NOTES on Jay F. Rosenberg (1942-2008): The Character of Philosophy


I can definitely recommend Jay F. Rosenberg’s Practice of Philosophy: A Handbook for Beginners, which is available in many libraries, especially university libraries. Rosenberg (born 1942) is a very clear writer who has many interesting things to say about philosophy. Rosenberg writes, “Philosophy as a discipline is perhaps thought of most fruitfully as being distinguished by its method rather than by a subject matter.”

The reason for this is philosophers investigate so much. For nearly every subject that is studied, there is a “philosophy of” that subject. For example, at Ohio University (located at Athens, Ohio) you can study the Philosophy of Sex and Love! In addition, many universities offer courses in Medical Ethics, Business Ethics, Philosophy of Mathematics, Philosophy of History, Philosophy of Literature, etc.

First-Order and Second-Order Questions

We can make a distinction between first-order and second-order questions. According to the glossary of Fundamentals of Philosophy, by David Stewart and H. Gene Blocker, “A first-order intellectual activity (talking, thinking, describing) is one which is concerned with the things we experience in the ordinary world. A second-order intellectual activity is one which is concerned with a first-order activity; for example, thinking about thinking, talking about talking.”

Philosophy is known as an area of inquiry that asks second-order questions. Practitioners of other areas of inquiry ask first-order questions, but as soon as these practitioners of other areas of inquiry ask about the basis for what they are doing, they are asking second-order questions and thus engaging in philosophy.

For example, a critic might ask, “Was her second novel more fully realized than her first?” In asking this question, the critic is engaging in a first-order activity and asking a first-order question; in other words, the critic is doing what a critic is supposed to do. However, the critic may also ask, “What does it mean to say that her second novel is more fully realized than her first?” In asking this question, the critic is engaging in a second-order activity and asking a second-order question; in other words, the critic is asking about the basis of criticism and thus engaging in philosophy.

Another example: Lawyers ask a first-order question when they ask, “Is the person guilty?” Examples of second-order questions about law that a philosopher could ask include “What does it mean to be guilty?” and “What is justice?”

The Cutting Edge

Rosenberg also writes about cases in which philosophy and other disciplines blend together: “For it is precisely on the frontiers of any discipline that the characteristically philosophical concerns of sense (What does it mean?) and justification (How could we tell?) arise with special force and immediacy.”

Here’s an example. One of the new areas of physics is quantum physics. One interpretation of the way quantum particles behave is that they behave randomly — that is, they are not caused to move in a certain direction or with a certain velocity, but instead, their direction and velocity are random.

One of the most important questions that philosophers have been trying to find the answer to is whether we have free will or are determined. According to determinism, everything is caused and we have no free will despite our feeling that what we do is up to us. According to determinism, whatever decision I make has been determined by my heredity and environment (nature and nurture). Thus, I am not a center for the Boston Celtics today because of my heredity (I am short and middle-aged and have slow reflexes) and my environment (in the neighborhood where I grew up, the kids played lots of baseball and very little basketball).

On the other hand, according to indeterminism (the free will theory), I am not a center for the Boston Celtics today in part because I chose to devote my energies to education rather than athletics. (It’s true that if I had chosen to devote my energies to playing basketball that I still would probably not be playing center for the Boston Celtics, but that does not refute indeterminism because indeterminism recognizes that we are each born into a certain situation; for example, I am not free to choose to grow until I am seven feet tall.)

So we see that on the cutting edge of physics arises the philosophical question of whether we are free or determined. After all, determinism says that everything is caused, and if quantum particles behave randomly they are not caused and thus determinism has been refuted. (However, this does not prove that human beings have free will because indeterminism may exist only at the quantum level and not at the level of human beings.)

Philosophical questions also arise on the cutting edge of medicine and doctoring. Abortion is such a divisive issue because people can’t agree on such philosophical questions as “What is a person?” If agreement could be reached on when an embryo or fetus becomes a person, agreement would be reached on when — if ever — abortion is moral.

Criticisms of Philosophy

Many people complain that philosophy seems rarified and abstract, elusive and arbitrary in its methods, lacking in a firm sense of direction, that it fails to achieve results, and is generally detached from the real world. Rosenberg believes that part of the reason why people believe this is because philosophy is a second-order discipline. After all, philosophers do not share such things as the results of empirical experiments.

However, according to Rosenberg, one thing helps philosophers to stay on track: the history of philosophy. All contemporary philosophers have studied the great philosophers of the past — Plato, Descartes, Locke, Hume, Berkeley, Kant, etc. — and thus have a common heritage. By referring to this heritage, and finding out with which philosophers they agree and why, contemporary philosophers “can find the beginnings of a process which might resolve their disagreement in their diverse commentaries on and assessments of these views and the arguments mobilized in their support.”

A Recommendation

I enthusiastically recommend that you read Jay F. Rosenberg’s Practice of Philosophy: A Handbook for Beginners, 2nd edition (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1984. For one thing, he has very interesting things to say about George Berkeley, whose philosophy of Idealism many beginning students of philosophy find strange. (When I first heard about Idealism, I asked, “Do people really believe that?”) Rosenberg shows that Idealism makes much more sense than first appearances indicate. Look for The Practice of Philosophy: A Handbook for Beginners in your local library, and if it’s not there, don’t forget why Interlibrary Loan was invented.

Note: The quotations by Rosenberg that appear in this essay are from his Practice of Philosophy: A Handbook for Beginners.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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