UCSB Philosophy Blog

Members of the UCSB Department of Philosophy and anyone else are welcome to talk philosophy with us. Bring your own brain.

Friday, January 27, 2006

What is Philosophy?

First a quick news update. There's some new info about the upcoming Philosophy of Language conference at the department site. The Santa Barbarians is on hiatus. The Metaphysics discussion group will be discussing some recent work by David Kaplan. The Guerrilla Radio Show will talk with William Irwin next Tuesday night about Philosophy of Film. Check out the GRS blog for a lengthy followup to last Tuesday's show, with some more philosophical considerations about intelligent design. And now on to the show.
What is Philosophy? This question haunts a lot of us. There are lots of reasons an activity might be worth a damn, but most of them don't seem to apply to the big P. We don't really do tests or find things out like scientists do, and we're not just trying to sound cool like poets and fiction authors. We think we're trying to answer questions, but who ever gave a decisive answer to a philosophical question? What about these problems we're dealing with: they're often so obscure that they would sound crazy or impenetrable to non-philosophers, i.e., most of humankind. Might we not be fooling ourselves? Might the whole thing not be a sham?
Of course, not all of us have this skeptical, angsty take on the question. For some, Philosophy is in no need of justification, but perhaps could use some demarcation. What distinguishes Philosophy from Science, Art, and other intellectual pursuits? Or is Philosophy not distinct from them? In that case, why is it commonly perceived as a distinct field? These can be taken as purely sociological questions, but I will take them at least semi-philosophically. The thing about doing history or sociology of philosophy is that you have to do some philosophy to make sense of why philosophers do what they do. Ok, then.
I will present my picture in two passes. First, a very general pass that serves more to explain the justification of the practice of philosophy, to show that the field is grounded in an intuitively worthwhile activity. Second, a more specific pass to flesh out the picture of the practice of philosophy to distinguish it from similar intellectual pursuits.
First pass:
Philosophy is the activity and discipline of trying to answer questions and figure out problems that we don't quite know how to handle. We take these questions and problems and try to break them down, look at them from other perspectives, put them in hopefully revealing contexts, and bust out our whole toolkit in order to make them tractable. The goal is to get questions where we at least know what a good answer would look like, and (ideally) questions we actually know how to FIND an answer for. Some questions have been with philosophy since the beginning, and that's because they're persistently difficult--it's not that they are pseudoquestions, although it's almost guaranteed that they aren't formulated in the most helpful manner. The difficulty is simply that we don't know the best way to get a grip on them; all or nearly all questions that have been seriously discussed by philosophers point to SOME interesting/problematic area or other, even if the form of the question and the context of the discussion are unclear or even misleading about where their import lies. (For example, David Kaplan considers much of his work to have been shown certain putatively epistemological problems to be semantic problems.) It's not that there was no problem, it's just that a philosophical advance gives us a better handle on what exactly the problem IS.
Thus there IS progress in philosophy, contrary to the standard lore. First, we have more tools in our toolkit, more ways of dismantling problems and more ways of turning questions upside-down, which means that we'll be better equipped to figure things out. Second, we HAVE figured some things out; we HAVE gotten a handle on some problems. It's just that when we have a handle on them, they stop being philosophy. They become logic or empirical science, or whatever. For example, questions like "What are the ultimate constituents of matter?" and "What is deductive validity?" have been more-or-less nailed-down and are no longer especially "live" philosophical problems. The former will primarily get its answer from physicists, the latter from logicians. Of course, there are RELATED questions that are still philosophically live, such as "What is it for something to be an ultimate constituent of matter?" or "What is it for some relation to be one of deductive consequence?", and these are live precisely because we don't quite know how to answer them. But perhaps one day we'll grok ("wrap our minds around") them, and come up with a convincing way to approach them.
