The Uses of Philosophy

By Daniel A. Kaufman

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[1] We need to distinguish between philosophy and what people have called philosophy. Physics is not philosophy and neither is biology, yet once, they — and the rest of the natural sciences — went under the name “natural philosophy.” 

[2] I would identify philosophy with a set of tools and techniques, not with any particular subject matter. Specifically: philosophy addresses a broad variety of subjects, via the careful, exacting use of logical, conceptual, and linguistic analysis.

[3] I would add, further, that philosophy — at least in its mainline incarnations — addresses these subjects from the position of two fundamental assumptions: (a) that the defining human quality is reason; and (b) that the human ideal is to think and act under the guidance of reason. [i]

[4] Many have proposed “the search for understanding” as a definition of philosophy. This strikes me as being either trivially true and thus, uninteresting — every intellectual and creative endeavor aims at this, at some level — or substantially false. Certainly the claim that philosophy is an empirical science is false, if what one means by ‘empirical science’ is the development of empirically testable theories that explain and predict natural phenomena. That some philosophers made lucky — or educated — guesses that later were confirmed by genuine scientific enquiry does not render those guesses scientific, and we must remember just how many more of these sorts of guesses turned out to be complete rubbish. (The word ‘splenetic’, for example, has its origins in the fact that ancient thinkers believed the spleen was responsible for the emotion of anger.)

None of this means that a person who does philosophy cannot also engage in genuine scientific investigation (Descartes comes to mind). The point simply is that science and philosophy are different activities, employing different tools and techniques.

[5] An older conception of philosophy, most identified with antiquity, characterizes it as “the love of wisdom.” ‘Love’ is endlessly and fruitlessly debatable, but I doubt whether even “the pursuit of wisdom” is accurate. Certainly, philosophers since the Enlightenment (4oo hundred years ago at this point) have treated philosophy much more as the pursuit of knowledge than of wisdom, and given that wisdom is a product of the intersection of experience, intelligence, and a prudential temperament, it isn’t at all obvious why philosophers should be likelier to acquire it than anyone else. (A survey of the professional and public behavior of philosophers today suggests strongly that they are not.) [ii]

[6] In my view, philosophy’s primary role — and really the only role, for which it is well-suited, given its distinctive tools, techniques, and assumptions — is to clarify, and while this may sometimes involve criticizing faulty reasoning, it need not. Here are just two examples of some ways in which philosophy can clarify:

–With respect to scientific explanation, philosophy addresses the question of what is meant by ‘explanation’ and thus, can aid us in clarifying the precise sense in which scientific theories explain, while also identifying those senses in which it does not.

 

–With respect to psychology, philosophy addresses the question of how we commonly understand words like ‘mind’, ‘thought’, and ‘consciousness’, which then makes it possible to clarify the relationship between these notions and what psychologists and neuroscientists are discovering about the human brain and nervous system. One thing this does is problematize the statement “The mind is the brain,” which is clarifying, insofar as this formula has regrettably become quite common, even in philosophy itself.

 

Philosophy can also clarify by uncovering hidden assumptions and premises, which often reveal a discipline’s or inquiry’s limits. Descartes uncovered the extent to which the empirical grounds for belief can only function as grounds, if one accepts a number of hidden assumptions that themselves lack any rational warrant. (Seeing a pencil only serves as grounds for thinking that there is a pencil, if one assumes one’s perception is veridical which, of course, it may not be. And the grounds for thinking that one’s perception — or thinking otherwise — is veridical can only be based in further perception or thinking, which obviously is unhelpful.) [iii]

[7] Some want to say that philosophy is especially well suited to addressing normative questions, whether in the areas of art, morality, or politics. Indeed, some have even gone so far as to claim that aside from metaphysics, value and obligation are the only other genuinely philosophical subjects: that is, subjects that properly belong, first and foremost, to philosophy, as opposed to all the “philosophies of x,” in which philosophy’s role is fundamentally second-order. 

