What is Philosophy?

I’m proud to say that I consider myself professional enough to carry a business card. And on my business card I have listed as my title, “Philosopher.” And I don’t call myself a Philosopher out of some sense of pretentiousness. No, I put in the work, went to school, wrote a Master’s Thesis, got saddled with student loan debt, all that fun stuff. So I think I at least can call myself a Philosopher because I earned it.

But, having to explain why I think I am justified calling myself a Philosopher is something different from actually having to explain what a Philosopher is, much less what a Philosopher does. Actually, Philosophy is a very old profession, but, it has changed over the centuries. Nowadays we tend to think of Philosophy as purely an academic and theoretical discipline focused on abstract topics that don’t really have a bearing on day to day life. “Philosophers are focused on being logical, on arguing logically, on thinking about thinking. How is that important to my life?”

But I think when we view Philosophy in this way, we kind of discount the importance of being able to do just that. So I’m going to defend this picture of Philosophy, and hopefully show why it matters.

At the most general level, Philosophy is a rational inquiry that tries to find the answers to a large variety of questions that we just don’t seem to have real definitive answers to at the moment. Some of the questions that come up in philosophical inquiry are:

Does God exist?

How do we define goodness?

What makes an action right or wrong?

Does life have meaning?

This is a sample of an incredibly large list of questions that Philosophers have attempted to answer over the last couple of thousand years, many of which are still…not really answered. And this takes me to the next important thing about Philosophy, that it is a rational inquiry that is conducted in a rigorous and sometimes annoyingly serious way.

The “Seriousness” of Philosophy

When I say that it’s “rational” and “serious” I feel I have to get across what I mean by that by distinguishing other ways that these same questions are approached. Take the question, “What makes an action right or wrong?” It’s a common enough question that can be asked by anyone, not just Philosophers. For example, you can tell your child, “Don’t do this or that,” and they will ask “Why?” and you can say “Well, because it’s bad.” Sure enough, they’ll ask you, “Why is it bad?” and you might say, “Well, it’s bad for x or y reason,” and they might continue the questioning, “Why is x or y a good reason?” and so on and so on. If you’re a parent, you will know exactly the the process I’m describing in vivid and sometimes excruciating detail.

So, the question about what makes an action right or wrong is not distinctly rational if even a little kid can ask it, right? But, eventually that kid is either going to forget about that line of questioning and move on to something else, or you’re going to just reach a point where you need to just say, “Because I said so,” or, if you’re a religiously minded parent, say something like, “This religious text says that it’s wrong.” The inquiry comes to an end, but not because it has been answered in any philosophically definitive way.

Let’s take a look at the first way that the line of questioning came to an end. The question was forgotten. Right away, we can see that the reason why the question was forgotten is because it wasn’t asked in any serious way. Because, if it had been a serious question, one worth considering in any rigorous manner, the questioning would have continued.

In Philosophical Inquiry this is exactly what we are doing, we are taking a question and turning it over again and again. We are inspecting it and the answers to it and pulling at any loose strings to the answers that have been supplied. Even when the question seems to have been answered, we don’t stop and move on, we continue to go back to the question, see if we might have missed something, if our answers to that question still hold up. Perhaps the answer we gave to a certain question led us to a further conclusion that seemed absurd, or was a dead end. In that case, we would go back to the original answer we had given to the first question, and see if we got something wrong there.

This, in a nutshell, is what I mean when I say that Philosophers can be serious about the questions they ask to an annoying degree. These questions are not asked in a casual way, they are not asked, “just for fun,” or merely to exercise our curiosity (although curiosity plays a huge role), they are asked because we think that there is an inherent value to asking them to such a degree that we make it our life’s work.

The “Rationality” of Philosophy

But just because I’m taking a question seriously doesn’t quite make me a philosopher yet. After all, the question about whether something is right or wrong isn’t just considered seriously by philosophers. If you’re religious, you might think that questions about right and wrong can be answered by scripture which is founded on divine revelation, or the word of the God.

But, whether the answer to the question of right or wrong is answered by say, a religious leader, or a holy text, when you accept the answer given to the question, you are placing your trust in the authority of that source which is outside of you. You are placing your faith in it. And if you’re doing this, you are no longer relying on reason by itself.

By the way, this doesn’t mean that I’m saying straight away that there is anything wrong with getting your morality this way. But the distinction needs to be made clear: You can be serious about moral questions and get your answers through religious means, but any way you slice it, once you place your trust in a source other than your own reasoning to settle the question, you’re no longer doing philosophy.

You can completely argue, on rational grounds, that placing your trust in a given religious point of view is the correct thing to do, but if you’re doing that, you’re doing Philosophy, and you’re using rationality exclusively. If you’re looking to God, through prayer, bible reading, or contemplation, to help you get at exactly what is the right thing to do, you’ve moved on to something different, you’re working with Faith.

“But Faith is better than mere Rationality. Faith gets at the truth about our existence.” Ok, show me, explain it to me. I have absolutely no problem listening to you and inquiring about this topic, in fact, I even revel in religious topics to quite a large degree, but in order for us to have any sort of conversation about the higher value that Faith has over Rationality, guess what? We’re going to have to do it Philosophically, not because I want us to, but because it’s the only place where we, as mere human beings, can meet and converse at the same level irrespective of any religious baggage we may carry with us.

