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What Is Philosophy?

What philosophical questions reveal about the discipline itself

“Philosopher in Meditation” by Rembrandt (1632)

What is philosophy?

I want you to think, for a moment, about the question itself. Don’t rush to answer it. Just think about it. As a question.

At the risk of being intolerably meta at the outset of this post, is “What is philosophy?” itself a philosophical question?

What is a philosophical question, anyway?

Here’s a thesis I’ll start with: We can discover what philosophy is all about by getting clearer on what philosophical questions themselves are like. It turns out that a subject’s mode of inquiry helps illuminate what the subject itself is all about.

There are limitations to this insight. It doesn’t work for all fields, for all disciplines. But let’s run the same process with science.

Imagine an intelligent alien, descending her craft, weary from travel but curious enough to immediately ask: “What is science?

(Using intergalactic thought experiments to communicate a point is unmistakably philosophical, by the way.)

After gathering yourself a little — which may or may not include triumphantly declaring “Fox Mulder was right all along!” into the void — you’d probably respond to the alien: “Why it’s the study of the world, of course!”

But you’ll soon realize that your answer’s not very helpful unless you also explain how it is that a scientist goes about studying the world.

And that’s where the scientific method comes in.

Pretty soon, you’ll find it necessary to bring in terms such as “observation,” “hypothesis,” and “testing,” among others. You’ll recognize that “study of the world” is insufficiently precise, and you’ll helpfully fill in those gaps by elaborating on the procedural elements of the discipline. In essence: you’ll describe what that studying looks like, how it’s done, what kind of claims are properly scientific ones.

The fact that aspects of the method make their way into your answer about what the subject itself is all about reveals the significance of a subject’s methodology.

What’s interesting is the same goes for philosophy.

It turns out we can go some distance toward answering “What is philosophy?” by probing (alien pun!) this question: “What is a philosophical question?

So let’s do so.

Let’s ask: What are some characteristics of philosophical questions?

In doing so, we’ll arrive at a picture of what makes them philosophical questions as opposed to questions of a different kind.

The first characteristic is intractability.

By characterizing philosophical questions as “intractable,” what I mean is that these questions are never really decisively answered.

Now, a particular question might seem to you to be decisively answered. You might even feel fairly certain that you are in possession of the answer.

But what I mean by a “decisive answer” is an agreed-upon solution, an answer which most within the field, within the discipline, view as having settled the matter.

Genuine unanimity is too high a hurdle. America’s founding fathers found that out when they tried the Articles of Confederation. Due to its unanimity requirement for major pieces of legislation, the founders had to scrap it wholesale in favor of the U.S. Constitution, which did not require such a steep measure of uniformity. And it’s not just the founders, far removed as they are from our own day and age, who have had to figure this out. Kyrie Irving, the new Bostonian, is just the latest pop culture avatar for the view that the Earth is flat. The spectacular persistence of obviously mistaken psuedo-scientific dissent rules out unanimity as a workable standard.

But here’s the thing: I’m taking heliocentrism to represent a “decisive answer.” I was never requiring unanimity.

Yet in philosophy there’s not even anything like that.

Philosophy is known for its near comical aversion to intellectual progress.

Open up any of Plato’s dialogues at random, and chances are you’ll see a philosophical problem that is alive and well today, with no imminent solution in sight.

Try the same with an old science text and you will read of theories long since superseded.

Aristotle once theorized that stones fall to the earth because they desire to reach their home (a scientific hypothesis). He also theorized that ethics is largely concerned with the formation of virtue (a philosophical view).

Which of the two do you think is still in play?

But there’s a reason why that is, and it’s not because scientists have been better practitioners. The folks I’ve mentioned thus far — Plato, Aristotle, and we can add Immanuel Kant, David Hume, Gottfried Leibniz, Ludwig Wittgenstein, W. V. O. Quine (and many others) — are among the most intellectually gifted thinkers the world has ever produced. It can’t be they’re all just really bad at their jobs.

No, the problem has to do with the nature of the philosophical questions themselves.

Philosophical questions explore phenomena that is far more general than do other fields (e.g. “What is ultimate reality?”) And, as a consequence, they rely on evidentiary support that is far more elusive (e.g. “Is there an external world?”).

So a good test to see if a question you’re dealing with is a philosophical one is to ask whether it seems intractable.

  • Not intractable: “Do human beings have thoughts as well as emotions?”
  • Intractable: “Do human beings have free will?”

Second, philosophical questions possess significance. They tend to be more significant than other types of questions. There is no claim being made here that philosophy, as a field, is more important than other fields. But there is an acknowledgement that philosophy tends to focus on questions of deeper significance.

