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Inever cease to be amazed by the many and various things people take Philosophy to be. Each semester I start my classes by asking each student to answer a simple question: "Tell me what you think Philosophy is." Answers to this seemingly innocent question range from the obscure to the hilarious. The most honest answer I have ever received came from a red-shirted freshman footballer who said, "Philosophy is a bunch of crap people do when they want to get paid, but don't want to work." But Philosophers are not usually in it for the money, that much is sure!

The most common answers to my query have something to do with the meaning of life, or religion. Many people seem to think Philosophy is esoteric nonsense contemplated by esoteric people who have nothing practical to contribute to life: it's Jack Handy's "Deep Thoughts", or the latest pontification from the Swami Whomever.

I must admit, however, some of Philosophy's bad press is justified. There are those who, in the name of Philosophy, say or write the most incomprehensible things or who express them so poorly they seem incomprehensible. Sometimes Philosophy is just hard to read: one has only to spend a little time with Hegel, Heidegger, Sartre, Kant, or the later Whitehead to wonder whether your time might not be better spent reading poetry. And then there is always the undergraduate Philosophy major who learns just enough to say cool, but nonsensical, things at parties. Or, there is the student who reads all of the assignments but seems to glean all the wrong points (e.g., Otto, from “A Fish Called Wanda”)

Having made these confessions however, I would like to point out what I take to be a few commonly mistaken notions about Philosophy:

Philosophy is not a quest for the meaning of life.

If you ask a philosopher about the meaning of life she is very likely to respond that you have made something like a category mistake, or that you have asked the wrong sort of question.

Philosophy is not the search for the paranormal.

Although many bookshops would have you believe otherwise, magic, UFO sightings and abductions, Transcendental Meditation, astral projection, and "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" are not generally considered parts of Philosophy.

Philosophy and Religion are not the same thing.

Many people labor under the illusion that all philosophers are concerned primarily, if not absolutely, with the question of God's existence (i.e., trying to prove that God does, or does not, exist). While the Philosophy of Religion has been very important in the history of Western thought, it is probably an accident of history more than anything else. It is also important to note that while Theology is related to Philosophy, they are distinct academic disciplines.

Philosophy is not one of the Social Sciences.

Properly speaking, the Social Sciences, in fact all the sciences, are directly descended from Philosophy and should be considered parts of it. It is necessary for us to have specializations, and it is impossible for anyone to have even a cursory knowledge of everything (a rather recent phenomenon), but we have got the cart before the horse in academics. This is not really so much a problem as an annoyance to those of us who are interested in the history of ideas.

If you find the via negativa unhelpful in your quest to know more about Philosophy, I have also provided what I take to be the barest essentials of what Philosophy is on this page.

If you can think of anything I have left off the list or you would like to make a comment, send me a note.

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