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Just what is philosophy?

Updated on August 1, 2012

A difficult question indeed.

There is a kind of contradiction at the heart of philosophy both ancient and modern. Philosophers often hold the lofty attitude that what they are doing is of supreme importance, but when faced with the simple question, "what is it that you actually do," they are flummoxed. Yes, the very question, "what is philosophy?" has proved to be quite a difficult philosophical tangle itself.

To help shed some light on the issue, I've compiled here some responses given by contemporary philosophers to this question. Some evade the question, some tell jokes, some admit ignorance, some are longwinded, and others bravely attempt to encapsulate philosophy in a single terse sentence. Whether any of them nail it and properly stake out the limits of the discipline of philosophy, I leave to the reader to decide.

(Image credit: Statue of Socrates at the entrance to the Academy of Athens)

Contemporary philosophers answer the question.

"Philosophy is the attempt to unify theoretical and practical reason."

Sebastian Gardner, University College London

"Philosophy asks about life's meanings. Philosophy asks about who we are, what we might be, how we conceive ourselves, and how we can even think these questions."

Wendy Brown, UC Berkeley

"I think that it used to be an inquiry into what's true and how people should live. It's still distantly relatable to that, but I would say that the distance is growing rather than narrowing."

John Dunn, University of Cambridge

"Philosophy is inquiry into those things that we do not yet properly understand. When we do get to some grips with a problem, we can hive that off into a science or a social science. Although those natural and social sciences always tend to end up back in philosophical problems where the problems are half obscure, half formed, where the questions are themselves doubtful, where we're peering out into the dark and don't yet have a good sense of what we're doing."

A. C. Grayling, New College of the Humanities

"Philosophy is critical reflection on anything that you care to be interested in."

Richard Bradley, London School of Economics and Political Science

"The question "What is philosophy?" is in itself a very striking philosophical question."

Adrian Moore, University of Oxford

"It's a bit like Augustine said famously about the concept of time. When nobody asks me about it, I know. But whenever somebody asks me what the concept of time is, I realize that I don't know."

Catalin Avramescu, University of Bucharest

"Philosophy has always been something of a science of presuppositions. But not just to expose them and say, "well, there they are." You must say something further about them that can help people."

Tony Coady, University of Melbourne

"Philosophy involves a kind of untangling of presuppositions - figuring out that our thinking is being driven by ideas we didn't even realize we had."

David Papineau, King's College London

"I think the Greek term has it exactly right. It's a way of loving knowledge."

Robert Rowland Smith, University of Oxford

"Philosophy is what I was told as an undergraduate that women couldn't do by an eminent philosopher who had best remain nameless."

Donna Dickenson, University of Oxford

"I think there's a certain element of contingency in what remains in a philosophy department. Philosophy used to encompass economics and politics; it was a kind of encompassing term. Bits and pieces have separated themselves out and become self-standing disciplines, and what's left is what's left. There isn't anything coherent that unites it."

Will Kymlicka, Queen's University

"I can't answer that directly. I will tell you why I became a philosopher. I became a philosopher because I wanted to be able to talk about many, many things. Ideally with knowledge, but sometimes with not quite the amount of knowledge that I would need if I were to be a specialist in them. It allows you to be many different things. Plurality and complexity are very, very important to me."

Alexander Nehamas, Princeton University

"Philosophy is thinking about thinking."

M.M. McCabe, King's College London

"It's the argument from things that seem perfectly obvious to a conclusion that's extremely surprising. It's a way to clarify the basic presuppositions that we tend to take for granted."

Terence Irwin, University of Oxford

"Philosophy is the name we give to a collection of questions that are of deep interest to us, and for which there isn't any specialist way of answering. The categories and terms in which they are posed are ones which prevent experiments being carried out to answer them. For example, the question: "Does God exist?" You can't hand that over to some chap in a white coat."

Paul Snowdon, University College London

"Philosophy arises when two common sense notions push in different directions."

Jonathan Wolff, University College London

"Philosophy is an attempt to ask questions that seem not to go away, questions that are always going to be there."

Chris Janaway, University of Southampton

"I can tell a joke that shows what philosophy is. A young man is going on a date, and he's a bit nervous so he asks his father for advice. His father replies that to stimulate conversation with his date, he should focus on the three Fs: food, family, and philosophy. So the young man goes on the date, and an awkward lull in the conversation arises. Remembering his father's advice, he asks, 'So, Mary: do you like asparagus?' Mary replies that she does not. Fumbling, the young man asks, 'Say, Mary: do you have any brothers?' She replies that she does not. Frustrated that the conversation is going nowhere, the young man remembers the third F. 'So, Mary: if you had a brother, would he like asparagus?' That's philosophy."

Jerrold Levinson, University of Maryland

"Philosophy is the search for a coherent and justified overall worldview."

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Duke University

"Philosophy for me is critical thinking - trying to become aware of how one's own thinking works, of all the things one takes for granted, of the way in which one's own thinking shapes the things you're thinking about."

Don Cupitt, University of Cambridge

"My dream of philosophy is to make the universe we live in mind-portable. So, instead of being possessed by it, you possess it."

Raymond Tallis, University of Manchester

"I have no idea what philosophy is."

Jeff McMahan, Rutgers University

Hear them for yourself.

