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What is Philosophy?

Collage of wordsPHILOSOPHY ADDRESSES FOUNDATIONAL QUESTIONS. These are questions the answers to which inform our basic understanding of one or another domain of inquiry, or some fundamental aspect of the world or ourselves or our relation to the world. Philosophical inquiry is therefore not restricted to any particular subject matter. In this respect, it is different from every other subject studied at the university. What characterizes a philosophical question is not what it is about, but at what level it is pitched. The best way to give a sense of this is to consider some examples. Some of the simplest questions we ask about things are also the most fundamental and the most difficult to answer. For example, in the philosophy of time, one of the simplest, yet most puzzling questions, is ‘What is time?’ St. Augustine gives a lively sense of the difficulties in the Confessions when he says,

What then is time? If no one asks me, I know: if I wish to explain it to one that asketh, I know not.

There are many things we say about time: that time is ordered, that there are past, present and future times, that time passes, that where there is no passage of time, there is no change, and so on. But many things are ordered, spatial points, for example. Talk of the past, present or future already evidently presupposes an understanding of time. Talk of the passage of time provides no insight because it employs a metaphor of motion which cannot be taken literally. While a cart may pass by, it makes no literal sense to say time does because it does not move. One may live through interesting times, but not in the way one passes through a landscape. Change is intimately bound up with time, but the passage of time is not the only thing necessary for change, for where there are no things there is no change either, though things that change are not times. Change takes place in time, but not in time in the way a change may take place in a room or in an object. The more one thinks about time, the more puzzling it becomes. It is a deep question, what time is, though it takes but three words to ask it.

To say that philosophy addresses foundational questions is not to say that other subjects don’t. For example, ‘What is time?’ is also a question of some importance in the foundations of physics. Foundational questions can be raised in any discipline. When the questions go deep enough, they are philosophical in character. The questions go deep enough when their answers fix at least in part the range of variation of empirical theories still recognizably about a subject matter. When one asks foundational questions, the usual methods of a discipline for answering questions in the domain of study are often of little help. This is because the usual methods typically presuppose answers to various foundational questions and so can’t be used when one is addressing them. Philosophy is the only discipline as such which is concerned with general methods for addressing foundational questions.

Though foundational questions arise in every particular discipline taught at the university, not every foundational question falls in the domain of one of the disciplinary subjects. This is often because they cut across disciplines or cannot be easily located in the usual taxonomy of university subjects. These are the sole province of philosophy. For example, the three fundamental questions of the theory of knowledge, ‘What is knowledge?’, ‘What do we know?’, “How do we know it?’, are not the province of any particular disciplinary subject matter. Every particular subject, physics, biology, history, psychology, linguistics, and so on, aims at knowledge of its domain, presupposes that we have knowledge of some things in it, and that there are methods for acquiring more. But the study of knowledge in general falls outside the scope of any of them. This is not to say that the study of knowledge, what we know, and how we know it, is not important in the various disciplinary subjects, but that when one turns to study it, one is not studying something specific to the discipline. One is no longer just doing physics, biology, history, etc. Similarly, the basic question of ethics, ‘How ought one to live?’, does not fall in the domain of any disciplinary subject. Yet it is a most fundamental and urgent question, which scarcely any reflective person can get through life without asking at some point. And it is, like many philosophical questions, a peculiarly difficult one. You cannot answer it by seeing how people do live. For there is no inconsistency in living in a way one ought not to, and, indeed, for most or even all people not living in the way they ought to live. In answer to it, we want a norm or ideal which we can hold up to ourselves a guide for life, a standard to aspire to and which can provide a correction if we are off course. The attempt to understand this question leads to many others. For example, what is the difference between a normative and a descriptive claim? What is morality? What is the source and power of its claims upon us? How is it balanced against other considerations? What is the role of reason in answering the question what one ought to do? Is it an objective matter or in some sense subjective?

While these are only some of the many questions that are addressed in philosophy, they are characteristic of the kinds of questions that philosophy asks. Philosophy has a long history and the discussion of many of these basic questions has a long history as well, and their discussion has come to have a formidable sophistication—as in any subject with a long intellectual history in response to its basic questions. But the starting points are immediately accessible, and the method has been the application all the powers that reason can bring to bear and improve upon through critical reflection. We may sum it up then by saying that philosophy is the systematic application of reason to the most fundamental questions across the entire range of human inquiry.

Philosophy then is one of the purest and at the same time one of the broadest of the intellectual disciplines. Its concerns are abstract, general, and fundamental. It has connections with all other subjects both because it is concerned with their foundational issues and because it is concerned with foundational issues that cut across all of them, and indeed with foundational issues with human life in general. While not an easy subject, it is both tremendously valuable and rewarding. It tends to attract students who cannot help asking themselves basic questions about things that most people take it that they understand without having given them any thought. If you study philosophy seriously for any length of time, it changes how you think about everything. The world grows both more complex and simpler.

The traditional divisions of philosophy are these: ethics, logic, epistemology (the theory of knowledge), metaphysics, and the history of philosophy. Ethics we have characterized above as the study, most generally, of what one ought to do. Logic is the study of valid argumentation, and so a methodological study. Epistemology is the study of knowledge and related matters. Metaphysics is a kind of catchall category for much of the rest of philosophy, but includes centrally the study of ontology, that is, of what things there are and their natures at the most general level, for example, events, objects, abstract and concrete, universal and particular, states of affairs, possibilia, and the like. It also includes the study of general notions such as those of identity, truth, causation, space and time, necessity and possibility, and various sub-disciplines such as the philosophy of language and the philosophy of mind. The history of philosophy bears a special relation to philosophy in that a proper and deep understanding of the history of discussion of philosophical problems is important for a proper understanding of their contemporary treatment. There are many more areas of philosophy, for example, the philosophy of science, aesthetics, social philosophy, and the philosophy of mathematics. There are many interconnections between all of these areas as well, as the study of really fundamental questions in any area is apt raise questions in others. For example, just about every philosophical inquiry will at some point run up against fundamental questions in epistemology.

Now, what is the use of philosophy? That’s an interesting question. Here is the beginning of an answer.

Prepared by the Philosophy Department at the University of Florida. © 2007 – 2019