Defining Philosophy: A Conceptual Analysis in Progress

Elliott Crozat

|

December 16, 2021

*This article was originally published at Bare Bones Blog of Philosophy: https://barebonesblogofphilosophy.wordpress.com/2021/12/06/defining-philosophy-a-conceptual-analysis-in-progress/

For the first post on this blog, I will reflect on the nature of philosophy by providing a working definition of ‘philosophy.’ This is a difficult job. It is easier to evaluate other definitions than to construct one. Yet, I will start with some brief assessments as an underpinning for my own working definition.

Alvin Plantinga characterized philosophy as “not much different from just thinking hard” about some topic.[1] Douglas Groothuis defined the philosopher as one who has “a strong and lived-out inclination to pursue the truth about philosophical matters through the rigorous use of human reasoning, and to do so with some intellectual facility.”[2] Wilfrid Sellars described philosophy as the attempt to “understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term.”[3] These definitions are helpful but seem somewhat inadequate as an analytic or essential definition (i.e., one that states the necessary and sufficient conditions for precise application of the definiendum).

Plantinga’s characterization is useful in casting a broad vision of what philosophers are up to, though I doubt he meant it as an analytic definition. The definiens captures the genus but not the species or specific difference. In other words, his characterization is too broad: it does not distinguish philosophy from doing a difficult crossword puzzle or solving a hard problem in carpentry, for example.

Groothuis’ definition is good, yet something is missing. He is right to emphasize the big issues of life, the importance of intellectual ability, and the “lived-out” pursuit; philosophy involves both intellect and will. He aptly notes that being affiliated with an academic institution and being a system-builder are neither necessary nor sufficient for being a philosopher. But his definition appears circular insofar as he defines ‘philosopher’ in terms of “philosophical matters” – although a charitable interpretation recognizes that he expounds on “philosophical matters” to include “the enduring questions of life” in areas such as ethics. More might be said about such questions.

Sellars’ definition is attractive but seems too narrow. It is perhaps more fitting for metaphysics than for philosophy as such, although with additional commentary his sense of “things hanging together” could be applied to the other branches of philosophy. Nevertheless, he is astute to highlight the philosopher’s “eye on the whole,” the significance of philosophical know-how in addition to propositional knowledge, the importance of synthesis as well and analysis, and the value for a philosopher to reflect on the philosophical enterprise itself.

Such reflection is what I aim for here. What is philosophy? My attempt at a conceptual analysis follows below. I will call the first effort at a definition “D1” to enable later iterations.

D1: philosophy is (a) the careful and reason-based thinking about the ultimate issues of human life; and (b) the commitment to live in accordance with such thinking.[4]

Arguably, (a) articulates something essential about the contemporary conception of philosophy. Parts (a) and (b) collectively address the ancient concept. As Pierre Hadot argued, philosophy is a way of life and not merely an intellectual activity.[5]

However, something is amiss with D1. One might object by posing a counter-example: there are areas of philosophy (e.g., philosophy of language, philosophy of science) that do not seem to count among the ultimate issues of human life. Must philosophy be about ultimate issues only?[6]

My reply is that science is a major subject and a prominent aspect of contemporary life, especially considering our society’s uses and abuses of it, and that language is quite significant in human life, given that we are by nature rational and linguistic beings. But it sounds strange to speak of questions about science and language as “ultimate.” I suggest the following modification.

D2: philosophy is (a) the careful and reason-based thinking about the most significant issues of human life; and (b) the commitment to live in accordance with such thinking.

I should elaborate on “significant,” for things like financial investment and basketball strategy might be significant in a certain sense, yet these intellectual activities do not count as philosophy. By “most significant to human life” I roughly mean indicative of concern to human flourishing as rational beings and related to the nature of reality and our place in it, and yet of such complexity that we might be unable to obtain conclusive answers on our own. This elaboration would cover matters of science, technology, language, morality, metaphysics, etc.

Another objection arises. Suppose there are intelligent aliens. They would not be human, but they might engage in philosophy and think about non-human issues regarding their distinct flourishing and place in the world. It is easy to imagine Spock doing philosophy, and while he would be concerned with human affairs, he would also consider Vulcan, Klingon, and Romulan affairs. To address this objection, I modify the definition as follows.

D3: philosophy is (a) the careful and reason-based thinking about the most significant issues of the life of persons as such; and (b) the commitment to live in accordance with such thinking.

Alas, D3 remains incomplete. There is a type of thinker, call it the dogmatic type, who commits to a doctrine, perhaps uncritically, then interprets the world through that doctrine and is unwilling to relinquish it despite compelling evidence of its falsity. In some sense, this type could meet standards (a) and (b) but still not count as a philosopher.

