What is Philosophy?
Philosophy is a great intellectual adventure while at the same time what it discusses is one of the most important things we can do with our lives.
There is a standing joke among many professional philosophers that involves one of them being cornered at a party by someone, and on hearing that he is a philosopher, being asked, ‘Well, what is philosophy then?’ The joke in fact reflects the unease of many philosophers and the discomforting awareness of not being able to come out with a straight clear answer.
Many philosophers resort to the list-method of answering, saying that it’s about ‘fundamental issues’ such as ‘truth’, ‘What can be known?’, ‘What is the nature of a good and bad action?’, ‘What is the nature of mind and how is it related to body?’ The other way of dealing with the question is somewhat evasive and involves saying as little as possible, something like: ‘well, the best way to understand what philosophy is is to do it’. Both these answers, neither of which is without truth, are likely to leave the original questioners rightly bewildered, dissatisfied and quickly heading off to get another drink – much to the relief of the philosopher.
I think it is incumbent on professional philosophers to tackle this question head-on. After all we do get paid. My immediate answer to the question, requiring a little refinement later on, is:
Philosophy is what happens when you start thinking for yourself.
A bit more may then be added. Once one frees oneself from the habits of received belief, those that one just happens to have acquired even about basic issues, and really starts to think about what one ought to believe, judged by reason (argument) and evidence, then one has started to do philosophy. The ‘tradition’ of relying instead on ‘authorities’ and ‘holy text’ is the usual state of affairs rather than the exception in history – for many it still is the natural way of going on. Moreover, thinking for oneself is not something easily taken on by mere momentary act of will, but rather something to be strengthened like a muscle through good mental habits. Philosophy is a way of life to be built up over years; philosophical thinking is a cast of mind that becomes part of a person’s very nature.
Philosophy is often thought to be an unnecessary impractical luxury. A sort of futile, at best entertaining, addition to life after one has dealt with the practicalities. But this is a mistake.
Far from being unnecessary philosophy is unavoidable just as soon as people cease taking their received beliefs for granted and instead start thinking them through for themselves. The glory of philosophy – and certainly one of the original attractions for many drawn to it – is that nothing is out of bounds, not even the value of reason, or indeed (although this may seem paradoxical) the status of philosophy itself. No holds are barred. Only something like argument and debate without boundaries seems to be a constant. It’s a wonderful freedom. Either one is a slave to the beliefs one happens to have acquired through the contingent circumstances of how and where one is brought up, or one is to some degree a philosopher. Philosophy is the bastion of free thought and of the exploration of ideas above all others.
What of the charge of it being an impractical luxury? This is a mistake too. This is because beliefs lead to actions (and inaction), and badly thought out ideas lead often to terrible actions. Our responsibility for what we believe, and what we leave ourselves open to being capable of believing, cannot be divorced from our responsibility for our actions. Ideas that in untesting times can even seem benign, in extreme circumstances lead to awful actions.
Philosophy sometimes addresses the question as to how one should live. It can be argued that keeping a philosophical stance itself is exactly how one should live – anything else is gullible slavery. Of course it’s a matter of degree, but for the most part it’s one-way to freedom of thought: after having it no-one wants slavery again.
It would be wrong to think that philosophy leaves one constantly in a state of vague doubt. One accepts one’s beliefs on the basis of the best arguments. But one leaves the door ajar for further argument. In fact it is those who take on their beliefs as acts of will and faith that stand on a precarious escarpment from which they can be knocked by circumstance with the painful consequences of disappointment, emptiness and loss.
The result may be catastrophic because they fall, if they do, from such a great height and from a place they thought absolutely secure. After which, what? Philosophy does not set its hopes so high. It’s prepared also to live bravely with that. Even if one changes one’s beliefs in the light of new arguments, one can tell oneself that last time one held a view one did one’s best to really get to the bottom of the matter. Philosophy breeds neither empty doubt nor an unattainable certainty.
As a way of life philosophy and philosophical thinking do not promise happiness, but they do, I think, enhance what is best in human beings. Philosophy embodies that which is noblest in our species.
Fundamentals of Philosophy – Edited by John Shand