Advanced Search

What's the point of philosophers analyzing the "true meaning" of texts of other

What's the point of philosophers analyzing the "true meaning" of texts of other living philosophers? Why not just ask them directly what they really mean when it comes to ambiguous passages, chapters, or books?

Many decades ago, something very close to your question seems to have motivated philosophy professor Paul Arthur Schilpp to launch the multi-volume Library of Living Philosophers, which now contains more than 30 volumes. You can find out more at this link. I seem to recall reading an editor's introduction by Schilpp that explains in detail his motivation for launching the series. You might search for it.

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


Philosophy of Religion

"Continental philosophy"

"Analytic philosophy"


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.

I have a question about reading certain philosophers, specifically Kant in my

I have a question about reading certain philosophers, specifically Kant in my case, as "pre-requisites" for other philosophers. I'm not particularly interested in Kant, but I've been interested in Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Heidegger for a long time now. I've heard though that to appreciate any of these three, you have to understand Kant first, so I recently started to read A Critique of Pure Reason. I'm sure I'll get something worthwhile out of the book if I stick with it, but I'm wondering whether you think it's worth taking on this demanding project just to prepare me for reading other philosophers. I'm also curious, in general, do you think there are certain cases where it is vital or important to read one philosopher's work before taking on another's? I've heard too that before you read A Critique of Pure Reason, you should read Descartes' Discourse on the Method, which would be another demanding project.

In the full sense of the word this question is unanswerable. I don’t know a serious educated person who does not worry about it. On the one hand, if you do not read philosophers in the right order you are bound to miss the significance of something the later person says. I’m not saying you run the risk of missing that significance; you are guaranteed to do so.

And yet this is a half-truth, because there is plenty you will miss if you start back at the beginning of philosophy and proceed to the end. First of all there’s the obvious problem of motivation that your question implies. If you have to read Descartes before Kant, and Aristotle before Descartes, and so on, you will have been lost or sidetracked before you ever reached the people like Nietzsche and Kierkegaard who first drew your attention. Demanding a strict chronological reading list is impractical.

There’s another kind of problem that affects even industrious people who are incapable of being bored or sidetracked. In many cases we don’t see the full significance of an earlier thinker until we encounter a later thinker. This is what makes some of the later people so important as philosophers, that they bring a new dimension and a new kind of interpretation to what their precursors had said. A passage in Plato on the coldness of ice means more after we read Aristotle on essential predication. Spinoza’s critique of negative emotions becomes livelier and psychologically more significant in light of the way Nietzsche develops the same points. In some ways you learn more about each philosopher by reading the chronology in reverse.

Well, no one can read through the history of philosophy in both directions at once. A general chronological approach, guided by a good teacher, is the best place to start. You acquire a sense of the history of philosophy as a whole and then read on your own to fill in the details. But if you are approaching this entirely on your own, I suggest you start with the philosophers who pique your curiosity. If you are inquisitive at all, you will go from them to their predecessors wanting to know more about why they say what they do. Eventually you’ll see that you need to have a sense of every philosopher on the list; and although Kant might seem like just words on the page if you begin with him, the day will come (after Nietzsche and Schopenhauer) when the Critique of Pure Reason reads like a page-turner, now that you see what its implications will turn out to be.

The ancient Greek philosophical schools taught comprehensive philosophies of

The ancient Greek philosophical schools taught comprehensive philosophies of life. For them, the whole point of doing philosophy was to determine how to live well. Why do contemporary philosophers not publish philosophies of life? Has the point of doing philosophy changed? If so, why?

or for another kind of response, you might still ask why many/most philosophers don't publish philosophies of life. You'd have to do an empirical survey there, but i'm guessing that for many, a philosophy of life is too big and hard to construct. Much easier to focus on some relatively narrow problem and work out a sophisticated view on it ... And I bet that professionally the incentive is to do the same. A "philosophy of life" is something that aims to the wider market, the general public, but the professional incentive is to impress the professional philosophers rather than the public. (Alternatively, perhaps many professional philosophers feel pretty confident that the main value in life, at least for them, is the very professing of philosophy -- so they are acting out their philosophy of life even without publishing their philosophy of life ....)

great question!


