WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY?

 

“Philosophy begins in wonder.” – Plato, Theaetetus.

Invariably every philosophy textbook and many philosophers’ main works begin with the surprisingly difficult problem of defining philosophy. I reluctantly join them…The Greek root is easy enough philo means love and sophia means wisdom; hence ‘love of wisdom.’ While this is strictly true till this day, it seems too vague to serve as a practical definition. Webster’s dictionary* offers 6 meanings:

1. The rational investigation of the truths and principles of being, knowledge, or conduct.
2. Any of three branches, namely natural philosophy, moral philosophy, and metaphysics.
3. A system of philosophical doctrine.
4. The critical study of the basic principles and concepts of a particular branch of knowledge.
5. A system of principles for guidance in practical affairs.
6. A philosophical attitude, as in composure and calm in the presence of troubles or annoyances.

Most general use of the word by philosophers probably refers to the first definition, and it remains the most important for me. However, for the purpose of this site, a combination of definitions 1, 3, and 5 will generally reflect my use of the word, philosophy.

The Oxford Guide to Philosophy** spends nearly 4 pages of small print to define and explicate the word, philosophy. I like the simplified ‘thinking about thinking’ as deep reflections on questions that defy easy answers is the crux of the philosopher’s work. It further divides philosophy into three parts: (1) Metaphysics – the theory of existence; (2) Epistemology – theory of knowledge; and (3) Ethics – theory of conduct and value. These will encapsulate the areas that dominate this site. However others might add additional fields that do not easily fit into these three categories such as: Aesthetics – the theory of beauty; and Politics – the theory of governance.

The Encyclopedia of Philosophy*** spends ten pages defining and explaining philosophy. Most instructive here is perhaps its dissection of philosophy as ‘critical’ versus ‘speculative’. The author concludes that philosophy is neither pure speculation nor pure criticism, rather it is ‘speculation controlled by criticism.’ This very nicely fulfills the needs of this site.

It is also worth mentioning that the word, philosophy, in its earliest usage effectively included all areas of knowledge. Natural philosophy eventually was subsumed into science, although there is still the field of philosophy of science. When reading early works it is important to keep this archaic use of the term in mind. Also history may not have ever been a recognized part of ancient philosophy, but there is the field of the philosophy of history more recently.

Philosophy remains difficult to define, but most readers’ notion of it should be satisfactory if the information above is unclear. Perhaps a few simplified definitions of philosophy as given by the philosophers themselves will also help.

“The art of life” – Cicero

“The scientific knowledge of man” – J. S. Mill

“The collective name for questions which have not been answered to the satisfaction of all that have asked them” – William James

“Total perspective, as mind overspreading life, and forging chaos into unity…all questions that vitally effect the worth and significance of human life.” – Will Durant.

“That primordial activity whereby self-respecting men seek to come to terms, not only with the ends of science or of art or of government, but with their own individual destinies.” – Henry D. Aiken.

“The aim of philosophy, abstractly formulated is to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense to the term.” – Wilfrid Sellars.

*Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, 1996.
**The Oxford Guide to Philosophy, edited by Ted Honderich, 2005.
***The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Paul Edwards, 1967

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