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What Is Philosophy?

by

Dr. Keith Allen Korcz






So, you've decided to take a philosophy class. What is philosophy like? Well, there's good news and there's better news. The good news is, it's probably not what you expect. We'll see why that's good news in a second. The better news is it's a lot more worthwhile than you've probably been led to believe.

If you're like most people, you've never studied philosophy before, yet you've heard all kinds of claims about what philosophy is. When many people talk about philosophy, they often have in mind a philosophy of life, a kind of recipe for happiness and fulfillment. This is what people like Deepak Chopra and Shirley McClain seem to have in mind when they talk about philosophy. Other people think of philosophy as involving a kind of mystical knowing, sometimes resulting from contemplating riddles without answers, such as "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" Sometimes people think of philosophy as involving anything occult, as in "New Age Philosophy". Finally, and probably as a result of the above popular accounts of philosophy, many people think of 'philosophy' as little more than a name for bullshit, talk involving nothing more than expressions of personal opinions made to seem more profound than they really are.

If some of these popular accounts of philosophy were correct, then "bullshit" would be an apt name for philosophy, and few sensible people would waste their time with it. But in fact philosophy, as studied in universities, is completely different from what these accounts would suggest.

Comparing Philosophy With Science

In very general terms, philosophy is much like science. We can better understand philosophy by comparing the two as follows:

Like science, philosophy is really a collection of disciplines. Science, for example, consists of physics, chemistry, astronomy, archaeology, botany, etc. Moreover, these disciplines are interrelated. For example, archeologists make use of findings in both physics and chemistry to study ancient civilizations.; findings in chemistry may be relevant to findings in physics, etc. It is not as if physics and chemistry could conflict, and yet both be correct. Philosophy also consists of a number of disciplines, each containing various interrelated sub-disciplines:

1. Logic

Logic is the study of what makes reasoning good reasoning, i.e., reasoning which helps us discover truths. It provides techniques for establishing whether claims of any sort are true. It is also concerned with questions such as: can we prove that our methods of reasoning are correct? What is it for something to be possible? or impossible? or necessary?

2. Value Theory

Value theory consists of those disciplines within philosophy that focus on things that are valuable. For example, one sub-discipline within value theory is theoretical ethics, which is the study of moral concepts such as rightness and wrongness. What is it to be fair to others? What makes actions morally right or wrong? What are moral rights? Which creatures have them? Another sub-discipline within value theory, closely related to theoretical ethics, is applied ethics. Applied ethics focuses on our specific obligations to others. Is euthanasia murder? Does a fetus have moral rights which an abortion would violate? Is the death penalty a just penalty? Is sex among consenting adults ever a moral issue? Which business practices are fair? A third major sub-discipline within value theory is social/political philosophy. Social/political philosophy is concerned with what makes government and other societal institutions just and fair. Which is the best sort of government? When is a government legitimate? What is the most fair economic system to have? A fourth sub-discipline is philosophy of law, which attempts to answer questions such as: When is a law a just law? Are there situations in which we are not obligated to obey the law? What should the relation be between the law and public opinion? and morality? A fifth sub-discipline within philosophy of value is aesthetics, which attempts to answer questions such as: What makes art good art? Is beauty in the eye of the beholder? the artist? the economy? If every printed copy of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony ceased to exist, would Beethoven's Fifth symphony cease to exist? If no one could remember thirty seconds of the symphony, would the symphony then cease to exist? What exactly is a work of art? If I throw a balloon of paint at a moving airplane propeller and catch the splatters on a canvas, is that art?

3. Metaphysics

Metaphysics is concerned with fundamental questions about what exists. It is concerned with questions such as: What are numbers? Do they have a location in physical space? If so, where? If not, where are they? They certainly exist, so they have to be somewhere, but where? Another issue: consider any two red objects. They are identical in their redness, but are nonetheless two different objects. Is their redness in any sense one and the same thing? If so, how can one and the same thing be in two different places at the same time? Another issue is free will. Do people have free will? Is this compatible with our being caused to do things?

Another important sub-discipline within metaphysics is philosophy of mind, which is concerned with questions such as: Is the mind a physical thing or a non-physical thing? If it is not physical, how can something with no spatial location causally interact with something physical? Do other people have minds? How can we be sure?

