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Question of the Month

What Is Philosophy and How Do We Do It?

The following answers to this central philosophical question each win a random book.

The questions ‘What is philosophy and how do we do it?’ are indicative of the answer: philosophy critically examines anything and everything, including itself and its methods. It typically deals with questions not obviously addressed by other areas of enquiry, or those that remain after their activity seems complete. Paraphrasing A.C. Grayling on BBC Radio 4 last year: philosophy, as the critical examination of beliefs, ‘pokes its nose in’, finding problems where it may not always be welcome. For Simone de Beauvoir in the fresh, new translation of The Second Sex, philosophy goes “straight to the essentials” and “right to the heart of truth.” (p.xii). Whilst this, in a nutshell, is the nature of philosophy, it is also its value, for, according to Socrates, the unexamined life is not worth living. Such critical examination helps to mitigate the risk of being duped, misled or deceived by untenable beliefs and spurious claims characteristic of and promoted by authoritarian sources, uncritical acceptance of which claims can result in dire consequences.

As to how ‘we’ do philosophy: in A Philosophy of Boredom, Svendsen reminds us to be wary of what Nietzsche referred to as the “hereditary fault all of philosophers” – a lack of the historical sense, facilitating an unwarranted assumption that existence in our own particular milieu gives privileged access to truth. With this in mind, we seek to identify and address philosophical problems whilst remaining aware of past and current responses, as well as alert to and explicating flaws in extant arguments, their assertions and assumptions. We aim also to be keenly aware of the findings of other pertinent disciplines and their bearing upon those of contemporary philosophical concerns, drawing upon them to help address both perennial matters and those peculiar to the present and so to our possible futures. In so doing, we try to frame our arguments rationally and cogently, such that they can be claimed to be ‘true’ – all of which concepts are themselves grist to philosophy’s mill.

Colin Brookes, Woodhouse Eaves, Leicestershire

Philosophy involves the analysis of arguments and concepts, examining the validity and soundness of the arguments, and revealing the connections and distinctions between the concepts.

This all seems a little dispassionate – a mild sort of occupation; a rarefied and refined pursuit to be indulged away from the hurly-burly of daily life, like butterfly collecting. But what does every philosopher dream of delivering? A knock-down argument! Philosophy is full of belligerent language. Using the power of reason and the weight of evidence, a philosopher exposes unsupported assertions, prejudice, rhetoric, rash generalizations, humptydumptying and wishful thinking, crushes the opposition with brilliant counterexamples, and ultimately triumphs with the truth. A successful philosophical argument forces someone to a belief, whether she wants to believe it or not.

Of course, I’m not talking about a shouting match. A philosophical argument uses only the finest ingredients: well-judged premises, and assumptions containing only the choicest facts, locally sourced rather than flown in from another planet, all kneaded with the yeast of reason.

People die from faulty reasoning as easily as from faulty wiring. In safeguarding the good name of reaso n, philosophers offer a valuable service to our fallible minds. They clear the cognitive undergrowth, clogged by vague concepts, dodgy premises, logical fallacies, invalid arguments. They mentor the inner philosopher we each have within us. They remind us that a wise man proportions his beliefs to the evidence. This matters when peddlars of quack medicines or cultish religions or faulty intelligence sincerely spin their tales. Perhaps most importantly, mindful of our humanity, our common frailty, the best philosophers do philosophy with kindness as well as clarity.

Jon Wainwright, London

Philosophy is the exchange of ideas, and it is done by exchanging ideas. Ideas examined within philosophy include: What are the ideas which philosophy should examine? Who can be identified as a philosopher? What is the relationship between philosophy and philosopher? Can philosophy be ‘done’ in isolation? What should the goal of philosophy be?

The exchange of ideas allows imperfect ideas to be examined without invalidating them, as the purpose centres on the improvement of ideas, rather than their conclusive proving or disproving. This also resists an idea of ranking within philosophy. Generally, the more ideas one is exposed to, the better. However, there is no best. Because exchange is the characteriser, as soon as two philosophies/philosophers are compared, they no longer exist within an individualized, rankable form. Exchange may occur in the form of reading the writings of dead authors, staging an internalised argument, or engaging in conversations with friends and co-philosophers.

R. Young, Holland Park, QLD, Australia

The fun of philosophy is both the global and historical tour one makes in the study of the discipline , for philosophy is not only a body of information, but a skill, like learning a foreign language. I’ve been to ancient Greece to learn the language and customs of the Western patriarchs – learning how both Socrates and Plato plied their philosophy very much through the study of language – and I’ve been to many other places to learn the language of other philosophical approaches.