I want to resist both of these claims. Though it puts me in a minority of philosophers, I am of the view that philosophy is actually quite poorly equipped to address normative questions. The short reason is that value and valuation belong to the affective sensibility, rather than the intellect, which is why both Aristotle and Hume maintained that we can only reason about means, never about ends, and why H.A. Prichard demonstrated (with devastating brevity) that one can never prove or otherwise rationally justify an obligation or duty. [iv]

The longer reason is that mainline philosophy’s fetishization of reason has caused it to misunderstand the nature of both value and obligation. One effect of this has been that virtually every mainline moral theory places a sterile disinterestedness at the heart of moral life, telling us that our duties and obligations to complete strangers — and even more absurdly, non-human animals — are as powerful and binding as those to our closest relatives, dearest friends, and lovers. [v] Another effect has been an obsession with moral consistency, one that is reflected in unipolar or “single-valence” ethical theories, which contradict the reality that our most fundamental intuitions regarding value are conflicted. [vi]The result is that while an awful lot of moral hectoring and posturing goes on, in ethics — and especially, applied ethics — very little of it has any effect on actual moral life, not even on the lives of the hectoring, posturing ethicists themselves. Peter Singer, for example, perhaps the most well-known among philosophy’s moral scolds (or saints, depending on how you feel about him), has been pressed on the matter of his trust-fund children, ritzy appointment at Princeton, and the thousands upon thousands of dollars he spent on his late mother’s Alzheimer’s care. Even in Singer, apparently, Utilitarianism’s standing, relative to other considerations, is somewhat meager.

[8] Philosophy is at its best when it is in a clarifying and critical mode. It is at its worst, when it creates theories, doctrines, and rules. I believe that people intuitively understand this: notice that when one leaves the upper echelons of the academy and descends to the general education curriculum — and beyond the academy, to the world of work –philosophy is valued primarily for its contribution to critical thinking and not for any knowledge or moral improvement that it provides. 

We should not underestimate the value of this contribution. We live in a civilization awash with bad information, deceitful and manipulative communications, and outright lies and propaganda. Disturbingly, this malicious writing and speech is not only identifiable with crooks, con-men, despots, and other obvious villains: Professionally trained psychologists use their expertise to advise companies on how to manipulate us into spending enormous sums of money, on what are often harmful products and services; religious leaders make appeals to the Bible and to morality in order to convince us to that we should shun our relatives, friends, and neighbors who may be gay, seeking an abortion, or who are atheists; and scientists deploy the tremendous authority they enjoy with the public, in order to advance their own personal and political agendas, often with respect to subjects they know little to nothing about.

So, there is an urgent need for tough criticism; for questioning; for examining; and for doubting, and these are the things at which philosophy excels. But it is not only in the battle against intellectual, commercial, and political deception, manipulation, and fraud that these modalities are crucial. They are necessary to keep a check on intellectual overreaching, especially in science, but also in philosophy and other areas. When a physicist announces that physics has answered one of the longest, outstanding human questions, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” (as Lawrence Krauss claimed in his book, A Universe from Nothing), it takes careful, rigorous questioning to reveal that the claim is wildly overstated.

Notes

[i] I went into greater depth on mainline philosophy’s small ‘r’ rationalism, here. https://theelectricagora.com/2016/02/28/excessive-reason/

[ii] I wrote about the relationship of philosophy to wisdom, here. https://philpapers.org/rec/KAUKWA

[iii] https://theelectricagora.com/2015/10/23/this-weeks-special-meditation-one-in-rene-descartes-meditations-on-first-philosophy/

[iv] I explored this matter in more depth, here. https://theelectricagora.com/2022/05/06/a-foolish-impartiality-is-the-hobgoblin-of-morality/

[v] https://theelectricagora.com/2017/03/14/course-notes-h-a-prichard-does-moral-philosophy-rest-on-a-mistake/

[vi] https://theelectricagora.com/2021/07/02/morality-and-distance/

Comments

28 responses to “The Uses of Philosophy”

  1. owner of ideas

    I’m reading it right now. I’ll add my comments below.

    I understand that the article tries to explain what philosophy does well as you explained to me earlier. I am reading while having this assumption in mind.

    Let me comment on your definitions first.

    [1], [2]

    I don’t think philosophy can be defined by a set of tools and techniques. On the contrary, I think there is a subject to philosophy. Let me explain further.

    The obvious counterargument to the “tools and techniques” definition is that philosophers do not agree even in general about the correct tools and techniques of doing philosophy. E.g. more analytic branches do not agree with more “intuitionistic” branches. Can we really assume a shared toolset between analytic and “continental” philosophy?

    Unless you are happy to claim that philosophy which is not written based on your preferred toolset is not philosophy which does anything well of course.

    Moreover, many of the tools of philosophy are shared with computer science, mathematics, theology etc., but those disciplines are considered distinct. Why are they distinct, if they share the toolset? What distinguishes them from philosophy?

    If not “tools and techniques” then what? I think there is a subject of philosophy and that subject is the following: “What to do?”. Philosophy tries to answer the most general answers to that question. Other branches of knowledge are about more specific issues.

    Different branches of philosophy answer certain varieties of the “What to do?” question.

    Ethics – “What to do?” – the most general branch
    Aesthetics – “What to do, if one wants to enjoy something and consider it valuable?”
    Epistemology – “What to do, if one wants to know something?”
    Logic – “What to do if one wants to prove something?”
    Metaphysics – “What to do/assume if one wants to build a system of concepts?”

    Now, one can say that most other things can be framed in such a form. E.g. engineering might be “What to do, if one wants to build something complex?” and physics/chemistry “What to do if one wants to predict the outcome of an experiments concerning non-living material objects?” But then it makes sense to consider those things a part of “natural philosophy” – a specialist branch of philosophy. The difference between those and philosophy is that philosophy studies the most non-specific aspects of the “What to do?” question.

    E.g. building something complex or predicting the outcome of an experiment requires e.g. answering the questions “should we build it/experiment on it?”, “what we want to build/experiment on?”, having a system of useful concepts for modelling, knowledge and it often requires some calculations (which might be considered a form of proving). The task of philosophy is to provide answers to those questions.

    In other words its task is to create a framework for other, more specific disciplines to fit in.

    to be continued in the next post…

  2. owner of ideas

    [3]

    Reason-based frameworks represent just a subset of possible frameworks. But there are different answers to that. E.g. a framework inspired by Wittgenstein ideas might “say” that it’s better not to reason about certain things, as it’s a waste of time. A variety of a primitivist framework might “say” that it’s better not to reason too much and return to the more primitive kind of life.

    All of those are some answers to the “What to do?” question.

    [4], [5]

    Yup.

    [6]

    No, it’s about answering “What to do?” on the most basic level.

    [7]

    “I am of the view that philosophy is actually quite poorly equipped to address normative questions. The short reason is that value and valuation belong to the affective sensibility, rather than the intellect, …”

    Again, your assumption of the framework based on reason leads you towards the assumption that there must be some reasons for certain answers to the normative questions.

    But from my perspective it is enough if philosophy presents a number of different frameworks answering the question “What to do?”. Not all of them must be based on reason. I think constructing a number of frameworks can address the normative questions with answers like: “you can for example do (here follows an explanation of a certain framework) or you can do (an explanation of another framework)”. Then the person can choose the framework in any way they want. But philosophy gives one a well developed framework as opposed to a rudimentary one.

    “The longer reason is that mainline philosophy’s fetishization of reason…” – I see you also see that reason is just one way of doing things in philosophy. Maybe it became popular at certain point in history, but I think there always were some strands which did not put it as central.

    A very old example I can give are middle age Christian philosophies which claimed that God can only be experienced in some sense and not reasoned about.

    Pure empiricism in the old sense also does not center reason.

    to be continued in the next post…

  3. owner of ideas

    [8]

    “Philosophy is at its best when it is in a clarifying and critical mode.”

    In my opinion, philosophy is at its best when providing a framework that “makes sense”, a framework that seems like something one might really adopt. Frameworks which seem absurd or ones unlikely to be adopted are not good philosophy in my opinion.

