What is philosophy? Usually, it is defined in two ways, neither of which tells the whole truth. First, philosophy is defined as the “love of wisdom.” That’s OK, but don’t many people who aren’t philosophers love wisdom? Scientists and teachers come to mind. Philosophy is also defined as the search for truth. Once again, that’s an OK answer, but don’t many other people also do this? Scientists, teachers, and many other professionals do this. What sets philosophy apart from these occupations?
Philosophy is different from these other occupations in part because of the questions it tries to answer. The questions philosophers ask are magnificent. Philosophers try to answer these questions:
Are we immortal or mortal?
Are we determined, or do we have free will?
Are we just a body, or do we also have an immaterial mind?
Is there something outside of nature?
Does God exist?
Do good and evil exist?
If good and evil exist, how can we tell the difference between them?
What ought we to do?
The questions a philosopher tries to answer are not empirical, that is, the philosopher cannot find their answers through use of the senses: sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell. Instead, the philosopher has to use a method different from a scientist’s observation and experimentation to discover the answers to questions of philosophy. This method uses arguments and logic. A philosopher uses arguments to make as strong a case for his or her answer to a question of philosophy.
Since we cannot test the answers to questions of philosophy by observation and experimentation, how can we tell if the answers are adequate? Several ways exist. Logic provides a way to test arguments. We can certainly demand that a philosopher’s argument follow the rules of logic. We can also demand consistency from the philosopher. If the philosopher believes two things that are contradictory, we know that there is something wrong with the philosopher’s position.
But logic isn’t enough although it’s a good start. The methods of philosophers include more than rational thought and logic. What do we do when two contradictory positions both exhibit good reasoning and consistency? A philosopher sometimes chooses between two positions on the basis of their consequences.
When writing, a good philosopher does certain things. When arguing for a position, the assumptions that the philosopher makes are clearly stated, the arguments that the philosopher uses are logically reasoned, and the consequences of the position are clearly derived.
In philosophy, clearness should be a virtue, as it is in other types of writing and in other types of communicating. Not all philosophers are clear, but often this can be attributed to the difficulty of the questions to which they try to find answers and to the specialized words and concepts that philosophers use.
By looking at some philosophers’ answers to philosophical questions, and how the philosophers arrived at these answers, you may be able to learn what philosophy is, what philosophers do, and how they do it.
Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved
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