Friday, February 4, 2011

What is philosophy?

Since this is a blog about a humanistic "spiritual philosophy", I think I should put a few words here early on about what I mean by "spiritual" and "philosophy".

Philosophy is a difficult thing to define, and no single definition is likely to satisfy even a large number of its practitioners and enthusiasts. Having fairly acknowledged this, I blunder on ahead to offer my own definiton: philosophy is discourse which proceeds through rational, critical, and creative engagement with the fundamental concepts underlying an account of some field of human (or any other category of appropriately sapient creature) practice or experience.

To elaborate-

Philosophy is discourse. It is a grand discussion taking place in both speech and writing, sometimes to the aim of uncovering the truth about something (in which case it is the subset of discourse called inquiry), and sometimes for the sake of clarifying, discovering, or creating new points of view, ideas, and even worldviews.

Philosophical discussion is a rational endeavor; ideally, participants are mindful of the coherence and validity of their claims and arguments, and they appeal to one another's intelligence and intuition rather than struggling for rhetorical domination. Philosophy is a critical process; everything is open to question, all the time, including the basic concepts and vocabulary of the discussion. Philosophy can be a creative activity; as indicated in the previous paragraph, it can involve the construction of new concepts, ideas, and even worldviews. In this way, philosophy may at times be a form of art.

Philosophy is concerned with concepts. The philosopher deals carefully with ideas, defining them when he or she can, exploring their structure, seeking out their uses and boundaries, asking after their soundness and propriety, pointing out inconsistencies, and suggesting replacements and improvements.

When philosophy is subdivided, as into philosophy of science, philosophy of mind, moral philosophy, epistemology, etc., it is to indicate that these fields involve investigations into the conceptual foundations of their subjects: science, mind, morality, knowledge, etc. Philosophy is not limited to such abstract subjects- there could just as easily be philosophy of sports, of fashion, of software engineering, philosophy of anything that humanbeasts concern themselves with and are inclined to discuss.

Keep in mind, I've offered a contentious definition here, and everything that follows has been equally questionable. This is what I take philosophy to be, and I have defined it in terms of the good things that it, uniquely, does for humanity, as far as I can see.

The definition I've offered is rather woolly and vague (this is not an accident), and I won't be making any special efforts to stick to it as I go about philosophizing (or failing to). Philosophy does not have the same kind of demarcation problems that science has; there is no danger that I will venture into pseudophilosophy and lead you astray with a false appearance of authority. There are no authorities here. If you disagree with me about what philosophy is or whether I'm doing it, then disagree! These are entirely discussible items.

I'd like to keep preliminary entries like this short and punchy, so I won't draw this out any further; I will save the little bit that I'd like to say about spirituality for another entry.

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