Sunday, January 11, 2015

What's Philosophy?

What is philosophy? What makes a topic, issue, problem or question philosophical

Here are some quick thoughts.

Philosophy and Science

If the question can be answered, or the problem entirely solved, by contemporary science, then it’s not philosophy. So, if the question is one of purely empirical fact, then it’s not a philosophical question.

Some philosophical questions, however, cannot reasonably be answered without scientific input. This is most obvious with topics in applied ethics. For examples: questions about the morality of abortion cannot be answered without knowing important scientific information about fetuses: e.g., when do they become conscious and when can they feel pain? Moral questions about the treatment of animals: what are their minds like? What kinds of positive and negative emotions can they have? This scientific (and/or common sense-empirical information is surely relevant to how they should be treated. And environmental questions: whether we should or should not do X depends, in part, on how will doing X affect the environment, and science is required to determine that.

While science is essential to reasonably answering moral questions like these, the science itself doesn’t settle the issue. Moral principles and other explicitly philosophical methods of reasoning must be applied to the information.

Philosophy and Arguments

Philosophy requires arguments: philosophy requires giving reasons. Philosophy isn’t about merely stating “opinions” (whatever that might mean) or giving views. Someone might state a view on a philosophical issue, but if that view isn’t supported by reasons, then it’s not (yet) philosophy.

Philosophy, Understanding and Objections

Although a claim usually isn't philosophy unless reasons are given, better philosophy, however, requires an conscious understanding that there often are objections and questions that need to be addressed. For example, suppose someone claims that, "It's wrong to eat meat because animals suffer when turned into meat." While a reason is given, the reason is a bit simplistic, if this is all that's said: e.g., the argument doesn't consider whether and when suffering is justified, whether animals always suffer, whether it's the actual eating that causes suffering, and more. So, better philosophy displays an understanding of and engagement with the relevant complexity of an issue, that there are often alternative theories and explanations, and an engagement with all that. 

Philosophy and Observations

Some philosophy isn't explicitly argumentative: it's descriptive. For example, a "phenomenology" of experience X is an attempt to offer insightful observations of what it's like to be X, or have the experience of X. This description, however, is argumentative in that the description, typically of an often overlooked, controversial and/or murky experience is either (partially) correct or not, and people can argue about that.

Philosophy and Conceptual Analysis

A lot of philosophy involves the attempt to analyze controversial and hard to define concepts, that is, to say what something is. For example, what is knowledge? What is it to have free will? What is it to be a person? What is it to be masculine (as opposed to 'male')? What is it for a decision or policy to be fair or just? What is it for an an action to be morally wrong? Many philosophical issues that don't explicitly involve analyzing concepts depend on analyses of controversial concepts.

Philosophy and “Importance”

Some philosophical issues are important: how we should live, how society should be organized, what we should believe about challenging, controversial, philosophical issues (apologies for the perhaps unavoidable circularity here!) such as whether there is a God or not, and more.

Some philosophical issues, however, perhaps are not important. E.g., how much hair must a person lose to be definitely bald? The problem of vagueness is a classical philosophical problem, but is it really all that important? Some would say, “Not really.” It might be fun to think about for a while, an interesting puzzle, but it’s not really all that important, especially compared to other, more important issues.

Many genuinely important issues and problems, however, are not philosophical, really. About almost any important issue, someone says, “That’s really philosophical,” when maybe it’s really not. People say, about many important topics, “My philosophy is this…” when they don’t really have a philosophy to offer. In these cases, maybe what people are doing, typically, is offering their views on some important issues, but without much in the way of giving reasons for these views. But the point is this: just because someone is engaging an important issue, that doesn’t mean that they are doing philosophy or engaging the issue in a philosophical way. And that’s OK: something not being philosophy or philosophical doesn’t mean it is not important or not valuable: philosophy isn’t everything, of course.

But what is to be “important” anyway? Surely some questions are important to particular people, such as the problem of vagueness is important to those who find it interesting. But are some issues just plain important, perhaps irrespective of what people think of them? It seems so, but how this could be so is surely a philosophical question, and one that at least I find important!

Philosophy and Assumptions

Some areas in philosophy examine the assumptions that other fields, and common experience, take for granted. For example, almost all of us assume that there's an external physical world that causes our ordinary sensory experience, and that we are the same people that we were yesterday. Philosophers, however, try to find the best reasons we can give in favor of these common assumptions and try to determine if these reasons are very good or not. And some philosophers have given reasons to think that many common assumptions like these are actually false.

Philosophy and Controversy 

Most philosophical issues are controversial: there is widespread disagreement about what to think about the topic. Even when there is not disagreement with the exact issue (e.g., that torturing people for fun is wrong), there are controversies nearby (e.g., Why, exactly, is torturing people for fun wrong? What explanation, among the many, is the best explanation here?).

Philosophical Attitudes and Virtues

A philosophical person, or a person who is a genuine philosopher, is someone who seeks to have these attitudes and virtues:

  • open-minded: I don't know everything, I have been mistaken before, and I may have a lot to learn about a topic!
  • open to the possibility of error: I have been mistaken in the past, entire cultures have been mistaken, so perhaps I am mistaken, we are mistaken, in our beliefs, attitudes and actions about an issue now. Why not?
  • curious
  • patient: learning about important issues and thinking carefully about them takes time.
  • seeks evidence
  • seeks to understand contrary views: maybe others are right and I am mistaken!
  • informed
  • not dogmatic
  • seeks to have reasons
  • courageous: philosophical topics can be challenging, and some views are unpopular, so it takes courage to consider the merits of these views and whether they are worthy of belief or not.
  • willing to act on the basis of his or her reasoned convictions

To be continued!

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