“What is philosophy?”

 

That’s a funny question, apparently. Several of our Philosophy Bites respondents respond by simply laughing, or changing the subject, or stonewalling. “Philosophy is an unusual subject in that its practitioners don’t agree what it’s about.” No kidding. That may be the understatement of the millennium. Gathering philosophical consensus amongst professional philosophers is a lot like herding cats.

But a few common themes do emerge: the quest for clarity, as my colleague the pragmaticist (sic.) would insist. The Sellarsian urge to see how things hang together. (I met Sellars once, after he gave a talk at my undergrad alma mater. He wasn’t hanging together too well, he and Quine in the kitchen.) The stubborn refusal to accept convention and common sense without a critical challenge.

A few of the cats’ meows:

Richard Bradley: “Philosophy is 99 per cent about critical reflection on anything you care to be interested in.”

Clare Carlisle: “Most simply put it’s about making sense of all this . . . We find ourselves in a world that we haven’t chosen. There are all sorts of possible ways of interpreting it and finding meaning in the world and in the lives that we live.”

Donna Dickenson: “Philosophy is what I was told as an undergraduate women couldn’t do—by an eminent philosopher who had best remain nameless. But for me it’s the gadfly image, the Socratic gadfly: refusing to accept any platitudes or accepted wisdom without examining it.”

Anthony Kenny: “Philosophy is thinking as clearly as possible about the most fundamental concepts that reach through all the disciplines.”

Will Kymlicka: “Well I’m in a philosophy department but I’m always wondering what exactly I have in common with many of my colleagues, because, to be frank, I don’t necessarily understand the work they do in the philosophy of language or metaphysics. ”

Ray Monk: “Philosophy is the attempt to understand ourselves and the world.”

A. W. Moore: “I’m hard pressed to say, but one thing that is certainly true is that ‘What is Philosophy?” is itself a striking philosophical question.”

Raymond Tallis: “My dream of philosophy is to make the universe we live in mind-portable…”

Michael Sandel: “Philosophy always intimates the possibility that things could be other than they are. And better.”

*Thomas Pogge: “I think wisdom is understanding what really matters in the world. In my view what really matters is the enormous injustice that’s being perpetrated on the poor in this world.

Jeff McMahan: “Can I just laugh? I have no idea what philosophy is.” 

TwainCatBottom line seems to be: philosophy is whatever philosophers think they’re doing, but don’t try telling them what to do. That really would be like herding cats.

On the other hand: to paraphrase Mark Twain, messing with cats teaches you things you can learn no other way. It just might be worth the scratch and bother.

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4 Responses to ““What is philosophy?””

  1. Dean Says:

    Philosophy is the thingie that keeps the absurdity of life at bay.

  2. osopher Says:

    Well, on a good day anyway.

    On a bad one it’s the thingie that makes the absurdity of life tolerable, sometimes even meaningful and entertaining. (“We must imagine Sisyphus happy” etc.)

  3. mike Says:

    Philosophy is everything:
    “idead about ideas’
    “It keeps going like a famiy tree”
    “It is anything that is important”
    “It can be how you’re raised”
    “It is answering a question based on your opinion”

  4. Dean Says:

    I just got an idea from Mike’s post: iDead sounds like a new end-of-life iPhone app. Someone should develop that before it’s too late.

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