On Philosophy: What Is It?

Since I am not teaching this year, I had assumed the large-scale questions about philosophy’s nature and significance, the ones that obsessed me as the lecturer in an undergraduate intro class, would subside (for me) for a while. Instead, my organism misses the act of lecturing. And, yes, the act of worrying about philosophy. I’m still thinking about it. To exorcise this distraction, I want to set out very simply, without a whole lot of technical detail or defense of minutiae, what I believe about the nature, method, and importance of philosophy. I’ll do so in three blog posts.

Clarifying the Question

First, what is philosophy? It’s a question answered so many times in such contradictory ways that venturing one’s own answer might seem both impertinent and pointless. But I think some of the apparent intractability comes from ambiguity. Is the question asking, what has philosophy been for its classic exponents? Is it asking, what does it mean to love wisdom (as the etymology of the word “philosophy” might lead you to expect)? Is it asking, what is the dominant view of the academic discipline of philosophy according to its own practitioners? Is it asking, what unites the genre of writing classified as philosophical? Is it asking, what does it mean to live the contemplative life?

(My point about the ambiguity of the question is a very philosophical one, by the way. One of Aristotle’s favorite observations about virtually any word or concept was, “it is said in many ways.” He would follow this observation with a virtuosic set of distinctions, often the most stimulating passages in his books.)

I mean the question “what is philosophy?” this way: assuming that philosophy is a form of inquiry, what sets it apart from others? This version of the question sets aside (perfectly reasonable) questions about what a philosophical lifestyle would look like, what academic departments of philosophy are for, and what self-styled philosophers have claimed for themselves. Those aren’t unimportant questions; they’re just not the one I’m interested in right now. By assuming that philosophy is a form of inquiry, I am assuming that it is a way of seeking to answer questions. That is not to disqualify other uses of the word, just to specify the use I am interested in exploring.

Take the commonly acknowledged core disciplines of philosophy: metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics. What’s the difference between metaphysics and theology or cosmology? What’s the difference between epistemology and psychology? What’s the difference between ethics and legal thinking or ideological thinking? Not their objects, I think, which, often as not, are shared. “Does God exist?” is a question about which metaphysics, theology, and cosmology have had things to say, for example.

So, in my sense of the question, what is philosophy?

My Answer

Here’s my answer: I think philosophy is uniquely married to the way of thinking known as dialectic. I use this word, dialectic, in its ancient sense, as inquiry by dialogue, not in the interesting but more complicated senses that one can find in Hegel or Marx or other modern philosophers.

“What is philosophy?” “Philosophy is inquiry by dialogue.”

To reason by dialectic is to form an answer to a question, then to modify or defend it in response to alternative answers and strong objections. It’s inquiry by dialogue because it maps out the territory of answers to a question, disposing of facile ones and sharpening plausible ones and, often as not, inspiring new ones. It’s inquiry by dialogue because it’s basically an extrapolation of what happens when two or more reasonable and well-intentioned people try to answer a difficult question together. Even when you perform dialectic alone, it’s a dialogue. To do it by yourself, you have to imagine the alternatives and objections of someone else.

(This, by the way, is why Socrates is commonly treated as the fountainhead of philosophy. There were philosophers before him, and there are philosophers in traditions quite separate from him. But he is like an avatar of dialectic: what we are most certain about, in his case, is not the content of his beliefs, but the dialectical method by which he sought to answer questions.)

Philosophy’s closeness to dialectic explains why it’s the mother of so many other sciences. In the 17th century, for example, a whole slew of natural sciences peeled off of “natural philosophy.” Often their founders or first innovators thought of themselves as philosophers. This is because almost all sciences that have a method are a specification of dialectic.

For example, taxonomic inquiries are a pure form of dialectic in which objections take the form of pointing out instances of a thing which escape current definitions, and modifying or replacing those definitions with better ones. Even sciences of proof-making, as in many branches of mathematics and pure logic, are basically dialectical. When you make a proof, you construct an argument that shows how premises which have no plausible alternatives lead without contradiction to a certain conclusion. (Think back to the proofs you constructed in geometry class.) The plausibility of alternatives and the possibility of contradictions are the tests by which dialectic proceeds in all its forms.

Why define philosophy that way?