I was puzzled not to find any mention of "emptiness" (as expounded upon by

I was puzzled not to find any mention of "emptiness" (as expounded upon by Nagarjuna and Chadrakirti, not the feeling one blogger has when his relationships end.) Is that not an issue that our learned philosophical crowd seriously contemplates these days?

I have to say I think about nothing all the time, both in the sense of not thinking about anything, and in the sense of contemplating the concept nothing. P.L. Heath has a very fine piece on "Nothing" in the Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

On the other hand I suspect that śūnyatā is not really emptiness or literally nothing - śūnyatā is a kind of non-substantiality, certainly, but in Western metaphysics that does not mean a non-entity. The point is that śūnyatā is emptiness, but of the detritus of external influence, or void or outside dependence. It has its own quality. It is also like a kind of expectant fulness, empty as the rich expectation of a joyous future event is in an obvious sense empty (of the event) compared with the experience of the event itself. A quality however is an entity, though not a substance.

This is a follow-up to Miriam Solomon's statement describing philosophy:

This is a follow-up to Miriam Solomon's statement describing philosophy: "Philosophy involves more than deductive logic--it involves the exercise of "good judgment" which in fact we do not understand very well." (june 5, 2014) Can someone tell me more about what this "good judgment" is, please? I studied philosophy in college and I can't recall any of my professors ever suggesting that there was some elusive guiding principle in philosophy beyond what could be articulated...Instead, I was taught that it was about starting with premises and then executing deductive reasoning. Are you now saying that there's something mystical in there that philosophers can't articulate but which guides their work? That seems counter the way I learned philosophy, where the professors seemed particularly intent on articulating things clearly.

I'll just add that, for similar reasons, "good judgement" is equally important in mathematics, and nothing is more deductive than mathematics.

It seems to me that much contemporary philosophy is a bit obsessed with

It seems to me that much contemporary philosophy is a bit obsessed with clarifying arguments and analyzing statements and lacks real wisdom about the world. For example, I can imagine a typical situation where an ordinary person asks a professional philosopher a question relating to an applied ethics question. The philosopher answers by analysing the component parts of the statements contained within the question and attempting to assess the technicalities of the implicit argument put forward by the ordinary person. The outcome is that everybody is none the wiser as to the real answer to the applied ethics question because the philosopher has no real wisdom about the world but is merely trying to analyse argument structures! What do you think about this? Thanks

I'm not sure that the outcome of analysing arguments is always that no one is any wiser concerning the issue at stake. And that's because there are several possible results of such analysis, all of which would seem to help us better understand the issue at stake and the justifiability of possible answers: (1) Perhaps the (implicit or not) argument the person offers for her answer is invalid; in that case, the philosopher is able to show that, whether or not her answer is right, her argument doesn't give us reason to accept that answer as right. (2) Perhaps there are assumptions the person makes in offering her answer but that she doesn't defend; in that case, particularly if the assumptions seem questionable/controversial themselves, the philosopher is able to show that the answer requires more defense than the person has offered. Or (3), perhaps the way the person has framed the question closes off certain possible avenues of thinking about the issue; in that case, the philosopher is able to point out that, since there may be different ways to frame the question, the choice of a certain frame may itself require defense.

All of this is to say that wisdom isn't confined to knowing the right answers to certain questions. It seems also to include an awareness of when you don't quite have the right answer or when you aren't yet justified in thinking that your answer is right.

I currently study philosophy at an undergraduate level at Trinity College Dublin

I currently study philosophy at an undergraduate level at Trinity College Dublin, and I am interested in pursuing philosophy of mind at a graduate level – certainly with a PhD. That's the hope anyway. I have considered perhaps doing something like an MPhil at Cambridge. Yet, I am concerned that a lot of work in philosophy of mind doesn't seem to take into account where it sits on the boundary between science and philosophy, and a lot of what we get is some sort of babble that doesn't fit into what we know from science. Often, there is a lot of stuff that thinks it is informed by science, but really isn't – out of simple ignorance. I like David Chalmers's views on this: "Everything I say here is compatible with the results of contemporary science; our picture of the natural world is broadened, not overturned." I have considered completing an MSc in Neuroscience that doesn't take things from a philosophy perspective. There are quite a few programs, such as one at my own university, that accept students...

Well, I think your plans sound great. But of course I would, since I helped develop the Neurophilosophy Track in the MA program in philosophy at Georgia State University ( I'm not just advertising! (though you might consider our program.) I'm suggesting that your view of philosophy of mind as continuous with the cognitive sciences is a prominent one (and the right one to boot!). Many PhD programs in philosophy (including MIT, but also Washington University's PNP program, UC San Diego, CUNY, Pitt HPS, Indiana, and others) have people and programs focusing on empirically-informed philosophy of mind. Most of them would appreciate your taking some time to study neuroscience or other cognitive sciences. Most of them would allow you to pursue such courses while doing your PhD in philosophy (and some have certificates in cog sci). So, go get an MSc in neuroscience and/or apply for MA or PhD programs that would allow you to get some rigorous training in the relevant sciences. And then join the wave of researchers in philosophy and some of the relevant sciences who see our fields as a joint project aimed at figuring out how the most complex thing in the universe (the brain) does all the remarkable stuff our minds do.

I am close to someone with Asperger's syndrome. Do you think Philosophy would be

I am close to someone with Asperger's syndrome. Do you think Philosophy would be a good field for someone with asperger's to look into? Do you think there's a higher prevalence of it among the philosophy community than other disciplines? In reading through responses, it does seem like there are a lot of superficially logical replies that would feel, to an outsider looking in, on the range from emotionally insensitive to passive-aggressive. It seems that the field encourages ruling out replies based on emotion, being purely logical, which would suit an aspie perfectly. Thanks for your thoughts!

You ask an interesting question. If Philosophy was nothing more than deductive logic, then someone with skills in deductive logic but developmental issues elsewhere would probably excel in philosophy. But most people think that Philosophy involves more than deductive logic--it involves the exercise of "good judgment" which in fact we do not understand very well. Good judgment may or may not be absent of emotion: the philosopher David Hume puts emotion front and center in his ethical theories.

We have a very poor understanding of autism spectrum disorders (indeed the diagnostic category of Asperger's has recently been removed from the DSM). It used to be thought that people with autism lacked emotion; that is generally speaking not true (although the emotions may be different from those of neurotypicals).

On rereading your question, perhaps you see a correspondence between some philosophers' apparent detachment and some autistic behavior. There may be an overlap here but I doubt that it goes very deep (that is, I doubt that a shortcut to doing philosophy is to have your autistic friend do it).

I am trying to understand the idea behind the question of the meaning of

I am trying to understand the idea behind the question of the meaning of knowledge. I'm confused by why the usual meaning of something we remember having encountered before requires further definition. I guess I'm asking if philosophy has no acceptance of the usual common meanings? How does such a definition as "true verifiable belief" (if I remember that right) satisfy more than our commonly shared meaning? After all, I have knowledge of a lifetime of experiences and feelings and impressions and ideas that cannot possibly satisfy those criteria. Does that mean that philosophers claim that my memories are not knowledge? I have the same problem understanding the need for "defining" existence as {I think therefore I am." It seems more sensible to me to reword it as "I am therefore I think." Can you explain the most basic conception of philosophical inquiry? Is it simply a game?

To answer your last question first: I don't regard philosophical inquiry as a game. On the contrary, it may well be the most intellectually serious form of inquiry there is. What philosophical inquiry amounts to is itself a matter of philosophical controversy, but I'm inclined to say that philosophical inquiry consists in thinking as carefully as we can about the most general and most fundamental questions we can ask.

To your other questions:

1. The definition of "knowledge" -- more accurately, the analysis of the concept of knowledge -- has been an energetically disputed topic in philosophy for more than 50 years. Some philosophers defend a version of the "true, justified belief" analysis, with "justified" understood in a variety of ways. Others defend an analysis that doesn't require anything they're prepared to call "justification." Still others think that it's a mistake to try analyzing the concept of knowledge into "more basic" concepts. You'll find much useful information about all of this in the SEP entry on the analysis of knowledge, available at this link.

2. I don't believe that Descartes meant his "I think; therefore, I am" to be a definition of existence. Instead, it's supposed to be an indubitable piece of reasoning, or else an indubitable unitary thought, rather than a definition of a term or an analysis of a concept. Notice, by contrast, that "I am; therefore, I think" doesn't seem indubitable: at any rate, it's not valid reasoning, since it's possible for a person to exist (in a coma, perhaps) and not be thinking.