Many of the above quotations are taken from this episode of Nigel Warburton and David Edmonds' excellent podcast Philosophy Bites. These two have also released a book that compiles twenty-five of the best programs from Philosophy Bites. The program containing the quotations above is used as the book's introduction. If you like the podcast, Nigel Warburton has also written several introductory books on philosophy that are worth checking out.

Philosophy as a meta-discipline.

I have also heard philosophy explained through a lengthy joke, one that I can't source because I can't remember where I initially heard it! But it goes like this: A sociologist is asked what it is that he does. He replies that he is asking the fundamental questions about human interaction, behavior, attitudes, and organization. A psychologist standing nearby overhears him and says, "Please! Sociology is just applied psychology." There is also a biologist standing nearby, who remarks that psychology is just applied biology. Claims are then made that biology is just applied chemistry, and that chemistry is just applied physics. A nearby mathematician then scoffs at them all and says, "Physics is nothing but applied mathematics. I'm at the root of it all!" Well, the philosopher is someone with the audacity to claim that mathematics is just applied philosophy.

Philosophy viewed in this way forms a kind of foundational structure from which each discipline arises. It is a meta-discipline that asks questions about how it is that the other disciplines even work. This view has become widely popular in the so-called "analytic" tradition of philosophy, and was embraced with particular fervor by A. J. Ayer and the logical positivists.

Further reading.

Philosophy News has published this helpful article on defining philosophy, which proceeds by offering lists of suggestions on what philosophy is and is not. I particularly enjoyed the parallel with Justice Potter Stewart's landmark definition of pornography: "I know it when I see it."

Brain Pickings has published a similar page to this one, in which they compile many of the same quotations I used above and group them thematically.

In Simon Critchley's inaugural column for the New York Times' The Stone, he tackles the question of what constitutes a philosopher. Drawing inspiration from Socrates and from an anecdote about the first Greek philosopher Thales, he positions the philosopher as "one who takes time."

Do you have your own idea about what philosophy is? Do you like any of the quotes above or think I missed a good one? Your comments and questions are welcome!

Have your own say.

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    • amytrumpeter profile image

      Amy Trumpeter 4 years ago from Oxford

      I agree that Philosophy is thinking about thinking - seeking, rather than finding.

    • Hypersapien2 profile image

      Hypersapien2 5 years ago from U.S.

      This takes me back to my philosophy class in college, which I actually liked (although my professor came across as insane).

    • alina nicoleta92 profile image

      alina nicoleta92 5 years ago

      Like philosophy because it gives me another perspective of how life can be seen. Great lens.

    • cynthiannleighton profile image

      cynthiannleighton 5 years ago

      Thinking about thinking - and arguing!

    • profile image

      sherioz 5 years ago

      I agree that math is applied philosophy. Always was impressed with how philosophical math is (even though I was never good at it). Great intro to philosophy!

    • profile image

      sherioz 5 years ago

      I agree that math is applied philosophy. Always was impressed with how philosophical math is (even though I was never good at it). Great intro to philosophy!

    • Steph Tietjen profile image

      Stephanie Tietjen 5 years ago from Albuquerque, New Mexico

      I like Don Cupitt's quotation about it being critical thinking and I think your take makes sense, a meta-discipline. Thanks for making my brain work.

    • Motionmaker profile image

      Motionmaker 5 years ago

      Very interesting! I like your creative take. While psychology doesn't really link as applied biology, it's a fun way to look at it overall.

      Hm ... I would put it as simply thinkingness about fundamentals in hopes of regaining knowingness.

      So the funny thing about philosophy is that it can only exist as long as we don't know, whereas the sciences will continue once there are known facts. Though philosophy necessarily takes a much broader view than the sciences -- I suppose once all research is done in all sciences and they merge into one, philosophy will no longer exist and we will just have one state of knowing everything.

    • bikerministry profile image

      bikerministry 5 years ago

      I believe a person's philosophy is defined by the filters of heredity, experiences and environment. To change that philosophy takes great faith. Isn't philosophy a journey of sorts; searching for purpose?

      My 2 favorites:

      "... two common sense notions push in different directions."

      Jonathan Wolff

      " ... ask questions that seem not to go away, questions that are always going to be there." Chris Janaway

      If I had a brother, I'm sure he'd eat his asparagus - knowing my Mom. Liking it would be his choice, though.

      Congratulations. Great lens.

    • profile image

      getmoreinfo 5 years ago

      This was the class in school that got me wanting to read books on history, thanks for the great lessons.

    • vetochemicals profile image

      Cindy 5 years ago from Pittsburgh Pa

      I've always thought as Wendy Brown does and like your take as well, congrats on your purple star for your thought provoking lens!

    • ecogranny profile image

      Kathryn Grace 5 years ago from San Francisco

      I enjoyed reading all of the quotes, and laughed out loud at Donna Dickenson's. Entertaining and thought-provoking. Excellent.

    • SheGetsCreative profile image

      Angela F 5 years ago from Seattle, WA

      "Mathematics is applied philosophy" - that is exactly the premise my philosophy professor used. Enjoyed your lens

    • KateHonebrink profile image

      KateHonebrink 5 years ago

      It's all Greek to me.

    • Heather426 profile image

      Heather Burns 5 years ago from Wexford, Ireland

      I like your take the best!