What is Philosophy?

By | January 4, 2010

Philosophy is many things and not any one thing. As a start you can think of philosophy as a project of becoming a critical thinker and trying to make sense of things. For some people philosophy is a substitute for religion; for others, it is a form of therapy. But a deeper understanding might lead to think that it is a type of disorder or disease, which when correctly handled can lead to insight and creativity.

For some, philosophy is primarily an intellectual discipline.

For others, it is a way of life, a search for understanding, an attempt to make of one’s life a work of art?

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11 thoughts on “What is Philosophy?

  1. john mize

    Is there a reason why you avoided using the "love of wisdom" as one of the classic ways of using the term philosophy? Presumably it was Pythagoras who coined the term to describe himself as a lover of wisdom, although he did not claim that he possessed any. Trying to make sense of things is part of seeking wisdom.

    So although you claim that there isn't an essence of philosophy (Wittgensteinian that you are), how do you use the term? I use it the way Pythagoras did: the love of and search for wisdom.

    1. jbernal Post author

      John, “love of wisdom” or “pursuit of wisdom” is a way of characterizing the perspective that some think of when they try to say what philosophy is. I simply don’t think it can do as a general description of the many and various activities that pass as “philosophy” today. I did not necessarily avoid using that characterization. My brief statements were not intended as a general definition of “philosophy.”

      As I stated there, my view is that philosophy is primarily an intellectual discipline. Most of the time this does not involve the practitioner in a “search for wisdom” or a “love of wisdom.” I have met many practitioners of the art of philosophy, both professional and non-professional. I would classify very few, if any, as lovers of wisdom. But I did state that area of philosophy where “search for wisdom” might apply, although I did not state it in those terms: For others, it is a way of life, a search for understanding, an attempt to make of one’s life a work of art?

      The problem of saying what philosophy is seems to be a philosophical problem itself. Surely, among those who should know, those whose living was in teaching and writing philosophy, there is no agreement on a specific definition of philosophy. It is best thought of as a family of loosely related activities. After all, what does a Martin Heidegger have in common with an Eric Hoffer? Little or nothing (they both wrote things?), yet they’re both “philosophers.” When I was a graduate student in the 60-70 period, analytical, logically-oriented philosophers in America and England only grudgingly referred to Continental writers as philosophers; and the latter felt a similar reluctance concering the philosophical status of the former.

      The truth is that nobody has a monopoly on that activity we call philosophy and nobody has a copyright on the term “philosophy.”

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