So why do I claim that dialectic distinguishes philosophy in particular, if I think virtually all forms of reasoning are specifications of it? Precisely because philosophy is the form of inquiry that employs dialectic without specification. The standards of evidence that specify other forms of inquiry set them apart as particular forms of inquiry. To inquire whether you have a broken arm, a doctor will manipulate the limb, ask for a subjective report of your feelings, and perhaps order an x-ray. These result of these tests are considered adequate to answer the question. Philosophy differs, I think, in that it has no such specifications, and therefore it really is, at root, about two or more well-intentioned and reasonable people trying to hash out the answers to a question together, by whatever means possible.

Some Consequences of My Answer

As a consequence, nothing’s ever settled in philosophy. Many people consider this a decisive objection to practicing it. I don’t: instead, I consider a sign of the inescapable role of philosophy in the ontogeny and phylogeny of human thinking. It’s a direct consequence of philosophy’s refusal to specify and standardize the kind of objections and alternatives that count in philosophical dialectic. To “settle” most inquiries requires that two or more people posit what kind of dialectical tests will count as decisive for both of them. In short, almost by definition (I think), special sciences are going to produce a lot more consensus than philosophy. That’s sort of the point of them.

Let’s carefully distinguish between “philosophy never settles things” and “philosophers never settle things.” The latter claim is false. Many philosophers think they have settled things, and have a reasonable claim to it. The answers they espouse have fared well in the dialectical tests they have administered, in the debates they’ve participated in. The possibility of such temporary and contingent decisiveness is probably why philosophy isn’t actually demoralizing, but exciting and even fulfilling. But the grinding engine of philosophy as a whole tends to undermine the claims to settlement of even the most successful philosophers in their own day.

Philosophy’s refusal to specify dialectic makes it generative. A lot of the more special sciences, where the limits of dialectical conventions have enabled enormous progress in inquiry (the way putting your thumb over the end of the garden hose makes the water shoot out farther) grow out of the dialectical free-for-all of philosophy.

Why Philosophy in My Sense is Useful

I think, if I’m right about what philosophy is, that I can plausibly argue it’s a useful form of inquiry for anyone to learn about and attempt to practice. (I’m not arguing everybody should be a pro philosopher in their spare time, or even that philosophy classes should necessarily form the core of an undergraduate curriculum. I’m just saying pretty much anybody can benefit from it.):

(1) Philosophy will make you better at conversing intelligibly in everyday life. After all, it’s just an intensification, a formalization of two reasonable, well-intentioned people trying to answer a question together. And most of us find ourselves in that situation multiple times a day. Why not learn to do it better?

Aristotle wrote, in a book about dialectic called The Topics:

The possession of a plan of inquiry will enable us more easily to argue about the subject proposed. For purposes of casual encounters, it is useful because when we have counted up the opinions held by most people, we shall meet them on the ground not of other people’s convictions but of their own, while we shift the ground of any argument that they appear to us to state unsoundly.

(2) Philosophy will school you in intellectual humility. It does this in two ways: first by demonstrating, over and over again, that there’s more to be said after even the wisest or cleverest have had their say. Second, by highlighting the role of posture or attitude in the pursuit of truth. In more specified forms of dialectic—when you’re hunting for tardigrades, let’s say—the decidability wrought by conventional standards of evidence can induce the idea that inquiry is a mechanically applicable method. What philosophy’s open dialectic shows, over and over again, is that the best thinkers are the most self-critical ones, the ones who are best at imagining what a reasonable opponent would say. Literally no other study teaches the importance of learning to think against oneself in the way that philosophy does. And a refusal to think against oneself retards the progress of many special sciences and many powerful people: they could use some experience of dialectic.

In The Dawn of Day, Nietzsche writes:

Make it a rule never to withhold or conceal from yourself anything that may be thought against your own thoughts. Vow it! This is the essential requirement of honest thinking. You must undertake such a campaign against yourself every day. A victory and a conquered position are no longer your concern, but that of truth and your defeat also is no longer your concern.

(3) Philosophy makes it easier to take up more specific forms of inquiry. Because of its unspecified dialectic, philosophical discussions always pass through stages of disambiguation and definition, and end up working out careful, detailed distinctions. In short, practicing good philosophy makes you more precise, better at thinking about how your assertions sound to others, and avid for clarity and simplicity of expression. (This might surprise you if you’ve read the awful writing of a lot of academic philosophers: but more on that some other time.)

