What Is Philosophy, Anyway?

See here for the Finnish version.

I’m not sure what people think philosophy is. I know what I used to think; that it’s thinking so vague and supposedly deep that it’s void of content. An image that always comes to mind when I think about this is of an episode in a Finnish children’s TV show (Veturi, which word if anyone is interested means a locomotive) where, as far as I can remember, a philosopher came to visit the main characters and one of them ended up doing nothing but sitting down with him thinking up analogues for what life is like. In the lines of “Perhaps life is like… an apple” (followed with an explanation of how it’s like an apple, and frankly I can’t be bothered to make one up).

Of course, this was the same show where, when they got a computer, it started talking and demanded to be fed based on a pun about diskettes. Maybe that should have clued me in to the fact that their depiction of things wasn’t necessarily so accurate. It was closer to the mark on philosophy, but that’s not saying a lot, because, you know, feeding a talking computer is remarkably far from realistic.

It’s not that I was basing my idea of what philosophy is on the episode of Veturi. At least I don’t think so. Rather I was probably basing it on the same popular ideas as the authors of the show were basing their portrayal on. But, medium-length story short, when I took my first course in philosophy in high school, I realised that it was actually what I had always been doing. It was something right up my alley and highly worthwhile.

So, what is it? Pardon me for veering off into yet another anecdote before I give a straight answer. When I took the introductory philosophy course at the university several years later, the topic of the first lecture was defining philosophy. But it wasn’t that simple. I can no longer remember the details, but the lecturer discussed things such as how difficult it is to really define a concept and other issues that the seemingly simple question brought up, and ended up with the conclusion that actually we can’t give a completely satisfactory answer to what philosophy is.

This lecture wasn’t useless. It was a good demonstration of what philosophy is. And it wasn’t a demonstration that philosophy is useless, either, though perhaps that it can be a bit frustrating sometimes — but actually the issues brought up in the lecture were more fascinating than frustrating.

So apparently we can’t give a proper definition of what philosophy is. Actually, we can’t give a proper definition of most concepts; there will always be some problem with them. But I wouldn’t be writing this if I didn’t have an answer to the question I was posing above. It’s one of those answers that are simple to state but more complicated to understand.

  • Philosophy means really thinking about things that are normally taken for granted, and the results of such thinking.

This is a vague definition, and it’s not intended to be philosophically flawless. Frankly, it should be problematic. But I actually can’t find a real problem with it just now, so I guess we got lucky this time. It’s certainly good enough for purposes of the current explanation, or at least I hope so. It fits both the term “philosophy” in general and what is meant by the “philosophy of something”, such as philosophy of science or moral philosophy.

But true as that is, just reading the one sentence doesn’t automatically give an immediate inderstanding of what it means. (This is usually true of almost anything even the slightest bit complicated. That might be a good topic to explore in a future article.) That’s one reason I included the above anecdotes; it’s good to show what something is not, in case people do think it’s that, and it’s also good to give examples of what it is. But anyhow, what does that mean?

So what is “really thinking about things that are normally taken for granted”? You’re not doing this when you just accept whatever seems to be the case or others tell you to be the case, and don’t stop to think about how you can know it’s really true or whether it even really makes sense. Let’s face it, we act like that all the time. But in philosophy, you have to ask the questions you normally don’t, and often you even get to give your own answers to those questions, although at least someone will usually disagree with them. Socrates as presented in some of Plato’s dialogues gives good examples of this when he asks another character what a concept we normally take for granted (say, knowledge or courage) actually means, and makes them think about it by asking further questions and raising problems with their answers, guiding them with the questions to think about the matter in more depth.

There is another related concept that it’s useful to understand: critical thinking. Now, there are two meanings for the word “critical” that may be confused here. (There are also others that no-one will hopefully think about in this context at all.) Being critical can just mean opposing something. But what I’m interested in here is the following meaning: Critical thinking means, roughly speaking, starting from a neutral point of view and trying to arrive at the most sensible conclusion based on the evidence or arguments, as opposed to just either accepting what’s being told to you without questioning it or believing whatever you already were inclined to believe and favouring confirming evidence over contradicting evidence. This is necessary for the practise of good philosophy, but it’s not quite the same thing as my vague term “really thinking about things”. You could “really think about something that is usually taken for granted” but still only consider the points in favour of the view you already held previously, explicating and justifying your ideas but not really putting them to the test, creating and practising bad philosophy. In fact, about the biggest problem in philosophy is to avoid doing this at some point, because it’s just really hard not to.

