WHAT PHILOSOPHY IS NOT
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:
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
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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