Another sub-discipline within metaphysics is philosophy of religion. Philosophers of religion attempt to definitively answer questions such as: Does God exist? What would a God-like creature be like? Is it all-powerful? What is it for a creature to be all powerful? Is it perfect? What is perfection? Could it allow evil? If so, which evils could it allow?

Other issues metaphysicians worry about include the nature of causation, the nature of time, what it is for an object or person to remain identical to itself over time, etc.

A third sub-discipline relevant to metaphysics is philosophy of language, which is concerned with questions such as how words refer to things, what meanings are, and how words can acquire meaning.

4. Epistemology

Epistemology is concerned with what knowledge is, how we acquire knowledge, and what it is to have good reasons for a belief. Does knowledge require certainty? If so, can we ever really be certain of anything? Or is it always possible that we have somehow made a mistake? One sub-discipline associated with epistemology is philosophy of science, which is concerned with questions such as: What makes an explanation scientific? When is a scientific explanation a good one? What is a law of nature?

5. History of Philosophy

The history of Western philosophy is divided up into major periods, typically Ancient, Medieval, Early Modern, Late Modern, 19th Century, and 20th Century Philosophy. Other important sub-areas of the history of philosophy include Asian philosophy, Continental philosophy and African philosophy, which focus on interesting non-Western philosophical traditions. There is also philosophy of history, which is concerned with questions such as: How does history get made? How do we acquire knowledge of the historical past?
One thing worth noting about philosophical questions is that they are not personal questions. The question is not, for example, "Should I believe in God?" but, rather, "Does God exist?" The question is not "How do I feel about abortion?" but, rather, "Is abortion morally permitted?" The question is not "Do I like this work of art?" but rather "What is beauty?" Personal questions are no more relevant to philosophy than they are to science.
So one similarity between philosophy and science is that each is really a collection of disciplines, and each one contains quite a few! As with scientists, contemporary philosophers tend to specialize in just one or two disciplines within philosophy.

A second similarity between philosophy and science is that both aim at discovering truths. For example, an astronomer wouldn't bother trying to determine the number of moons orbiting around a planet if there were no correct answer to the question. And a mathematician wouldn't knowingly bother trying to find the correct solution to an equation if there were no correct solution. Similarly, philosophers don't knowingly try to answer philosophical questions that have no answer.

To further explain the point, it will be helpful to answer a very philosophical question: "What is truth?" Initially, this seems to be a very daunting and abstract question, but the answer (at least for our purposes here) is fairly simple. We say that a statement is true if it corresponds to, i.e., matches up with, the way things are. For example, if I say "My cat is in my hat", what I say is true just in case my cat really is in my hat. Otherwise, what I've said is false.
So consider the philosophical claim "God exists". This claim is true just in case there really is a God, and otherwise the claim is false. Now, it's common to think of certain philosophical issues such as the existence of God as mere matters of opinion, not capable of being true or false. I suppose this is in part because people have opinions about these sorts of issues, and in addition have no idea of how to determine which claims are true and which are false. But the mere fact that people have different opinions about an issue does not prove that there is no truth to the matter. For example, people (at least, people without expertise in biology) have different opinions about whether humans evolved from lower forms of life, but certainly people either did evolve from lower forms of life or they didn't, and whichever is the case, the corresponding claim is true. And even if most people don't know how to prove which answer is correct, surely one or the other is correct. Similarly people have had differing opinions regarding the shape of the earth: at one time, most people thought the earth was flat, and a few believed it was not. But certainly the earth is either flat or it is not, and as we now know, the earth is not flat. (By the way, the philosopher Aristotle proved the earth was not flat over 2,000 years ago - chalk one up for philosophy!)

Similarly for philosophical issues: their being true or false has to do with the way things are, and not merely what people believe. Think of it this way: Imagine, just for the sake of illustration, that God really exists, that God is out there somewhere in (or around) the universe. My believing that there is no God certainly could not make such a powerful being disappear! Similarly, imagine for a moment that there is no God anywhere. My believing that there is a God certainly won't make such a powerful being pop into existence! Our minds just don't have that kind of power over the way things are (and if they did, we'd all be driving around in Ferraris!).

