What is Philosophy? Some Reflections and Eight Answers

This longer introductory essay was part of a series of essays I composed in spring of 2020 as introductions to an new student of mine. Part I discusses different suggestions to “what is philosophy”. Part II will investigate the case study of early modern European philosophy.

Philosophy comes from the Greek expression of “loving wisdom”. Few people deny the value of wisdom. And yet, philosophy is a rather marginal part of our curriculums. Moreover, whenever philosophy is defended, it is rarely defended by calls towards “a wise society”. Rather, it is customarily defended as the subject teaching us “how to think”. Indeed, one often gets the impression that philosophy today is closer to “love of thinking” than “love of wisdom”. It is hardly a coincidence that Simon Blackburn’s excellent introduction to philosophy carries the simple title of Think.   

An array of questions emerges. What exactly is the relationship between thinking and wisdom? What are the efforts exerted by philosophical thinking, often rather detached from daily life, offering back to humanity? Do we become wiser by thinking philosophically, and if so, how so?

We can begin an investigation into these questions by focusing on a simpler questions: why do philosophy in the first place?

Two easy answers present themselves. 

(1) Philosophy as a past-time

One the one hand, we can simply say that philosophical thinking is a past-time like any other. Some people want to relax by watching thrilling crime shows, some by having a philosophical discussion. In this sense, philosophy carries no strong claim for wisdom, but no such claim is required, for the value of philosophy lies not in its effects but in its intrinsic pleasantness.

(2) Philosophy as the handmaiden of history

At the other extreme, we can see philosophical thinking as an activity that pushes our reflection to new uncharted territories. With wisdom or not, philosophers have driven many of the great changes in our history. John Locke was the intellectual godfather of the US Declaration of Independence as well as the French Revolution. Karl Marx exerted a similar influence to the 20th Century revolutions in Russia and East Asia. And so on. As Bryan Magee aptly noted:

“The idea that philosophy is detached from real life seems to be in itself detached from real life”.

If this is so, we should perhaps pay some attention to what the philosophers of today are saying. 

But what is the mechanism by which philosophical thinking produces what it produces, be it intellectual stimulation, world revolution, or yet something different? 

Few if any philosophers would converge on a single answer. But we can appreciate some possible answers by listing a few.

(3) Philosophy as clarity  

Thinking clearly is one possible fruit of philosophical training.  

This is visible in one notable characteristic of modern philosophy. Philosophy is increasingly practiced as a philosophy of something. There is philosophy of science, philosophy of law, philosophy of art.

For example, discussing philosophy of art can teach us to think more clearly about subjects we would, quite honestly, talk about anyways. These might be questions like “is there an objectively good standard for literature?”,”why are some films considered art and others entertainment?”, or “is putting a urinal into a museum a work of art or a work of trickery?” Even lacking generally accepted answers to such questions, philosophy can teach how to approach such questions with a reflective attitude.

Another example of this is philosophy of religion, which can, again, help us think clearly about assumptions often taken for granted. “Do you believe in God?” is question with the oomph of a heavy iron block. But what is “God?” Anybody denying the existence of God is forced to either offer a clear conception of what they mean by God, or admit that their claim is a muddled one. Philosophy of religion can become liberating for those who feel muddles in the face of such questions.  

In this formulation, philosophy is, in the words of William James, “little more than the persistent attempt to think clearly”. I personally experienced this side vividly during my undergraduate years. The British curriculum allowed me to graduate without having read a single dialogue of Plato, nor of Hume or Berkeley.  As one of my tutors aptly summarized, he was not in the business of teaching philosophy as much as teaching us to philosophize.  

This spirit continued outside the classrooms. Every fortnight a small group of us would gather in a room with a simple task: discuss reflectively on any possible topic. Tea and biscuits were served. Our senior philosophy fellow, the lovely Professor Adrian Moore, often joined us.  

Our little philosophy club was not a club for discussing Plato, Nietzsche or Heidegger. It was a club for discussing any topic and with no assumption of prior knowledge about the topic. What kept the club going was a keen dedication to think clearly. 

Everyone participating was allowed to write a question on a sheet of paper. We drew one from the hat and discussed it, more or less reflectively, into the dusk. The idea was not to debate but to discuss, to think clearly. It happened once that the question drawn from the hat was “what is the purpose of philosophy?”. This was one of the few times that Professor Moore gave away a hint at his own opinion: “Could it is simply the value of clarity?” [Quoting from memory, please correct me if you read this Professor!]

In the era of the Internet, our capacity to know has increased beyond anything conceivable by past generations. Some see this as an end of philosophy. After all, questions from free will to moral decision-making are now studied by the sciences. And with the Internet, such scientific findings are a few clicks away from us. Yet perhaps the story has another side, too: it is not inconceivable, at least not to me, that the more we know, the more we struggle to understand. Only by thinking clearly about what is our question can we see the heaps of information as concealing an answer.  