Is Science Rational?

This distinction I’ve made should also help clarify why Philosophy is something different than Science, although I’m sure some might disagree on this point. Generally speaking, whenever religion has something to say about anything, we are meant to take it that what it is saying is definitive and final. Different people might interpret the same religious text differently, but there’s a general agreement that when we interpret that religious text correctly, then we will get at something like an eternal truth.

Science…doesn’t quite work the same way. Scientific truths are reached through general consensus by specialists in a given domain. This general consensus isn’t just arbitrary though. It’s a product of experimentation, observation, and constant revision and re-evaluation of previously established hypotheses. There’s quite a bit of rationality and overlap with some of the methods of Philosophy involved here, there’s no doubt about that, but there’s also something else.

For example, merely by having observation as one of the criterions for saying that you’re conducting scientific research, whatever answers to questions you come to already are founded on something other than rationality alone. And there isn’t anything wrong with this. If I want to answer the question, are zebras mammals or lizards, I’m going to use the tools and methods of scientific observation and experimentation, not try to work it out on the basis of the concept of ‘zebra’ alone. An analysis of the concept of ‘zebra’ without any observable evidence will not help me get closer to discovering if a zebra is a mammal or lizard unless I start doing some observation of a speciman.

But does scientific observation tell me anything about whether this or that action is morally right or wrong? My own opinion is that it really can’t, that perhaps it can tell us which actions are more beneficial or detrimental to the well-being of an organism, but that this is something different than asking if those same actions have moral value to them. If you were to tell me that yes, science can do that, and that there is some equivalence between well-being and morality, and then proceed to give me your reasons for why you think this equivalence exists, I don’t think you would be doing science anymore, you would be doing Philosophy.

So when I say Philosophy is “rational,” I mean it in this sense, that the “serious” questions that it asks, it tries to answer purely on the basis of “reason,” not on the basis of any external authority, whether that external authority is religious or scientific in nature. Philosophy can sure draw on materials from these two sources, and it does quite a bit, especially when Philosophers start to actually build arguments for their beliefs, but it’s really doing its own thing.

“Philosophical” Arguing

The “Philosophical” method, the way that we conduct our inquiries, boils down to argumentation, but it is a different sort of argumentation than I think most people are used to. In Philosophical Argumentation, you can’t just say that you hold an opinion because you “feel” that it is a better opinion and think that I’m going to accept that opinion. In the same fashion, you can’t just say that your opinion counts as the truth because you talked louder than me while debating an idea.

No, in Philosophical Argumentation, you gotta persuade me, not through force or coercion, but by appealing to that one faculty that we all share as human beings, rationality. You have to show me that the premises you have in favor of any conclusion are logically connected in some way, that, regardless of whatever opinion I hold, I have to see that yes, this or that conclusion has to be the right one. I have to “see” what you’re getting at, and doing so means I have to exercise my rationality as well, I have to be on my logical guard and turn over ideas as best as I can. I have to be fair-minded and humble, something most people usually aren’t when arguing in the normal sense.

Incidentally, this is why Philosophy has, as one of its branches, Logic, which is specifically founded on inquiring about the principles by which we even accept an argument as valid. Philosophy is the only discipline I can think of that questions the very tools it uses for doing what it does. And this feature of Philosophy is what makes it incredibly valuable for the development of critical thinking skills in fields outside of Philosophy.

Because, within Philosophical Inquiry, not only is our attention turned towards the possibility of deeply held beliefs being wrong, but our attention is also turned towards whether there may be something about ourselves, about our own thinking that is preventing us from really getting at something like an objective truth. Some may think this is utterly pessimistic, or downright dangerous to our ability to get anywhere in the field of knowledge. Philosophers actually have a word for the field which studies knowledge, it is called Epistemology. I prefer to call this suspicion about our ability to get at something like objective truth epistemic humility, or, if you prefer, “being Philosophical.”

Really what I’ve boiled Philosophy down to is something like, disciplined clear thinking. And when I boil it down to this, I think most people wonder why a college degree is even needed to be able to do Philosophy. I mean, don’t we already do that on a regular basis? Why spend money trying to get a skill that seems easily achievable? A skill that we all seem to have anyway?

Actually, we really don’t. Even philosophers don’t function this way all the time, we are after all, human beings, and as human beings we have an infinitely more complex and nuanced mode by which we live in the world. Real human lives are messy affairs, and most of the time, the answer to a question, whether a hypothetical question, or a real raw life or death moral decision, is not decisively clear cut.

But in conducting Philosophical Inquiry, we become more aware of just how unclear and undisciplined our thinking regularly is. In this regard, by practicing Philosophy, or even being open to it as a way to being in the world, we develop our ability to think about how we think. We develop our rationality, which, I think, is a hallmark of being human.

If the topic of this discussion seems like something you would like to investigate further on your own, please feel free to contact me in order to schedule a Philosophical Counseling session. All Philosophical Counseling sessions are conducted via Zoom and single-person. If you are located in the San Francisco Bay Area and are interested in conducting an in-person session, please get in touch with me via e-mail. For any other inquiries contact me via e-mail as well.

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 )

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: