The Forward Frontier

What is Philosophy?

Diagram of links to philosophy

Published: 12/02/2021 ⋅ By: Mr. Frontier ⋅ Tags: philosophy

What Is Philosophy? A question I’ve heard a lot lately. And it’s a question I have a bit of a grievance with. Why is it that people don’t ask “what is biology?” or “what is mathematics?” the same way they question the field of philosophy.

Why Ask

I find there’s a weird dichotomy that occurs. People don’t question science as often as they should, and they question philosophy too often. Why is that? Why do people ask what is philosophy?

Is there not some irony in the fact that philosophy, out of all fields, is the one that is always questioned. I mean of course it’s philosophy. Philosophy itself should breed such lines of thought, the field lends itself to becoming self-reflective. Metaphilosophy arises naturally, where with other disciplines philosophy actually has to be injected to create meta-commentary.

However, when the general public poses the question “what is philosophy?” I don’t think it’s coming from a metaphilosophical position. In fact, I believe the question comes from a lack of understanding, coming from an uninformed position.

A PR Problem

It seems that philosophy isn’t in the general public consciousness, not in the same way as science. Science can be found littered throughout pop-culture, quantum physics is name-dropped in Avengers, whole movie plots developed around relativity à la Interstellar, Long running sitcoms steal the names of prevalent scientific theories such as the Big Bang Theory. Heck scientists themselves hold star-like fame, Niel Degrasse Tyson, Bill Nye, and Stephen Hawking to name a few.

Now, this isn’t to say that such a popular status is unjust or unwarranted, science deserves the cultural prevalence it holds. I just find it unfortunate that philosophy doesn’t also hold a similar position.

So, when science is so pervasive, it can somewhat be taken for granted. It’s not required to question the field, because everyone ‘just knows’ what science is. Although when you prod and question “what is science?” the illusion of knowledge that people hold becomes quite evident.

It would appear then that a part of my grievance with the question “what is philosophy?” comes not from the question itself. It, however, comes from the realization that people need to ask it.

But here’s the thing, as I sit here vetting my grievance I’m yet to actually answer the question. You, my fellow enquirer, still desire an answer. And you’re probably coming to a conclusion as to why the general public is uninformed. Every time someone tries to ask the question there seems to be an inability to actually just answer the damn question.

Just Answer The Question

So, What is philosophy? Why can’t anyone give a straight answer (or more importantly why can’t I give an answer, I shouldn’t assert that no one knows, because surely there’s many people out there who know, I just haven’t met them yet)?

I mean I could just copy a textbook or dictionary definition like so:

“The study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence, especially when considered as an academic discipline.”
~ Oxford[1]

I could outline my basic understanding, that philosophy is an academic field which is concerned with studying and understanding knowledge and reality. It’s a study about thinking and reasoning through questions as well as enquiring about their answers. Philosophy the “love of wisdom” as it’s etymology goes. Philosophy also refers to the accumulated body of knowledge of past thinkers and their thoughts.

Mother Philosophy

However, these definitions may not be entirely satisfying and feel a bit vague. I mean couldn’t you call science as being philosophy for it too is concerned with knowledge? And you would be correct, in fact historically speaking science was once philosophy. It was called natural philosophy, the branch of philosophy concerned with empirical knowledge.[2] It wasn’t until later when the discipline broke off and became its own separate field.

In fact, this is the story for most academic areas. For originally philosophy was really just the study of anything. And it was with the passage of time that these subsections matured and became their own distinct studies.

To qoute the philosopher and cognitive scientist, Daniel Dennett, on the role of philosophy

“Philosophy is the mother. These are the offspring. We don’t have to go back a long way to see traces of this. The eighteenth century is quite early enough to find the distinction between philosophy and physics not being taken very seriously. Psychology is one of the more recent births from philosophy, and we only have to go back to the late nineteenth century to see that.”

It is with this view, that philosophy appears to be the epicentre of knowledge. Within its own discipline it still has many areas of study that haven’t left home yet such as: ethics, metaphysics, logic and epistemology. Than its matured children — science, mathematics, political science, psychology, etc. — still make their homely connections through the philosophical study of said fields such as: philosophy of science, philosophy of mathematics, medical ethics, etc.

Let me qoute Daniel Dennett again for I think he sums things up nicely

“In the beginning, it was all philosophy.

Aristotle, whether he was doing astronomy, physiology, psychology, physics, chemistry, or mathematics — it was all the same. It was philosophy.”
~ Daniel Dennett[3]

To Ask The Question

So, philosophy has always been a broad term, which makes it difficult to narrow down a definition. And with its long important history, it may seem even more disappointing that it no longer holds a greater public cultural presence.

However, for me, every time someone asks the question “what is philosophy?”. I like to keep in mind that the ensuing moment of silence and following murmuring ‘umm’, is an attempt in understanding. An attempt by the enquirer to gather knowledge. And my doubting process of answering is an attempt at understanding my knowledge. To ask the question, in its own way, is philosophy.