Once the information is obtained, the skill is not just to learn the words and concepts, but to use them, as you would any language; to communicate using the new ideas you have learned in order to examine and solve the problems relevant to your own life and times. This is how philosophy is intended. No matter which culture or country the language of philosophy is spoken in, the message is the same: the clarification and examination of ideas by use of the correct terms and their meanings, all in the pursuit of truth, but all entrenched in a wonderful scheme of colorful personalities and world views, both ancient and modern.

Corine Sutherland, Lomita, CA

Above Plato’s Academy famously was inscribed, “Let no one enter who cannot think geometrically.” Apparently geometry and mathematics were the only formal teaching on offer; but arguably the Academy was the model from which Western philosophy originated. Much of Plato’s output appears to be philosophical in nature rather then mathematical, but this joint originating institution perhaps suggests a common endeavour. Maths and philosophy are closely related in that they each provide an integrated means of systematic inquiry. Maths provides a technical symbolic language for modelling aspects of the world, and it has a language and techniques used in common with philosophy. These sister disciplines are parallel and dependent: maths modelling and philosophy meta-modelling the world. Like maths, philosophy provides a tool kit for critical thinking which can be applied to other disciplines, and in one’s everyday life. Any claim can be evaluated, clarified, or rejected for various reasons; underlying assumptions explored; fallacies identified; shortcomings in argument pointed out, and differences of meaning discussed.

Pru Hamed, Heaton, Newcastle upon Tyne

I think the first thing we must do is to differentiate between the study of philosophy and just thinking. Thinking is our mind’s way of processing the reality around us. It exists in our minds and stays there. By contrast, philosophy is the sharing of knowledge, of wisdom. Both philosophy and thinking imply action, but it’s the context which makes the difference. Thinking is a process we all go through on a day-by-day basis. However, most people will never do philosophy. Doing philosophy is like doing math. The difference between thinking about numbers and doing math is you take that thinking about numbers and apply it to problems. One of the common ways to do philosophy is to chose a specific philosopher’s view on a question or a problem and present your response. Usually, but not always, the more adverse your opinion is to the author’s, the more intense the argument, and, some would argue, the better the philosophy becomes. It forces both parties to strengthen their view on the subject, or to think about things in a way they may not have previously considered. In closing I would say that ‘doing philosophy’ is the art and science of solving the problems of philosophy.

Kevin Regier, Fayetteville, AR

The way I define philosophy is as an activity founded on scepticism to arrive at truth, or at least, at a position that seems justified by reason. By way of analogy, imagine yourself standing on a path. The path represents a continuum from radical scepticism at one end to gullibility on the other. Where you happen to stand on the path of scepticism depends on how philosophical you are. Most of us share approximately the same point, that is, our day to day activities and thoughts are not philosophical. Making a chicken sandwich, knotting your shoelaces and depositing a cheque, are not activities that typically demand philosophical thought. Philosophy comes into play only when one thinks such thoughts as: “Am I morally justified to make a meat sandwich? An animal must die to do so…” “Do my shoe laces exit?” “Is money a real entity?” Philosophy comes to the forefront when one questions or challenges the underlying assumptions of the world.

Most people I associate with don’t question much. Not that they are fools or gullible: they are as adept at spotting a shady salesman as any philosopher would be. They are intelligent and can reason to attain their goals. What then is the difference? I think it’s that they assume more than a philosopher does.

Why? Three possible reasons:

1) Philosophy is irritating. That is, it asks questions that are too far-reaching, or question things that everybody knows are true, or poses questions that are just plain silly;

2) Philosophy has no real purpose. What can you do with it?

3) People don’t like it when you tell them that their morality or politics or thinking is inconsistent. Not many people are comfortable when what they believe is challenged (myself included). So they fortress themselves in their own dogmatism.

Those of us who are philosophical stand on various points on the sceptical path. Where do you stand? It seems to me that if one is at the extreme sceptical end, one ends up devouring oneself. For example, some there seem comfortable with the statement that there is no truth. But if there is no truth, then how can I believe it? It’s a self-refuting statement. And what about scepticism itself? At what point do I become sceptical about scepticism?

Philosophy can direct to us to positions that appear reasonable to us. However, all the varied and polarized philosophical positions leads me to believe that, paradoxically, there is more to be encompassed than philosophy (sceptical reasoning) can manage. It doesn’t seem to adequately account for my love of my wife and children, the frustration I feel when I realize my limitations, and the many other aspects of life that go beyond reasoning. Though I enjoy philosophical musing, I have come to realize that while scepticism has a use, its use is limited, and to use it to excess can actually lead one away from truth.