So if philosophical issues are worthy of serious study, it is because such study offers the possibility of discovering interesting truths.

A third similarity between philosophy and science is that both make progress towards better theories. No responsible scientist will claim that scientists have discovered all there is to know, and that there's nothing left for scientists to do (except maybe take a nap). If anyone was just going to sit down and figure out physics, for example, it would have been Albert Einstein. But he couldn't. It's not that he wasn't smart enough, or that there is anything wrong with physics, or even that there is no truth to physics. Rather, Einstein's failure is due to the fact that some of the questions scientists ask are just so big and so complicated that no one is ever going to just sit down one day and answer them starting from scratch. Rather, when the really big questions in physics are answered, it will be the result of generations of scientists building on earlier work.

Similarly in philosophy. There are certain big questions for which there is no one answer that philosophers in general hold to be correct. And when they are solved, it will not be by one really smart philosopher just sitting down and figuring them all out. Rather, the solutions will be a long time coming, resulting only from generations of philosophers slowly progressing towards the truth.

Now I don't want to leave the impression that philosophy and science are identical, for there are some important differences. Perhaps the most important has to do with the sorts of questions they attempt to answer. Scientists typically focus on questions that can only be answered by means of observation, such as "What sorts of gases occur in the atmosphere of Mars?" or "How do genes work to prevent diseases?" By contrast, philosophers, much like mathematicians, typically focus on questions which cannot be answered by means of observation alone.

An important thing to keep in mind is that the fact that many philosophical questions cannot be answered by means of observation alone does not mean there is no truth to the matter. For example, quarks cannot be observed, but that does not mean that whether they exist is merely a matter of opinion!

The choice of science for comparison with philosophy is not just a coincidence. Historically, philosophy included not only what we today call philosophy, but what we call science as well. In Ancient Greece, if you studied physics or biology, you were considered a philosopher. As recently as the 19th century, in fact, physics was commonly called "natural philosophy". If you're ever in an antiquarian book store that has some 19th century physics texts, you'll notice that they are often entitled "Natural Philosophy". As the individual sciences of physics, biology, chemistry, etc., developed, they broke away from philosophy and became considered disciplines in their own right. This process continues: up until the middle of the 20th century, most universities had no psychology departments. If you wanted to study psychology, you majored in philosophy. One vestige of the history of science is that when you receive your doctorate in any of the sciences, you are considered a Ph.D. - short for "Doctor of Philosophy".

We've talked in very general terms about what philosophy is. But to fully understand philosophy as a discipline, we can't just look at its subject matter. We also need to examine the methods philosophers use to answer philosophical questions.

Philosophical Methods

We'll begin with what both philosophers and scientists do NOT do. One thing neither philosophers nor scientists do is try to resolve controversial issues by appealing to the beliefs of an authority figure. A popular idea about how philosophical disputes get resolved involves someone noting that Confucius or Plato or some respected figure said ___________ , therefore we should all believe _________ . Actually, a contemporary philosopher's response to such a claim would be "Well, what reasons did (Plato, Confucius, etc.) have? Are they any good?" The fundamental deciding factor in whether philosophers or scientists accept a claim is not who said it, but whether their reasons for the claim are any good.

So what are good reasons? Well, first of all, there are different kinds of reasons.

One sort of reason is provided by observation. For example, the fact that you see a dog in the yard is a pretty good reason to believe there is a dog in the yard, all else being equal (e.g., there are no dog facsimiles in the yard, you have not ingested hallucinogenic drugs, etc.). But most of the more interesting things we believe require more than just observation: they also require inferences. For example, if you believe that there is a dog in the yard, you presumably also believe that there is an animal in the yard, and your latter belief is based on the former. This kind of reasoning is called deductive reasoning, and this particular instance of deductive reasoning constitutes what philosophers call a deductive argument. Another example: if you believe that if you call the dog, it will come to you, your belief, if it is a plausible one, will likely be based on your own or others past experiences with the dog's behavior. You will have inferred that a future occurrence (your calling the dog) will be similar to past experiences in which you called the dog and it came to you. These are called inductive arguments.
Inductive and deductive arguments are the central tools of both philosophy and science (as well as everyday reasoning), so we'll want to get as clear as we can about what they are. We'll begin by talking about arguments in general, and then discuss the nature of inductive and deductive arguments. An argument is a set of statements one of which is called the conclusion and the rest of which are called premises. The premises are intended to support the conclusion. The premises really do support the conclusion if they make it likely or certain that the conclusion is true (see above for a definition of truth).

