What is Philosophy?

Explaining what philosophers and students of philosophy study is made complicated by the diverse ways in which the word “philosophy” is used in everyday language. For instance, people might use “philosophy” to mean anything from a set of personal beliefs, opinions, and values that inform one’s decisions and actions (you might hear that a company’s “philosophy” is to provide a personalized experience for their customers), to some sort of mystical “spirit science” that one might find in the spirituality section of a book store (think of all the “philosophical” memes and quotes you constantly see popping up in your Instagram and Tumblr feeds).

Philosophy, however, properly speaking, is none of these things. Instead, philosophy, as it has been understood throughout 2,500 years of philosophical tradition, and as it is studied in universities by professors and students, is best characterized in the broadest way as the study of the fundamental nature of reality, and its most general features and structure. Rooted in this broad characterization, philosophy then splits into a multitude of branches and subdisciplines. The branch that studies the nature, features, and structure of reality as such is called metaphysics. The branch that studies the nature, features, and structure of knowledge is epistemology. Similarly, more specialized branches study the nature, features, and structure of anything from morality to the mind to mathematics to music. What unites all of these branches is that each of them is concerned, in their particular area of study, with the foundations, principles, and elements of that area, however these are specifically understood. As the philosopher Wilfrid Sellars puts it, “The aim of philosophy, abstractly formulated, is to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term.”

At this point, one might ask: Isn’t this the job of science? Doesn’t physics study the nature, features, and structure of the physical world, and don’t chemistry, biology, psychology, and sociology do the same for their respective domains? What then is the job of philosophy, and how is it related to science? A cursory look at contemporary work in analytic philosophy makes it plain that philosophy is indeed closely tied to and continuous with research conducted in the natural sciences. It is therefore pertinent to investigate how these fields of inquiry are related, and how they are distinct. Such an investigation, it is to be hoped, will answer those critics of philosophy who claim that, given the success of natural science, philosophy no longer has any legitimate place in rational inquiry at all. I hope to demonstrate that not only is philosophy a necessary and invaluable enterprise distinct from science, but that science itself is dependent upon a philosophy distinct from it; there is a crucial sense in which philosophy is prior to and more fundamental than natural science.

To begin, we must characterize what natural science is. We will do this by identifying the kinds of questions that science asks, and its characteristic method of answering them. Science, in a nutshell, seeks to answer the following general question: What entities exist, and how are these entities causally related to one another? Every scientific investigation, whether in physics, chemistry, or biology, is but a specific, concrete instance of this question, which I will be calling “the General Question of Science”. In order to answer it, science engages in experiment and observation in order to identify the kinds of entities that exist and to discover those general laws that govern the behavior of these entities and the causal relations between them. These experiments and observations are conducted according to rigorous mathematical-quantitative methods, and the laws which are discovered are expressed in mathematical formulas and equations.

With that in mind, we can characterize philosophy in distinction from science by identifying certain questions that are characteristically philosophical, and seeing how they are different from, yet clearly related to, the General Question of Science. Unlike science, which asks what entities exist, and how they are causally related to one another, philosophy asks the following questions: What is an “entity”? What is “existence”? Is reality even composed of entities, or is it really composed of some other kind of thing, such as events or processes? What is a “cause”? What does it mean when, for any x and y, we say that x “causes” y? For that matter, what is a “law of nature”? We are not asking what the actual laws of nature happen to be (which is a question for science), but rather, what it is to be a law of nature. These are all questions in metaphysics, or the philosophical study of the fundamental nature of reality as such, and we can see that they inquire into the natures of the terms and concepts used in the General Question of Science.

Another branch of philosophy is epistemology, which studies the nature of knowledge. Clearly, science aims at knowledge, and, in asking the General Question of Science, one presupposes that some kind of knowledge of its answers is possible, at least in principle, and that science’s experimental-observational method, and its mathematical-quantitative techniques, are reliable means to attaining knowledge of entities and the laws that govern their causal relations. But now epistemology asks: What is knowledge? What conditions must be satisfied in order for someone to successfully know a fact? What are “facts”, and what is their relationship to objects, on the one hand, and thoughts, on the other? What is truth? How is it even possible that we can know anything at all about the natural world? What must the world be like in order for it to be knowable by human minds? What justifies our belief that there is a world external to our minds in the first place, and that our minds can “reach out” and “grasp” its structure? Furthermore, philosophy of science investigates the methods of science: Why and how does experimentation and observation justify our inferences from particular facts to general claims? How are we justified in believing that the natural universe exhibits regularity, and is law-governed, in the first place? Why is mathematics so successful in describing the physical world, and what is the relationship between mathematics, which is abstract, and the physical world, which is concrete?

As we can now see, philosophical questions differ from scientific ones in several ways. For one, philosophical questions are more abstract than scientific questions. Rather than dealing, for example, with particular instances of cause and effect, such as a doctor investigating the causes of a patient’s illness, or an economist tracing the causes of the Great Recession, the philosopher investigates the nature of causality itself, apart from any particular instance of cause and effect, but such that, if there were indeed such a thing as “the nature of causality”, all such particular instances would have that nature in common. Furthermore, philosophy deals with things that scientists must assume or presuppose in order to even begin to do science in the first place. Such presuppositions that the philosopher investigates include the meanings of the very terms and concepts contained within the General Question of Science, as well as presuppositions about knowledge, truth, and reality that one must make in order to even go about answering the Question. Finally, philosophy must interpret the results of science, such as when the philosopher asks what are the consequences of the findings of neuroscience and cognitive science for our notions of free will, responsibility, and personal identity, or what are the consequences of quantum mechanics for our conceptions of how objects exist.

Thus, I hope you can appreciate the value of philosophy, and see how it plays an important role in grounding and interpreting science. Someone who loves science is bound to be fascinated by the questions that philosophy raises. And the philosophical questions that I have discussed here – the ones closest to natural science – are just the tip of the iceberg. I haven’t even touched on aesthetics (the philosophy of art and music), logic, philosophy of mathematics, philosophy of mind, political philosophy, philosophy of history, philosophy of religion, feminist philosophy, and many other fascinating branches. Name anything you’re interested in, and I guarantee that philosophers have raised questions about it. So if any of this fascinates you, I invite you to join me on this blog as we travel to the outer boundaries of thought.

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