Kari Fell, by email

There is really no such subject as philosophy. To claim that there is such a subject is to commit the sin of reification – which is to assume that because the noun ‘philosophy’ exists, there must be some objective ‘thing’ corresponding to it. However, the term has only historical and organizational meaning: it formerly included huge areas of knowledge that are now marked off as distinct from it (for instance, ‘Natural Philosophy’ is now ‘Physics’). What do exist are philosophical studies of essentially autonomous topics, such as our behaviour and our attitudes to others; what is valid when we use our faculties of deduction; the problem of knowing anything for sure; our tastes; and our need for meaning in life – corresponding to what are called the ‘branches of philosophy’: ethics, logic, epistemology, aesthetics and metaphysics. However, there is no thing which is philosophy, as there is no tree on which to hang these so-called branches. Rather, these topics remain the stuff of philosophy because they do not belong anywhere else, inhabiting a limbo between the descriptive world of the sciences and the expressive world of the arts. The disparateness of these subjects can be shown by their widely-varying degrees of vagueness: at one extreme we have the quasi-mathematical world of logic, at the other the hopelessly confused attempts of aestheticians to impose order on the chaotically rich world of modern culture.

On the other hand, one can philosophise about anything: boredom, pain, relations between the sexes or between different species, or the miracle of the snowflake. In doing so, one simply relates these isolated topics to other topics, and so gives all of the topics more ‘meaning’ – by which I mean, more relevance to more people. Most people are in fact philosophers without knowing it, since epigrams and proverbs are simply philosophical statements which are usually not written down or challenged. To go back to my beginning, I may have contradicted myself, by saying that the notion of philosophy is itself unphilosophical, since reification is a philosophical term. Or is this a clever-clever paradox? If there is one thing that philosophy is about more than anything, it is language.

Peter Ellway, by email

The English word ‘philosophy’ is from the ancient Greek meaning ‘love of wisdom’. In ancient Greece, which was the source of modern Western thinking, philosophy and science were one. It was all a search for knowledge. Ancient Greece nurtured two major directions in philosophy. Socrates maintained he knew nothing, and he wanted to prove the same for those with whom he debated. In the opposite direction, Aristotle sought to compile as much as he could of all the knowledge that was later to form the basis of all the sciences.

Socrates fought the prestige of the Sophists, who believed that philosophy was for developing skills in public speaking. These days, tucking away philosophy in lectures for students to reproduce in notes is as much sophistry as it is wisdom: rather, a good philosopher tries to live by his principles and ethics, becoming an example. Moreover, a good philosopher should be able to elucidate on whatever problem is presented. Lecturing and writing need not be underestimated however, as these are the most prominent activities of a philosopher, and a person may get great pleasure from these sources in a celebration of the intellect. Otherwise, philosophy is essentially a matter of analysing language.

After much time and labour, I am capable of a few original ideas; but many of the great philosophers tried to create a system that was superior to all others, as if that was what philosophy is meant to do. However the truth is not that one system is correct and the rest erroneous: philosophy is a matter of ‘and’. Truth is infinite, and is uncovered in little bits. There is a Jewish saying that ‘to be wise means to learn from every person’.

Jai Wax, Toronto

For a creature endowed with consciousness, language, and the ability to engage in abstract thought, the most essential task is to determine the relationship between thought, experience, and the cause of experience. Philosophy is the craft and art of approaching this task in a systematic way, by studying the connections between concepts, and between experience and what we surmise causes experience. This latter causal power is what we call the real world. Philosophy is therefore essentially about how can we use language – words, propositions, and sentences – to craft a procedure that will give us knowledge of the real, and of our connections to it. Thus doing philosophy is working out methods that will help us to discover the relationship of experience and thought, and then to link both to a consistent concept of the real world. Our experiences and our thoughts must in some sense flow from and be dependent upon material reality. Unfortunately we have so far been unable to devise a reliable way of understanding the nature of the connections.

In the modern world, philosophy is slowly being absorbed into science, since science seems to give us the most convincing story of where we come from and what we are. However, science, being dependent upon method, cannot quite break free from philosophy, as we still have to devise what seem to be trustworthy scientific methods. That is, we still must constantly analyze and test the logical relationships between concepts, propositions and experience, in order to satisfy ourselves even that the methods of our science are reliable.

Greg Studen, Novelty, Ohio

Philosophy is the universe, or at least the general survey of it. It’s the ocean in which physics, chemistry, psychology and all of the other disciplines float, the soil from which they grow. All of the sciences are built on it. Philosophy won’t directly provide the equation for the velocity of a projectile, but it yielded the mathematics on which the equation is based. Not the vaccines, but the scientific method with which they were created – including Occam’s Razor, so that the theories wouldn’t be too difficult to work with. But philosophy is not done yet, for once science gives us something, whether a new medicine or a new bomb, we’re then forced to decide if we should use it or not.

