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why is it difficult to define philosophy?

why is it difficult to define philosophy?

I am not trying to be difficult, but I am not sure philosophy is difficult to define, or at least I suggest it is not any more difficult to define than (for example) the sciences, the humanities, love or works of art, war and peace, and so on. I usually define "philosophy" as having two levels or dimensions. On the one had, and most generally, to have a view of reality and values is to have a philosophy. Given this general definition, every thoughtful person has a philosophy of some kind. Going further, it should be noted that philosophy involves critical reflection on one or more such views, inquiring into meaning and coherence and raising questions of justification (why accept one view rather than another? or why accept any view at all?) This definition (or maybe it should be thought of as a "characterization" or depiction or sketch) can then be enhanced by offering examples and then by noting how philosophy has a host of sub-fields from metaphysics, epistemology, ethical theory or, more broadly axiology, etc, and then by taking note of still further sub-fields such as the philosophy of science, philosophy of religion, philosophy of art, and so on.

Difficulties might emerge, however, insofar as defining philosophy in further detail most likely will have to involve the practice of philosophy. There are controversial philosophical views on the nature and methodologies that are promising in, say, metaphysics.

I must concede that some further difficulties could still emerge, notwithstanding my optimistic opening paragraph. An element of the definition of philosophy I have not mentioned so far is based on the etymology of "philosophy," which comes from the Greek for the love of wisdom. I am inclined to the view that goes back to Socrates and Plato that the life of a philosopher is one that involves (or should involve) practicing the love of wisdom. It is, therefore, a way of life. But there are some philosophers who prefer a more academic or theoretical (or abstracted?) approach to philosophy in which how you live (when you are not in the seminar room or conference) is beside the point. In the later case, someone may claim that one could be an outstanding philosopher (who, let us imagine, comes up with a brilliant philosophy of biology) but who lives a life of cruel indifference to the persons and values around him. In such a situation, perhaps I need to concede that defining "philosophy" is difficult, for I would say of the later (imagined) person that while he is "technically" doing outstanding philosophical work, he is not living his life in light of the love of wisdom and thus his claim to be a philosopher (in the full sense) is tainted.

So, in my reply, I offer a modest challenge to you by providing a (relatively) non-problematic (or not too messy) of a definition of philosophy, but then go on to concede that (interesting) difficulties can well emerge when one looks more closely at the details and boundaries of philosophy. My hope is that persons who grapple with defining philosophy might find themselves drawn into the practice of philosophy itself (a practice in light of my preferred definition) which will involve seeking to live out of the love of wisdom.

I am not trying to be difficult, but I am not sure philosophy is difficult to define, or at least I suggest it is not any more difficult to define than (for example) the sciences, the humanities, love or works of art, war and peace, and so on. I usually define "philosophy" as having two levels or dimensions. On the one had, and most generally, to have a view of reality and values is to have a philosophy. Given this general definition, every thoughtful person has a philosophy of some kind. Going further, it should be noted that philosophy involves critical reflection on one or more such views, inquiring into meaning and coherence and raising questions of justification (why accept one view rather than another? or why accept any view at all?) This definition (or maybe it should be thought of as a "characterization" or depiction or sketch) can then be enhanced by offering examples and then by noting how philosophy has a host of sub-fields from metaphysics, epistemology, ethical theory or, more broadly...

Can every philosophical word or term listed in peer-reviewed philosophy

Can every philosophical word or term listed in peer-reviewed philosophy dictionaries be explained with a real-life example? If not, how can we know that it's not just BS?

A not-really-relevant aside: most philosophers don't own philosophical dictionaries, but let that pass.

Here's a non-philosophical word: unicorn. It's easy to explain what it means, but there aren't any real-life examples. Whether a term can be clearly explained and whether there are actual examples are quite different questions.