In his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, David Hume writes:

[I]n every art or profession, even those which most concern life or action […] a spirit of accuracy, however acquired, carries all of them nearer their perfection, and renders them more subservient to the interests of society. And though a philosopher may live remote from business, the genius of philosophy, if carefully cultivated by several, must gradually diffuse itself throughout the whole society, and bestow a similar correctness on every art and calling. The politician will acquire greater foresight and subtility, in the subdividing and balancing of power; the lawyer more method and finer principles in his reasonings; and the general more regularity in his discipline, and more caution in his plans and operations. The stability of modern governments above the ancient, and the accuracy of modern philosophy, have improved, and probably will still improve, by similar gradations.

Everything I’ve just said about philosophy is highly contentious and scandalously simple. Being a graduate student in philosophy is like an indoctrination against the kind of bold generalizations I’ve just committed. Nonetheless, it’s more or less what I think, as I would explain it to someone who is not themselves knee deep in the morass of a graduate program in philosophy.

Next up, when I get to it, I’m going to explain how I think you—anyone, really—can do philosophy. (This is something I think a lot of undergraduate introductions to philosophy neglect in favor of presenting the history of philosophy.)

After Hegel, by Frederick Beiser

Frederick Beiser is, in my opinion, the most interesting historian of philosophy working today. Through a wide range of publications he has single-mindedly executed the job of introducing English speakers to the treasures of post-Kantian German philosophy, an era and region of thought bizarrely understudied in light of its tremendous influence. He wrote what I consider the best introduction to the notoriously opaque philosopher Hegel: Hegel, from Routledge. my favorite of his works is The History of German Historicism, but he’s probably best known for The Fate of Reason, a book in part about the immediate context and reception of Kant. I like his work so much that I’m spacing out the volumes I haven’t read in the same way I’m spacing out my consumption of the remaining Jeeves novels from P.G. Wodehouse, or Mark Twain’s historical fiction. I just find them so delightful that I need to know I still have one waiting for me when I need it. Recently I allowed myself the treat of Beiser’s After Hegel—and it was predictably awesome.

I know what you’re thinking: the “history of post-Kantian German philosophy” doesn’t exactly sound like catnip. Well partly that’s because you’re not a professional philosopher and I am: but even besides the topic of Beiser’s research, he’s also an expositor with a genius for clarity. I think I would read him for pleasure even if I’d never come to grad school. Let me just give you one example of what I mean.

Where most histories of philosophy are organized by thinker, topic, or theory, Beiser tends to organize his books around controversies. Organizing an intellectual history around a controversy gives a narrative shape to the exposition of individual thinkers and their theories, making it easier to pay attention and remember. It also has the useful effect of flattening our current canon. Only in such a context can we non-anachronistically assess the significance of a famous thinker’s contribution in their own time; and often such a context reveals that we’re re-litigating old disputes. (For example the correspondence that was conducted immediately after Descartes wrote his Meditations and then published in the back of the book adumbrates nearly every major criticism of his arguments that decades of scrutiny would subsequently re-invent.)

This virtue of Beiser’s method of exposition is fully on display in After Hegel. As you might suppose from the title, it’s about German philosophy after Hegel up until it gets famous again at the beginning of the 20th century. But in between 1831, when Hegel died, and 1900, Beiser convincingly argues that some of the most important trajectories of modern philosophy were determined by a set of controversies about the nature of philosophy, the limits of scientific knowledge, the truth of materialism, the status of history as a science, and the advisability of pessimism about life.

I’m not going to go deeply into any of these things; instead, here’s a list of what I learned from the book.

First, I had no idea Arthur Schopenhauer was such an important philosopher. I always thought of him as a minor and eccentric thinker (I still think he was pretty damn eccentric) whose major influences were disseminated into the wider culture rather than affecting the development of formal philosophy. How wrong I was! Beiser describes how he came to fill a vacuum in German philosophy in the realm of ethics that forced mainstream movements like Neo-Kantianism to respond to his views:

That philosophers in the 1870s and 1880s were forced to move away from their rigid scholastic agenda was due to the work of a single man: Arthur Schopenhauer. By the early 1860s he had become the most famous philosopher in Germany. His works not only had an appeal to the general educated public, but they also proved powerful competition for philosophy professors whose agenda was limited to the logic of the sciences. Schopenhauer had performed a remarkable feat that was the envy of the professors: he had made philosophy relevant again, so that it was asking basic questions of concern to everyone alike, not only professors interested in abstruse matters of logic.