Is this a useful kind of activity? Heck yes. Without people asking those kind of questions, we’d still know almost nothing about the world and would just blindly believe whatever randomly, unintentionally generated superstitions our societies would happen to have thrust on us.

Now, of course, a lot of what we know about the world has been found out by sciences (not just natural science) other than philosophy. But it all starts with asking the questions. And historically, indeed, (other) fields of science have split off from philosophy as they developed their own methodologies. What’s left in philosophy are the questions that can’t be studied empirically or mathematically, but only via plain old debate and thinking. That’s why philosophy has problems with questions being impossible to settle with finality, but there’s just no helping that. My definition also hints at this aspect of philosophy. It’s about thinking, and its method of proof is argumentation, not experimentation.

Even with other fields of science illuminating their subjects on their own, and their experiments not being philosophy, properly understanding the meaning of their results is still philosophy by definition (not just because of my defintion), and requires skills in thinking about things as described above. An expert in a field is not someone who can merely recite a lot of true sentences about it by heart, but someone who can apply their knowledge dynamically and has a deep understanding of the field. (Compare with what I said above about reading my definition of philosophy not automatically making people understand what I mean.) Such experts often write excellent works on the deep implications and therefore philosophy of their field, as for example Antonio Damasio, Richard Dawkins, Kari Enqvist, and Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen. What do neurological studies imply about the nature of consciousness and the mind (Damasio)? How does evolution and thereby life on this planet really work (Dawkins)? What do theoretical physics tell us about the deep nature of reality (Enqvist)? What do the sciences together imply about humanity and its place in the universe (Stewart and Cohen)? These are all both scientific and philosophical questions, and the application of science and philosophy to them together brings out some amazing keys to understanding the universe the like of which religions and mystical philosophies have only dreamt of… and that science without philosophy is too busy making measurements to bother with.

This is not to say philosophy minus all the sciences doesn’t have interesting questions left to study. What is it morally right to do in different situations, and what does an act being morally right mean anyway? What’s the definition of a particular concept, like knowledge, and why is it so hard to come up with any answer that really works even though we all know how to use the word “knowledge”? Does the universe having laws mean we can’t have free will? By what right does the state create and enforce laws? And regardless, the study of philosophy is basically the study of thinking about things in the first place. We certainly need that. Ignorance is a more or less permanent problem in the world, but it’s not just a question of people not being informed, it’s also a question of their lacking critical thinking skills and not realising they lack them. People only think they know what they’re doing, and the results aren’t pretty. But though this is a problem with people who don’t have time to go out and educate themselves for years, lack of real understanding and critical thinking would (and sometimes does) also bring down good science; even if thinking is left to experts, they need to be good at it.

This all said, there is, of course, a lot of bad and nonsensical philosophy too, that would itself be torn apart if subjected to critical thinking. Bad “applications” of science, too; if anyone tries to sell you anything supposedly based on quantum mechanics, it’s probably made-up rubbish. Philosophy isn’t about things that sound weird and mysterious and impossible to understand. Philosophical ideas may sound that way at first, but the difference is that a real philosopher understands what they mean by all those odd things, whereas what we might call the mystic doesn’t understand their own ideas in any analytical sense, or at least is just totally wrong and bases the ideas no critical thinking.

As a final note, a philosophy can also be someone’s overall way of viewing life and functioning in it (as in, “My philosophy is ‘Live and let live.'”) But I think that is covered by my definition as well, because to have an explicit philosophy of this sort also requires one to stop and think about it enough to formulate it, so it is a result of really thinking about something normally taken for granted.


I referred to some authors above. Here are some of their books that I had in mind:

  • Antonio Damasio: Descartes’ Error.
  • Richard Dawkins: The Blind Watchmaker.
  • Kari Enqvist: Olemisen porteilla. (“At the Gates of Being.” I’m not aware of it being available in English.)
  • Ian Stewart & Jack Cohen: Figments of Reality.

Sama suomeksi.


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