In this formulation, philosophy has no subject-matter of it’s own. It is not a study of anything, as much as a reflective attitude taken towards anything.

Not all are satisfied with such a view. Many do regard philosophy to have a subject-matter of its own. Adopting this perspective, we are led to ask what does philosophy study? What is the object of philosophical investigation?  A child asks a biologist what she studies. She has clear answers. “Do you see that ant? I study them.” Such is the case even within the humanities, at least if some simplification is allowed. Let a child ask a literature professor what she studies and you might hear a reasonably clear answer. “Have you heard bedside stories? Good. I study such stories: I collect stories and see what they teach us.” But what about a philosopher?  

Let us entertain some possible answers.  

(4) Philosophy as a investigation into the assumptions of our culture 

One way to look at philosophy is as an analysis of the assumptions of our culture. According to Isaiah Berlin, a prominent Oxford philosopher and intellectual historian of the past century, philosophy should do the job that the majority cannot, and should not, do. We cannot all go about questioning everything. Human communities and societies cannot thrive if we do not act. But without any questioning of the facts, society “ossifies”, according to Berlin. We should not all be philosophers, anymore than we should all be astronauts, but a certain part of the society should be allowed, even encouraged, to keep a critical voice. In this formulation, philosophy is, in a sense, the sceptical voice that drives cultures to develop.  

Socrates was an archetypal example of a berlinian philosopher. He called himself a “gadfly” who walked around Athens questioning people’s dearly held beliefs. Contrary to some caricatures, Socrates was more than simply an annoying sceptic. Quite the opposite, his presence at dinner parties was much desired. But what they enjoyed was not Socrates’ ability to make them feel at ease. Quite the opposite, they enjoyed, by whatever curious logic of the mind, Socrates’ ability to show the lack of clear rationale for their most dearly held beliefs. In our times, gadfly-like critics of our society’s basic assumptions have been popular especially in the continental European tradition. Names like Michael Foucault come to my mind. 

Socrates and Berlin are giving a somewhat radical view into philosophy. Indeed, Socrates himself was confronted by a fellow Athenian with the following view of his subject: philosophy where it is an important part of a young person’s education, but should be rapidly abandoned after one comes of age. It is not hard to see why this might be a reaction to Socrates: as Isaiah Berlin noted, our society would not work if all our working men and women would be questioning their deepest beliefs. This echoes a memorable line from the novel Life of Pi: 

“Doubt is useful for a while. [..] But we must move on. To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.” 

Yet not all of us want to leave philosophy to the fringes.  For some, philosophy is much more central – even the most central – endeavour of life. Perhaps clearest formulation of such a view is to regard philosophy as the quest for the purpose of life. 

(5) Philosophy as a theory of value 

The most obvious answer is that philosophy studies values, whereas science studyíes facts. The idea that facts and values are different beasts dates back to, at least, the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume. It is rather commonly accepted amongst modern philosophers. Factually, it is true that bullying happens. It might even be that some bully’s are proud of their successes in the deed. But we are hardly inclined to conclude that therefore, bullying deserves our praise.  

This side of philosophy is perhaps most obviously philosophical. It is the side of philosophy which tends to boil down to the grand questions that we associate with philosophizing: what is the purpose of life? What is a good life? What makes a good person? These are grand questions which invigorate minds of even the youngest of children. I remember vividly telling a classroom of 8-year-olds that I was trained in philosophy only to have three students, during a course of two days, come to ask me for the purpose of life. I am not sure if they were happy with my rather abstract answer (“to create structures out of  stardust”), but the issue, if there was one, was in my answer, not in their question.  

(6) Philosophy as a study of language 

Or perhaps the problem is often in the question!

For millennia, philosophers tended to ask questions such as “what is beauty” or “what is justice” – even “what is the purpose of life”. While doing so, they tended to assume that there is something lying behind the words, which we tried to grapple towards. This gave rise to infamous problems in philosophy, such as the problem of universals: what is the relationship between an idea, such as “horse” and every instance where we perceive “a horse”. Or perhaps more curiously, what is the relationship between mathematical ideas, such as “number three” and an instance where this mathematical idea is realized, such as “those three jumping frogs”.  

The assumption that our language is groping at an independent reality was brought to question by a group of philosophers in Oxford and Cambridge around the time surrounding the WWII. These thinkers, most notably Ludwig Wittgenstein, maintained that we are often confused in our questions. Rather than accept the questions and search for answers, we should investigate the way the questions are formulated. Philosophy, according to philosophers of this “linguistic turn”, was the study of language in use. For them, a philosophical problem was not one to be solved but to be dissolved.  

