–Arts and letters for the modern age–

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–Arts and Letters for the Modern Age–

On Defining ‘Philosophy’

by | Mar 25, 2024

Whenever I am asked to give a definitive characterization of philosophy, my reply typically takes the form of listing a number of representative philosophical questions, like this:

What are good reasons for believing something?

How do sounds, marks, gestures, and the like represent things in the world?

What does it mean to say that a statement is true or false?

What is the relationship between the mind and the body?

What makes actions morally right and wrong?

How should a person live his or her life?

From where does political authority derive?

The upside of doing things this way is that one avoids the too-neat formulas and tidy definitions that inevitably count too many or too few activities as philosophy. The questions approach is more modest in its ambitions, saying: “There are a number of questions that every student of philosophy will encounter. If we examine them closely, we can get a sense of what the discipline is about.”  

The downside is that the form these questions take gives the impression that they are of a type that they really are not. “How?” “What?” and “Why?” questions appear to be the sort for which there should be conclusive answers, but philosophers have been asking these questions – and many more like them – for millennia and seem no closer to a consensus now than before. This suggests that philosophy makes no real progress, an idea that has fueled criticism of philosophy by a number of prominent scientists and science-popularizers and anxiety on the part of philosophers.   


The questions I listed above have a great capacity to mislead, as their “surface grammar” masks the sorts of questions they really are. Philosophy is a distinct intellectual activity; not at all like science; barely like logic or mathematics; and much more like literature or the fine arts than many philosophers care to think.  

It’s easy to read the listed questions as seeking straightforward answers. “How should a person live his or her life?” looks like it should receive an answer of the form, “A person should live his or her life this way,” where ‘this’ indicates some specific lifestyle. “What is the relationship between mind and body” seems like it should receive an answer similar to the kind one would get in response to a question like “What is the relationship between the heart and the circulatory system?” i.e., in terms of some causal connection. 

We read these questions in these ways, because we live in a culture that treats science as a model of intellectual activity. (It is worth noting that this is relatively recent – a feature of post WWII thinking – and that for most of the history of higher education, Classical learning was dominant in our top academic institutions and scientific education was considered somewhat plebeian.) In science, when we ask “How?” we are looking for a mechanism. When we ask “What?” we are looking for an empirical characterization or description. When we ask “Why?” we are looking for a cause. So, when we see these words at the beginning of questions, we interpret them in the manner that we would, were they being asked in a scientific context. And when I say “we,” I mean an awful lot of us, including many philosophers, who not only are not immune to the influence that science has over our intellectual imagination, but are complicit in its having that influence.

But philosophical “How’s” and “What’s” and “Why’s” are not scientific ones, and the benefit we derive from asking them does not lie in any specific, concrete, consensus-demanding answers that we might receive; answers which, in any event, are not forthcoming. Unlike science, then, in which the primary benefit of asking these questions lies in their answers, in philosophy, it lies in the questions themselves and in re-engaging with them again and again over the course of our lives.  

The moment one begins to explore the philosophical versions of these questions, it becomes clear that they are not typical “How’s?” “What’s?” and “Why’s?” “What are good reasons for believing something?” immediately unpacks into any number of further questions. What do we mean by ‘reasons’ and why should we characterize some as good and others as bad? What do we believe for – that is, what is the point of believing? Do we believe in order to acquire the truth? Do we believe in order to paint an appealing picture of the world? Do we believe for a reason at all? What are the respective roles of reason and sentiment in the human template and which is normative with respect to belief? Is there a single account of what constitutes good reasons for believing something or will the accounts vary, depending upon the type and purpose of the belief in question? Or on the type of person whose belief it is? Or on the context in which the belief arises?

“What is the relationship between the mind and the body?” likewise unpacks into any number of further questions. What do we mean by ‘mind’? Is the mind a thing, as the body is? If the mind is a thing, is it a physical thing? Is the mind the brain and in what sense? As a matter of literal identity? Of material equivalency? Of some other relation? Should we identify persons with their minds and thus (on this view) with their brains? Can we have minds/brains and also be our minds/brains? Do minds/brains do various things or do people do them? Are thinking, believing, feeling, hoping, and the like discrete events, in the same sense that physical happenings, chemical reactions, biological processes, and the like are discrete events? And so on.

I can do this with every question listed, but you get the point. What look like relatively straightforward questions are quickly revealed to be anything but, and when they are treated as such, they are usually treated badly. Instead, much of what philosophy seems concerned with is providing an account of ourselves and of the world we inhabit as we conceive them in ordinary language and as ordinary people. Personhood, rationality, perception, representation, belief, action, agency, responsibility, citizenship; these comprise some of the chief ingredients out of which our common conception of ourselves is built. And it is a conception that is shot through with normativity; with the idea that human life, activity, and civilization have meaning, significance, and ultimately, purpose. Philosophy concerns itself, in short, with what Wilfrid Sellars called “the Manifest Image” and sometimes, with the ways in which it intersects with the “Scientific Image.” [1]    

