What is philosophy? Some answers.

Marilyn Adams: Philosophy is thinking really hard about the most important questions and trying to bring analytic clarity both to the questions and the answers.

Peter Adamson: I guess I think philosophy is the study of the costs and benefits that accrue when you take up a certain position.

Simon Blackburn: Well, it’s a process of reflection on the deepest concepts, that is structures of thought, that make up the way in which we think about the world.

Wendy Brown: Philosophy asks about life’s meanings. Philosophy asks about who we are, what we might be, how we conceive ourselves, and how we can even think these questions.

Claire Carlyle: Philosophy is about making sense of that situation that we find ourselves in.

Tony Coady: Philosophy has always been something of a science of presuppositions; but it shouldn’t just expose them and say there they are’. It should say something further about them that can help people. As I get older and older I’m more and more concerned that there should be more imagination in philosophy than there is.

Tim Crane: To quote Wilfrid Sellars, philosophy is the attempt to understand how things in the most general sense of that word hang together in the most general sense of those words.

Sebastian Gardner: Philosophy is the attempt to unify theoretical and practical reason.

Raymond Geuss: I’m afraid I have a very unhelpful answer to that, because it’s only a negative answer. It’s the answer that Friedrich Schlegel gave in his Athenaeum Fragments: philosophy is a way of trying to be a systematic spirit without having a system.

Thomas Hurka: Philosophy is abstract thought guided by principles of logic and ideals of precision in thought and argumentation about the most general issues concerning human beings and the world and our place in the world.

Brian Leiter: A philosopher for Nietzsche was an honorific. It refers to the person who creates or legislates value. It’s the person who, to borrow an image from one of my colleagues at the University of Chicago, Judge Richard Posner, is a Moral entrepreneur. It’s a nice image. It’s somebody who creates new ways of evaluating things—what’s important, what’s worthwhile— that changes how an entire culture or an entire people understand those things.

Alexander Nehamas: I can’t answer that directly. I will tell you why I became a philosopher. I became a philosopher because I wanted to be able to talk about many, many things, ideally with knowledge, but sometimes not quite the amount of knowledge that I would need if I were to be a specialist in them. It allows you to be many different things. And plurality and complexity are very, very important to me.

Alex Neill: Philosophy is thinking that is obsessed with clarity.

Thomas Pogge: Philosophy in the classical sense is the love of wisdom. So the question then is What is wisdom?’ And I think wisdom is understanding what really matters in the world.

Janet Radcliffe Richards: I regard philosophy as a mode of enquiry rather than a particular set of subjects. I regard it as involving the kind of questions where you’re not trying to find out how your ideas latch on to the world, whether your ideas are true or not, in the way that science is doing, but more about how your ideas hang together.

Michael Sandel: Philosophy is reflecting critically on the way things are. That includes reflecting critically on social and political and economic arrangements. It always intimates the possibility that things could be other than they are. And better.

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong: Philosophy is the search for a coherent and justified overall world-view. Philosophers should stop looking at little issues in the corner of our lives and try to see how things fit together; how psychology fits with philosophy, how the mind fits with the body, how aesthetic value relates to economic value and justice. Those are the big issues: how do we fit together the different aspects of our lives? And that’s what philosophy ought to be addressing.


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