We can greatly clarify an argument, and make it easier to talk about, by numbering each premise and writing each premise and the conclusion on a separate line. For example, the deductive argument about the dog could be stated this way (where "P" stands for premise and "C" stands for conclusion):

P1 All dogs are animals.
P2 A dog is in the backyard.
C An animal is in the backyard.

Similarly, the inductive argument about the dog given above can be represented as follows:

P1 In the past, whenever I've called the dog, he's come to me.
C If I call the dog now, he'll probably come to me.

Arguments can have any number of premises, from one to as many as you like. But each argument has only one main conclusion.

So what exactly are deductive and inductive arguments? Well, they are the two basic kinds of arguments. We'll talk about deductive arguments first.

Deductive arguments are those which are intended to be valid. A deductive argument is actually (as opposed to merely intended to be) valid if it is such that on the assumption that the premises are true, the conclusion must be true. Any deductive argument that is not valid is invalid. Consider the following deductive argument, from the very first logic textbook written by the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BCE) over 2,000 years ago:

P1 All men are mortal.
P2 Socrates is a man.
C Socrates is mortal.

If we assume that all the premises of this argument are true, then we can see that, given that assumption, the conclusion would have to be true - there is no way it could be false. This is what makes this argument valid. Similarly, the above deductive argument about the dog is valid. It's important to note that the premises do not actually have to be true in order for the argument to be valid. Validity has to do with the way the premises link up to support the conclusion, not whether the premises are actually true. Thus, a deductive argument with one or more false premises can still be valid, as in the following example:

P1 All radishes are purple.
P2 Elmo is a radish.
C Elmo is purple.

Both premises and the conclusion are false. But this argument is valid because on the assumption that the premises are true, the conclusion would have to be true. Obviously, when philosophers speak of a deductive argument being valid, they are not using the word 'valid' in its ordinary sense. When philosophers speak of an argument's being valid, they almost always have in mind the technical sense of validity we have just described.
An example of an invalid deductive argument would be the following:

P1 All men are mortal.
P2 Socrates is mortal.
C Socrates is a man.

(If you read carefully, you'll notice that this example differs from Aristotle's in that here, P2 and C have been switched!) The above argument is invalid because it is possible for all its premises to be true and its conclusion false. This would be the case, for example, if Socrates were a cat.

Now for deductive argument to be a good argument (i.e., one which shows its conclusion to be true), it's not enough for it to be valid. It also has to be such that all its premises are true. A deductive argument that has all true premises, is valid, and commits no fallacies (fallacies being certain errors in reasoning - we won't need to worry about these here) are called sound arguments. Sound deductive arguments are the good ones: they are such that the truth of their conclusion is guaranteed.

The other main type of argument is called the inductive argument. Inductive arguments are those whose premises are intended to make their conclusion likely, but not certain. For example, suppose you are wondering whether all swans are white. You might construct the following argument:

P1 All the thousands of swans I have seen are white.
C Probably, all swans are white.

This is an inductive argument. It's premise, if true, may make the conclusion likely, but it cannot make it certain, for there is always the possibility that one of the swans you have not seen is black.

Since inductive arguments are not intended to be valid, we won't ever use the terms 'valid' or 'sound' to evaluate them. Instead, we'll say that an inductive argument whose premise(s), if true, make its conclusion likely is a strong inductive argument, and all other inductive arguments will be weak. An inductive argument that is both strong and has all true premises we'll call cogent. An example of a cogent inductive argument is as follows:

P1 The sun has risen every morning in the past.
C Probably, the sun will rise tomorrow.

Now, back to philosophy. Philosophers use arguments to try to determine the correct answers to philosophical questions. In order to see what's really at issue in philosophical arguments, it will be helpful to talk a little about conceptual analysis.

