Don Quixote, Sancho Pansa and the Dead Mule” by Honore Daumier. Public Domain.

Philosophy as Practice and Philosophy as Body of Knowledge

Sean Norton
Mar 20 · 6 min read

Stephen Hawking famously (and rather ironically) said in 2010 that “philosophy is dead.” (The ironic part was the parroting of a Nietzsche quote about God.) He reasoned that “philosophers have not kept up with modern developments in science. Particularly physics.” He continued:

Most of us don’t worry about [philosophical] questions most of the time. But almost all of us must sometimes wonder: Why are we here? Where do we come from? Traditionally, these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead.

There are many problems with this view. “Where do we come from?” has never been a philosophical question. (But it has been a theological question.) And “Why are we here?” could never be answered by science unless it was simply a restatement of “Where do we come from?” But if it isn’t, then philosophy is perfectly suited to offer an answer, or to deny the existence of an answer at all. So why would philosophy be dead?

If the question “Why are we here?” is one about purpose and obligation, then science could never answer this question. This leaves only philosophy.

To think science could answer it is simply to think there is some empirical answer to such a question. Hawking likely did think this was the case. He probably thought, from the empirical perspective, such a teleological question was obviously absurd. But here’s the problem: Arguing against teleology from the perspective of empiricism is a philosophical argument. Existentialism largely answered the question “Why are we here?” in a similar way to the way Hawking proposed to answer it more than a century ago.

Science — purely formulated — doesn’t offer answers to questions of value. It might tell us how the world works or what the world is composed of from the perspective of empiricism, but this tells us nothing about how things ought to be. Only how things are or could be — and only how things are empirically.

On another note, we might argue philosophy helps us get at what things are fundamentally. That is beyond empiricism. It’s certainly true science is incapable of even discussing the fundamental questions of epistemology, ontology, and logic. If you’re an empiricist (like me) and you want to deny the ability of philosophy to answer fundamental questions of, say, epistemology, then you can only do so with philosophical argument. Not with science.

But there’s more to Hawking’s misunderstanding than meets the eye. This misunderstanding not only affects individuals like Hawking — but even, in my opinion, contemporary academic philosophy itself.

Philosophy and science are fundamentally different things. One is a method that generates a body of knowledge — the other offers up no body of knowledge whatsoever. Philosophy is, instead, parasitic on the ideas of other fields or aspects of life. It is more of a framework for answers than a source of answers. Philosophers have ideas and beliefs, yes, but philosophy proper does not.


Bodies of Knowledge vs. Practices and Methodologies

Science is popularly understood in two distinct ways, as a methodology and as a body of knowledge. The methodology is the scientific method. It’s never as precise as the clear-cut formula taught in science textbooks, but the system of creating and testing hypotheses is, nevertheless, a methodology. It’s a method for coming upon empirical answers for empirical problems.

These answers, however, are often seen as a different aspect of “science,” the body of knowledge. It is the total set of facts and theories we use to understand the world as it is presented to us. If we don’t acknowledge such a body of facts as science, then we at least acknowledge the existence of such a body of facts directly related to the methodology of science. Of course, such a body of facts is always available to be overturned, but there’s much carry-over in the overturning of theory to theory. This is never guaranteed in philosophy.

This is why we become confused. We compare philosophy to science, and we expect it to have its own body of knowledge.

But I believe philosophy has no such body of knowledge nor has it ever had such a body of knowledge. Philosophy is purely a practice (as compared to a methodology with a body of knowledge like science).

Methodologies are designed to consistently create products of some kind, or to solve problems in a semi-formulaic way, but practices are not. Practices can be used to consistently achieve goals, but non-methodological practice is non-formulaic and need not consistently achieve anything outside of remaining within the broad rules of play. The sport of golf is a practice. Art is practice. Each can be methodological — a methodology is a form of practice — but it need not be.

Unlike science, the practice of philosophy is divorced from any body of knowledge. But it is often combined with a body of knowledge as a wellspring to generate assumptions and to seek answers, often to its own questions. In this sense, philosophy has been historically combined with religion, literature, math, and normally — more than anything else — with science and the history of ideas.

Most analytic philosophers rely on the latter two. They reference other philosophers and contemporary science to conduct their practice. But we shouldn’t think science has been invoked because it surpasses philosophy in doing what philosophy does; science and philosophy have been conducted together since at least the Pre-Socratic philosophers, which is the dawn of science (or as close to it as possible) as we understand it.

The only other “body of knowledge” commonly associated with philosophy is the history of ideas. But this, again, is not philosophy. It is merely used alongside philosophy proper in the same sense science is invoked in metaphysics, epistemology, and ontology.

Kant or Plato can be referenced in contemporary philosophy, or even in neo-Kantian or neo-Platonic theories, but the “answers” provided by Kant and Plato belong to the study of the history of ideas. In the same way the development of Newtonian physics in the 18th century isn’t a discussion of science proper but the history of science.

But this is perhaps why philosophy can never have a body of knowledge — most academic studies begin or are heavily influenced by philosophy, but as soon as the questions philosophy brings forward begin to coalesce into serious answers, those answers no longer belong to philosophy but to something else entirely — a new field of study. Science was once indistinguishable from philosophy proper. But it separated itself when it began to develop serious answers and systems beyond the merely philosophical.

In contrast, the questions philosophy poses are ones with no definitive answers at all. When philosophy stumbles upon some answer overwhelmingly satisfying in some certain way, then the question and its answer form a new assumption to base an entirely new field, which focuses on developing its own body of knowledge. It moves beyond itself.

You don’t come to philosophy for satisfying answers — you come to philosophy for satisfaction beyond knowledge through understanding. Understanding need not be grounded in facts, but in simply grasping the general framework of what knowledge, value, and purpose could be and how we think we can come upon it in our lives and in the broader ecology in which we exist.

This is, in a sense, a form of knowledge, but it is such a nebulous form of knowledge that we really walk away with nothing to put on the table. Philosophy is truly a love of wisdom — it’s thinking about things we may never get a grasp on and believing the practice is worthwhile anyway.

Excursus.

An excursus is nothing more than ideas trying to get away from the thoughts that spawned them in the first place.

Sean Norton

Written by

My ambition in life is to pen at least one idea you find insightful. Damn the rest. Find more at sdnorton.com.

Excursus.

Excursus.

An excursus is nothing more than ideas trying to get away from the thoughts that spawned them in the first place.

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