Philosophy is not easy to define. However, it is clear that philosophy can be differentiated from other disciplines by (1) the type of questions it asks; (2) by the way it answers them; and (3) its purpose. This brief overview will define philosophy and then discuss the components of the definition. I conclude with an overview of the basic laws of logic. My definition of philosophy is as follows:
Philosophy is the activity of asking, and attempting to give imaginative and well-argued answers to, general and fundamental questions in order to gain wisdom.
General and Fundamental Questions
Let’s break this definition down by first looking at some general and fundamental questions:
What is the meaning of life? What is knowledge? What is reality? What does it mean when we say something is good or right? What is evil? What is friendship? What is beauty? What is the self? What is mind? What is body? What is society? What is truth?
Notice how general these questions are. We are not asking about the meaning of a particular living thing but about the meaning of life in general. We are not asking about someone’s friend but about friendship in general. We are not only focusing on something beautiful but asking about the very nature of beauty itself. Very often philosophical inquiry will start with something specific—perhaps a courageous deed everyone thinks is virtuous—and then go on to ask general questions like: But what is courage? What is virtue? And we might go on to ask the following questions: How is courage related to other virtues like wisdom and justice? How are virtues related to the good life? And how is the good life related to other general notions like truth and beauty? To be sure, plenty of specific questions can arise in the process of inquiry. But when a philosopher inquires into a subject there will be a general question (s) as a focus. Other disciplines tend to be far more focused on particular questions directed towards particular things.
Notice also that the above questions are fundamental. This means the answers we give to them will provide a foundation upon which many of our other beliefs will rest. Suppose we are asked: Are all humans selfish? The answer we give to this general question will greatly affect our beliefs about particular people. For example, if we answer affirmatively then we may believe our friends are not trust worthy, our feelings of love for another are not genuine, and our parents, politicians, and teachers are not acting in our interest. Thus a belief about people in general will be more fundamental because it will support many beliefs about people in particular. This emphasis on fundamental questions enables us to see how philosophy, despite its abstractness, can be very practical: if the fundamental ground of a belief system shifts then many things that seem set in stone can radically change for better or worse. For example, if we switch from communism to capitalism (or vice versa) a lot practical effects will follow for better and worse. In fact, any change in philosophical foundations when it comes to politics can be devastating and/or liberating (liberating in the case of our American Revolution). I am sure you can think of some examples. And I am sure you can think of a time when your general outlook on things shifted leaving you to face an open future without the benefit of the things or people you once believed in.
Now philosophers also try to answer general and fundamental questions and see how their answers relate to one another. But how can we attempt answers to these difficult questions? By imagining solutions to questions and providing persuasive arguments in support of those solutions. To understand this claim, let’s look a bit more closely at imagination and arguments.
Imagination can be defined as the activity of generating ideas that give us insight into the unrealized possibilities of a situation. To imagine is to mentally see old things in new ways for new purposes. It is to envision plans that can give direction to our investigations. It is to formulate criticisms and alternatives. Philosophers love to imagine possibilities that challenge the way we see things. In fact, the American philosopher William James once said that philosophy is more about imaginative vision than logic.
Without logic, however, we would be incapable of properly analyzing and articulating these visions to ourselves and others. Therefore philosophers seek visions and distrust them until they are well supported by arguments. But what is an argument?
An argument is not a disagreement. Rather, an argument is a set of premises from which a conclusion is derived.
