September 14, 2016

What is Philosophy?

By Hendrik van der Breggen
The Carillon, September 15, 2016

What is philosophy?

Philosophy is a discipline of inquiry that deals with, as a couple philosophers title their introductory textbook, Questions that Matter.  To better understand these questions, the authors look at (1) the etymology of “philosophy,” (2) the fields of philosophy, plus (3) the heart/ core of philosophy.

(1) Etymology is the study of the origin and development of individual words.

The word “philosophy” comes from the Greek philo, which means loving or love, and from the Greek sophia, which means wise or wisdom. The original meaning of philosophy is the love or pursuit of wisdom. (Of course, the foolishness of some philosophers may make us question this!)

(2) The fields of philosophy include metaphysics, epistemology, value theory, logic, and various “second-order” inquiries.

Metaphysics is the study or theory of fundamental reality. Questions asked are: What is ultimately real? Does God or gods exist? Or is reality ultimately physical?

Epistemology asks: What is knowledge? Does knowledge come only through our five senses, or can we know without the senses? Does our mind or language or cultural perspective shape or block knowledge of the real? Can truth be known? What is truth?

Value theory studies ethics and aesthetics. What is right and good? Is morality merely subjective or a construct of culture (which varies), or are there real universal moral principles and values which stand in judgment of our feelings and culture? Is beauty just what I like or what my group likes, or is there an objective standard of beauty?

Logic is the study of the principles of reasoning. What are the standards of a good argument (of the premise-conclusion sort) and what constitutes a fallacious argument?

Second-order inquires involve thinking critically about the concepts, methods, and assumptions used in other (first-order) fields of study. These inquiries are typically labeled “philosophy of ______ [fill in blank with a first-order field of study].”

For example, philosophy of science (where science is a first-order discipline) examines the assumptions of science: e.g., existence of a world external to the mind, reliability of our senses, uniformity of nature for inductive inference, applicability of logic and mathematics to the world, adequacy of language to communicate truth about the world.  It also asks: What is science? Are all observations contentiously theory-laden? Can intelligent design be a legitimate hypothesis in science?

Another example of a second-order inquiry is philosophy of history. Is history cyclic, repeating itself over and over, forever? Or is it a "one-shot" deal? Is there a purpose to history (e.g., it's a theatre in which God redeems fallen creatures) or is history purposeless (i.e., a mere accident and ultimately absurd)? Can the study of history be objective, or does it always reflect the historian's biases so accurate knowledge of the past can't be gotten?

Another second-order inquiry: philosophy of religion. Is the concept of God logically coherent? What about the concept of Incarnation? Or reincarnation? What is the relationship between faith and reason? Are there good arguments for God's existence, or is subjective experience the only evidence for God?  Does evil show that a good God doesn't exist? How do we arbitrate between competing religious truth-claims? Is there good evidence for believing Jesus' resurrection actually occurred? Or should we believe Islam's claim to the contrary?

(3) The heart/ core of philosophy is that it's a rational and critical enterprise. It's rational in the sense that it appeals to reason and evidence: reasonable beliefs are not arbitrary because they're connected to evidence logically (i.e., via truth-functional/ truth-conducive reasoning). It's critical in the sense that analysis and evaluation of all matters of belief and conduct is emphasized: assumptions, truth claims, and the logic of arguments are always assessed. Mere assertion of opinion is not enough.

So, what is philosophy? Here's a helpful working definition from the previously-mentioned philosophy textbook: “Philosophy is the attempt to think rationally and critically about the most important questions.

(Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, teaches philosophy at Providence University College.)

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