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What is Philosophy?

Five Questions Answered

1. What is Philosophy?

Philosophers tend to address very abstract questions, such as whether there's a God, whether we have free will, and whether anything is objectively true. The subject tends to be divided into the following central areas:

  1. Metaphysics: What reality is like
  2. The Philosophy of Mind: What we are like
  3. Epistemology: The limits of our knowledge about reality
  4. Ethics: How we should live

Philosophers try to understand these issues by carefully defining different theories about them, and by trying to demonstrate that some of those theories are superior to others.

Since it's so broad, you almost certainly think about some parts of philosophy from time to time. And since it's so broad, there are probably some parts of philosophy that you'd love, and some parts you might not be so keen on.

2. Do philosophers still exist? Or do you just study the past?

There are plenty of professional philosophers around today, and we don't merely report on what the great dead philosophers said. We contribute to the debates they started, or else investigate questions they didn't even consider. Of course, we sometimes study the great dead philosophers, but we normally read them in order to build their insights into our own theories. Our present theories demonstrably improve on theirs, and will continue to improve as we continue to work on these issues.

Admittedly, it's a bit weird to call ourselves "philosophers". That label suggests that the bearer is some kind of all-knowing sage, delivering cryptic soundbites from some exotic location. That's not us: we're just university employees who are based in philosophy departments. As you might imagine, we talk about the profession from time to time, and it's easiest to call ourselves "philosophers", in the same way that the people in the economics department are "economists", in the physics department "physicists", and so on. We also regret that the label has weird connotations.

3. Do philosophers make progress?

We do. No philosopher today will read older books of philosophy without groaning from time to time at points of ignorance and confusion: we do this because we've made progress and we now know things that were not apparent to our predecessors. No doubt our successors will do the same when they read our work. Will this process ever come to an end? Not soon, for certain. Still, our theories will continue to approximate the truth to a greater and greater degree, and that is enough to make our work worthwhile.

Of course, it being research, I can't tell you what the next successes of philosophy will be. And even present philosophical influence - such as the effective altruism movement, and on animal rights - are hard to praise without first deciding whether such development are good or not, and that is just the sort of thing we are trying to work out. But past successes are easier to judge: philosophers such as Francis Bacon, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, let alone Plato or Aristotle, have had an enormously positive influence on the Western World and beyond.

4. Has philosophy been superceded by science?

In some respects, philosophy is like science. Like scientists, philosophers try to offer theories that make sense of the world. And in many places, the boundaries between philosophy and science are very hard to define. Indeed, until recently, the two were barely distinguished at all: the split is in part the result of the modern university system which has a habit of enforcing strict boundaries between disciplines. Philosophers continue to develop views that are informed by relevant developments in science.

Still, there is a broad difference in methodology between philosophy and science. Scientists do plenty of theoretical work, but they also rely a lot on experimental data. Philosophers obviously want their theories to be consistent with all relevant experimental data(!), but that data often underdetermines the correct choice of philosophical theory. Often, to decide between philosophical theories, you need to rely on the use of logic and abstract reasoning. In this respect, philosophy is perhaps comparable to mathematics, in that it examines the most fundamental concepts that are the bedrock of science itself.

Those are my views. Other philosophers think differently! For example, the philosophical empiricists broadly claimed that we can only know anything via sense experience, and some empiricists might claim that philosophy is valid only to the extent it is continuous with science. Debate about the merits of empiricism are a central part of philosophy. One extreme version of empiricism is Verificationism, according to which (very roughly) a question doesn't even make sense if it can't be answered by science. Again, that view continues to be discussed in philosophy today. (If you like the sound of that view, you might read A.J. Ayer's classic book "Language, Truth, and Logic", which is both short and readable!)

5. Why study Philosophy?

In part, the answer is because philosophy is an intrinsically worthwhile pursuit. But you might worry that studying philosophy is poor preparation for the world of work. This is mistaken. The modern workplace requires employees to move from role to role, and to adapt to new roles as times change. Moreover, progression up the career ladder often depends precisely on the ability to adapt to new roles and to apply yourself to new problems. For this reason, the value of modern education often comes from the transferable skills that it delivers: how to think, how to communicate, and how to work. These skills will help you not just at some limited range of tasks, but instead help you with every task you need to do, in any role, at every stage of your career. Studying philosophy helps develop such transferable skills, such as the ability to recognise problems and solve them methodically, to carefully evaluate lines of reasoning, to express ideas in a clear and persuasive manner, and so on. Such skills will prepare you well for a lifetime of varied work.

It's difficult to find truly reliable long-term data on career outcomes for philosophy graduates. But common efforts find that philosophy graduates do well. For example, the complete university guide has a comparison of graduate earnings, and according to their information, philosophy graduates compare favourably to other graduates (e.g. above biology, English, French, German, History, Sociology, and others).