Second pass:
If that's what philosophers do, then what distinguishes philosophy from other question-pursuing/problem-solving activites/disciplines, like math, logic, science, engineering, and even everyday practical problem-solving? The primary difference is that philosophy deals specifically with questions we don't (yet) know HOW to answer, problems we don't (yet) know HOW best to approach. We have some intuitions, some hunches, but we don't have effective methods or even "pretty good" methods, let alone knock-down arguments or final answers. In many other fields, even if there may be some dispute about the import of a test, and there may be significant difficulty coming up with an appropriate test, there are still more-or-less well-established ways of answering questions. For example, in the sciences (especially the most well-established sciences like many areas of Physics and Biology), there are some tough questions, but the only questions really of interest in the discipline are those for which a good test is available or can be developed in the forseeable future. Tractable questions are distinguished from "far-off" questions that nobody has a clue how to handle (though many have their pet theories). In math and logic, the primary method of answering questions is by proof. Of course, there are propositions we know neither how to prove nor disprove, but our ways of approaching them are pretty well-established: work toward proof or disproof, perhaps by proving lemmas or by adding to our toolkit in other ways. On the other hand, there are "deep" questions that most mathematicians find silly (like, "What are numbers, really?"), and questions that logicians (not philosophers of logic) shrug off (such as, "How is deduction justified?"), because there's no clear way to approach them with the tools of the "exact sciences". The cases of engineering and everyday practical problem-solving are analogous to the foregoing: there are easy and difficult questions, and then there are the "far-out" questions that don't seem answerable with the standard toolkit, or even forseeable extensions of it. All of these "far-out" questions are the province of philosophy. We handle the questions that nobody knows how to even begin to know how to handle. If you "can't even begin think about knowing how to answer" a particular question, then it's a philosophical question. Still, there's no sharp divide between, e.g., the "really tough" empirical questions and the philosophical questions: it's a matter of how well we think we can handle them. If we think that we can produce an answer or good method for coming up with an answer, given forseeable extension of our conceptual/experimental toolkit, then it's not a philosophical question. The ones that we think are still a little (or far) beyond our ken are philosophical; but we can be wrong about these assessments.
Interestingly (and this is a more sociological observation), since Philosophy deals with such difficult questions, different perspectives on its goals and methods arise within the discipline. Some take a view like the one I'm describing, that philosophical problems are just incredibly tough problems that CAN be solved, if you're bad-ass enough. Others just sort-of revel in the lack of obvious answers and succumb to the dark side, obscurantism. Others with insufficient perseverence (or brain-power?) often lapse into relativism, dogmatism, or skepticism (about philosophy in general, not just knowledge). Thus many philosophers claim (though it might be some kind of practical contradiction!) that philosophy (or a certain area of philosophy) is silly or hopeless or just wheel-spinning, jargonizing, windbagging nonsense. Surely some work done under the banner of Philosophy deserves such descriptions; it's entirely up to us whether we stay on track toward getting a real handle on these problems, and some have strayed significantly (primarily, I think, by getting wrapped up in the game of making distinctions and arguments, or in obscurantism). But the worst bits of philosophy are merely outliers, and not representative of the good work being done.
So that's the picture. This post is basically first-draft material, though I'd been thinking about this stuff a lot before I wrote this. I'd like to hear whether you think this sounds crazy, or sensible, or what. Make a comment or even post a reply if you're interested. Deuce-out.


