What is Philosophy? – Part 1

What is Philosophy? – Part 1 October 5, 2015

The question “What is philosophy?” is an important question.  One reason this question is important is that we must answer this question FIRST, before we can answer any of the following questions:

Q1. Is philosophy a legitimate academic discipline?

Q2. Is philosophy useful?

Q3. Can investigation/inquiry/argumentation in philosophy produce answers to significant questions?

Q4. Can any significant claims be proven or shown to be more reasonable than their denial by use of the methods, tools, and/or principles of philosophy?

Q5. Is the philosophy of religion a legitimate academic discipline?

In other words, we have to have a clear idea of what we mean by the word “philosophy” before we can be confident in making any sort of general evaluation of the value or usefulness or academic legitimacy of philosophy.  I’m assuming the following intellectual principle:

P1: Don’t criticize what you don’t understand.

It seems to me, that we are IMMEDIATELY thrust into a bit of a logical bind here.  How can we determine an answer to the important and basic question “What is philosophy?” ?  This is itself a philosophical question.  In fact, it is a paradigm case of a philosophical question.  This question is analogous to a whole series of similar questions, all of which are paradigm cases of philosophical questions:

Q6. What is history?

Q7. What is science?

Q8. What is mathematics?

Q9. What is art?

Q10. What is literature?

Q11. What is biology?

Q12. What is psychology?

Question Q6 is NOT an historical question.  We can ask historical questions about the practice or development of “history” and “historical inquiry”,  but such questions require or presuppose some understanding of what we mean by the word “history”.  We cannot get started investigating the history of the discipline of history until we first have arrived at some level of clarity about what we mean by “history”.  This is a task for phillosophy.   Historians are welcome to investigate this philosophical issue, but when they do so, they are no longer doing history; they are doing philosophy.

Question Q7 is NOT a scientific question.  We can formulate scientific hypotheses and theories about the conduct or development of science, but such hypotheses and theories require or presuppose some understanding of what we mean by the word “science”.  We cannot get started on a scientific investigation into science until we first have arrived at some level of clarity about what we mean by “science”.  This is a task for philosophy.  Scientists are welcome to investigate this philosophical issue, but when they do so, they are no longer doing science; they are doing philosophy.

IMHO, the same reasoning applies to philosophy, except that we CAN do a philosophical investigation into the meaning of the word “philosophy”.  Although historical inquiry cannot, by itself, arrive at a clear understanding of the concept of “history”, and scientific investigation cannot, by itself, arrive at a clear understanding of the concept of “science”,  philosophical investigation CAN arrive at a clear understanding of the concept of “philosophy”.

But, suppose that I am mistaken.  Suppose that philosophy is useless and that no conclusions of philosophical investigation are ever proven or shown to be more reasonable than alternative views.

In that case, we are led to skepticism about not only the legitimacy of the discipline of philosophy, but to skepticism about the legitimacy of all other academic disciplines, including history, science, biology, mathematics, art, literature, and psychology.

If philosophy cannot help us to clarify basic concepts like “history”, “science”, “mathematics”, “biology”, and “art”, and “psychology”, then we literally don’t know what we are talking about when we assert claims like the following:

C1.  History is a legitimate academic discipline.

C2. Biology is a legitimate academic discipline.

C3. Mathematics is a legitimate academic discipline.

C4. Psychology is a legitimate academic discipline.

Even if historical investigation or scientific investigation could potentially help to prove one of these claims, or could show one of these claims to be more reasonable than the denial of that claim, we cannot make use of history or science without FIRST establishing what is meant by “history” or “biology” or “mathematics” or “psychology”.

One could, of course, simply stipulate a defintion for a word (like “psychology”) that refers to an alleged academic discipline, but that would be, apart from philosophical investigation and argumentation, a purely arbitrary and rationally unsupported starting point for scientific or historical investigation into that academic discipline.

Thus, it seems to me that unless we start out with the PRESUMPTION that philosophy can help us to clarify the meanings of words or basic concepts, there is no hope of ever establishing claims C1, C2, C3, or C4.  One must simply assume that philosophical investigation is possible, and make the effort to clarify the key concepts in these claims.  Only if one can acheive some significant degree of success in this task of conceptual analysis and clarification, will one be able to prove one of these claims, or be able to show that such a claim is more reasonable than its denial.

To be continued….


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