Yet what is significant may depend on the context.

Suppose you want to get some sun before summer’s end and so you go to the beach. You’re playing with the sand. The question: “How many grains of sand are in that bucket?” may seem quite insignificant. And it is — in an absolute sense.

But if a beach-hating psychopath is ready to murder you unless you tell him the right number, suddenly the question becomes quite significant.

Here’s the thing, though: philosophical questions don’t seem to need this additional contextual feature to raise their level of significance. They seem to be inherently interesting, existentially speaking. This intrinsic significance is partly due to their preoccupation with substantive matters. The sand-in-the-bucket question needed a “significance boost” from the sun-hating psycho killer — philosophical questions need no such assistance.

There are countless subdisciplines within philosophy: philosophy of mind, philosophy of time, philosophy of disagreement, etc. What do you think this “philosophy of” prefix is all about? It seems to mean something like: really hard thinking about…mind, time, disagreement, etc.

Within moral philosophy, we can ask: “What is the nature of justice?”

Within the philosophy of mind, we can ask: “Is the mind just the brain?”

These questions matter. Because their answers matter.

The nature of justice and the nature of mind are both highly important to human beings.

But look! This, too, is significant: “Is eSports a sport?”

It’s not as significant as other questions, certainly.

But take the topic of sports. We can ask questions like “Who won last night’s game?” and “What strategy did that team use?”

What makes the eSports question different is that to answer it, one must explore the underlying nature of what a sport is. In other words, one must explore that thing’s essence.

We can see that philosophical questions are significant by tracking how explosive and divisive they sometimes are.

The Civil War, World War 2, The Cold War — these are conflicts characterized by a fundamental philosophical difference at the bottom of it all.

  • The Civil War: Whether a human being is the kind of thing that can be owned by another human being.
  • World War 2: Whether one race is superior to other races, and whether this permits the allegedly superior race to conquer and even exterminate inferior races.
  • The Cold War: Whether a democratic, free-market oriented societal configuration is to be preferred over a socialistic, state-controlled one.

There are different ways we might frame the central philosophical divisions here, but the point is that in these conflicts there was a philosophical division at the heart of it all.

Third, philosophical questions are thought-provoking.

If you can answer a question quickly, and even justify that answer quickly, then chances are you’re not dealing with a philosophical question.

Oh, people try to answer philosophical questions quickly. And people try to justify their answers with only a passing nod to the relevant arguments. But they fail.

It’s important to note that they don’t fail in the sense that the answer they come up with is guaranteed to be incorrect. But here’s where the failure comes in: even if they’re right, they’re likely to be only accidentally right.

You might think philosophical questions can be answered rather easily. But that’s a mistake.

You might feel really confident that the answer to “Is there a God?” is “no,” and that the justification is simply “because there’s no evidence that he/she/it exists.”

This won’t do.

While it’s true that “no” is indeed a quick answer, and “because there’s no evidence” sure seems like a good enough reason to deny the existence of God, the reality is that unless you do the hard work of exploring the relevant concepts, your answer will likely not have strong philosophical grounding.

What makes philosophical questions thought-provoking is that, to answer them well, one must grapple with them in a substantive, rather than a superficial, way.

In this case, the crucial concepts are: God, existence, evidence — to name just a few. A being definitionally held to be immaterial or incorporeal will not be vulnerable to the proddings of the scientific method, after all. To fail to take this into account, by simply not thinking very hard about the nature of the question itself, is to abandon philosophy and engage in knee-jerk worldview therapy.

Answering the question — whether affirmatively or negatively — without investigating these concepts falls short of putting in the necessary philosophical labor.

Philosophical questions are not necessarily urgent ones. A pressing question might be: “Do I have clean clothes to wear tomorrow?” A philosophical question, on the other hand, might not need to be explored with the same kind of immediacy.

(You’ll be fine if you put off “What is the good life?” until after you investigate whether you’ve got a set of clean clothes to wear for tomorrow.)

So, philosophical questions:

1. Intractable

2. Significant

3. Thought-provoking

The main mode of answering them is the argument.

Once formalized, an argument helps clarify just what the reasons are that are supposed to be supporting some conclusion or some position.

Now, you can check off these characteristics and still find yourself dealing with a non-philosphical question. These don’t guarantee you’re in the realm of philosophy. But more often than not, when these features are in place, chances are you’re in philosophical territory.

It’s part of the legacy of philosophy that this set of characteristics will not be unanimously approved by other philosophers.

But that’s the beauty of it all. Reasons against reasons. The strongest argument winning out. And at the end of it, some slice of life, some corner of reality, is closer to being known than before.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time

— T. S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”



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