Conceptual Analysis

In order to understand what conceptual analysis is, we need to understand what concepts are. We can think of a concept as a feature or characteristic of something. For example, one feature of cans of Coke is that they are red, hence redness is a concept. Another example: suppose that Fred knows that 1 + 1 = 2. Then, one feature of Fred is that he knows this, and we can take knowledge to be a concept. Similarly, if murder is morally wrong, then one feature of murder is that it is morally wrong, so moral wrongness is a concept. Other concepts of philosophical interest include truth, being, identity, time, beauty, cause, etc. As you can see, concepts of philosophical interest tend to be quite general and fundamental.

A crucial point to keep in mind here is that concepts are not merely mental - concepts are not just ideas or thoughts that people have. Concepts are real things. Similarly, concepts are not just words. It is common for philosophers to keep words and concepts distinct by placing words in single quotes. Thus, 'redness' is a word, whereas redness is a concept. Note that concepts such as redness, truth, etc., would be as they are even if no one existed to think of them. This is just another way of putting the point that concepts are neither ideas nor words.

Another crucial point to keep in mind when thinking about philosophical issues is the distinction among believing something to be the case, knowing that it's the case and its actually being the case. Believing that something is the case merely involves thinking that it's the case. For example, at one time many people believed that the earth is flat. They believed it, but they didn't know it and it's not the case. Knowing that something is the case involves believing that something is the case on the basis of good reasons that establish it to be true. Thus, we know that the earth is not flat because we have based our belief on good reasons to believe it's not flat (e.g., we've seen pictures indicating that the earth is a globe). Finally, something may be the case even if we do not know about it. Something is the case if it's actually the way the world is. Thus, it actually was the case that the earth was not flat even when no one knew this to be the case or even believed it to be the case. When philosophers address philosophical questions, they are concerned to discover what is actually the case, not just what people believe to be the case. The latter task is the aim of those who conduct public opinion polls, not philosophers.

When thinking about philosophical issues, one must always keep in mind the concepts that are at issue. As the philosopher Mark Woodhouse has put it,

"... what catches the philosopher's eye concerning the statement "Ralph told the truth" is not the potential issue of whether Ralph actually told the truth. Instead, the philosopher's curiosity is aroused by the challenge of determining the standards that any sentence in principle must meet in order to merit the label 'truth' - that is, of inquiring into the meaning of the concept of truth."

The key features of concepts that are often the focus of philosophical discussion are their logical relations to other concepts. These logical relations are deductive. For example, take the concept of being a cat. By logical deduction, we can infer that anything that is a cat is an animal, because part of the concept of being a cat includes the concept of being an animal. Thus, the two concepts of being a cat and being an animal bear this logical relation to each other. By contrast, being a cat does not logically imply being a dog. A complete and correct conceptual analysis of something's being a cat would have to include everything being a cat logically implies and nothing else.

Of course, philosophers don't usually try to provide conceptual analyses of being a cat. Cats are interesting, but not that interesting. Instead, philosophers attempt to offer conceptual analyses of concepts that will help us resolve philosophical problems. For example, what about the concept of having a right to life? If a creature has a right to life, what else does it have to have? Obviously, for anything to have a right to life, it has to be alive. But this can't be the whole story: plants are alive, but they certainly do not have a right to life!

Perhaps a better analysis of the concept of having a right to life would include being alive and having a human genetic code. But there are a couple of problems with this analysis also. First, our individual skin and muscle cells are alive and have a complete human genetic code, but they obviously don't have a right to life! Surely we are not guilty of murder whenever we scrub our hands and kill a few skin cells. A second problem with this analysis is that it seems clear there could be creatures that do not have a human genetic code, but nonetheless be alive and have a right to life. For example, there could in some distant galaxy be creatures like Spock, or Klingons, or Superman, or the Killer Klowns From Outer Space, and we would certainly want to say that they each have a right to life even if their genetic code is not human. Now, a natural reaction to these kinds of sci-fi examples is "We have no reason to believe that Klingons exist, and good reason to believe they don't given that someone just made them up to tell a story!" The key to understanding why such examples may be relevant is that we are concerned here with the conceptual analysis of what it is to have a right to life. Keep in mind that concepts are things that would exist even if humans did not - concepts are not just ideas or words. Thus, our concept of redness would not change even if there were no humans or even if it turned out that Klingons really existed. If Mars is red, it's going to be red whether or not Klingons, humans, or even Spock exists. Similarly for any concept (that does not include certain sorts of references to such beings), including the concept of having a right to life. So the fact that such beings do not actually exist shouldn't be relevant to our analysis of concepts.

