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What Is This Thing Called Philosophy?

Bob Fitter asks what we are all doing, exactly.

Students of philosophy tend not to be as compliant as those unfortunate citizens of Athens who happened upon Socrates in one of his troublesome moods. (Yes Socrates, No Socrates, You’re right there Socrates). They not only ask questions like “What is philosophy?”, they expect an answer. Philosophers are expected to tackle a simple question from simple folk and provide a simple answer. Admittedly the question, the folk and the answer turn out to be not that simple, but philosophers will go to almost any lengths to avoid answering this particular question. They not only make no apology for this, they seem to regard this reticence as some sort of virtue. Imagine allowing the garage mechanic advancing upon that new hatchback with a spanner, or the dentist edging towards that leaking lower-right molar with the drill, to get away with saying that they really found it quite difficult to say exactly what it was they were about to do: and making a virtue out of the fact. The point is not that we would avoid that garage or that dentist, but that in any other sphere of life we would not normally take the inability to say what it was someone did as profound evidence that they knew what they were doing. Traditional responses include replies such as: “Philosophy is an activity” and “The best way of learning it is to do it”. Though true, these replies give the impression of playing for time. Although trivial simplification should of course be avoided, it is surely important to ensure that introductions to the subject are no more obscure than they need be. I would like to suggest a starting point for an answer to the “What is philosophy?” question.

Quite frequently accounts begin with a distinction drawn between two uses of the word ‘philosophy’. ‘Philosophy’ the academic discipline is contrasted with ‘philosophy’ the outlook on life. The outlook that allows one to accept the sudden failure of the deep-freeze, the collapse of the car’s suspension and the discovery of subsidence in the foundations all in the same afternoon; with equanimity. Clearly university degrees, evening courses and introductory magazines in a subject as old and as honoured as philosophy need to cover something more substantial than the ability to smile through clenched teeth. Nevertheless, it is important to look for ways of relating the more academic exercises to ordinary life if philosophy is to be more widely and readily understood. Certainly there is a difference between the two uses of ‘philosophy’, but perhaps this is more a matter of degree than is normally thought.

An early problem, and arguably the most difficult, for those starting out in philosophy is the grasping of what it is that is distinctive about the subject. Philosophy is often defended (mistakenly in my view) on the grounds that it is really just very theoretical study of another sort, usually science. This leads to the view that it should tackle rather abstract hypotheses of a physical kind such as the nature of time and space, or whether the brain is a computer. Or else it should tackle important controversial issues of a social kind such as abortion and genetic engineering. This view may be reinforced by the recognition that traditional philosophical problems include questions such as ‘What is there?’ and ‘How should we live?’. The result of these apparent confirmations of preliminary impressions can compound a misleading picture of what is taking place, and lead to a polarising of views. The philosophy of logical argument and scientific inquiry is accused of an ivory-tower detachment. A concern with the philosophy of every-day practical issues of an important social kind invites the accusation that it lacks the full academic rigour of a sharp analysis. In much the same way that ‘academic philosophy’ has been contrasted with ‘outlook on life philosophy’ I consider this distinction between scientific and social philosophy to be at worst false and at best misleading. It may lead one to suppose that philosophers are divided by their subject matter; whereas I suggest that they are united by the nature of their activity. Hence the need to at least try and indicate what this activity is.

I suggest that it is a mistake to suppose that philosophy is an inquiry of a physical or socially scientific (or mathematical) kind, taken to extremes. It is, for example, an acceptable manoeuvre in philosophy to suppose virtually anything one likes.

In the recent past, and even in the present in some places, the idea of ‘other worlds’ has been wielded; not as a conclusion, but as a premise. Not as a destination, but as a point of departure. A scientific inquiry involves taking known facts and projecting from them further ‘possible facts’. Philosophers contemplating other worlds, however, do not take established information concerning molecular structure and project the existence of a possible substance that looks and behaves like, for example, water; but is in fact some other substance. They begin by supposing such a substance and take it from there. This is not a factual inquiry; some other activity is taking place. This other activity is going to be at least a very good indication as to the nature of philosophy. It may not be quite as straight-forward as the notion of interpretation, but I believe it is closely related.