    That’s why most irrationalist frameworks are not good philosophy – they seem absurd and unlikely to be adopted. But for example an argument that it might be better not to reason about some things requires careful consideration.

    I am not an advocate of adopting irrationalist frameworks, but I think researching them is a valuable insight philosophy can provide in addition to constructing frameworks based on reason. It might help one answer the question “Should I adopt a framework based on reason or an irrationalist one and why?”

    Answering that would be good philosophy in my book.

  4. This “what to do” treatment of philosophy very much distorts a proper understanding of the subject areas you list. [Aesthetics takes up far more than the things you mention for example.]

  5. It is mainline philosophy that is rationalistic in the sense I describe in the piece [and that I’ve described previously]. Of course Wittgenstein is anti-rationalistic. It’s partly why I like so much of his analysis. And the toolset idea is derived in good part from his influence.

  6. I appreciate your remarks!

  7. owner of ideas

    I don’t claim to provide fully developed and correct definitions, only a rough sketch of the direction one can take. Maybe that wasn’t clear. I’m not writing a paper or an article, I’m commenting on an article on the Internet.

  8. owner of ideas

    Thanks!

  9. owner of ideas

    Yes, I understand that. Please, consider my comment as simply presenting an alternative point of view to the “toolset” definition and a different way to answer what philosophy does well.

  10. Well, aesthetics is one of my areas of specialty, and I published a good portion of my main work in it, over the course in my career, so I particularly have a good sense of it..

  11. owner of ideas

    In that case you are much better equipped than me to provide a “what to do” kind of definition of aesthetics which includes all the relevant details and does not miss anything. And that’s how it should be, expertise is important.

    The reason why “what to do” style definitions are useful is that they allow one to see things as a part of the greater scheme: end goals, intermediate goals, actions etc. When other styles of definitions are used, e.g. ones based on certain “defining concepts” of a discipline, the branches seems to be separate of each other, because concepts have not much to do with each other. So it’s difficult to see philosophy as one thing.

    But when one frames them as “what to do”, one can see that those branches are a part of the greater whole of providing the basis of doing things.

    E.g. metaphysics can provide the basic concepts, epistemology the way of using those concepts to classify stuff, logic the way to deduce relationships between those concepts etc. All of those disciplines are parts of the list of basic, non-specific, general things we use when doing stuff.

  12. I’m afraid I just don’t recognize a lot of these characterizations. Metaphysics is not about concepts, but rather, “reality,” whatever that is supposed to mean. Epistemology is not about “the way of using these concepts to classify stuff,” it is about epistemic warrant, whatever that is. Logic is about a lot more than deduction. Etc.

  13. owner of ideas

    Metaphysics is about the conceptualisation of reality. E.g. the discussion of “ordinary objects” is an example. Aristotle’s categories is an example. Time A vs. B is an example.

    An aspect of epistemology is to ensure that right concepts are used for the right kinds of stuff. In an extended sense sentences can be understood as combinations of concepts and they can be understood as either “naming” the reality (stating facts, being true etc.) or not (not stating facts, being false). And when one produces those combinations, how one can ensure or at least make it very probable they indeed do either of those things?

    Yes, logic is not only about deduction.

    I’m getting a bit tired with “but what about …”-ism, as I clearly stated I am not writing a paper and do not plan to and I am not providing complete, flawless definitions, just the direction, and I have some other action to do instead of pointlessly explaining yet another “but what about…”.

    Well, if you think the “what to do?” style definitions are impossible to be stated, then that’s fine. I think they are possible with enough work. Because it is possible to see how people do stuff and describe those processes and then condense those descriptions into a shorter form – a definition. It requires some work though.

    I think that’s a good moment to stop the conversation. Have a lovely Saturday!

  14. Sorry you’re tired. I thought my replies were both apt and fair, and nowhere did I suggest or act as if you were writing a paper. I simply don’t think your characterizations work.

  15. jofrclark

    I like the dynamic process-oriented rather than conclusion-oriented framing of philosophy expressed in the idea that philosophy’s role is to clarify.
    The question of course becomes – through what means do we clarify? At the risk of being tedious in terms of following prior posts/comments I’ve made on the subject, I feel/think that mainline philosophy has become hyper-intellectualized and thus limited through losing touch with the emotional, the sensual, and the intuitive. Perhaps this post is in agreement with that framing through the following idea,

    “… philosophy addresses the question of what is meant by ‘explanation’ and thus, can aid us in clarifying the precise *sense* in which scientific theories explain …”
    *sense – from the Latin sentire – “to feel.”

    Consider the following;

    “I would identify philosophy with a set of tools and techniques … via the careful, exacting use of logical, conceptual, and linguistic analysis.”
    *What about the use of symbolical concepts and corporistic intuition?

    “… two fundamental assumptions: (a) that the defining human quality is reason; and (b) that the human ideal is to think and act under the guidance of reason”
    *Is not a human ideal to feel? Is not feeling a part of reason?

    “… wisdom is a product of the intersection of experience, intelligence, and a prudential temperament.”
    *What about emotience?

    “philosophy is actually quite poorly equipped to address normative questions. The short reason is that value and valuation belong to the affective sensibility, rather than the intellect.”
    *What wrong with affective sensibility as a means of evaluation? Is it not the hyper-rationalization of mainline philosophy that has made it poorly equipped to address normative questions?

    “H.A. Prichard demonstrated (with devastating brevity) that one can never prove or otherwise rationally justify an obligation or duty.”
    *Does this not merely demonstrate the limitations of equating reason with rationality rather than including emotionality in reason and considering how it accesses value in ways rationality simply cannot?

    This is a modern taboo – that mainline philosophy has made itself impotent through hyper-intellectualization. Through unyielding objectivity and cool dispassion, modern philosophy has excluded emotionality from reason and thus abstracted itself from the whole of human experience and thus any hope of providing humane (compassionate) service to humanity.

  16. Yes, it seems we largely agree. I just don’t see any benefit to stretching “reason”.

  17. “They are necessary to keep a check on intellectual overreaching, especially in science, but also in philosophy and other areas.”

    That’s one I like.

    But now a stupid question: many of the things you mention, philosophy has in common with other disciplines like physics (the only discipline I know something about). The importance of reason, critical thinking and clarification, the fact that physics relies on specific tools like mathematics, the fact that physicists are usually clever but not always wise, the fact that physics is ill-suited to answer normative questions …

    Physicists love the invent theories, preferably theories that can be empirically tested, and if that’s impossible, theories that can be checked for internal consistency etc.

    One could say that’s a difference with philosophy. But is it as big as it seems to be? Take that famous philosophical Gedankenexperiment the “brain in a vat”. Is it too far-fetched to describe it as a theory that can’t be tested empirically but that can be checked for internal consistency, in the hope it learns us something about the world?

    You argue that philosophy is not an empirical science, and I agree. A visit to any physics laboratory will show that it isn’t. But on the other hand, philosophy isn’t entirely un-empirical either. Philosophers of science look at the things scientists do (or the things scientists claim they do). They “make observations”, and therefore have to have a theory of what constitutes a good observation, as opposed to an irrelevant or even a bad observation. That’s an empirical matter, I think.

    And I’m not even sure that philosophical ideas are never tested, in the sense of being confronted with new observations. I think the relatively straightforward philosophy of science based on physics has been enriched and nuanced when philosophers started to study other sciences like evolution theory.

    On the pretty abstract level you’re writing here, I don’t see many truly fundamental differences between philosophy and a discipline like physics. So what is the difference? The nature of the tools? The subject?

  18. Philosophy applies its toolset as much to things in the manifest image as in the scientific.

  19. Paul D. Van Pelt

    I still like (though, it has been roundly rejected by some) Stephen Jay Gould’s notion of non-overlapping magisteria. For this, and other reasons, I have challenged interdisciplinary forays into attempted explanation of, for example, consciousness. A current topic, the role of AI in the field of art, is being examined on another blog. That has my curiosity stoked a bit also and I will be following its’ unfolding. Thanks for continuing your investigations—the work is appreciated.

  20. Daniel, I think the definition of philosophy as ‘a set of tools and techniques’ is a familiar one, and presumably even uncontroversial to many academic philosophers in the anglosphere. One only has to think of books like Baggini and Fosl’s ‘The Philosopher’s Toolkit’ and Cam’s ‘Twenty Thinking Tools’. It seems to me, however, that this is a rather ‘thin’ conception of philosophy that takes the dominant anglophone culture of broadly analytic philosophy as definitive. Once that is the starting point, then historically and culturally remote practices that have been described as ‘philosophy’ are automatically demoted, considered to be either primitive precursors or simply wrongheaded. Once ‘philosophy’ is defined in a certain way, then everything else is not really ‘philosophy’. Isn’t there some circular reasoning here?

    My own philosophical formation in Ireland – involving a historical approach beginning with the pre-Socratics, and including a substantial dose of scholastic metaphysics, as well as equal consideration of ‘analytic’ and ‘continental’ philosophers in the modern era – has given me a different perspective (we also studied logic, ethics, aesthetics, political philosophy, and philosophical psychology). There was a definite sense that philosophy, even as it evolved into an academic discipline, had an integrity of its own as a practice, with metaphysics at its core. At the same time, I developed a personal interest in Asian philosophies, in which theory was seen to complement practice. Later I read Pierre Hadot’s work on ancient philosophy as a ‘way of life’, and realised that the practical component was there in the Western tradition also, at least historically.

    I certainly accept that there is an important role for conceptual clarification, and this must be carried out in any discipline. It is reasonable to describe such work as ‘philosophical’ in the sense that ultimately it points towards the core philosophical questions of the nature of the world and our place in it, including our linguistic nature. But to limit philosophy to such activity is impoverishing.

    This brings me to what you say about wisdom, a word with an ancient philosophical pedigree that really is – at least partly – definitive of the practice. Having defined philosophy in terms of its manifestation in the anglosphere (i.e. predominantly academic and analytic), you rightly point out that professional philosophers are no likelier than anyone else to acquire wisdom. You correctly identify that wisdom involves a practical component (what you describe as ‘the intersection of experience, intelligence, and a prudential temperament’), and that there is no necessary connection between this and the sort of discursive work that academic philosophers engage in. But in doing so, it seems to me that you draw the wrong conclusion (i.e. philosophy has nothing to do with wisdom), rendering obsolete the etymology of the word. An alternative conclusion would be that philosophy is, and ought to be, concerned with wisdom, and just because some people are described as ‘philosophers’ in the professional (i.e. paid) sense does not mean that they really are philosophers in an intrinsic sense. As Frodeman and Briggle point out in ‘Socrates Tenured: The Institutions of 21st-Century Philosophy’, that hapless sage wouldn’t stand a chance of getting a job in most philosophy departments today (notwithstanding the tendency to revere him as the supposed source of what has become known as ‘Socratic Method’).

    Of course people have the right to define philosophy as the professional practice of certain anglophone academics. Some may reject the very possibility of attaining wisdom in any deliberate sense, thereby undermining the alternative, even if it has been accepted across various cultures over long periods of time. In this case I am reminded of a fable called ‘The Islanders’ from the beginning of Idries Shah’s ‘The Sufis’ (1964). A group of people relocate to an island when their own country becomes uninhabitable. Over generations their descendants become acclimatised to the place. Although a means of escape from the island – and return to their original home – is passed on from generation to generation, it involves significant effort. Eventually someoene rebels against this and convinces others that there is no other place, that ‘escape’ is a meaningless fantasy. Many come to accept this apparently liberating thought. And so on.

    Just because professional philosophers have a right to the label shouldn’t disqualify others from using it, especially if they have a greater claim to its use in some original sense.

    I say a bit more about all of this in the following article:

    https://jps.bham.ac.uk/articles/abstract/160/

  21. Yes, we clearly have very different views of what philosophy does well. Most of the areas that you identify as central to philosophy are areas in which I think the questions are at bottom, fundamentally indeterminate. As for the historical etymology of the word, I don’t think that has any constraining effect on what we should think about the subject now, in the modern era.