  • At 3:06 PM, Blogger Tedla said…

    Hi Luke:

    I’ve read your post with great interest and thank you for sharing your thoughts on what philosophy is. I’ve also been thinking about metphilosophical issues for some time and I tend to agree with most of what you say in your post. Just some responses, for what they’re worth:

    Yes, there was a moment when I got to the point of being seriously skeptical about philosophy but then in one particular sense: I worried about the legitimacy of philosophical methodology as we in analytic philosophy would normally wonder and worry about such a thing and I’m still not totally happy about it methodologically speaking; since it’s becoming a fashionable thing to discuss philosophical methodology these days, I’d not take this time to share my worries about it right now.

    Back to you post: You say, “For some, Philosophy is in no need of justification, but perhaps could use some demarcation. What distinguishes Philosophy from Science, Art, and other intellectual pursuits? Or is Philosophy not distinct from them? In that case, why is it commonly perceived as a distinct field?” I think in taking the burden of proof (read= justification) we philosophers seem to assume that other intellectual pursuits, such as the ones you mention and others, are de facto and hence paradigm examples of what it means to pursue intellectual projects and we’re in need of justification of what we do. Do we-the philosophers(!) need such a justification, whether there are other disciplines or none out there?

    I think philosophical problems and questions and puzzles (whatever they are ), are intrinsically interesting and deserve the attention they richly deserve. I think it’s quite plausible to think that persistent and perennial philosophical questions (one can think of examples of such questions under any core philosophical sub-disciplines) deserve to be pursued whether they are relevant to other disciplines such as science or not. It’s so obvious that there are countless questions that no other intellectual discipline would have a clue to begin to understand and tackle and hence address without succumbing to the spirit of philosophy and hence justifying the pursuit of philosophy!

    Besides philosophy’s being eminently intrinsically interesting, I think, it’d also be a good idea to address the nature of philosophy in terms of what it’s supposed to accomplish or its purpose. Many non-philosophers have all kinds of misconceptions about philosophy as they share their views, esp., as college students in Intro to Phil classes: Now imagine those college students and their ilk who tend to think that philosophy never makes any progress; doing philosophy is a waste of time and energy; philosophy does produce concrete/tangible results (they’ve science in mind all the time, mind you), and philosophy is just another person’s opinion; philosophy just asks questions endlessly and never ever answers one; and also philosophy, now, here’s the clincher, does not help you make (a fat ) amount of money(!).

    I think these and similar objections to philosophy, or misconceptions about it, could be handled reasonably well if we further probe into the nature of philosophy in terms of its purpose as I suggested above: One can of course answer all of the above questions/objections by raising more fundamental questions(!) that would engage anyone who harbor’s questions like the above in such a way that even getting clear about the above questions/objections would drag one into a full blown philosophical activity. There is no way to escape philosophy! Okay, now how would focusing on the purpose of philosophy help answer the above objections and others similar to them?

    Let’s take one possibly major purpose of doing philosophy as an activity that is meant to enhance and deepen our understanding with respect to what kind of beings that we are and what kind of world that we inhabit, among so many other things. [It’s good to point out the fact that for one to justify the pursuit of science, natural sciences at that, and also in order for one to justify the conclusion that we’re only justified in doing philosophy only if it provides once and for all answers to questions that matter, and also only if philosophy produces tangible results like the sciences/engineering, etc, one needs to depend on a good deal of philosophizing! A good deal of work in epistemology and that inadvertently justifies the eminent place that the pursuit of philosophy inescapably occupies!)]. Now when one gets to the heart of the various assumptions that underwrite the above questions/objections, I think, one can easily see why people fault philosophy for what it’s not supposed to accomplish in the first place.

    One might retort and rightly so perhaps by pointing out other disciplines such as sciences (again!) and art and literature, etc., that also shed some relevant light in the sense of enhancing and deepening our understanding about what we are and the nature of the cosmos we inhabit. But such contributions from other disciplines, I’d say, hardly get to the heart of the metaphysical, epistemological, axiological/value questions that still await philosophical illumination in the sense of addressing deep and fundamental questions of existence, etc. I think what philosophy provides in that sense is irreplaceable by whatever other academic disciplines accomplish. Philosophy’s purpose, as I suggested above, hence (at least partly) justifies its distinct and eminent existence and as a worthy discipline as that has been the case for ages.

  • At 4:46 PM, Blogger Tedla said…

    P.S. In paragraph 5,, "philosophy does produece concrete/tangible.." should be read, "philosophy does not produce...".


  • At 10:05 AM, Blogger Josh said…

    Nice post, Luke. This issue has been bothering me quite a bit as well lately. I agree with the general thrust of Luke's post. With regard to the first pass: I too do not doubt that philosophy is valuable in its own right. That seems like a question that is not so much debated within philosophy (I think it is more often debated among family members of philosophy students!) With regard to the second pass: I also like the way you put the connection between philosophy and other disciplines. Some like to demarcate the disciplines so strictly that there is a sharp divide between questions that are fit for philosophers and questions that are not.