Gilbert Ryle gave a famous example of this. Think of a tourist in Oxford, he suggested. This person has been shown all the colleges, libraries, and  research faculties. “Good” this person says. “This is impressive. But I want to still see the university.” But as anyone familiar with Oxford can confirm there is no “university” beyond the collection of colleges, libraries and research faculties! (During my undergraduate years, this story brought me much joy everytime a tourist approached to ask for the road to “the university”.) Ryle called such an error a “conceptual mistake”. According to him, many kinds of “philosophical ” questions are actually products of conceptual mistakes. Perhaps there is some truth to this. For example, asking for the “meaning of life” might be taking “meaning”, a category within an organism’s life, and applying it, mistakenly, to the meaning-making process of life itself. (Note therefore the significant distinction between the meaning of life, the purpose of life, and meaning in life.) 

Yet not all are content with linguistic philosophy. Bertrand Russell was one such figure. Russell was the long-time mentor of Wittgenstein. He is known for many superb qualities. As a mathematician, Russell was partially responsible for an over 200 pages-long proof for the claim that 1+1=2. As a public intellectual, Russell was an activist against WWI who serving time for it, as well as the leader of the Russell Tribunal, an unofficial investigation into war crimes conducted by American troops in Vietnam. With Albert Einstein, they drafted the Russell-Einstein Manifesto against nuclear proliferation. As an academic philosopher, Russell is the single only figure who has won the Nobel Prize for Literature. (The other philosophy laureates, Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, were also fiction writers who hardly flourished in academic posts.) 

Despite being the mentor of Wittgenstein (or perhaps because of it) Russell did not approve of the linguistic turn. In an interview in 1960, Russell aired his dissatisfaction with linguistic philosophy by telling a story of being on the road to Winchester. Being slightly lost, Russell entered a local shop. “Would you know the shortest way to Winchester?” He asked the clerk. The clerk shook his head and shouted “hey, what’s the shortest way to Winchester?” An old man replied from the room at the back of the shop.

“The way?”


“The shortest?”


“To Winchester?”


I do not know.” 

Russell was unimpressed. For him linguistic philosophy was little more interesting than the old man’s approach to his straightforward question. 

(7) Philosophy as a body of speculative knowledge 

In the same interview, Russell continued to give his own view of philosophy. According to him, philosophy “consists of speculations about matters where exact knowledge is not yet possible.”  

In this sense, philosophy is a kind of proto-science. Any part of philosophy can, at any point, looe its place within philosophy and become a part of science. Isaiah Berlin echoed this view saying that philosophy continuously “sheds its skin” to science. As an example of this process, Russell gives the atomic theory speculated first Democritus of ancient Athens. The atomic theory of Democritus was a philosophical one. The atomic theory of today is a scientific one.  

(Russell goes on to make what I would call a serious mistake: he claims that the atomic theory has turned out to be true. It might be worth noting that this is a contestable point: the “atoms” of modern science are divisible and lack solidity, and, as Russell himself has noted, are everything but the “small cannonballs” that popular imaginations assume them to be. In many ways, they are an anathema to what Democritus held atoms to be. I will be posting more about this matter. But let us leave it aside for now. ) 

We might ask what exactly is the value of such a speculative enterprise. Russell says that such a speculative endeavour is all but trivial:

“After all, scientific knowledge covers a very small part of what interests mankind, and ought to interest them .. And I don’t want people’s imagination to be limited and be enclosed with what we can now know. And I think to enlarge your imaginative purview into the hypothetical realm is one of the uses of philosophy.” 

(8) Philosophy as much more 

The aim of this short review was to give a comprehensive or exhaustive list of possible answers. There are many more. 

For Feng Yulan, philosophy’s aim is neither to produce knowledge, nor explanations, but rather to elevate the mind. In this regard, philosophy becomes a kind of poetry of reality. According to Feng, the philosophical Sages live their lives much like all of us, but do so with a certain kind of concealed nobility and purposiveness.  

For Gilles Deleuze, philosophers are creators of new concepts. Philosophers do not describe reality, like scientists do, but create new concepts to understand the world. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine what our daily discussion would be like without concepts crafted by philosophers. The idea of “rights” was invented by Early Modern philosophers such as Locke. The idea of “culture”, as in “cultural differences”,  is traceable to thinkers such as Giambattista Vico and and Johann Gottlieb Herder. The very term “creativity”, was coined in the 1940’s by Alfred North Whitehead, a teacher and colleague of Bertrand Russell. 

After reviewing a variety of ways to think about philosophy I suggest we take a case study of studying the major questions in early modern European philosophy. This will be the topic of part II of this essay.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: