Help me define philosophy

I am not so sure I have a firm grasp on what philosophy actually is. I tend to think of it as being hypothetical and theoretical in its approach to things. I joined a philosophical forum and I really want to be sure I know what philosophy really is before I put my foot in my mouth too often.

Earthling Cinema defines philosophy as “a rarely practiced form of masturbation.”

Kidding, kidding. Wikipedia has a good summary:

Science is about answering questions. Philosophy is coming up with the questions.

I probably should have looked that up myself but I was just curious as to some of the answers I might get here. I am alsways told that I am philosophical yet many of my views on existence are probably closer to anti philosophical.

One more thing: I read Plato and a Platypus a few years ago, and found it to be a fun primer on philosophy.

This I can relate to, suppose one has a long series of questions all based on aspects of human behavior, he spends considerable time addressing these questions but ony through observing life. Due to his observations he has formed opinions on solutions for things, No real science here. Are the proposed solutions philosophical??

Philosophy studies the *fundamental *nature of existence, of humanity, and of humanity’s relationship to existence. Philosophy tells you the fundamental nature of the universe (metaphysics), the means by which you can acquire knowledge of it (epistemology), the standards by which you can choose your goals and values, regarding your own life (ethics), and regarding society in general (politics).

Sounds like empiricism to me, which is basically science, although maybe without the cool toys. But you can even practice philosophy without observing the world if you subscribe to rationalism.

You seem to be practicing meta-philosophy: philophizing about philosophy. :slight_smile:

I feel like I understand what philosophy is, but I was having trouble putting it into words. The Wiki summary said what I was trying to say quite well, but it is quite broad. Philosophy is a many-headed thing, after all.

When Descartes concluded that his existence was the only one he could confirm, that was philosophy. When Leibniz concluded that our universe must be “the best of all possible worlds” because an omnipotent God would not create anything lesser, that was philosophy. When someone posts on the SDMB asking why stealing is wrong, or what happens when you go through a Star Trek transporter, that’s philosophy.

I think the main difference between science and philosophy is that science studies the observable world in a meticulous, evidence-based fashion, while philosophy studies the human mind and how it interacts with the world in a conjecture-based fashion. Philosophy is how we study the things we can’t currently measure with science.

The scientific method is testing something for yourself, to see if it is true or not.

The philosophic method, by and large, is looking for something similar and arguing that the metaphor reflects reality. Thus, for example, one political philosopher would point at a bee-hive as a model for human civilization, where another might point at a beaver-pond and yet another at a pack of jackals.

Not long before the discovery of the asteroids, one philosopher argued that there could be no more planets than seven (counting the sun and moon) because there are seven metals, seven regular geometric solids, and seven sensory apertures in the human head. The similarity of one group of things, he believed, implied the same similarity in other groups of things.

The philosophic (or philosophical?) method is, to a large extent, generalizing on similarities in appearances. Much of Aristotle’s physics was based on appearances of materials. Fire leaps upward, therefore fire is ascendant over all; stones sink in water, therefore are below all else.

Before the scientific method, this was about as good a system of drawing inferences from observations as we had. It bears much in common with astrology. Today, it’s a pleasant pastime for idle minds.

I think philosophy has progressed a bit since that…

For instance, have a look as Descartes’ Meditation I (spoiler alert: “I think therefore I am”) which uses a completely different approach. It’s not too long and well-written, worth a read.

Certainly philosophy makes fewer doltish boners of that variety, but, at its core, it’s still “medieval theology” insofar as it involves deep reasoning about ideas for which there is no possible evidence.

Take monism vs. dualism vs. pluralism. Which is the central founding principle of reality? One-ness, two-ness, or multiplicity? Philosophers, even today, spend time (and have fun!) talking this back and forth. But at the heart of it, they’re still using analogies to other phenomena as the basis for generalization. (Dualists are fond of pointing to light-and-darkness, and the two poles of electrical and magnetic fields, taking this as an indication of a deeper “plus/minus” structure to all reality.)

I’ve read Descartes in translation, and wasn’t too taken with it. He ends up echoing hokey old “Proofs of God’s Existence” without resolving any of the classical errors. The best thing Descartes did was to raise the question of doubt – to the point where “Cartesian Doubt” is an important philosophical notion. We don’t know that we aren’t just dreaming, or deluded by demons, or in a Holodeck. We can’t!

I’d say that it comprises two parts:

  1. Morality
  2. Applied morality

In the first part, you’re trying to generate axioms that explain our place in the universe and then build up rules of morality based on it - i.e., how we should interact with one another. In the second part, you’re trying to figure out how order society so that the rules can be applied.

Science, economics, and politics are all children of philosophy and so technically, one could include all of that under the heading. Historically, philosophy would have been wider, asking things like “Where did everything come from?” or “How do I heal a cut?” But as those have been spun out into their own fields of thought, it doesn’t leave much left but morality to talk about. And since politics, economics, sociology, psychology, etc. have all been taken out, there’s really not a lot left for “applied morality” in the discipline. Otherwise, the two parts would be:

  1. The nature of reality
  2. What to do about it

I don’t think that definition is applicable to modern day philosophy, when most people say the word, though it could for some and there probably are a few branches that are still looking into the big questions.