Consider this argument in defense of the philosophical position known as determinism or the view that every event is the necessary effect of previous causes:
Premise 1: Every event in the universe has a cause
Premise 2: Human actions are events in the universe
Conclusion: Therefore, all human actions are caused
Here we have two premises from which a conclusion is derived. Premises are statements or reasons that are given to support a conclusion. An argument can have many premises or even just one. By presenting arguments philosophers hope to articulate and defend their imaginative visions. Now the above argument may seem like a sensible collection of general claims without much importance. But once we think it through, we see there is indeed a fundamental issue that demands our attention. For if this argument is sound, that is, if the premises are true and the conclusion logically follows from the premises, then we are determined or necessitated to act the way we do by our genes, the chemicals in our brain, the social influences around us, our past interactions with our parents, the laws of nature, etc. The so-called “choices” we make are illusions since our actions are the necessary outcomes of previous causes just like a boulder rolling down the hill is the necessary outcome of previous causes. There would be no free will since free will assumes possibilities from which to choose and in a determined universe there are no possibilities—only necessities. But without free will, what would happen to our understanding of the legal system? Of politics? Of ourselves? Don’t we assume humans are able, in most cases, to freely deliberate, choose, act, and be responsible for their actions? And don’t we punish, blame, regret, and forgive in accordance with this assumption? Or…could it be that free will, responsibility, choice, and other related notions can be redefined in ways that help us see ourselves very differently? Clearly these questions show that the issue of free will vs. determinism is fundamental and that many of our beliefs rest upon it. The main thing to see right now is that we would be doing philosophy if we started to address the general and fundamental questions associated with determinism using imagination and argumentation. We would be essentially engaged in an activity.
But now let’s ask a question that allows us to define the last important term in our definition of philosophy: what is the purpose of philosophy? Luckily the purpose is written into the very meaning of the word ‘philosophy’ itself which literally means ‘love of wisdom’ (philia=love and sophia=wisdom). Thus a philosopher is one who loves wisdom and whose purpose is to seek wisdom by engaging in the activity of philosophy. But what is wisdom? This itself is a difficult general question! Luckily a very plausible account is provided by Sharon Ryan’s “deep rationality theory” (DRT) of wisdom which states that someone, S, is wise if and only if:
- S has a wide variety of rationally justified beliefs on a wide variety of valuable academic subjects.
- S has a wide variety of justified beliefs on how to live rationally—how to apply what she knows to live well.
- S is committed to living rationally.
- S has very few unjustified beliefs and is humble or sensitive to her limitations.
Seeking to realize these four conditions of wisdom can provide many benefits. Here are three.
First, it is clear that beliefs guide action. If you believe a bus arrives at 3:00 P.M. you will act in certain ways to get to the bus stop by 3:00 P.M. But what if your beliefs on the most fundamental issues are incoherent, contradictory, and inconsistent? Won’t your actions be counterproductive, frustrated, and perhaps even dangerous? Most likely. By learning to present arguments for your most general and fundamental beliefs—those beliefs upon which so many of your other beliefs rest—you stand a better chance of possessing true and consistent beliefs that lead to fulfilling actions.
Second, philosophy can help you become an individual. Ever since you were born, you have received beliefs from other people. If your mind is essentially the product of other people’s beliefs then it is difficult to see how you are an individual. The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates once stated “the unexamined life is not worth living for man”. One interpretation of this statement is that the less you examine your beliefs the less you are you: your so-called “self” would essentially be the product of others. Clearly a life engaged in conscious individuation is superior to a life marked by thoughtless conformity. The tools of philosophy help us become more imaginative and critical in order to avoid this conformity.
And the third reason is that philosophy, by thinking so broadly and fundamentally, can invoke that sense of wonder which is the beginning of true inquiry and learning. The so-called obvious things of our world very quickly become unobvious and full of questions, implications, and mysteries. Philosophy offers us all a gold mine of fascinating problems and insights that can stimulate the life of the mind and reawaken its sense of wonder.
Branches of Philosophy and A Few Differences From Other Disciplines
The different branches of philosophy apply imagination and argumentation to different general and fundamental topics. For example, there is aesthetics which addresses questions concerning beauty and art; there is epistemology which deals with truth and knowledge; there is ethics which deals with moral questions; there is metaphysics which deals with questions concerning the ultimate nature of reality; and there is logic which studies the criteria for the evaluation of arguments. Philosophers also study language, politics, science, mathematics, and many other subjects on a general and fundamental level. In fact, any area of human concern can become a topic for philosophical inquiry.