In fact, there is just one limitation on what can count as relevant to the analysis of a concept: anything that contains a self-contradiction is irrelevant to the analysis of a concept. A self-contradiction is a statement that in effect says "Both p and not p", where p is any statement. For example, it would be self-contradictory to assert that something is both a dog and not a dog. Since the concept of being a Klingon does not contain a self-contradiction, appeal to examples involving them may be perfectly legitimate where we are concerned with conceptual analysis.

Finally, you shouldn't get the impression that absolutely anything counts when analyzing a concept. As we saw with the above attempts to analyze the concept of having a right to life, we can evaluate conceptual analyses and find them inadequate.
Often the primary aim in the writings of contemporary philosophers is to analyze, and thus better understand a philosophically interesting concept. For example, a complete and correct analysis of what it is to have a right to life would help us greatly in understanding and resolving disputes about the morality of abortion or euthanasia. More importantly, such an analysis would tell us something very important about ourselves, namely why we are the sorts of creatures that have moral rights.

I hope this discussion of conceptual analysis hasn't left you completely bewildered. We've been talking about one of the most fundamental, yet most difficult to understand, aspects of philosophical method. But if you understand why examples involving Klingons and such may be relevant rather than ridiculous, then you will have come quite a long way towards understanding what philosophy is all about. If you're still a little bewildered about this business of conceptual analysis, don't worry too much about it. As you do more philosophy, it will become easier to see how philosophy works and why such examples may be important.

A Note About Reading Philosophy

Reading philosophy can be very difficult. One reason for this is that the issues tend to be very abstract. Another is that philosophical writing tends to be very precise whenever a new point is being explained. Thus, philosophy must be read very slowly and very carefully. My students who have come to this realization usually put it this way: "Every word is important." This is a good way to put it. Whenever you come across anything new or controversial, pay attention to every word and its role in the development of ideas. Often, this requires re-reading a passage several times, very slowly and patiently. If you don't understand something, ask your instructor to try to explain it to you. This can require a lot of work, but the reward will be a genuine and deep understanding of what's going on in what you're reading, as well as advanced development of an essential and extraordinarily valuable skill: reading comprehension. And remember: if you ever get stuck on something, always talk to your instructor about it. After all, that's what we're here for!


Some Recommended Reading

The following are short books that are particularly accessible to those with little or no background in philosophy. They are a good place to start exploring issues which catch your interest.

Barcalow, Emmett. Open Questions: An Introduction to Philosophy, Concise Edition. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1993).

Discusses the existence of God, the nature of mind, personal identity, free will, the nature of knowledge, ethics and political philosophy.


Palmer, Donald. Does the Center Hold? (Mountain View, CA: Mayfield, 2010).

Discusses the history of philosophy, the nature of mind, philosophy of art, free will, philosophy of religion, ethics, and social/political theory.

Rachels, James. The Elements of Moral Philosophy. (Boston: McGraw-Hill College, 2010).

Discusses various ethical theories along with brief discussions of issues in applied ethics such as abortion, animal rights, homosexuality and civil disobedience.

Russell, Bertrand. The Problems of Philosophy. (London: Oxford University Press, 1912).

Despite being an older book, this is still an excellent and widely read introduction to issues in the philosophy of perception, truth, knowledge and various issues in metaphysics.

Schick, Jr., Theodore and Vaughn, Lewis. How To Think About Weird Things. (Boston: McGraw Hill, 2011).

Often used as a supplement in critical thinking classes, this book discusses how critical thinking is relevant to issues such as the existence of ESP, UFOs, scientific method, creationism, miracle cures, etc.

Singer, Peter. Animal Liberation. (New York: Harper Perennial, 2009).

Defends a particular ethical theory and discusses its application to the use of animals in scientific research and farming.

Tilghman, B. R. An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion. (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1994).

A very well written discussion of issues in philosophy of religion such as the existence of God, whether the Bible is a reliable source of historical, scientific or religious information, the relation between religion and ethics, the relation between religion and science, etc.
 



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