    I don’t know if you’ve read my Prolegomena for a Pluralistic Metaphysics, but I sum up my current views across the philosophical landscape there.

    https://theelectricagora.com/category/articles/essays/prolegomena-for-a-pluralist-metaphysics/

  22. Paul D. Van Pelt

    History changes things: it reinforces some; negates others, and re-evaluates even more, et voila! Nous avons, postmodernism! A thinker who seems to associate with another who blogs, appears to be pretty anti-AI, at least to the extent of thinking it pointless, in view of other pressing issues. I like pragmatism! James and Rorty are my guide posts. I don’t know if philosophy does anything well. As with a related discipline (chuckle), religion, I don’t know that it DOES anything(?). And yet, against all odds, after all these centuries, they are both still here. As Rolling Stone guitarist and song writer, Keith Richards, recently said about his band: “we must be doing something right”. This is why we have philosophy. Historically, it asks questions, while answering few. In doing so, it compels us to pay attention. Not so bad.

  23. Thanks Daniel. I basically agree with you about both indeterminacy and etymology, albeit with qualifications in each case.

    I don’t think that the questions can be determined simply through reasoning. Whether there is another option is open to discussion, but even that discussion will be indeterminate. I suppose one can only pursue a ‘way of life’ by doing just that, i.e. living it.

    And yes, the etymology of words need have no constraining effect on how they are used now. There are so many examples that it hardly seems worth mentioning any in particular, but ‘holiday’ (holy day) and ‘goodbye’ (God be with you) both come to mind. Words mean what they mean to the linguistic community that uses them. My qualification is that a word like ‘philosophy’ still means several things. This semiotic constellation gives rise precisely to the sort of reflections that presumably prompted your post in the first place. So I am not trying to outlaw the definition of philosophy as a professional academic pursuit, only to say that others might legitimately interpret it as a love of wisdom that is embodied in a certain ‘way of life’.

    I would have received email notification of your ‘Prolegomena’ series, and the title certainly rings a bell, but I realise (having just read the first one) that I probably didn’t read any of them due to time constraints. I will make a point of reading through them in the coming weeks, other deadlines permitting.

  24. I have no objection to your characterization of philosophy at the level of individual interest/pursuit. When I speak about it in the way I do here, I am talking about it as a professional, scholarly activity. History of ideas and critical examination of first order practices are what it does best in that frame of reference. Building theories that are supposed to be explanatory of the world or our lives is what it does much less well.

  25. Jay Jeffers

    On #8, I sometimes go back to re-read David Albert’s thorough depantsing of Krauss, just for the sheer pleasure of it:

    https://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/25/books/review/a-universe-from-nothing-by-lawrence-m-krauss.html?_r=1

  26. Yes, that’s what I was thinking of.

  27. “Philosophy is at its best when it is in a clarifying and critical mode. It is at its worst, when it creates theories, doctrines, and rules. I believe that people intuitively understand this: notice that when one leaves the upper echelons of the academy and descends to the general education curriculum — and beyond the academy, to the world of work –philosophy is valued primarily for its contribution to critical thinking and not for any knowledge or moral improvement that it provides.”

    Sure for a particular job (whether it is management, making donuts or writing legal briefs) critical thinking is going to be the most marketable. But I think you are underselling the importance of people understanding philosophical concepts/theories. I am not saying people need to learn the ins and outs of every philosophical idea but ignorance about what it traditionally means for something to be “known” a “fact” or “true” or “moral” even have a grasp on how “reasoning” is understood for a view is a huge problem for our society. I am not saying everyone has to agree with any given theory but when people are completely ignorant of even the existence of issues that is when we have problems.

    Philosophy looks at and theorizes about the foundations of many different areas of study from science, to law, to ethics, reasoning/knowledge and language etc. It is a real problem that people think they can just entirely skip over that foundation. That is why we have many of the problems you talk about.