It is also important to note that philosophers primarily think, discuss, and write rather than engage in experiments with the physical world. They base many of their arguments upon the results of the various sciences. But they themselves don’t employ the scientific method in any strict sense. Their experiments are usually imaginative thought experiments and their tests are usually logical in nature: are the arguments presented sound, that is, are the premises true and does the conclusion follow from the premises in accordance with logical laws? Are there any contradictions to be found in an argument? Are the claims clear, consistent, and coherent? Etc.
Not employing the scientific method helps differentiate philosophy from any science that also deals with general and fundamental questions. And the emphasis on rigorous argumentation helps differentiate philosophy from inquiries into general and fundamental issues that rely mostly or completely on appeals to authority figures, sacred texts, faith, intuitions, visions, meditation, art, prayer, etc.
Basic Laws of Logic and Rules of Inference
Here are the basic laws of logic and some rules of inference that philosophers tend to employ in their logical analysis. I have included them so you can see that there are rules we need to follow if we wish to construct persuasive arguments. The following four basic laws are basic because they are the grounds for constructing arguments. Typically, the grounds for constructing arguments are themselves not argued for: they are the assumptions we need to make in order to argue at all. In fact, they seem to be necessary to all thinking, meaningful communication, and language. In science, if results are contradictory then attempts are made to remove the contradiction. In court, if testimony leads to a contradiction then it is taken to be false. Of course, one can deny these laws are true and refuse to follow them. But if one speaks a coherent sentence like, “The basic laws of logic are false”, then it appears to be the case that one already used the very laws of logic one claims are false. After all, one has constructed a sentence that is meaningful and this entails that the words in the sentence are what they are and not something else (law of identity) and that the sentence is true and not false at the same (law of non-contradiction). Thus one has refuted oneself in speaking against logic. In any case, these laws, while certainly not beyond the reach of rational criticism, are powerful and help sustain our efforts to be meaningful, rational beings that communicate with one another and pursue truth.
The Law of Identity: A=A. Everything is what it is and cannot, at the time it is what it is, be something else. A tree, when it is a tree, is just a tree and nothing else.
The Law of Non-Contradiction: The same attribute cannot at the same time belong and not belong to the same subject and in the same respect. More simply, it is impossible for the same thing to be and not to be. For example, the statement ‘It is raining and it is not raining at this time and at this location’ is a contradiction and therefore false.
The Law of the Excluded Middle: The statement ‘either P or not P’ must be true. So let us say P is the statement ‘New York City is in America’. Then the statement ‘either New York City is in America or New York City is not in America’ is necessarily true.
The Law of Bivalence: Every statement that asserts something is the case must either be true or false: there is no middle ground.
The following basic rules of inference help us move in a valid way from one statement to another in a way that can preserve truth:
Conjunction: 1. P 2. Q 3. Therefore, P and Q
It is raining in N.Y. 2. It is raining in L.A. Therefore, it is raining in both N.Y. and L.A.
Simplification: 1. P and Q. 2. Therefore, P.
It is raining in both N.Y. and L.A. Therefore, it is raining in N.Y.
Addition: 1. P 2. Therefore, P or Q.
It is raining. Therefore, either it is raining or it is sunny out.
Modus Ponens: 1. If P then Q. 2. P. 3. Therefore, Q.
If it is raining, then I will get wet. It is raining. Therefore, I will get wet.
Modus Tollens: 1. If P then Q. 2. Not Q (~Q). 3. Therefore, not P (~P).
If it had rained this morning, I would have gotten wet. I did not get wet. Therefore, it did not rain this morning.
Hypothetical Syllogism: 1. If P then Q. 2. If Q then R. 3. Therefore, if P then R.
If it rains, then I will get wet. If I get wet, then I will get cold. If it rains, then I will get cold.
Disjunctive Syllogism: 1. Either P or Q. 2. Not P (~P). 3. Therefore, Q.
Either it rained or I went home. It did not rain. Therefore, I went home.