to catch up on some of the interesting stuff in the Continental tradition!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Joachim: I actually think there are good metaphilosophical reasons to be less reluctant to bite bullets than philosophers often are. Two reasons: (1.) less respect for a priori intuitions, and (2.) a focus on the pragmatic value of recommendations. How (2) connects to biting bullets is probably too complicated for half of a comment, but now I'm inspired to try a full post on it.

I agree that there's the tension you cite in my argument. Galileo and Darwin are not ordinarily seen as philosophers; so I cannot justify including Mencius as a philosopher by implicitly appealing to "is ordinarily seen as a philosopher" as a necessary and sufficient condition for being a philosopher. (I guess I was hoping I wouldn't have to argue for Mencius' inclusion at all, expecting that my readers will take the fact that he is a philosopher as a fixed point, for whatever reason.)

Regardless, there's no contradiction in my view itself, since Mencius qualifies as a philosopher under my general characterization. Also, let me point out that I characterized Darwin and Galileo as "doing philosophy" rather than as "philosophers"; the latter I think is stronger and the former a little easier to swallow. They are doing philosophy when they are developing their empirical insights in the service of articulating broad features of worldview. This may have been (or may not have been in Galileo's case) a small portion of their professional activity -- but not, I think, an insignificant portion.

Anonymous said...

Philosophy is about the generation of new knowledge through use of a primary tool called logic. Philosophy is the beginning of all knowledge.

Philosophy describes the process of forming new knowledge from ideas
and concepts in the minds of men.
- John Gabriel

Chris Letheby said...

"Philosophy cannot, I think, be defined methodologically as an a priori discipline distinguished from the sciences by its focus on truths discoverable from an armchair and immune to empirical refutation. There are, in my view, no such truths"

Not to be flippant, but isn't the non-existence of a priori armchair truths, if true, itself such a truth?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Chris: I don't think that's a flippant question at all! It's a tangled question whether there are a priori armchair truths immune to empirical refutation. (Please note that last phrase.) I'm inclined to think that the conclusion that there are no such truths is a posteriori -- justified by a posteriori knowledge of how the mind works, how the world works, and how the two fit together.

However, I couch all this is hesitant language because I think the issues here are tricky, and I have not seen my way through them to my satisfaction.