Since philosophy is the universe, we do it by existing in the universe. Thinking is the most obvious way of doing philosophy, but we can’t overlook the actual doing of philosophy: as Marx said, in probably his least controversial statement, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. The point however, is to change it.”

Realization, then actualization. I see a girl. She’s pretty (Bam!! Aesthetics). So pretty, that I wonder if she’s even real (Wham!! Metaphysics). Her boyfriend is standing next to her. I ponder killing him (Pow!! Ethics). But, come to think of it, I’m not quite sure that that they’re dating (Bam Wham Pow!! Epistemology). I conclude that since she’s attractive, and might be free, I should at least try to ask her out (Other Sound Effect!! Logic). Yet, all of this wonderful ogling, questioning, scheming, thinking, and concluding is absolutely useless unless I actually walk over to her and start a conversation – or use the situation as an example of how we do philosophy.

Basically, philosophy is the general study of the intangible foundations of the universe, and we do it by studying this infrastructure and putting our conclusions into practice. In other words, by existing.

Matthew Hewes, Edmond, Oklahoma

To ask ‘What is philosophy and how do we do it?’ is like asking, ‘What is a book and how do we read it?’ Philosophy, as Aristotle would put it, is the study of the essence of being. This must boil down to studying who we are, not how we look or how we behave, or why we behave differently. To be more precise, philosophy is a study of ‘self’ to discover Self. Regrettably, philosophy has expanded into so many facets of life that it seems to have lost its essence. Since the world has become focused on how to do this or that, it has taken for granted what we really are. What is important is that I am a human being: the human comes first always, and I have a right to live a life of freedom. But in a materialistic world, where disposability is the norm and development is change, for millions life is too short to dwell on ‘being’. So we are all engaged in a frantic rush to grab as much as we can, because utility-value is short-lived. Is this philosophy?

Aristotle left us a philosophy of essence that we have paid lip service to both intellectually and emotionally without having embraced its true essence. But true philosophy is that process from ‘self’ to ‘Self’. Think about it. Don’t take my word.

Ignatius Udunuwara, Crescent Head, NSW

Philosophy is the lived life; you either live to philosophize or philosophize to live. You can consciously learn and continuously question your existence, and/or you can unconsciously but doggedly form habits and habitually create meaning to become aware of. However you operate, you carry out philosophy. All those who question the relevance of philosophy in the everyday, or its importance as a subject, have already proved its legitimacy by questioning it in the first place.

Albert Camus remarked that the only real philosophical problem was that of suicide. Strangely, contemplating the voluntary termination of one’s own life is a helpful beginning when explaining what philosophy is, because it focuses you on the moment when the individual desire for reason and meaning is met by the silence of the world, resulting in the sudden realisation of the absurdity of human existence. This realisation creates the dilemma that you can either continue the pursuit of reason, but in vain, or you can give in, and end it all.

Philosophy could thus be defined as the human desire for reason which is never met. It is the constant attempts to understand a reality when we know we can never get beyond our limited consciousness. Therefore you are locked in a process of continuously philosophising in a futile attempt to reify your place within reality.

Aimee Skelton, Shropshire

Between our word ‘wisdom’ and the Greek ‘sophia’ there exists a world and 2,500 years of difference. As K. J. Dover notes in Greek Popular Morality in the Time of Plato and Aristotle, by describing an individual as ‘sophron’ (the adjectival form of the verb sophia which features in ‘philosophy’), one could mean the individual was ‘careful’, ‘law-abiding’, ‘prudent’, ‘chaste’, ‘sober’, ‘sensible’, or ‘wise’. It is important that we note that what is absent from this list is anything which even nearly corresponds to our notion of abstract, objective knowledge which is often these days claimed to be the realm of the philosophers. That’s denoted in Greek by the etymologically-distant ‘episteme’.

What links these various meanings of ‘sophron’? It can only be their relation to the sphere of action – each is an instance of knowing what it is best to do in a given situation; of knowing how one ought to act in society, and in the world. Thus the Greek would describe an individual who was a model of what we would now call ‘practical rationality’ by possessing sophrosyne, that is, as loving wisdom.

J. P. Walsh, Southwark, London

Next Question of the Month

To celebrate the launch of Mark Vernon’s new book The Meaning of Friendship (Palgrave Macmillan) the next Question of the Month is: What is Love? The prize is a signed copy of the book (Philosophy Now is your friend). Let the world know what love is in less than 400 words, please. Subject lines or envelopes should be marked ‘Question of the Month’, and must be received by 8th November. If you want a chance of getting a signed book, please include your physical address. Submission implies permission to reproduce your answer physically and electronically.

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