If it's controversial whether something exists then a philosopher shouldn't pretend otherwise, but the question of whether something exists (God, for instance) might be an interesting one. And sometimes the best way to understand a notion is a philosophical question. The notion of free will is like that. In that case, there's no one meaning for the term, but it's possible to have a perfectly reasonable discussion of what might count as free will and why some answers might be better than others. In fact that sort of discussion comes up in many disciplines. Philosophers are unusual in that they're trained to notice this kind of unclarity and to reason about it carefully.

I suppose your reference to when a term is used in a BS fashion, the term is used either without serious intent or it involves some fabrication or pretense to meaning or clarity that is undeserved. I could be wrong, but probably using "a real life example" might not be a guarantee that a term is being used seriously or without BS, partly because there are interesting disputes about when an example is a matter of "real life" or a strange interpretation of real life. For example, an extreme philosophical behaviorist who denies the existence of occurrent experiential states might claim that she can completely describe and explain our exchange right now, but (from my point of view) this would involve completely ignoring an evident feature of real life. Even so, I would not want to accuse the extreme behaviorist as promoting BS. She is seriously committed to a position and methodology that (it may be argued) is powerfully supported by a certain philosophy of science and meaning. In any case, I share...

Is science held to a lesser standard of proof than religion for analytic

Is science held to a lesser standard of proof than religion for analytic philosophers?

Interesting question. To begin, matters of "proof" are rarely involved in analytical philosophy of religion. In fact, the days of when any philosopher claims to "prove" a thesis in metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, philosophy of science etc seem past. Philosophers for a while seem to settle on advancing good or cogent arguments (or plausible counter-arguments and counter-examples) rather than claiming to prove a point. Though there are some philosophers who do think they have proofs. Galen Strawson, for example, claims (wrongly, in my view) to have proven that no person is morally responsible for any of their acts.

Proofs to one side, it is interesting to wonder whether the evidential standards differ among analytic philosophers when they consider claims in science and claims in or about religion. Roger Trigg is an interesting philosopher who contend that science requires a philosophical foundation and that foundation invites or provides some evidence for theism. Richard Swinburne takes up and defends a similar position. In general, however, many philosophers today subscribe to the greater authority of the sciences (especially the natural or physical sciences) rather than the authority of religious teachings. For a balanced approach you might look at the two volume work Science and Religion in Dialogue edited by Melville Stewart (published by Wiley-Blackwell).

Interesting question. To begin, matters of "proof" are rarely involved in analytical philosophy of religion. In fact, the days of when any philosopher claims to "prove" a thesis in metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, philosophy of science etc seem past. Philosophers for a while seem to settle on advancing good or cogent arguments (or plausible counter-arguments and counter-examples) rather than claiming to prove a point. Though there are some philosophers who do think they have proofs. Galen Strawson, for example, claims (wrongly, in my view) to have proven that no person is morally responsible for any of their acts. Proofs to one side, it is interesting to wonder whether the evidential standards differ among analytic philosophers when they consider claims in science and claims in or about religion. Roger Trigg is an interesting philosopher who contend that science requires a philosophical foundation and that foundation invites or provides some evidence for theism. Richard Swinburne takes up and...

Do you think that philosophy is too wordy nowadays and what was the case

Do you think that philosophy is too wordy nowadays and what was the case throughout the history of philosophy? I greatly appreciate the length of the responses on this site but digesting even one paragraph can take minutes so you can imagine how frustrating it would be if every panelist decided that philosophy is also a literary exercise! A lot of times it seems philosophers especially in articles and academic books add a lot of unnecessary verbiage that total pages upon pages trying to make a stab at answering a question by leaving self-refuting riddles and asking more questions.

I suspect it will probably totally annoy you that I begin a response with a question or two: is it so bad when philosophy is practiced in a way that is a literary exercise? Some of the great philosophers from Plato to Iris Murdoch, Sartre, Camus, de Beauvoir... present their philosophical reflections in the form of fictive narratives. Self-refuting riddles may be intentional and instructive: Plato's Republic and Thomas Moore's Utopia come to mind. And some of the great works of literature are forged on asking questions (look especially at Shakespeare's Hamlet; practically the whole play is in an interrogative mode, starting with the opening line), as one finds in the later work of Wittgenstein.

In any case, I complement you with your implying that the best of philosophy is not given over to "unnecessary verbiage." I agree with what I think is your impatience with what might be called jargon. Where we might disagree concerns examples. Two sources of philosophy where I have not found any unnecessary verbiage or bad examples of literary exercising (viz. using narrative skills that are not up to Murdoch's etc) or fruitless, unilluminating self-refuting riddles (viz. riddles that do not measure up to the Republic or Utopia) or the raising of uninteresting questions (unlike the provocative questions of Wittgenstein) are the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy (all three editions). I think you should find both of these sources deeply satisfying. And insofar as both sites are representative of philosophy today (as I believe they are), they provide some evidence that philosophy today, in large part, is not "too wordy"....

I suspect it will probably totally annoy you that I begin a response with a question or two: is it so bad when philosophy is practiced in a way that is a literary exercise? Some of the great philosophers from Plato to Iris Murdoch, Sartre, Camus, de Beauvoir... present their philosophical reflections in the form of fictive narratives. Self-refuting riddles may be intentional and instructive: Plato's Republic and Thomas Moore's Utopia come to mind. And some of the great works of literature are forged on asking questions (look especially at Shakespeare's Hamlet; practically the whole play is in an interrogative mode, starting with the opening line), as one finds in the later work of Wittgenstein. In any case, I complement you with your implying that the best of philosophy is not given over to "unnecessary verbiage." I agree with what I think is your impatience with what might be called jargon. Where we might disagree concerns examples. Two sources of philosophy where I have not found any...

Is there a book that looks at the Bible through the lens of philosophy? I know

Is there a book that looks at the Bible through the lens of philosophy? I know there are books like "Philosophy & Seinfeld", where a cultural artifact is subjected to philosophical analysis. Surely there must be something like that for the Bible?

The Bible has been subject to enormous philosophical attention. This is not only true for all the great medieval philosophers and the philosophers in late antiquity, but for many modern philosophers such as Pascal, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Kant --for Kant, the book of Job was of great significance-- Kierkegaard. Historically and today, some philosophers treat the Bible as a source for the philosophy of God or the philosophy of religion, exploring concepts such as divine revelation, the divine attributes, the relationship between God and the cosmos, and so on. The Bible has been used both for constructive philosophical work *see, for example, the collection Jesus and Philosophy edited by Paul Moser* as well as for advancing philosophical objections to theism in general or specific Biblical teachings. As a general source, check out the Routledge Companion to Theism. In the 20th century I think two of the most balanced philosophers who worked constructively on the Bible are A.E. Taylor and Austin Farrer. The elements of the Bible that are currently receiving the most amount of attention include Biblical narratives or teachings that bear on the belief in God as Triune, the incarnation, the atonement / redemption, miracles, divine revelation itself, the relationship of science and religion, and the morality of divine commands e.g. the binding of Isaac and the conquest narratives in the book of Joshua. Some philosophers interested in religious ethics will sometimes seek out Biblical teachings that bear on reproductive ethics --abortion, birth control, surrogacy-- sexual ethics, euthanasia, just war theory, the relationship of justice and mercy, capital punishment, the relationship between church and state, socialism vs. free market economy, health care, good samaritan ethics, work ethics, notions of vocation, concepts of integrity / hypocrisy, child abuse, the proper use of alcohol, and more.

The Bible has been subject to enormous philosophical attention. This is not only true for all the great medieval philosophers and the philosophers in late antiquity, but for many modern philosophers such as Pascal, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Kant --for Kant, the book of Job was of great significance-- Kierkegaard. Historically and today, some philosophers treat the Bible as a source for the philosophy of God or the philosophy of religion, exploring concepts such as divine revelation, the divine attributes, the relationship between God and the cosmos, and so on. The Bible has been used both for constructive philosophical work *see, for example, the collection Jesus and Philosophy edited by Paul Moser* as well as for advancing philosophical objections to theism in general or specific Biblical teachings. As a general source, check out the Routledge Companion to Theism. In the 20th century I think two of the most balanced philosophers who worked constructively on the Bible are A.E. Taylor and Austin Farrer. ...

Is it sensible for someone to carry out the study of philosophy at the

Is it sensible for someone to carry out the study of philosophy at the undergraduate level or above with the aim of self-psychological therapy(in place of, or with orthodox psychotherapy)? Can it help us organize our minds to be in order? Can it reduce neuroses and anxieties, and make us happier?

It did in my case. I grew up in the context of two older half-brothers who made me feel worthless. (My mother and father had one son each in a previous marriage and when they got together and had two children, we were resented by their sons.) When I discovered the practice of philosophy, it was like discovering an escape from resentment, disrespect, and bullying. Ideally, when philosophy is true to its name of being the love of wisdom, it can be a practice in which one finds a site to engage in questioning and exploring (with others who treat each other with respect) values, matters of meaning and purpose, that can be therapeutic. I also found philosophy as a practice to be therapeutic when I recovered from a short period of abusing psychotropic drugs (LSD, etc). I basically found life with philosophy (without drugs) as a practice healthier, happier, less neurotic, than a life of blurry, self-abuse (and probably self-pity).

OK, so that is more of a testimony than an expected, scholarly or less personal response, so (to earn my keep, though I suppose the only earning panelists earn is the privilege of being read as there is no money involved) I should also add that the study of philosophy can lead to a very different outcome than it had in my case. Embracing Schopenhauer's worldview can lead to a regret that one has been born and some philosophers like Pascal, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche, can be read as seeking to instill anxiety (as well as offering insights on how to address anxiety and dread and renounce certain forms of consolation). In fact, our sort of patron saint, Socrates, seemed to specialize in making his fellow Athenians nervous by exposing their ignorance (about justice, holiness, courage, friendship, and so on). Moreover, those of us who are professional philosophers are far from perfect; we are not immunized against depression, unhappiness, neuroses and anxiety.

Still, my hope is that you might find in the practice philosophy what I did and find the reason why I am still very excited about the practice of philosophy and find it liberating and a source of joy.

It did in my case. I grew up in the context of two older half-brothers who made me feel worthless. (My mother and father had one son each in a previous marriage and when they got together and had two children, we were resented by their sons.) When I discovered the practice of philosophy, it was like discovering an escape from resentment, disrespect, and bullying. Ideally, when philosophy is true to its name of being the love of wisdom, it can be a practice in which one finds a site to engage in questioning and exploring (with others who treat each other with respect) values, matters of meaning and purpose, that can be therapeutic. I also found philosophy as a practice to be therapeutic when I recovered from a short period of abusing psychotropic drugs (LSD, etc). I basically found life with philosophy (without drugs) as a practice healthier, happier, less neurotic, than a life of blurry, self-abuse (and probably self-pity). OK, so that is more of a testimony than an expected, scholarly or less...

How is critical thinking different to thinking philosophically?

How is critical thinking different to thinking philosophically?

Interesting question, especially insofar as some philosophy departments offer as their rationale in higher education the claim that philosophy is especially well suited as a discipline in promoting critical thinking, a skill that philosophy professors claim (with good reason, in my view) is an asset throughout the curriculum and in "the real world." Also, some philosophers in the so-called Enlightenment (such as Kant) single out "criticism" as one of the central projects of philosophy. Even so, one may well engage in critical thinking in ways that seem far from philosophical thinking (e.g. engaging in critical thinking about about whether J.P. Morgan is guilty of embezzlement or about whether there has been or is life on Mars) and philosophical thinking sometimes treats critical reflection as secondary to imagination and speculation. Still, it seems that critical thinking plus philosophy offers a more comprehensive methodology, e.g. thoughts about JPM might well be assisted in light of a philosophy of corporations, property, concepts of theft and responsibility, and thoughts about life on Mars will at some point require a philosophy of what counts as life --perhaps there is or could be plant or animal or some other life form radically different from what we find on earth). Moreover, while some philosophy may give center stage to imagination and speculation, without critical thinking or criticism, including self-criticism, the results may be more like fantasy than serious philosophy.

Interesting question, especially insofar as some philosophy departments offer as their rationale in higher education the claim that philosophy is especially well suited as a discipline in promoting critical thinking, a skill that philosophy professors claim (with good reason, in my view) is an asset throughout the curriculum and in "the real world." Also, some philosophers in the so-called Enlightenment (such as Kant) single out "criticism" as one of the central projects of philosophy. Even so, one may well engage in critical thinking in ways that seem far from philosophical thinking (e.g. engaging in critical thinking about about whether J.P. Morgan is guilty of embezzlement or about whether there has been or is life on Mars) and philosophical thinking sometimes treats critical reflection as secondary to imagination and speculation. Still, it seems that critical thinking plus philosophy offers a more comprehensive methodology, e.g. thoughts about JPM might well be assisted in light of a philosophy of...

When reading a philosophy book, what is your method for understanding and

When reading a philosophy book, what is your method for understanding and remembering the content? Tips for when one is presented with a massive philosophy book with many subtle points (e.g. Plantinga's "Warranted Christian Belief")?

Excellent question. I have found it extremely helpful either to type out or to write out by hand key claims and arguments. For almost 40 years I have carried around 5 by 7 inch cards in which I have written out parts of different texts that I update and go over continuously. I regularly cull the cards as I approach new texts or arguments, on top of which I keep journals of philosophical ideas. I also suggest sometimes re-reading multiple times parts of philosophical texts almost to the point of memorization. I still remember vividly the first text that I felt I "mastered" or practically memorized, and that was Richard Taylor's book Metaphysics, especially the chapter on God. I found (and still find) his writing lucid and engaging. On the assumption that you might still use old fashioned hard copies of books, I recommend marking them up, filling the margins with comments, counter-points, and the like.

I hope some of this might be helpful.

Excellent question. I have found it extremely helpful either to type out or to write out by hand key claims and arguments. For almost 40 years I have carried around 5 by 7 inch cards in which I have written out parts of different texts that I update and go over continuously. I regularly cull the cards as I approach new texts or arguments, on top of which I keep journals of philosophical ideas. I also suggest sometimes re-reading multiple times parts of philosophical texts almost to the point of memorization. I still remember vividly the first text that I felt I "mastered" or practically memorized, and that was Richard Taylor's book Metaphysics, especially the chapter on God. I found (and still find) his writing lucid and engaging. On the assumption that you might still use old fashioned hard copies of books, I recommend marking them up, filling the margins with comments, counter-points, and the like. I hope some of this might be helpful.

Can anybody who thinks about philosophical qustions become a philospher?

Can anybody who thinks about philosophical qustions become a philospher? Likewise, is it necessary to have an academic background in philosophy to be considered a philospher?

Great questions! Certainly, "philosophy" can be understood as an academic discipline. After all, there are graduate degrees in philosophy that are offered by academies in most countries around the world; there are official philosophical organizations such as the American Philosophical Association and the Royal Society of Philosophy; there are official philosophical journals, conferences, and sites on the web such as aksphilosophers, and so on. But philosophy as a practice, can be traced back before there were academies and universities, journals and official international philosophical associations. Arguably, it was philosophy that gave rise to there being academies rather than vice versa --for it was Plato, in the fourth century BCE, who founded the first academy. So, yes, one can be philosophical and practice philosophy without being part of some official academy, and in fact many well known philosophers in the early modern era did not hold positions as professors in academies --Hobbes, John Locke, Spinoza, John Stuart Mill, and more.

I suggest the best way to explore philosophy is to dive into the works of philosophers from Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle..... and to explore the awesome resources that make philosophy accessible to all, such as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy or this site and its links at no cost. It is my hope that you might also find institutions like colleges, universities, societies, reading groups in your area... where philosophy is practiced in a community of inquiry...in which people are engaged in dialogue that links our current ideas with those of the past and what may be the most promising new directions of philosophy in the future. In my view --just as those who practice philosophy as part of academies and institutions need to appreciate the value of philosophy done by those who are not part of official academies, it is good for those seeking to practice philosophy independently to explore the resources of academic communities ---perhaps the most healthy was to love wisdom the literal meaning of the term 'philosophy' is to be open to the wisdom one might find both in and outside the academies of our time.

