What is Philosophy?

Throughout history, the word Philosophy has had many different meanings to very different people.  Academics have used philosophy and philosophical principles to address every serious and important questions.  Laypeople have used the term philosophy to describe their own attitudes and biases on a variety of subjects.   Philosophy is used within a variety of fields and is used to think about a wide range of topics.  In every day discussions, the word philosophy is often tossed around from philosophies about life, politics, religion, business, exercise and more.  So what does it mean to be a philosopher?  At the root of it all, what does the word philosophy mean, and what is implied when someone claims to either have a philosophy or to be a philosopher?  While the word philosophy literally means the love of wisdom in the ancient Greek language from which it originated, that love of wisdom has come in many forms, both in the ancient world and on through the present in both the vernacular usage of the word as well as in academic pursuits.  To understand what philosophy means or does, however, does not indicate that the word or the field has a singular usage, method or application.  Overall, philosophy is dynamic, not static, and can be applied in many ways throughout many fields, and its usage in lay-language can be just as valid as its usage throughout academia (Sinclair 12).  Whether academic or vernacular, “philosophy is the perennial activity by which we constantly examine ourselves and our role in the universe” and “the history of philosophy shows that periods of the greatest human achievement coincide with periods of widespread philosophical activity” such as the Renaissance and the Enlightenment (Sinclair 13).

When a layperson uses the term philosophy to describe their particular views about a subject, an argument or a position, what they are really doing is describing a personally held moral code which is based on personal biases or beliefs about how they see the world.  In the world of academia, conversely, a philosopher is someone who examines arguments, and seeks to walk the balance line between dogmatism in certainty and skepticism (Sinclair 13).  The academic methods and approaches towards philosophy encompass many approaches, and have changed throughout history.  The historical approach to philosophy is concerned with studying the past and studying historical figures who have made significant contributions to philosophy within their own times (Emporia State University 1).  Another approach to the study of philosophy is to posit it as the study of language, which utilizes a scientific approach to philosophical questions (Emporia State University 2).  Thirdly, an approach to philosophy can be described as a program of change, as advocated by Karl Marx (Emporia State University 2).  A philosophical approach can also be a series of questions and answers, although in the field of philosophy, many questions cannot be answered definitively or scientifically (Emporia State University 3).  A philosophical approach can also be seen as a criticism or a worldview (Emporia State University 4).  All of these approaches to the field of academic philosophy have all found a place throughout history, and have been posited by many who have been called “great” philosophers.  But each of these approaches also contains limitations that cannot seek to describe the field of philosophy as a whole (Joll 5).

Since philosophy’s base meaning, a lover of wisdom, does not contain many descriptors, going off of its literal meaning does nothing to define what it means to practice philosophy or to be a philosophy, and more descriptive definitions of philosophy itself is therefore required. (Emporia State University 1).  Without a more descriptive meaning of the word or the field, the implication becomes that “anyone who thinks seriously about any subject is a philosopher” which would negate the field of the philosophy entirely (Emporia State University 1).  If everyone who practices critical thought can be labeled as a philosopher and can be applied to anyone at any time for any subject, then the word philosophy becomes meaningless and empty (Emporia State University 1).  It becomes necessary, then, to posit a more descriptive definition, which is difficult when approaching philosophy from a field like science where universal definitions are expected and adhered to.  Descriptively, however, “philosophy seeks to describe its functions, goals, and reasons for existence” (Emporia State University 1).

While it can be said that everyone that applies critical thinking to a subject or to their lives is utilizing philosophical practices, it cannot be said that everyone that does so is a philosopher, per se – at least not in the academic sense.  Being a philosopher requires an adherence to the discipline of argumentation, and applying that discipline to areas in life that need to be considered.  While these considerations may not lead to objectively, fundamentally true definitive answers on some of life’s biggest questions, they can provide insight into problems that face humanity as a whole and serve to assist the human race in finding our place within the world by allowing us to examine it critically.

Works Cited

Joll, Nicholas.  “Contemporary Metaphilosophy.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://www.iep.utm.edu/con-meta/

Sinclair, Alistair.  What is Philosophy?: An Introduction, Edinburgh: Dunedin Academic Press Limited, 2008. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost).  Web. 31 Aug. 2016.

“What is philosophy?”  Emporia State University, 31 Aug. 2016, https://www.empira.edu/socsci/research-and-teaching-links/philosophy-book/chp1.html


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