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.)

Your thoughts?