Tokens of the dogmatic type come to mind. It seems to me that there are intellectuals whose commitment to ontological naturalism (ON) is such that they refuse to admit what seems quite obvious, namely, that consciousness exists. They recognize that ON lacks an adequate explanation of consciousness. But given their ideological commitment to ON and although such commitments presuppose the existence of consciousness, they deny consciousness to avoid discarding ON.

The dogmatic type is found in religious thought, too. I have known religious folks, particularly of the Calvinist persuasion (though dogmatists could exist in any worldview), who are dogmatic in the same way, mutatis mutandis. The religious dogmatist is committed to a theological doctrine and applies it to develop a unified worldview. However, he will not budge from this doctrine even if the counterevidence indicates that he ought. Instead, he will bite the bullet like a jaw-breaker to avoid dropping it.

This sort of dogmatism and its inclination to confirmation bias prevent one from being a philosopher, on my definition anyway. St. Francis is supposed to have advised that one should “wear the world like a loose garment.” A philosopher wears his non-obvious positions loosely, ready to exchange them if he finds a better fit.

The following modification rules out the dogmatist, since (c) excludes those who refuse to countenance evidence against their theoretical position:

D4: philosophy is (a) the careful and reason-based thinking about the most significant issues of the life of persons as such; (b) the commitment to live in accordance with such thinking; and (c) the willingness to consider fairly all relevant evidence and follow compelling evidence wherever it leads.

D4 underscores the need for a philosopher to consider all pertinent information and follow convincing evidence. But to what end? I can imagine a debater, an apologist, or a polemicist satisfying some sense of (a), (b), and (c) and nevertheless seeking primarily to win, defend, or attack rather than to understand. The debater qua debater treats the dialectic as a contest, not an opportunity to obtain the truth. The apologist seeks to justify a belief; the polemicist, to challenge one. Philosophy is different insofar as it prioritizes truth and understanding over the defense and attack of disputation.[7] Philosophy begins in wonder, in the desire to know, not in the desire to debate. Thus I offer another modification.

D5: philosophy is (a) the careful and reason-based thinking about the most significant issues of the life of persons as such; (b) the commitment to live in accordance with such thinking; and (c) the willingness to consider fairly all relevant evidence and follow compelling evidence wherever it leads, for the sake of understanding or reasonable conclusion rather than winning a debate or defending a position.

I close by noting that there is more to say about this topic and that D5 likely needs adjustment. Perhaps ‘philosophy’ is not amenable to an analytic definition. It seems to me that something like (a) – (c) are individually necessary conditions, but further analysis is required to settle on collectively sufficient ones. An ostensive definition might prompt the effort: philosophy is what Socrates and Theaetetus are doing in Theaetetus. Or as G. E. Moore supposedly quipped when asked to define philosophy, pointing at his books: “Philosophy is what those are about.”[8]

In any case, philosophia longa, vita brevis. Lest I tire the reader, I will stop for now.

[1] God, Freedom, and Evil. (Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing, 1977), p. 1.

[2] On Jesus. (California: Wadsworth, 2003), p. 5.

[3] See Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man in Frontiers of Science and Philosophy, edited by Robert Colodny (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1962), pp. 35-78. Available at http://www.ditext.com/sellars/psim.html (Date of Access: 5 December 2021).

[4] By “careful and reason-based thinking” I mean the kind of rigorous thinking discussed in Patrick Grim’s The Philosopher’s Toolkit (The Great Courses, 2019) and the virtues of thought and action discussed by Richard Paul in The Thinker’s Guide to Intellectual Standards (California: The Foundation for Critical Thinking, 2009). Steven Bartlett’s Epistemological Intelligence (2017, available at Steven James Bartlett, Epistemological Intelligence – PhilArchive) and Gary Atkinson’s Our Search with Socrates for Moral Truth (Washington, D. C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2015) also address the sort of thinking I have in mind.

[5] See Philosophy as a Way of Life (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1995).

[6] I thank my friend Tyson James for this objection.

[7] Philosophers may engage in debate, apologetics, and polemics. When they do so, arguably, they are not doing philosophy in the strict sense, but rather debate, apologetics, etc. Philosophy is not identical to debate, to apologetics, or to polemics even though the philosopher is generally well-equipped for such worthwhile activities.

[8] See Robin Barrow, An Introduction to Moral Philosophy and Moral Education (New York: Routledge, 2007), Introduction.

*Photo by Giammarco on Unsplash

Tagged with:
Share:

About the Author

Elliott Crozat

Elliott R. Crozat (Ph.D., M.A.) is a full-time professor of philosophy and the humanities at Purdue University Global. His philosophical interests include metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of religion, ethics, and the meaning of life. He lives in Sarasota, FL.

Learn More

More from this author