    My concern lately has been more with the connection between philosophy and science (mostly because I feel that these two disciplines are unduly hostile toward each other). Luke's characterization is nice. It allows that there is not such a clear divide between philosophy and science. This issue is definitely complex, but that is one thing which seems clear to me ( i.e., that there is no such clear and distinct line to be drawn). However, that is by no means uncontroversial. While my claim (that there is no clear line to be drawn between philosophy and science) seems factual to me, it also has pragmatic motives: Even if the division between philosophy and science is (in fact) clear, I think there is much to be gained in thinking there is not. If any two disciplines are contrived to be so isolated, then there is bound to be a lack of academic communication and cooperation with one another. It seems to me that many areas of academia have made significant gains by working together. This is not to say that there are no philosophers and scientists working together or philosophers paying attention to science (or vice versa). It is merely to say that it is beneficial to have such crossover (for both sides). In other words, to blur the lines between disciplines can prove to be advantageous (so I think).

    Posing, then, the difference between philosophy and science (and the other disciplines) as that of tackling questions allows for this gray area. However, there was a bit more I was wanting to have explored in Luke's analysis. His metaphor of the tools in the toolkit pointed to it, but therein somewhat skipped over it. I want to know more about the following: What tools do the philosopher's tend to use that the scientists tend not to use and what do they do for them (especially how do these tools connect to the world and why)? One obvious answer is that scientists do empirical experiments while philosophers don't (they tend to do thought experiments). But, as Luke pointed out, the issue is more complex.

    The controversy, as I see it, comes down to (albeit with loaded labels) how truth-tracking things such as the following are: apriority, analyticity, intuitions, conceptual analysis, etc. Actually, it seems to come down to the things that the Metaphysics Discussion Group has been looking into quite a bit lately (no coincidence, really). But, there's no reason we can't talk more about it here! As I said, Luke's analysis of tackling questions seems to (probably purposefully) evade the atrocious labels. This, admittedly, is one of the virtues of Luke's analysis. So, I guess what I am getting at is this: it would be even better if we could expand that more neutral, non-loaded analysis to talk more about the tools in the tool kits. But, I suppose this would get right to the controversy again and, thus, lack neutrality. Note: 'neutrality' is probably not the best word here; what I mostly want to describe with the word 'neutral' is the characterization that there is no clear dividing line between the disciplines.

    I can't say too much about that which I claim is where the controversy is, primarily because I am currently beginning to explore this issue and haven't come to any decisive conclusions. With that said, I think I can say a bit about what I am thinking. The paper "A Theory of the A Priori" by George Bealer gets into this stuff. If I get the gist of what he is saying, it goes a little something like this: Philosophy is an a priori discipline and is founded on intuitions about concepts. The job of philosophers is to do thought experiments to flesh out our intuitions about a priori concepts. This is conceptual analysis. Further, these intuitions are truth-tracking, because our a priori concepts are determinite/complete (note: Bealer may even think that all concepts are a priori and determinate, but I'm not sure. At the least, he thinks concepts in the a priori disciplines are determinate/complete). Thus, there is a clear and distinct place for philosophy and it is well-founded on truth-tracking intuitions.

    As we discussed in the group, this seems fine, provided that we have a large stock of "cool" (i.e., determinate/complete) intuitions or concepts and provided that one is satisfied with classifying philosophy's place as autonomously in merely the a priori. I guess I take dispute with both of these claims. I don't think they're insane claims, but just not quite right and too bold. This seems to be what Quine and some others debated about: whether we know for sure that we have such immutable concepts. However, I don't necessarily want to be that radically skeptical. That is, maybe our concepts in math and logic are complete (or almost?), but I don't know that the rest of the major concepts used in the difficult issues in philosophy are that determinate/complete, such as freedom, determinism, personal identity, the good, consciousness, etc. Does Bealer and those of that bent think that these are like the fundamentals of math and logic? This is a bold claim that needs some explaining. Maybe it's true, but that's what I'm interested in exploring...

    Anywho, this is rough draft material for me as well. The issue is much more complex and I may have oversimplified Bealer, but I would like to see what people think the tools in the tool kits are and what they can do, as well as whether there is/ought to be a clear dividing line between philosophy and other disciplines (especially science).