So, when we ask “How?” “What?” and “Why?” questions in philosophy, we are not looking for mechanisms, empirical descriptions, or causes, within a neutral intellectual space, but for a compelling, resonant picture of ourselves, the world, and our place in it. Philosophical questions are not the sort that we pursue until we find an answer and then move on. Rather, we revisit these questions again and again, because what counts as a compelling, resonant picture of ourselves, our world, and our place in it changes as we change. By this point in my life, I have taken up the questions listed above many times: as an undergraduate; as a graduate student; as a new professor; as a mid-career professor; as a senior faculty member; and now as a recent retiree. Of course, this also means that I have taken them up as a teenager, a young man, and in middle-age. Each time I have come to very different conclusions, which have meant very different things to me and played very different roles in my life. In earlier years, I held quite strict views on epistemic warrant and morality and justice, as they supported a picture of humanity and of the world as I would have liked it to be; one that idealized ideological and intellectual consistency and purity, in the way that young people typically do. The passing years and the experience that comes with them have led me to different, looser, more contextually sensitive, even somewhat open-ended views on these subjects. Certainly, along the way, I learned any number of arguments for and against the various positions, and certainly these have had some effect on the course that my own views have taken. But unlike the sciences, where evidence can tell decisively in favor of or against a particular view, none of these philosophical arguments are even remotely conclusive; every position has a pile of arguments for and against it; every one of those arguments has critical premises that are contested; and very smart people can be found representing virtually every position on the map. The philosophical views one holds, then, are as much a matter of who one is at a particular time and in a particular place as they are about what has been satisfactorily demonstrated or proven.  

As much as the pursuit of philosophical questions is part of an effort to paint a certain kind of picture of human life, it is also very much an expression of that life, and this is where philosophy and the arts reveal their great affinity. And just as Socrates’ dialogue with Parmenides and Rousseau’s Confessions and Gettier’s strange cases reward our reading them again and again, so the greatest works of art sustain repeated viewing, reading, and listening, over the course of a lifetime. 


There is more philosophy today than there ever has been and it’s certainly more complex. Whether it’s more comprehensive is a bit tricky, as philosophers today are less inclined to build grand systems of the sort that one finds in Kant and Hegel, but taken as a whole, the discipline certainly covers more ground than it used to. As to whether we are more satisfied with the picture of ourselves, the world, and our place in it that philosophy provides today than people were in, say, the 18th Century, I have no idea and suspect that there’s no way to find out.

Regardless, I don’t see how any of this translates into philosophy being “better” than it was before, and to say that something has progressed is to say that it’s gotten and continues to get better. But, is Kripke better than Aristotle? Quine better than Kant? Epistemology today better than the epistemology of the Enlightenment? It’s difficult to compare personalities, because philosophical problems are sliced into much smaller pieces today, so no contemporary philosopher’s mind or body of work is going to have the scope of those of the philosophers of Antiquity or the Enlightenment. But even at the level of the work itself, it’s not clear that one can characterize contemporary philosophy as better than it was in its preceding phases. For one thing, so much of philosophy today consists of the development of – in the sense of tinkering with – older ideas. The dominant moral theories of our age, for example, are little more than refinements of 18th and 19th century moral philosophies. For another, all of the work is equally of use to us, in our current philosophical investigations and meditations. Plato and Aristotle and Descartes and Hume and Kant are as useful to us today as are Quine, Putnam, Kripke, Rawls, and Nozick, in a way that ancient Greek physics and medieval cosmology and 17th century medicine are not of use to contemporary scientists and doctors.

Of course, the more philosophical history we have available to us in constructing a worldview, the better off we are, so I am philosophically better off than my medieval counterpart in the sense that I have more philosophical resources upon which to draw in constructing a picture of myself, others, and the world we share. But this is very different from saying that philosophy itself progresses, and here, once again, we see similarities between philosophy and the arts. Certainly artists at later periods of time have more resources from which to draw inspiration and instruction than those at earlier periods of time, and for those who form art’s audience, the more art there is, the more there is to play the role that arts play in our development as individuals and as human beings. But like with philosophy, it’s just incorrect to say on the basis of this that contemporary art is better than the art of previous eras. The development of linear perspective in the Renaissance gave artists more tools with which to work, but one cannot say that art became better as a result. Raphael paintings that employ this new tool are not “better” than Van Eyck paintings or medieval illuminations that do not. Indeed, art critics of a formalist bent, like Clive Bell, may even be of the view that art became worse with such developments. As Bell wrote in his book, Art (1914),“Before the late noon of the Renaissance art was almost extinct. Only nice illusionists and masters of craft abounded.”

Progress involves betterment at both the “object level” of attaining a superior position with respect to a possible end state or in terms of a final goal and at the “meta-level” where these states or goals are themselves conceived as forming a progressive hierarchy. Science clearly progresses in this sense, as it not only accomplishes goal after goal, but each accomplished goal itself represents progress along a hierarchy of goals. Logic and mathematics might. Philosophy, however, does not. Its value, as we’ve seen, is of an entirely different, far more contemplative variety.


[1] I wrote more extensively on Sellars’ distinction between the Scientific and Manifest Images here.