Philosophy is like driving: most everyone can do it and most everyone thinks they are pretty good at it ;).

You are saying you have “pondered some of the Big Questions™” and developed views on them. Cool!

Now: when discussing them with other folks who ponder, what language do you use - both specific word choice, and in articulating how your POV is like X’s POV but is NOT like Y’s POV? Can you have those conversations in a substantive way with other folks who you think are also pondering the Big Questions?

Philosophy is the discipline of how to frame and discuss The Big Questions™. Learning that there are different categories/types of Big Question is a start. panache45 offers a starter list of Big Question Categories - you can add other ones like Teleology (the question of purpose), and Ontology (questions related to the nature of Being), etc.

So - think about a thing you have been pondering.

  • Can you describe the Big Question at its core?
  • Then - can you figure out which Classical Philosophy Category your Big Question would fit in? Is it epistemological? Ontological? Teleological, etc.?
  • Once you have that - do you know much about that Category, e.g., the most-well-known positions taken; the important distinctions made and the most-famous thinkers who have championed them? Is your insight a position related to Determinism vs. Free Will? If so, then if you want to talk with other folks who care about that it would be good to know what the classic positions and players are as you dig in, right?

So if you want to hang out with Philosophers, it will be helpful to speak Philosophy. Not because philosophers should learn to talk like ivory-tower douchebags ;), but instead to make sure you can actually communicate and make incredibly complex and nuanced distinctions.

Does that make sense? So I would assume you would start by lurking on a Philosophy messageboard and figuring out what you care about and how those topics are discussed there.

This is exactly what I have run into and the answer is no, I am no where near that level. On the bright side there does seem to be several others on this web site that are not there either. I would say 90% of the conversations I have seen there I have no interest in anyway. I actually find the posts by many of the real philosophers to often be stuffy and I have yet to see anything from them I would really consider profound . Yet on the other hand many of the philosophical non philosophers seem to offer what I consider interesting insights into things. Your post was a big help. I plan to tread lightly and maybe study up a little before I comment on things.

Bolding mine.

Many ordinary people use the term “being philosophical” to mean “taking a neutral POV”. They can’t conceive of anyone thinking about a situation other than as “what do I want to happen here to benefit myself?”

So if you are someone who can at least try to evaluate things from more than one side and distance your opinion from your own interests and ego, they’ll say you’re “being philosophical”.

Compared to real capital P Philosophy that’s about like declaring “Trump is a statesman” because he’s running for political office.

Being able to adopt the neutral inquisitive POV is a precondition to capital P Philosophy. So there’s nothing wrong with doing so. I certainly try to and once in awhile I even succeed. I think. :slight_smile:

But understand that’s the barest hint of the first baby step on the long road to Philosophy.

As a side point know that Philosophy & Philosophers just love to take common words and give them very esoteric meanings. You almost can’t read sophisticated Philosophers without looking up each and every word in their glossary of magic terms. Which in turn are defined in terms of other magic terms. :confused: Hence all the jokes about mental masturbation.

Hey - cool; glad it could help. I am groping my way along with Philosophy, too - trying to have enough fluency to understand the existing structures and POV’s. If you have seen my threads on Montaigne, Spinoza, Existentialism, etc., they are all about trying to articulate what I think I am reading/hearing and seeing if I get it.

And also, please note: there’s a difference between being an Architect, and knowing a Good Building when you see one. Someone who Knows Buildings is experienced and wise - in Malcolm Gladwell-speak, they can “Blink” and know if that building has “good bones” and is well-designed.

Architects have to bring structure to that - a technical approach, an appreciation for what has come before, the Masters of various forms and Schools, and what the Big “what’s next?” Questions are for buildings, e.g., Gehry’s computer-warped designs.

Philosophers are Architects. They have a taxonomy for the Big Questions, a set of essential structures, points of view, Masters of Form and creators of new Schools.

If you want to learn Philosophy, you want learn the Architecture of Asking Big Questions and communicate that way. I would hypothesize you are looking for something different: a place where folks discuss the Big Question Wisely - some of whom bring a Philosophical rigor to the discussion which is interesting to hear contextually, but no less valid than contributions from someone who has lived a life, survived some trauma, mastered meditation or an Art.

If I have it correct - if you find anything, let me know :wink: Best I have found are the NPR show On Being, subscribing to The New Yorker; occasionally listening to some of the Philosophy Blogs that are out there. And hanging out here :wink:

ETA: Oh, and read this book:

Wordman, I will most certainly order that book right away, it sounds like something I would enjoy. I have spent the past 2 years working on a novel, most of that time has been bogged down in fruitless research. My recent foray into philosophy has yet to give me exacty what I have been looking for but for some reason it makes me feel I am in the right place if that makes any sense.

There ya go - I suspect that you will find Bakewell’s book on Montaigne fun and interesting. And because she discusses some schools of Ancient Greek thought you get some insights about their approaches. Let me know what you think!

Philosophy is where you end up on Wikipedia when starting at a random article and clicking on the first link in the body of each article as it comes up.

E.g., I just tried this on the current AofD: Eraserhead. Took ~19 clicks.

While a bit absurd, there’s a rationale behind it. If you want to talk about knowledge in general, you get eventually get a bit meta about it. What does knowing something mean? What is knowledge? How is a bit of knowledge put together? Etc.