Great questions! Certainly, "philosophy" can be understood as an academic discipline. After all, there are graduate degrees in philosophy that are offered by academies in most countries around the world; there are official philosophical organizations such as the American Philosophical Association and the Royal Society of Philosophy; there are official philosophical journals, conferences, and sites on the web such as aksphilosophers, and so on. But philosophy as a practice, can be traced back before there were academies and universities, journals and official international philosophical associations. Arguably, it was philosophy that gave rise to there being academies rather than vice versa --for it was Plato, in the fourth century BCE, who founded the first academy. So, yes, one can be philosophical and practice philosophy without being part of some official academy, and in fact many well known philosophers in the early modern era did not hold positions as professors in academies --Hobbes, John...

Hi my name is Victoria!

Hi my name is Victoria! I was searching for some information about "what is the proper object of philosophy?" and couldn't find anything. Hope that I can get help on answering this question on the website. Thank you

"Philosophy" is derived from the Greek for "love" and "wisdom" and it is often rendered as "the love of wisdom." So one reply to your question is that the proper object of philosophical inquiry is whatever is a fitting object of study in the practice of loving wisdom. So, historically, those recognized as "philosophers" have investigated the nature of reality (Ancient Greek philosophy included theories that anticipated the atomic theory of matter and evolution...), human nature, values (including ethics, accounts of beauty and ugliness good and evil), our capacities to know ourselves and the world, reflection on logic, perception, memory, the sacred (is there a God or divine or sacred reality such as the Tao), questions of social values, matters of governance (political philosophy), and so on. Arguably, the quest to live wisely (or in light of loving wisdom) involves seeking insights into a very broad array of topics that are difficult to limit.

Sometimes historical events can shape the way philosophers work and what they work on (and see as the "proper object" of philosophy). So, in the 1950s and early 60s, philosophers in the English-speaking world largely neglected applied, practical ethical matters (the exception being those philosophers who were engaged in the Civil Rights movement in the USA), but in the midst of the Viet Nam War in the late 60s, and beginning in the early 1970s, philosophers gave far more attention to applied ethics (just war theory at first, but then ethics in medicine and a growing number of other domains).

During some periods in the history of ideas, groups or movements of philosophy develop that seek to pronounce and enforce an idea of what kind of philosophy is "proper" or improper. At one time or another, some philosophers have sought to determine (and sometimes even prove) that at least one of the following mix of philosophical convictions or methods or domains are improper:

Radical Skepticism

Metaphysics

Philosophy of Religion

"Continental philosophy"

"Analytic philosophy"

Phenomenology

The History of Philosophy

and more....

I believe that none of the above have been "proven" to be improper or sterile or out-of-bounds, and I suggest that when philosophers claim things like "X is dead" when X may stand for Metaphysics or Foundationalism or Skepticism (etc, etc) it seems less than obvious that the "philosopher" is a lover of wisdom.

"Philosophy" is derived from the Greek for "love" and "wisdom" and it is often rendered as "the love of wisdom." So one reply to your question is that the proper object of philosophical inquiry is whatever is a fitting object of study in the practice of loving wisdom. So, historically, those recognized as "philosophers" have investigated the nature of reality (Ancient Greek philosophy included theories that anticipated the atomic theory of matter and evolution...), human nature, values (including ethics, accounts of beauty and ugliness good and evil), our capacities to know ourselves and the world, reflection on logic, perception, memory, the sacred (is there a God or divine or sacred reality such as the Tao), questions of social values, matters of governance (political philosophy), and so on. Arguably, the quest to live wisely (or in light of loving wisdom) involves seeking insights into a very broad array of topics that are difficult to limit. Sometimes historical events can shape the way...

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