What Philosophy is not – and what it is

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No other area of knowledge suffers so much controversy over what exactly it is as does philosophy. The natural and (even more) the social sciences may harbor ambiguities in their methods and details of analysis, but there tends to be little serious dispute as to what they are studying. Not so with philosophy.  Ask three philosophers what it is they look into as philosophers, and you may get three answers so diverse – in fact, one of them may very well affirm that philosophy no longer exists! – that the layperson may ask why any university would finance a department dedicated to such confusion. One way to clear our heads about this may be to approach the matter negatively. That is, what isn’t philosophy? Here perhaps we will find more consensus.

I will confidently claim that there are five things that philosophy is not, according to the following criteria: mode of exposition, range of subject matter, method of discourse, human faculty employed, and purpose. Using these criteria, I will maintain that philosophy is not proverbial wisdom, is not a modern science, is not mythology, is not one of the arts, and is not religion.

  1. Etymologies do not hold sway entirely over meaning, but in the case of philosophy, some semblance of lovable wisdom should be spotted in its fruits if the word is to hold its own. Proverbs are typically brimming with wisdom, and come packaged in bite-size phrases. It might, however, be the brevity that we love, whereas philosophy is known for treating matters at length.  In the main, philosophy is hardly proverbial, but quite (and ofttimes maddeningly) discursive.
  2. Notable attempts to reduce one modern science to another (chemistry to physics, biology to chemistry, for example), have usually been notable failures. Most of the triumphant sciences of today hold their ground admirably, but do so only by fencing it off and insisting on the limits of their objects. In contrast, philosophies, of whatever stripe, have always aspired to some kind of overarching vision, either by mediating between other areas of knowledge, or by transcending them altogether. Such generality may be cognitively ambitious (Plotinus, Hegel), or distinctly modest (Kant, Wittgenstein), but there is something all-embracing at work in its ambitions. Not aiming at knowing everything about something (as in the sciences), the philosopher wishes to know something (however modest) about everything. Philosophy wishes to be, in some robust sense, universal.
  3. Now there already exists a discourse that often deals with wisdom and issues of universal import, and it predates philosophy. It is called mythology. Although philosophies and mythologies often run parallel, and may even find themselves inseparable in many a human discourse, they are also typically – and famously – distinct. The distinction lies in the method of their discourse. Myths are narrated (or told); philosophy is reasoned (or argued).
  4. Some may suspect that pursuits of wisdom and overarching inquiry need more than myth and argument, and may turn for this to the open horizons of the arts.  Music, drama, literature, painting, architecture, dance, and today cinema, may appear to promise more topical expanse and metaphysical depth than treatises of Aristotle and Heidegger, or dialogues of Plato and Hume. But here again, although often inseparable from the arts, philosophy has typically remained distinct. This is because of what the arts exercise in our human makeup: our senses, emotions and imagination, and only in ancillary mode our thought. Philosophy is just the opposite. The human faculty in the foreground is our pondering mind, in both intuitive and inferential modes. Philosophy is not first and foremost a sensorial activity, but one that is mental, or, in more traditional terminology: intellectual.
  5. But what is it all for?  Philosophy’s end and purpose may seem quite exalted at times, and a few of its practitioners have not shied away from conflating it with religion (the Pythagoreans, some Neo-Platonists, the bizarre religio-philosophy of Comte come to mind). Buddhism, often called a religion, is considered by some a philosophy. So there are ambiguities here. But by and large, religions place the goal of personal transformation in the foreground, and without it would have no reason to be. Philosophy may indeed provide insights which ultimately consummate in such a metamorphosis, but often enough it will do so by dispatching its ‘graduates’ to a religion, and will see that new home as something quite distinct from rational cogitations. Despite recent apologists for philosophy as a ‘way of life’, or even a spirituality (Hadot and company), the majority of philosophers have identified their goal less as an existential transformation, and more as a kind of knowledge, or a distinctive habit of thought.  Its aim is seen to be, by its very nature, cognitive.

Not being any of these five things may mean, for some, that philosophy is nothing but vacuous speculation. In another post I will outline what I think it is, and why I think it is definitely still full of life and relevance, and in no danger of extinction.

* * *

The negative constraints outlined above have already led to some positive results, inasmuch as multiple contrasts of something with what it is not, already traces an outline suggesting content. Thus, now affirmatively stated: philosophy is discursive, favors universal aspirations, is in some way argumentative in method, distinctly intellectual in operation and aims at securing a kind of knowledge. Here I will dare to put my finger on its elusive essence. I’ve never heard this said before – although it probably has been  – but as I look back at my own decades of philosophizing, and observe what the best of philosophers seem to be doing, I cannot escape a conclusion:  ‘philosophy’ is something in philosophers, a quality we gain which impels us to perform the philosophical act.  And that something is:

the acquired intellectual habit of looking at and pondering reality with the tenacious inent of uncovering its most embracing and founding principles – to the extent that they are knowable – regarding the cosmos, human beings and transcendence. 

The qualifying clause I have inserted allows us to welcome beneath the definition’s umbrella even the cognitive minimalists – from Skeptics to Kantians to Post-Modernists – for they too lay claim to a kind of embracing and founding principial stance when they radically delimit and relativize the possibilities of all knowledge.

We are not born philosophers (and mercifully, few will ever become one), but good philosophy, in my view, nonetheless builds upon the natural knowledge we all possess simply by being human. That natural knowledge bears within itself, as its sacred secret, the experience of wonder. Our knowledge is always surrounded by unknowing. We quickly discover as children that we come from somewhere (and indeed someone) – in other words, that we are derivative; we also discover that we are always underway, going to some goal or other, be that nothing more than the next phase of our growth. Also, while still in diapers, we ascertain capably and convincingly that there is a world around us that is far beyond our ken and control. A bit later, but still very much a part of our childhood cognitive conquests, we find out that we have to make choices and that all sorts of good and bad things will result from them.

All of us will, to one extent or another, push these boundaries beyond their immediate horizons. For example, beyond our nuclear family we may pursue origins regarding our ancestors, and explore a bit of genealogy; we may wonder beyond our immediate plans about further goals as to where we will go after leaving home, or after college, or after retirement (or after death?). Likewise, beyond our residence and neighborhood we may establish wider context by localizing our city in a state, our state in a country, our country on a continent, and maybe even imagine our earth’s position in a solar system, and so on. And also, by 20 or so, we should attain sufficient command of our freedom to administer our future choices with accountability and growing awareness of consequences. However, the vast majority of us will leave it at that, and get on with our education, our vocation, our jobs and our families. Sunday afternoon reveries, or cocktail parties, may allow us to entertain some more ‘ultimate’ questions, but we rarely get very far with the long-winded business of unraveling the mysteries they imply.

What makes philosophers different (different, not better) is that, for the life of them, they cannot stop prolonging those queries about origins, destinies, universes and freedom and are teased incurably by the true, the good and the beautiful. These questions will mature into metaphysics, cosmology, philosophical anthropology, ethics, political philosophy and aesthetics, among other disciplines (all monitored by logic – that great servant but fearful master). Their practitioners find no rest until they have won at least a few more rays of light about yet more primordial causes, more ultimate ends, more transcendent ‘worlds’ around us and, finally, the source of that freedom that both haunts and taunts us. Causes, consequences, contexts and conscience are not just parameters of pragmatic living for the philosophers, they are summons to intellectual adventures. Truth seeks its foundation; goodness its expansion; beauty its perfection. My ideal philosopher is convinced of this, and joins in the quest.

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