  • At 5:07 PM, Blogger Luke Manning said…

    Thanks for the comments, guys. In response to Tedla, I agree that philosophy is intrinsically interesting, but I think much of what you say wouldn't be convincing to non-philosophers, or philosophers who are skeptical of the value of the field. It seems like most of what you're saying boils down to the assertion that philosophy is interesting; but what does that mean, and why should anyone (the converted or the heathens) care about it? It's quite common to take scientific progress as the paradigmatic form of progress (and thus of interesting research), and I don't think that's an entirely unjust prejudice. Part of what I was trying to convey is that philosophy DOES make progress, and that there is a sort of rational structure to the discipline that those skeptical of the field can sympathize with. What I mean is that we advance by clearing up questions, not really by answering them, and that we're concerned with questions that we don't know how to begin to answer. That, I think, should be sufficient to demarcate philosophy (albeit somewhat roughly) as a discipline concerning intersubjectively interesting topics, and not just as a bunch of weirdo academics babbling about whatever they think is cool. So I think your comment doesn't go quite far enough. I may have misread you, though, so let me know.

    In response to Josh, you're right that I purposely avoided using certain jargon terms and being specific about the philosopher's toolkit. That's because I don't think that certain tools in that toolkit are in any way essential to philosophy; instead it's the fact that we deal with crazy-ass problems in whichever way we can. Of course, we don't just say anything. We won't have solved any problems or made any progress with our methods unless there is some intersubjective agreement about it. That's what peer review and philosophical debate is about: we hammer out appropriate approaches to problems as a group, just like scientists hammer out experimental results, interpretations and methodology as a group. Of course, I don't mean to say that peer review is an inherently justifying procedure, or that it's the only way to produce good philosophy. It's just that collectively, we're smarter than any of us is individually, so by building on the work of others (when possible), including historical philosophers, we have a better chance of finding the right angle at which to approach our problems.
    To illustrate, here's a caricature of the history of philosophy. I think that in the early days (especially before Descartes) there was a span of many mediocre philosophers punctuated by geniuses (often reinventing the wheel), with the interest-level of sub-genius philosophers increasing somewhate over time. Nowadays, we (still) don't have many geniuses (the last two were probably Kripke and Wittgenstein), but we have many philosophers who are simply very good, and they are good not because they start a revolution, but because they make good use of what has come before them and what's going on contemporaneously. You can be a good philosopher now simply by being good at explaining what someone else is doing, or by bringing together seemingly disparate discussions; back in the day, before there was as much professional-level philosophical discussion, I think only the geniuses made much of an impact, because only they could reach high enough on their own. But now you don't need to be a genius to contribute, though of course you do have to be pretty smart.
    Another reason I didn't specify what problems or methods are specific to philosophy is that I don't want to single out a particular kind of philosophy. There are myriad ways of doing philosophy, and things to be concerned with, and I wanted my picture to cover as many of them as possible. For example, I want to cover the concerns of ancient philosophers (not just the ones most relevant to their modern readers), the logico-philosophical tradition of Frege and Russell, Quine's "second philosophy" movement, pragmatism, the more philosophical sides of religious studies, literature, and science, phenomenalism, political philosophy, practical/"applied" ethics ("applied" is a misnomer), and anything else that's got any right to be called philosophy. Methods, problems, and even whole toolkits vary among these, and I don't want to rule any of them out. There are some problems that are just a bitch to analyze logically, ones that we have no idea even how to begin to imagine how to know how to formalize, but that we may be able to make progress on by entirely different methods. I'm not going to rule anything out ex cathedra, but I will say that it's ultimately going to be some kind of intersubjective criterion of communicability of approaches that determines which method will go the farthest. What I mean is, it may be ok for a while to grope around in the dark for a way to approach a particularly difficult question. But if someone starts making progress (as measured by their ability to nail down part of the question and communicate that successfully to others), other methods will become less prominent, and will eventually die out unless they do a better job with some other aspect of the question. Sorry if this is too abstract. I'd like to think of some examples, but this comment is already pretty long as it is. I think I've mostly got the point across about why I didn't go into detail before, but let me know if you'd like me to elaborate on this.

  • At 7:14 PM, Blogger Josh said…

    I, for one, do sympathize with your analysis, Luke. I think it is best to remain open and abstract about this issue. I am curious about some of the controversies over the tools in the toolkit and whatnot, but I think the open-ended analysis is much more realistic and useful.

