What is philosophy?

If you’re wondering exactly what we mean by ‘philosophy’, that’s quite a good place to start since, according to Aristotle, ‘Philosophy begins in wonder’. From this initial spark of wonder philosophers asks some of the most compelling questions around, questions like ‘what makes us human?’, ‘how can we tell right from wrong?’ and ‘is there a God?’ “how do we know we’re not dreaming?’. Even the question ‘what is philosophy?’ is itself philosophical. But what unites these questions?

One answer, is that philosophy deals with questions that are:

  • Conceptual – in that they are about ‘big’ ideas
  • Common – since they bear on everyday concerns
  • Contestable – because they elicit many different views and not everyone agrees about the answers
  • Central – they are at the heart of how humans think of themselves and their relations with others and the world
  • These kinds of questions underpin every area of human enquiry yet none of us can say for sure that we have the right answer. Unlike the questions of science, maths and logic, philosophical questions can’t be answered by asking an expert, conducting an experiment, searching the internet or applying a rule. So why ask them?

    Philosophical questions require us to think clearly and carefully and to communicate our thoughts to each other, listening attentively to others’ thoughts in return. The promise of intellectual and social enrichment is one compelling reason to explore philosophy.

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    This enrichment takes the form of a long list of skills, attributes and dispositions which philosophy develops. For example philosophical enquiry enables us to ask questions, hypothesise, give reasons, construct arguments, offer examples and criteria, make distinctions and connections, examine implications and consequences, check for consistency, reflect, revise, refine, summarise, evaluate and make judgements. (And this is not an exhaustive list!)

    So philosophy is a practice characterised by very important skills but there is more to it than that. Philosophy as a discipline has been around for thousands of years and in that time, some brilliant thinkers have given quite a bit of thought to questions like ‘what makes us human?’ ‘how can we tell right from wrong?’ and ‘is there a God?’. Because of this many understand philosophy as a canon of rich ideas, insights, theories and perspectives about questions such as these. The academic study of philosophy presupposes an understanding of the discipline as a substantive topic like – for example – English Literature. Philosophy, understood in this way, has historical precedent, dating back to classical Greece (in Western thought); well-defined areas of enquiry such as metaphysics, ethics; epistemology; celebrated proponents like Descartes, Mill, Wittgenstein and a canon of works such as ‘Mediations’, ‘On Liberty’ and ‘The Tractatus’.

    So as well as developing certain useful skills and dispositions studying philosophy also exposes us to new ideas. Some of these ideas come from famous philosophers, some from children in your class. Through exposure to them you can start to develop, refine, even revise your own ideas.

    Philosophy is about more than ‘thinking skills’; we think philosophy offers the possibility of knowledge: about yourself, others and the world around you. And while it might not offer incontrovertible answers upon which we all agree, it does offer the opportunity to make genuine discoveries about what you think and why. In an uncertain, confusing and changeable world, this knowledge is precious.

    We understand philosophy as both a skilful practice, open to everyone and characterised by questioning, reasoning and reflection and a substantive area of human enquiry comprising great ideas, intractable problems and inspired writing. As a consequence we see the value of philosophy in terms of both the skills it develops and the wisdom it offers.

    The Philosopher Arthur Danto thought that ‘the way to define philosophy is to do philosophy’ – in doing philosophy, whatever our problem we show what philosophy is. We rather like this idea – which is why we do philosophy in the community, sharing both the skills that make it possible and the ideas that make it great.

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