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What is Philosophy?

What is Philosophy?

Philosophy is different from many other Arts subjects in that to study it you need to do it. To be an art historian, you needn't paint; to study poetry, you needn't be a poet; you can study music without playing an instrument. Yet to study philosophy you have to engage in philosophical argument (reasons or evidence leading to a conclusion). Not that you have to operate at the level of the great thinkers of the past; but when you study philosophy, you will be doing the same sort of thing as them. You can play football without reaching the level of Pelé, and you can get a great deal of intellectual satisfaction from philosophizing without the originality or brilliance of Wittgenstein. But in both cases you will have to develop some of the skills used by the great practitioners. That's one of the reasons why philosophy can be such a rewarding subject to study.

The word 'philosophy' is derived from the Greek for 'love of wisdom'. But that isn't particularly helpful in understanding how the word is used now. Philosophy is a subject at the core of most humanities courses. It focuses on abstract questions such as 'Does God exist?', 'Is the world really as it appears to us?', 'How should we live?', 'What is Art?', 'Do we have genuine freedom of choice?', 'What is the mind?', and so on.

These very abstract questions can arise out of our everyday experience. Some people caricature philosophy as a subject with no relevance to life, a subject to be studied from an armchair for purely intellectual satisfaction, the academic equivalent of solving crossword puzzles. But this is a serious misrepresentation of large parts of the subject. For instance, the heated debate about whether boxing should be banned can only be answered by addressing important abstract questions. What are the acceptable limits of individual freedom in a civilized country? What are the justifications for paternalism, for forcing people to behave in a particular way for their own good? In other words, this debate is not simply about gut reactions to the sport, but depends on fundamental philosophical assumptions (a claim for which no argument is given; one which is accepted for the purposes of the argument).

The analysis of reasons and arguments is a particular province of philosophy. In fact, inasmuch as philosophy has a distinctive method, it is this: the construction, criticism and analysis of arguments. Philosophical skills are applicable in any area where arguments are important, not just in the realms of abstract speculation. They are particularly useful when you are writing essays, since you are usually expected to make a case for your conclusions rather than simply assert them. For this reason, a basic grounding in philosophy is extremely valuable, whatever academic subject you intend to pursue.

Nigel Warburton