Tuesday, January 13, 2009

What is Philosophy?

A great online "tour" of philosophy, its value, subfields, and applications from Ohio Northern University. An excerpt:

Philosophy is the systematic study of ideas and issues, a reasoned pursuit of fundamental truths, a quest for a comprehensive understanding of the world, a study of principles of conduct, and much more. Every domain of human existence raises questions to which its techniques and theories apply, and its methods may be used in the study of any subject or the pursuit of any vocation. Indeed, philosophy is in a sense inescapable: life confronts every thoughtful person with some philosophical questions, and nearly everyone is often guided by philosophical assumptions, even if unconsciously. One need not be unprepared. To a large extent one can choose how reflective one will be in clarifying and developing one's philosophical assumptions, and how well prepared one is for the philosophical questions life presents. Philosophical training enhances our problem-solving capacities, our abilities to understand and express ideas, and our persuasive powers. It also develops understanding and enjoyment of things whose absence impoverishes many lives: such things as aesthetic experience, communication with many different kinds of people, lively discussion of current issues, the discerning observation of human behavior, and intellectual zest. In these and other ways the study of philosophy contributes immeasurably in both academic and other pursuits.

The problem-solving, analytical,judgment, and synthesizing capacities philosophy develops are unrestricted in their scope and unlimited in their usefulness. This makes philosophy especially good preparation for positions of leadership, responsibility, or management. A major or minor in philosophy can easily be integrated with requirements for nearly any entry-level job; but philosophical training, particularly in its development of many transferable skills, is especially significant for its long-term benefits in career advancement.

Wisdom, leadership, and the capacity to resolve human conflicts cannot be guaranteed by any course of study; but philosophy has traditionally pursued these ideals systematically, and its methods, its literature, and its ideas are of constant use in the quest to realize them. Sound reasoning, critical thinking, well constructed prose, maturity of judgment, a strong sense of relevance, and an enlightened consciousness are never obsolete, nor are they subject to the fluctuating demands of the marketplace. The study of philosophy is the most direct route, and in many cases the only route, to the full development of these qualities.


I also appreciate these comments from Anthony Quinton, suggesting (to me, at least) that philosophy = critical thinking:

Most definitions of philosophy are fairly controversial, particularly if they aim to be at all interesting or profound. That is partly because what has been called philosophy has changed radically in scope in the course of history, with many inquiries that were originally part of it having detached themselves from it. The shortest definition, and it is quite a good one, is that philosophy is thinking about thinking. That brings out the generally second-order character of the subject, as reflective thought about particular kinds of thinking — formation of beliefs, claims to knowledge — about the world or large parts of it. A more detailed, but still uncontroversial comprehensive, definition is that philosophy is rationally critical thinking, of a more or less systematic kind about the general nature of the world (metaphysics or theory of existence), the justification of belief (epistemology or theory of knowledge), and and the conduct of life (ethics or theory of value).


  1. I think in addition to these insightful definitions of philosophy, we can include, and stress, a fundamental principle that seems, to me, indispensable to critical thinking; self-examination. Self-examination pertains directly to us as individuals. Self-examination procures thoughtful deliberation as a necessary condition for clarity of thought. Careful consideration of our needs and wants postulates wisdom and moderation in our decision making processes; while insightful discourse invigorates the faculties, both of our emotional embodiment and our mental perception. Our direct participation in experience, the doing, is essential to pragmatic investigations positing empirical reasoning: we gain hands on edification through our command, scrutiny, and assiduous reexamination of potentially available or accessible information. This solidifies our existence; it is a concrete example of how we matter as individuals first, (or simultaneously) then collectively as friends, families, communities, societies, and global participators.

    I appreciated Anthony Quinton’s comments as well, but I am skeptical about his claim that “Philosophy is thinking about thinking”. This seems deceptive and may potentially lead to circular argumentation. Whereas I think philosophy can be a natural trait exercised every minute of everyday life, thinking is more specific, and too much thinking may lead to confusion, contradiction, and ultimately discord. We need a balance between thinking about everything sequentially, retrospectively, and consequentially, and good fun and relaxation. When we draw some analogous examples, such as: Art is painting about painting, or, music is composing about composing; the circular nature of the statement “thinking about thinking” becomes obvious to us. I think philosophy is thinking about our selves as having a distinct place in this world as thoughtful self-reflective individuals having the distinguishing characteristics of personal responsibility, compassion for all creatures, and stewardship encompassing a comprehensive worldview. Or, philosophy is the critical analysis of our selves and our world. In this format, we pronounce our existence and stimulate our innate ability to live a purposeful life.

  2. Great comments. However, I think Quinton is essentially right: thinking about thinking -- or "metacognition" -- describes well the activity of philosophy. While everyday thinking can be about anything at all, when we turn that tool on itself, when we think about our thoughts, their relations, and significance, we philosophize. Likewise, we can choose to paint a landscape or paint about painting itself -- but there is no special name, to my knowledge, for the latter reflexive activity.

  3. “When we reflect to the right degree, we philosophize.” I agree completely. The distinction (I am attempting to make) is between the two types of thought. To philosophize means (in this context) a critical examination of our thoughts. When we preface “thinking about thinking” with the word critical, we have immediately made a distinction between types of thinking; this, to me, is closer to metacognition. When we critically examine and analyze conceptual and possibly ambiguous terms, our approach is both in division and composition. In this way everyday thinking varies from critical thinking, though they may work together at times, there is a difference. One of my points is that I think philosophy is in fact present in every minute of everyday, in theory and/or application, where I see metacognition as a more specified and restrictive (to appropriate times) manner of thought.

    For example, if we establish a set of moral principles (using many tools including metacognition) and choose to live accordingly, we are relatively secure and confident that when we come upon a scenario that challenges our principles, our ability to react instinctually will not be compromised by thinking excessively about thought. We react in accord to our philosophical principles; we are doing philosophy. Of course, philosophy is not limited in scope to a sort of automatic response mechanism, but the allowance for this everyday practicality makes philosophy embraceable at all levels of thinking, or thought, and at all times in various applications.

    The ideas, values, and ethical principles we implement in everyday life are the results of analytical thought, self-reflection, and metacognition. We directly experience the doing of philosophy when we make distinctions between similar themes and content. Thinking and critical thinking are two different processes of thought; I think ambiguity surrounds the phrase “thinking about thinking”.

    This ambiguity is easily remedied when we posit the claim, ‘Philosophy is critically thinking about thought’. Yet, this too seems restrictive, (and closely defines metacognition rather than philosophy). So we say, ‘One aspect of philosophy is the critical analysis of thought’.