Welcome to the first entry of my new feature: The Philosopher’s Lexicon. My primary goal in this series is to explore common philosophical vocabulary, hopefully transforming these words from useless jargon into meaningful terms. My secondary goal is to highlight how contentious some of these terms can be – especially those which seem obvious. These definitions will not be comprehensive by any means, so please feel free to add your own understanding of each term as we go.
I’ve decided to start this series off with a bang. The word “philosophy” is one of those words we think we understand, but often use in very different ways – often in the same conversation.
At it’s most basic level, the word “philosophy” can be used in a variety of ways. As a noun, it breaks immediately into two categories; “philosophy” in general is something rather different than “a philosophy” or “my philosophy”. As an adjective, the term “philosophical” tends more toward the general meaning of the word. As a verb, “to philosophize” is used both seriously (to do philosophy) and as a pejorative term (to wax philosophical), but both apply to the general and specific meaning of the term.
For the general meaning of the word, let’s turn to a few official dictionary definitions.
From Merriam Webster:
- “all learning exclusive of technical precepts and practical arts”
- “pursuit of wisdom”
- “a search for a general understanding of values and reality by chiefly speculative rather than observational means”
- “an analysis of the grounds of and concepts expressing fundamental beliefs”
- “the rational investigation of the truths and principles of being, knowledge, or conduct.”
The more specified usage allows a bit more variety in interpretation.
Once again, from Merriam Webster:
- “the sciences and liberal arts exclusive of medicine, law, and theology “
- “a theory underlying or regarding a sphere of activity or thought – “a discipline comprising as its core logic, aesthetics, ethics, metaphysics, and epistemology”
- “the most basic beliefs, concepts, and attitudes of an individual or group”
- “any of the three branches, namely natural philosophy, moral philosophy, metaphysical philosophy, that are accepted as composing this study.”
- “a particular system of thought based on such study or investigation: the philosophy of Spinoza.”
- “the critical study of the basic principles and concepts of a particular branch of knowledge, especially with a view to improving or reconstituting them: the philosophy of science.”
- “an attitude of rationality, patience, composure, and calm in the presence of troubles or annoyances.”
I think all of these are good definitions, each a vital, if insufficient, component of the bigger idea.
For my money, the meaning of the word goes right back to its roots. Philo-sophia literally translates into the love of wisdom, which for me translates into a constant, insatiable longing for information and truth, which, in its insatiability, must go beyond what is immediately apparent. Philosophy cannot be comprised of bits of knowledge, for it is inherently a desire for that knowledge – the easy acquisition of that knowledge snuffs out the desire, for – as Socrates/Diotima makes clear in the Symposium – one does not desire what one already has, except insofar as one wishes to keep it in the future. The knowledge sought by philosophy must always be slightly elusive, or threaten to slip away.
And I think every discipline has this elusive element. Historical accounts can always be augmented and revised in the face of new evidence, and this requires deeper analysis of not the information given, but our approach to tackling that information. Scientific discoveries always leave a little unfinished, because that’s simply the nature of materiality and empiricism – there will always be a stone we cannot overturn, and so we need philosophical tools to deal with that elusive unknown, account for unseen variables, and create hypotheses to be tested.
What this means practically is that philosophy, for me, is the study of and engagement with underlying principles, axiomatic assumptions, and knowledge that we unthinkingly take intuitively. This covers both the grander and the more specific definitions; in the grand sense, philosophy points to the theoretical basis for all knowledge. As a discipline, it gives us the tools for theoretical reflection: logic, vocabulary, critical reading and writing skills, and a sense of where the open questions lie (metaphysics, metalogic, metaethics, metamathematics, always meta).
In it’s more specific sense, i.e. “the philosophy of science”, or “Mill’s philosophy” it points toward the set of theoretical assumptions that lie beneath the more obvious conclusions. For me, philosophy is about finding questions where we might not realize we’re already operating with answers; often, we find that our assumptions are not always in agreement with our conclusions, and even more unsettlingly, we’re not always on board with these assumptions once we root them out.
But I don’t take this, as many philosophers do, to mean that practically minded questions and topics are inherently non-philosophical. This is an argument often made against political philosophy, particularly in terms of race and gender theory, and aesthetics (in the modern sense of art criticism; classical aesthetics in terms of “ways of seeing” is not something I’ve seen critiqued in this way). The reasoning behind this assumption is that if you’re tackling something with lots of practical detail, you are likely already operating under the auspices of some ideological assumptions, and thus are in no position to examine them. You’re essentially begging the question and undercutting your philosophical potency by starting within a view that sets the conditions for your line of questioning. In order to be truly reflective, you have to leave behind the details.
While I see the merit in this caution, I don’t think that renders practical philosophy an inherent oxymoron. The trick, for me, is keeping that genealogical development of practical ideals in mind. By this I don’t mean that we have always follow the philosophical schools of thought and influence, but rather that philosophers, in order to remain philosophical, need to track their conclusions back to their most fundamental assumptions even as they dig into the details. Every time you find an answer, the goal should to be to look even further back, until you reach a point where you cannot settle yourself easily – that is where you can find the philosophical element of pretty much any topic: where there is yet a reflective longing for knowledge that is impossible to fully satisfy.
Let’s walk through an example. The general mission of this blog is to explore the conflict between how we experience and understand the world as a linear narrative when reality and truth aren’t necessarily linear, essentially asking the questions: why do we love stories, and what can we learn from them? The reason this mission is philosophical isn’t just because it deals with the nature of knowledge, but because it contains within it a treasure trove of contestable – and thus explorable – assumptions.
- Assumption 1: That our understanding is narrative, but truth isn’t.
- Unresolved questions: Is our understanding narrative, or is that merely a convention? Can we overcome it? How? Is truth actually non-linear, or it is possible to lay all things out in a neat causal chain, if we were ever to become clever enough to do so?
- Assumption 2: Reason is inherently linear.
- Unresolved questions: Well, is it linear? Is there a substantive difference between the narrative of empirically verifiable causal chains and the narrative of formal logical chains?
- Assumption 3: That our ability to understand, at least as we function now, has limits in form and scope.
- Unresolved questions: Where do these limits come from? Are they necessary limits? Can we understand things in multiple ways? Can we rethink our logical paradigms, or are we too embedded within them?
- Assumption 4: That narrative understanding can actually have any connection to non-narrative truth and reality.
- Unresolved questions: if this isn’t possible, then is there any difference between fiction and non-fiction, or is everything “just” a story? Is all formal reasoning, be it logic, science, or math, subject to the same fate, or is there something inherently different about our ability to understand ideas that renders them different from events in our minds? If there is, then what is it? Can we apply it to our general experiences so that we can understand them better?
And I could probably go on for days, finding more and more contentious assumptions in need of examination. Already I’ve spent hundreds of blog posts exploring the depths of stories and storytelling, and I intend to spend a great deal more.
So, in short, here is my crudely formed definition of philosophy: the art of examining the hidden theoretical assumptions underlying any question or given bit of knowledge, and continuing to dig for such assumptions and questioning them until easy answers cannot be found, begetting a treasure trove of questions and answers that themselves beget more questions.
Check back in two weeks for the next installment of The Philosopher’s Lexicon, where I’ll tackle a term I used in this very post: the most misunderstood, yet wildly overused fallacy called “begging the question”. And in case you’re wondering, very few future entries in this lexicon will be anywhere near as long as this one.