Saturday, November 15, 2008

What is philosophy

Reading through "Philosophy: who needs it" by Ayn Rand. Greatness. And it left me with the question: what is philosophy?

Possible definitions:
1) Philosophy is opinion about unknowable things, and arguments to support said opinion;
2) Philosophy is opinion about the fundamental nature of being, which is knowable, and arguments to support said opinion.
3) Philosophy is the tools and structure to one's thought -- the ideas we bring to our experience in order to process experience and determine action.

I think that in practice today, most people use one of the first two definitions -- non-philosophers typically use the first one; philosophers typically use the second. But I don't think either is meaningful. I don't think philosophy is about opinions or arguments to support opinions. I think philosophy is a toolbox of logical, moral, and aesthetic precepts that we bring to our experience and choices. I think it's less about what our opinions are, and more about how we form our opinions. I think it's less about the destination, and more about the process.

Does that mean that opinions are pointless? No. But I think those opinions (when meaningful) fall outside the purview of philosophy. That is to say, my opinions about how what gravity is are not "philosophy" -- there are "science." My opinions about what good art is are not "philosophy" -- they are "taste." My opinions about how I ought to behave are not "philosophy" -- they are my morality.

Philosophy is the tools by which I come to those opinions. It is the practices of deduction, induction, and abduction. It is the practice of identifying and defusing logical fallacies. It is the practice of always defining terms precisely prior to their use.

And those tools of philosophy serve us everywhere -- in love, politics, art, work, and children.

I think that the emphasis placed on "opinions" in philosophy courses is misguided. I think that opinions should be identified, but that the meat and potatoes in philosophy should be in the reasoning that goes into those opinions, rather than the opinions themselves. That is to say, the point of a philosophy class should not be to figure out whether you are Hegelian, Kantian, and Randian. The point of a philosophy class should be to figure out how to think about all the questions raised by those people, and thereby learn how to think about the questions raised by our lives.

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