    So, kudos.


  • At 9:47 AM, Blogger Kevin Schutte said…

    First of all, I take personal offense at this: "Others with insufficient perseverence (or brain-power?) often lapse into relativism, dogmatism, or skepticism (about philosophy in general, not just knowledge)." One can have a principled skepticism or subjectivism just as much as one can have a principled optimism. Neither is to take precedence over the other. Each has it's place.

    I don't really like your characterization of the demarcation problem. It seems to me that it shouldn't be a nota bene of philosophy that it can separate sciences and other things from itself. Rather, it seems to me that philosophy takes the set of all possible sensible questions (whatever the hell that is) and tries to find relations between the questions. When it successfully relates questions like "What is the speed of a falling object?" and "What happens when I roll a ball down an incline plane?" philosophy creates a theory bubble in which genuine knowledge can be gained. Ultimately, the assumptions of the theories made by these correlations of questions will still be philosophical in nature, so the "foundations" of science, mathematic, and logic still fall within the domain of philosophy not because we've set each science off on its own but because each is a self-determining, self-supporting part of philosophy that doesn't need philosophers quite so much anymore.

    I long for the day when we've discovered the relation between the questions "what is a person?", "what is action?", and "what is the thing to do?" in so secure a way as we have with the sciences, so it can evolve and develop on its own.


  • At 5:42 AM, Blogger Robert said…

    What is philosophy? The word comes from the Greek (PHILO love sophia wisdom). That is to be a lover of wisdom or, as I would put it, a searcher for absolute truths. To be a philosopher there is one essential requirement, to be intelligent. Everyone confuses cleverness and intelligence. Intelligence, intelligent, from Latin intelligere understand (INTER+legere gather, pick out).
    Clever, Adroit, dexterous, skilful, talented.
    What do you understand by intelligence? What is the difference between being intelligent and being clever? Can a person be intelligent without being clever and visa versa? The current IQ test has been used (with modifications) for over 100 years. The average IQ score is 100. An IQ score of 160 places you into the genius category and a score of >200 is categorised as unmeasurable genius. Computers are becoming ever more powerful and sophisticated. Is a computer intelligent? No, it will never be able to comprehend and understand. It might appear to do so but that will be an illusion. It will only ever be a programmed machine. Even if it is programmed to generate its own coding it will do so as an uncomprehending programmed manner. It will never think (I think, therefore I am). It will only appear to be as clever as the men or women that programmed it. If you do not comprehend and understand this then you are not intelligent (having understanding). There are young children (seven to ten years old) who have genius IQs of 160-170. They have above normal learning abilities and talents. However, like an autistic savant they are clever not intelligent. They see the world in a simplistic child like way. One of them may write music and play the violin to a professional standard. Another might be able to do complex mathematical problems. However, they do not have understanding. You would not expect complex philosophical insight and understanding from any one of them. The IQ test should be called the CQ test (cleverness quotient) for it has everything to do with measuring cleverness and nothing to do with measuring intelligence.
    The casual misuse of the word philosopher shows the complete misunderstanding of it. When I listen to someone talking about another person’s philosophy, I know I am talking to someone who does not understand. It is as if you can all have different absolute truths, which of course is nonsense. To be a philosopher requires you to be intelligent and have a doubting curious mind. To use observation and logic putting misleading emotions aside and being able to accept the unacceptable. If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things. Rene Descartes
    The first precept was never to accept a thing as true until I knew it as such without a single doubt. Rene Descartes
    As for accepting a thing as true without a doubt, never, you must always be ready to change and update.
    What are you (should be) searching for as a philosopher? The answer is the absolute truth about everything. From astronomy to quantum mechanics. From what is absolute love to the nature of God? From what is consciousness to who, why and what you are. From what is real and what is not. From religion to madness. You do not have to be clever to be a philosopher but you do have to be observant and have a good general understanding of every subject under the sun. Do you have a desire to measure up? My intelligent guess is no..smile. A simple question for you so called philosophers..how many neurons in the human brain. If you do not know, you will never be a philosopher. It is not the knowing the answer that is important but why you wanted to know.
    Robert robert77@fsmail.net


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