What is Philosophy?

We use the word “philosophy” daily in our lives, whether it is someone’s philosophy for parenting or the philosophy of Descartes. However, there have been many times where people have asked me, “What is philosophy?” I have often replied, “Exactly”, as I felt this encapsulates what philosophy is about. Despite this, I feel there is a better explanation for what philosophy is. This article explores that exact issue.

Other Definitions Plus Their Issues
Love of wisdom
This is the direct translation of philosophy from the Greek and may seem appealing because of the humanity demonstrated. However, it gets us no further to the definition of philosophy because it purely replaces philosophy with wisdom. We are left asking what is wisdom and what criteria is necessary to count the possession of wisdom. Therefore, at best this definition is classed as too vague. At worst, it is merely a rephrasing of the word we set out to define and, as a result, gets us no further in establishing the criteria for what philosophy is.

Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental problems
This definition is slightly better because is acknowledges that philosophy is dealing with questions that we want answers to. However, it goes no further than this. It fails to define what these problems are and what counts as a philosophical problem. Furthermore, philosophy is not just about the questions. It’s how we arrive at these conclusions and the processes we use to do so. Therefore, this
definition highlights one of the key criteria for what philosophy is, but fails to acknowledge many other aspects of philosophy.

A search for a general understanding of values and reality by chiefly speculative rather than observational means.
This definition is an improvement. Firstly, it identifies that philosophy is a process. It is a search for understanding. Secondly, it highlights generally what could be considered as a philosophical problem; the values we have as human beings and the truth of reality. Thirdly, it mildly reflects that there is a lack of certainty when dealing with questions. That often we go on this search and process and find an answer which is incomplete.

However, this is still not a complete definition. Some philosophers would object that philosophy is not “observational”. For example, empiricism argue that all our knowledge comes from the observation of the world and is an important part of philosophy. Speculation also makes it sound that there is no grounding for the conclusions we draw, which is untrue, as philosophy is all about the logic behind conclusions. Furthermore, philosophy is not restricted to the understanding of values and reality. For instance, philosophy looks into proving the existence of God and his qualities. This is an important field, and can’t be reduced merely to “reality”.

Criteria That Needs To Be Considered When Coming Up With A Definition
The fact that philosophy is a human process is important. No other animal studies the understanding and logic behind their actions which therefore makes philosophy a quality purely associated to humans. As a result, the definition needs to reflect this and make the distinction that philosophy is carried out by humans only.

The Process Involved
As examined above, philosophy is not just about the questions asked, nor the answer we come up with. It is about the process that we undertake to go from the question to the conclusion and the logic that used to make such a journey. Therefore, logic is part of the very essence of what philosophy is. However, it is not philosophy alone, and so is not sufficient to provide a full explanation of philosophy and other criteria are needed.

The process of philosophy does not just involve logic. It also involves challenging the logic of ideas that we and others already have. Without it, we cannot challenge conclusions to use our own logic to reach our own conclusions. As a result, this is an important part of the journey of philosophy.

Despite the journey of logic and criticalness being paramount to philosophy, it is important to get somewhere with this. Otherwise, philosophy would be pointless and would not reflect how we use philosophy today. Philosophy must have a conclusion that is led to by the critical logic in order to answer philosophical questions which is the whole point of philosophy.

Though we need to get a conclusion, it does not mean that everyone will reach the same conclusion. People will weigh up evidence and logic differently. In particular, people may disagree with how strong a criticism of an idea is and, as a result, whether we should refute or not a philosophical idea. Therefore, the definition to philosophy needs to reflect it is an individual’s thought process.

Uncertainty and Doubt
Despite philosophy needing to reach a conclusion, philosophy rarely ever reaches a set conclusion. In fact, it could be argued that it never does. Therefore, a key aspect of philosophy is having to face the fact that what we conclude may be wrong. As a result this is an important criteria for a definition.

As A Result; The Definition

An individual’s human ability to reach a conclusion to a question in the face of doubt and uncertainty via a critical and logical process.

Issues As a result Of This definition And Responses

Can everyone do philosophy?
As a result of including humanity in the definition, it seems as if the definition suggests all humans do philosophy. Some people would refute this. They view the only people who do philosophy are people who have studied degrees and looked at traditional philosophy. I strongly reject this position and view that philosophy is something that people do daily. For example, everyone has to face the fact they will die some day. As a result, everyone has to face the problem of what happens to us when we die. This is a philosophical question and so, yes, everyone does do philosophy. Everyone has to decide on their ethics, on their values, on whether the world actually exists or not. You do not need to have a masters degree to do philosophy.

This point also highlights one of the strengths of this definition and that is the use of “ability”. Yes, everyone has the ability to do it, but in some people it will be more developed. For some, it will be easier to follow the process of philosophy. However, everyone still has it and so, to different extents, everyone still does philosophy.

Sometimes we don’t reach a conclusion.
Some may argue that, because we don’t get an answer, we do not reach a conclusion in philosophy. They also argue that our conclusions are forever changing, and so we never do reach a “final conclusion”. I disagree with the idea that just because we do not reach a straight forward answer does not mean we have not reached a conclusion. We don’t know is one of the most predominant answers in the philosophical world. However, this is still a conclusion. We can conclude from evidence and logic that we can’t give weight either way to one side or another. However, this is still a valid conclusion to reach and therefore, conclusions are still important to philosophy.

Also, just because we never reach a final conclusion does not mean we do not reach conclusions for individual logical processes. Every belief we have has millions of logical deductions to them. However if we change beliefs, it does not mean we are changing the conclusion to these millions of logical deductions, it just means our overall belief has changed. Therefore, conclusions are still necessary for the definition of philosophy.

What is a philosophical problem?
Some argue that the definition above does not specify what a philosophical question is and, as a result, part of the definition is missing. However, this can be formed from the definition above;

A philosophical problem is:

A dilemma that does not have a straight forward answer; the answer is uncertain and a conclusion can only be reached through a critical and logical process carried out by a human.

The definition needs to refer to the truth.
Some philosophers argue that the point behind philosophy is to reach the truth via logic and reason. However, I disagree on two accounts. Firstly, philosophers argue that we are living in a post-truth world. That is to say, the objective facts are less important than the emotional appeal. Therefore, philosophy is not necessarily about reaching the truth. Secondly, as a result of uncertainty, we don’t often reach the truth. However, we still do philosophy anyway despite not reaching the truth. Therefore, philosophy cannot be defined in terms of truth.

Published by Philosopher Ad Absurdum

MA Philosophy of Mind and Cognitive Science at the University of Birmingham; First Class BA Philosophy and History from the University of Southampton.

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