I was recently invited to think about answering two questions: 1. What is philosophy? 2. How is philosophy done? Teaching first-year community college students for 17 years gave me ready answers, of course. Philosophy is a love of wisdom inspired by a sense of wonder about the world. Philosophy is an activity, not a study. It is a way of engaging with the world critically, not accepting things simply as they appear to be, and it is expanding the imagination to ask broader and deeper questions about reality.
These answers aren’t too bad for first-year students hearing of philosophy for the first time, but they seem fairly shallow for older adults who have already lived examined lives and have also read the works of some of history’s most famous philosophers. A second approach might be to think of the work of professional philosophers working the field at the moment, some engaging in work so arcane and distant from everyday life that I wouldn’t even begin to know how to describe them.
Still, we do have public intellectuals who engage with social issues and try to help us navigate how to live just and meaningful lives. Kwame Anthony Appiah and Martha Nussbaum come to mind. Another group of philosophers are trying to answer basic questions about both consciousness and morality through experimentation—Joshua Green, for example. And some philosophers are doing their best to use an expansive and critical approach to science of the mind to develop a coherent philosophy of mind to explain what it means to be conscious at all (Patricia Churchland, for example).
But none of this answers either of the questions that sent me down this path. Most first-year philosophy students in the United States learn that Socrates is considered the father of philosophy—despite the fact that philosophers certainly existed before him. Nonetheless, Socrates is credited with establishing the foundations of philosophy by developing the practice of refutation. In this method, possible conjectures about the truth are offered, though not by Socrates, and then examined for possible flaws. Socrates, it would seem, was good at finding the flaws and refuting the conjectures of others, which made him quite unpopular in some circles.
It is worth noting that coming up with those conjectures in the first place might be an important function of philosophy, but refutation became cemented in our minds as a sort of negative function of philosophy. It doesn’t really give us answers to what our own existence is, but does tell us what it is not. The process of refutation invites a competition that can be demoralising to the person whose theories are being refuted. Some female philosophers have opined that this negative approach to philosophy is exactly the thing men would come up with. Women, they say, would use more collaborative approaches, which may be true—at least for some women. Many female philosophers have shown both the willingness and capability to engage in refutation with fervour. Christine de Pisan was refuting hither and yon in the 14th century.
Regardless of the importance of refutation, philosophy does seem to involve an ongoing conversation. Though philosophers often claim to lock themselves into a state of solitude (just look at Descartes for example), they rely just as much on interaction with other philosophers (see Descartes’ objections and replies). So, the proper method of philosophy must involve engagement, whether collaborative and constructive or competitive and destructive. So, philosophy is a kind of conversation with testing, challenging, and, one hopes, some degree of support—and maybe a little experimentation with fMRI’s and things of that nature.
And to what end do philosophers engage in this conversation? Is it to generate questions, generate answers, or to live a good life. Socrates must have believed that the practice of philosophy would help develop a good life, or he would not have declared so forcefully that the unexamined life is not worth living. Of course, not everyone agrees that the examined life is worth living, either, but maybe that is the kind of question philosophy can help answer.
Bertrand Russell offered a pretty convincing argument that philosophical questions can’t be answered because the ones that can be answered are scientific questions. From time to time technology and scientific experimentation move some questions from the realm of philosophy to the realm of science. In such cases, philosophers might offer a hand in interpreting the answers to such questions, which doesn’t seem like the grandest aspiration for philosophy—helping to interpret scientific findings.
I also don’t know that generating questions should be the ultimate goal of philosophy, either, but it is one I enjoy. I always used to promise my students that while other subjects would answer their questions about the given subject, philosophy would make them question the answers they already had and open up a slew of new questions. I once had a student challenge me and say that he was pretty sure everyone in the class knew what a human was and he couldn’t believe anyone would waste time asking about it. After asking a few questions about at what stage in mental deterioration one loses the rights they had as a functioning human, he agreed that the question did have important implications and could be difficult to answer. As promised, I failed to give him any clear answers to the question of what a human is, but I did give him more questions than he had expected.
I do think my life is better for the time I’ve spent engaging with philosophy and philosophers. If nothing else, philosophy has made me less sure of myself, and I think the world would be better if more people were less sure of themselves. Unfortunately, telling people they don’t know the answers to questions that pop up in everyday life is not always met with gratitude or praise. Socrates would agree.