Second, I learned about two important female philosophers I’d never heard of before. I’m always on the lookout for female philosophers because they’re systematically ignored in the annals of the discipline. The years I’ve spent teaching Intro to Philosophy and talking with young women who like philosophy but can’t see themselves in its history has made it transparent to me that the suppression of female thinkers is an ongoing trainwreck that damages the discipline, not just as bad PR, not just as injustice, but integrally in the quality of its dialectic. Anyway, in the Pessimissmustreit, a controversy about Schopenhauer’s pessimism, Agnes Taubert and Olga Plümacher were major players. (This is a controversy virtually unknown in the English-speaking philosophical world. Beiser convinced me it should be better known, and now I want to read the book he wrote exclusively about this controversy.) I will look carefully into these two women next time I teach. In fact the whole pessimism controversy in general might serve as a wonderful question to organize an introduction to philosophy around:

When, with the benefit of hindsight, we look back over the pessimism controversy, it is impossible not to view it without a sense of loss. The discussion was pursued at a high level of philosophical subtlety and sophistication by Schopenhauer, Dühring, Hartmann, the neo-Kantians, Taubert, Plümacher, and Hartmann’s many critics. Rarely has so much intellectual energy been focused on an issue of such great existential importance and of such wide public interest. Yet the pessimism controversy has been largely forgotten, and the issues it raised about the value of life have not been much discussed in contemporary philosophy. This is a pity, because the pessimism controversy shows us that the question of the value of life was capable of very exacting philosophical treatment; the topic raised classical philosophical issues about pleasure, desire, work, love, good and evil, and the role of art in life, which no serious philosopher can ignore.

Third, I didn’t realize that the frontiers of materialism are virtually the same today as they were in the 19th century. The battle rages: to what extent ought one to assume that only physical stuff exists? Can the ultimate constitution of “matter” be said to be physical? And how can we explain the seemingly qualitative leap from brain activity to consciousness? A speech by the prominent scientist Dubois-Reymond kicked off a fascinating debate about these things—a debate I felt like I recognized, because we continue to litigate the exact same issues today.

The main question posed by the materialism controversy was whether modern natural science, whose authority and prestige were now beyond question, necessarily leads to materialism. Materialism was generally understood to be the doctrine that only matter exists and that everything in nature obeys only mechanical laws. If such a doctrine were true, it seemed there could be no God, no free will, no soul, and hence no immortality. These beliefs, however, seemed vital to morality and religion. So the controversy posed a drastic dilemma: either a scientific materialism or a moral and religious “leap of faith.” It was the latest version of the old conflict between reason and faith, where now the role of reason was played by natural science.

Fourth, I learned a lot about the origin and trajectory of several movements I knew about and had even studied through the work of selected thinkers, but never really contextualized or properly understood: the Neo-Hegelians (from whose ranks came Karl Marx), the Neo-Kantians, and positivism. I particularly appreciated Beiser’s succinct exploration of the origins and influences of Neo-Hegelians (the Young Hegelians, or Left Hegelians as they are sometimes known), whose concept of critique is instrumental to my own conception of philosophy:

Though it began in theology, neo-Hegelian criticism soon extended to other spheres. It was the task of critique to expose alienation in all its lairs, whether in society, economy, state, or church. Besides faith in God, self-enslavement assumed many forms: the belief in a divinely ordained prince; the doctrine of absolute spirit; the belief in natural economic laws; the ethic of absolute commands. The neo-Hegelians made it their business to expose alienation wherever it took place, so that people would cease to enslave themselves to their own creations and begin to take control over their lives.

So, fifteen hundred words later, I think it’s clear I really liked this book. I am currently forcibly restraining myself from rushing on to another volume of Beiser. I have my eye on either Diotima’s Children, about the origin of aesthetics as a discipline of philosophy, or his book about the pessimism controvery. But I’ll hold off, space out the pleasure.