What is Philosophy?
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.
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.
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.