If one views a particular aspect of the world, then one does so from a vantage-point. In order to then view the vantage-point itself one needs to move to a fresh vantage-point. This now becomes the new point-of-view, the view being the old vantage-point. Clearly (or perhaps not so clearly) one’s current point-of-view is never open to scrutiny in quite the same way as one’s view is. To view facts from a cultural, sociological or scientific point of view rules out the possibility of including the system of interpretation amongst the facts one interprets. Cross-checking one’s explanatory model is not a factual exercise; at least not in the sense that examining the objects of the explanation may be factual.

It is probably good crime-preventative practice to photograph valuables in order to provide a record in case of theft. Naturally the one thing that proves rather more difficult to photograph is the camera. (One could, of course, borrow a friend’s camera, but then this is only an analogy.) A more ingenious solution would be to use a mirror to obtain an image of the camera. This solution is quite literally reflective. In a similar sort of way when out on a map-reading exercise and lost, or suspected of being so, one’s actual position (one’s point of view) can be ascertained by the use of ‘reflective bearings’ taken upon distant objects of known location. My suggestion in more abstract terms is that the examination of philosophical examples is similarly reflective. The contemplation of a hypothetical state of affairs in philosophical circumstances is not aimed at discovering the probability, or otherwise, of the existence of that particular state of affairs, any more than lost map-readers taking reflective bearings are taking an interest in distant objects. Or, if it comes to that, than those engaged in crime prevention are interested in taking a photograph of the mirror. Whatever philosophers appear to be examining (or even take themselves to be examining) the actual object of their study is themselves, or more correctly their ‘point of view’. This consists of the basic concepts, notions, assumptions and presumptions, from which they view the world around them. The nature of the inquiry is constant across whatever subject area is being studied. The view, but not the nature of the viewing, changes.

The philosopher Gilbert Ryle once used, as an example of a particular kind of error, the case of a visitor to a university who, having been shown all the various buildings, goes on to ask to be shown the university, as if the university itself were a further building in addition to those already seen. The danger Ryle warns us against is that having come to see the university, and having seen the buildings, and having employed the same observational techniques and failed to find the ‘university’; the visitor might go on to suppose that the university must exist in some other world above or beyond this one. A world responsible for this one perhaps, but which is not to be contacted in the same way as this one.

Ryle seems to be saying, the only facts available to us are those discoverable in the normal everyday way. If our inquiry takes us beyond the plain facts we should not be on the look-out for extra or mystical facts, but begin an examination of the interpretations we put upon those facts we already have. Philosophy is a different kind of examination carried out with facts we already have, not the same old factual inquiry carried out upon hypothetical or mystical facts we have yet to lay our hands on.

In Ryle’s example the question cannot be about universities since it is only by already knowing the nature of a university that one gets the point of the example. The point is about how we account for collective or abstract nouns, and to show us that it is a mistake to suppose that universities, football teams and choirs exist either in the same sense that their members do, or in a similar though ‘other worldly’ sense just beyond our reach.

If science (physical or social) is an examination of facts, and the ‘outlook on life philosophy’ is a way we have of relating to these facts, my suggestion is that ‘academic philosophy’ is an examination of our attitudes towards facts, rather than an examination of facts.

In map-reading terms the view we get depends as much upon our point of view, as upon the objects in our view. Discovering how the land lies depends as much upon examining our point of view (knowing where we are) as upon the view we view. Philosophy is not done by looking harder at the view, or by looking at the view through metaphysical binoculars. It involves the reflective exercise of cross-checking one’s position. Learning to think in this way, in a more disciplined reflective way, can be quite a difficult exercise for newcomers; especially so when even well-seasoned practitioners appear unable to say what it involves. However, although philosophy may not be as definitively straight-forward as car mechanics or dental surgery; it is frequently less expensive and rarely as painful.

© Bob Fitter 1991

Bob Fitter is a constituent part of the University of Hull.

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