Definition of philosophy

The definition of philosophy is a difficult matter, and many definitions of philosophy begin by stating its difficulty.

The "Oxford Companion to Philosophy" ["Oxford Companion to Philosophy"] says that most interesting definitions of philosophy are controversial. "Philosophy: The Basics" ["Philosophy: The Basics", by Nigel Warburton] says it is "notoriously difficult". "Mastering Philosophy" ["Mastering Philosophy", by Anthony Harrison-Barbet] says there is "no straightforward definition".

"Method": The "Penguin Dictionary of Philosophy" ["Penguin Dictionary of Philosophy"] says the method of philosophy is rational enquiry, or enquiry guided by the canons of rationality. OCP says it is explicitly rationally critical thinking 'of a more or less systematic kind'. The "Collins English Dictionary" mentions the use of 'rational argument'. "Modern Thomistic Philosophy" says 'natural light of reason'. PTB says that the most distinctive feature of philosophy is its use of logical argument. There is some agreement, therefore, that the philosophical method is rational, systematic and critical, or characterised by logical argument.

Intrinsic Character

Philosophy can be distinguished from empirical science and religion. The "Penguin Encyclopedia" says that philosophy differs from science in that its questions cannot be answered empirically, "i.e." by observation or experiment, and from religion, in that its purpose is entirely intellectual, and allows no place for faith or revelation. MTP says philosophy does not try to answer questions by appeal to revelation, myth or religious knowledge of any kind, but uses reason, "without reference to sensible observation and experiments". By contrast, The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy states that "the late 20th-century... prefers to see philosophical reflection as continuous with the best practice of any field of intellectual enquiry."

'Second-order' nature: PDP says it is a "common view" that philosophy enquiry is second order, having concepts, theories and presupposition as its subject matter. OCP says it is "thinking about thinking", and that philosophy has a "generally second-order character", being reflective thought about particular kinds of thinking. ODP says that in philosophy we study rather than use the concepts that structure our thinking, and that this is second-order reflection. The ODP admits that philosophy has a second-order character, but also warns that "the borderline between such 'second-order' reflection, and ways of practising the first-order discipline itself, is not always clear: philosophical problems may be tamed by the advance of a discipline, and the conduct of a discipline may be swayed by philosophical reflection". TYP also uses the expression 'second-order'.

Subject matter

PDP says the subject matter of philosophy is "the most fundamental and general concepts and principles involved in thought, action and reality". PE says "the most general questions about our universe and our place in it". MTP: The "absolutely fundamental reason of everything it investigates" or "the fundamental reasons or causes of all things". CED lists the branches of philosophy (see below). ODP says it is the investigation of the most general and abstract features of the world and the categories with which we think, in order to "lay bare their foundations and presuppositions". MP says it is the study of ultimate reality. TYP says that philosophy is about 'the big questions'.

Branches and goals

"Branches": These are metaphysics (PE, OCP, MTP, CED, IP) epistemology (CED, MTP, OCP, IP), ethics (OCP, MTP, IP, CED), logic or semantics (PE, CED), cosmology (MTP), theory of mind (MTP), political philosophy (IP), aesthetics (IP). Hence there is a broad agreement that metaphysics, epistemology and ethics and possibly logic are the main branches of philosophy.

"Goals": PDP says the goals of philosophy are "the disinterested pursuit of knowledge for its own sake". MTP says "to discover the absolutely fundamental reason of everything it investigates". CED says "making explicit the nature and significance of ordinary and scientific beliefs". MP says the purpose of philosophy is to unify and transcend the insights given by science and religion.

Notes

References

The names of authors are given only where the book is not a reference work.

* An Editor Recalls Some Hopeless Papers, by Wilfrid Hodges (from "The Bulletin of Symbolic Logic" Volume 4, Number 1, March 1998 (ERHP)
* "Collins English Dictionary" (CED)
* "Introducing Philosophy" (IP)
* "Modern Thomistic Philosophy" R. Phillips (MTP)
* "Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy" (ODP)
* "Penguin Encyclopedia" (PE),
* "Philosophy Made Simple" (PMS)
* "Teach Yourself Philosophy" (TYP)


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