What is philosophy?

Ken writes: Our friend Chris Cowley will be speaking next weekend at the Irish Philosophical Club meeting in Ballymascanlon (near Dundalk in County Louth). I’ve been thinking about his chosen topic since he discussed it with me at the end of January.

By etymology, ‘philosophy’ means love of wisdom, and I think Chris’s talk will be much about how far removed modern professional academic philosophy is from this traditional notion. It’s a big topic and it throws up a number of issues. I’m afraid when Dot and I discussed it with him, I was a bit defensive. I said worrying about how much wisdom there is in contemporary philosophy is a little bit like worrying what makes rugby a type of football, or how much coca there is in coca-cola. It commits an etymological fallacy to suppose philosophy needs to concern itself with wisdom. Philosophy as we practice it now is recognisably the same enterprise as that practiced by the ancient Greeks, or more exactly an obvious genetic descendent of that practice.

The trouble with this sort of defensive response is that ‘philosophy’ is not like ‘rugby’, it’s more like ‘cricket’ and even more like ‘art’ in that it is an evaluative term. It implicitly praises something to call it a work of philosophy in the same way as it praises to call something art. The concept is richer than a purely descriptive designation, and it makes sense to question whether the contemporary academic practice merits the positive associations of being called philosophy (this goes double for contemporary art in my opinion but that’s a different topic). For instance, what does philosophy offer to guide us in our present secular age where the prescriptions of organised religion seem hypocritical and irrelevant? … (if you expect an answer from me on that, forget it).

In terms of content (the topics discussed) philosophy as practiced now still covers very much the same ground as it always has: metaphysics = what is the world fundamentally like; epistemology = how could we know? ethics = how should we live? The principle difference is technological. There is vastly more to read now than at the beginning of the subject and consequently as well as discussing the issues themselves, one sometimes has to discuss interpretations of other philosophers (i.e. do history of philosophy (or contemporary history) instead of philosophy). This is one cause for a tightening in the focus of the average philosophical publication (one more often sees ‘on Locke on government’ than ‘on government’ or ‘on Kripke on names’ than ‘on names’).

Another technological difference is in the development of sophisticated logical tools that make it possible to clearly draw logical distinctions. For instance, modern modal logic provides a framework that systematises and regiments our intuitive thinking about possibility, contingency, and necessity and permits us to see the fallacy in the inference from It is necessary that either it will rain tomorrow or it will not rain to Either it is necessary that it will rain tomorrow or it is necessary that it will not rain. Before modern logic came along, you either had a vague feeling there was something wrong with this inference or you didn’t but there was not much you could say to support your feeling. Logical frameworks make it possible to clarify the feelings and unify them showing how different topics bear on each other.

Another technological development is the academic periodical in both electronic and printed format, which encourages short focussed discussions of specific issues, and allows you to contribute to a debate without having to come up with a whole treatise on it (This might be a bad thing if it means people publish ideas before they’re really thought through).

To follow the technological simile a little further, think of the institutional environment of the ancient philosophers as something like a village economy where the economic agents are individual generalists who produce a bit of everything on a small scale. Modern philosophy is something of a vast inefficient bureaucracy of specialists who lack a clear picture of the whole institution and others who, like managers, don’t do much speculative philosophy themselves, but study the outputs of others.

I think, and this is a descriptive claim not an evaluative one, the philosophical community now is like a capitalist competitive economy where individual researchers through their publications compete for market share (measured in kudos and the agreement of others). Obviously, the market place of ideas isn’t the only place to seek truth and wisdom, but over the long term and through the tempering process of vigorous and rigorous argument and debate the truth will come out.


4 thoughts on “What is philosophy?

  1. Ken,

    I quite like the idea of truth being reached through a dialectical process. It suggests a positive view of humanity, that we are capable of progress and discovering greater truths. However, an increasing number of people would regard truth as propositional, as given in religious revelation. Secularism, which I actually think is consistent with a voluntarist approach to faith, is under siege. Religious fundamentalists would not share your market place analogy, they would much more tend to terms like ‘light’ and ‘darkness’; truth and wisdom can come only from their creed.

    Where would philosophers find their niche in a Sharia Islamic state? (Or, indeed, in some parts of the United States?)

  2. kenanddot

    I vacillate between bouts of tolerance and extreme intolerance on the topic of tolerating the intolerant. I hope secularism and voluntarism aren’t on the way out.

  3. Fergus Cantwell

    ‘Philosophy’ does have a normative sense but i think it is not exclusively one of approbation for, at least in ordinary usage, i have witnessed it used in a derogatory sense. It can signify wasteful and pointless reflection on matters that had better been decided upon by more practical and fruitful methods. Also, one must allow that there is bad as well as good philosophy, for surely what is recognisably philosophical need not be essentially good. Still, a piece of so-called philosophy might be that bad that it is not properly-speaking philosophy at all but only discernible as such in virtue of its origin (eg author) or in the subject matter to which it is addressed (eg the fundamental nature of reality). In this it shares similar criteria for determining what house-building consists in, or what can legitimately be called a piece of scientific research etc. There are attempts at these which are so poor as to be not recognisable as house-building or scientific effort. So maybe all these skill-related terms share a normative aspect that partly defines their meaning.
    Is wisdom a kind of cultivated intellectual virtue to do with how best to lead our lives? Wise decisions are usually those to do with practical affairs concerning personal welfare rather than technical know-how. So we don’t say ‘his software programming is wise’ or ‘her stem-cell research is wise’. Philosophy never exclusively concerned itself with the attainment of wisdom but it may have laboured under the illusion that if we could only, by reflection, discover our own nature and our relation to the world then we might understand how best to lead our lives. If one goal of philosophy had once been the attainment of wisdom through intellectual discovery, it’s search for understanding (originally motivated as a means to wisdom) has clearly become an end in itself.
    We all love wisdom but not all of us are philosophers so what then is philosophy? We could list its subjects of enquiry but many of these are also subjects for other disciplines and anyway the list would not tell us much about what philosophy actually is. Is it not a particular kind of intellectual activity that is distinguished by its method(s)? It’s method of critical rational enquiry holds itself to be distinct from dogma, authority, or tradition as a source of belief and understanding. Indeed this reflective criticism can and is directed at the process of rational enquiry itself. Thus, as a result of this approach to achieving understanding , philosophy is led by it’s method to fundamental questions that are usually considered necessary presuppositions of nonphilosophical intellectual activity. Maybe then philosophy is distinguished by the direction of its enquiry rather than by any particular discoverable subject matter. Hardly surprising then that we mortal beings do not generally rely upon it as a source of wisdom. It maybe that we are converging upon the truth, (whatever that is) but how nearly convergent we are is unavailable to us. Practical decisions cannot wait!

  4. David Vizan

    Fergus, have to admit that buried in that (putting it mildly) “lengthy” comment, there were a couple of nice points. But it’s important to be clear that “there is no wisdom in philosophy” [Yeates]. Like you say, philosophy is just a futile approach to the unreachable.

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