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What actually is Philosophy?

Normally when I say I study Philosophy, the response is one of three things: ‘woah, deep…”, “what will you do with that?” and “[attempt at concealing a smirk] oh yeah, how’s that?” The other day I was taken aback when someone said, “oh woah, who do you focus on?” The fact that I liked Continental Philosophy stunned him even more. So here I am to make the case for my beloved discipline, Philosophy.

Dear Philosophy was born out of, according to the Ancients (Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, great men with better-than-hipster beards) a sense of wonder. Once all our material needs were met we began to ask questions about things that are bigger than our everyday lives. We asked questions that we didn’t know the answers to, and then attempted to reason out solutions to such questions.

Socrates, the first of the Ancient philosophers, used to walk around the marketplace in Athens, annoying everyone he could by asking them what different words actually meant. In one of Plato’s dialogues, we learn that Socrates asked Euthyphro what impiety means, and Euthyphro is only able to give specific instances of impiety – and not a general definition.

Today, that’s akin to me asking what a burger is and my interlocutor responding by reciting the ingredients of all 180 WOAP burgers.

Socrates pressed people to answer uncomfortable and destabilising questions. He wanted to find the truth, and he thought that we just needed a little help to understand our presuppositions and how our thinking was going wrong.

And here lies one of Philosophy’s tasks in the 21st century. Philosophers know about systems of thinking, and how to structure thought and arguments (if we have good training and aren’t in a programme that thinks it’s only role is to teach critical thinking, whatever that is). We can reason through a long and complex argument and make clear how it works. We’re adept at picking up presuppositions and underlying conditions which authors tend to leave out. We know how to read complex texts and are comfortable dealing with difficult ideas and topics.

The need for these kinds of skills seems pretty obvious. Every man and his dog are talking about the post-truth world now, and it’s not uncommon to hear the thought that people just aren’t thinking through things anymore. Back then, as now, Philosophy’s role remains unchanged: to help people think.

In New Zealand, the predominant tenet of philosophy is analytic in nature. That means breaking down arguments into premises, defining concepts, and working with normative examples. It’s much like neo-classical modelling in economics: good in theory, non-existent in reality. For example, much of the ethics and political philosophy done in countries where analytic philosophy is prevalent is based on the idea that we should find principles which apply to everyone and can guide behaviour. It’s an exercise in seeing who can come up with the most outlandish scenario, which still could, in some possible world, exist.

On the other side of philosophy lies the continental tradition. It’s much more slippery and difficult to grasp because it isn’t preoccupied with laying out definitions for everything; instead beginning from the fact that we all share a rough idea of what things mean. Thus, continental philosophy focuses more on concepts and ideas, taking a more of a historical approach. It can teach us about alternate methods of inquiry outside of the natural sciences (analytic philosophy largely models that tradition).

I should add that every philosopher defines the continental/analytic split differently, so what’s above is the way I best understand it.

Both ways of doing philosophy have tremendous value in our society. The world was governed and lead largely by philosophers for the first 1,900 years, and then science began to take hold as a discipline more worthy of belief, and much closer to the way things actually are.

Trouble is, now we’re seeing a marked decline in our trust in science, with the possibility of faking results and the pressure to publish harming the credibility of the natural sciences. You don’t know what’s true anymore.

Mental health problems are increasing, social media is becoming the largest source of information, and this is all pointing to one conclusion: we’re struggling with how to think.

So perhaps philosophers don’t directly have jobs in the traditional sense, but they have value, which isn’t recognised enough by society or even by philosophy institutions themselves. Universities should pull philosophy out of the dusty cupboard, steering well clear of the kitchen sink of trying to market it, and do a bit of philosophy about philosophy. ‘Cause we need it.

Maybe then I won’t have to politely smile back, jumping down off my golden chariot to scorn at the ignorance.

Just kidding. If I did, at least then I would be living up to the stereotypes…

Jack has joined the Initiative team as an intern for six weeks and will be researching and working on our upcoming localism report. Jack is two years in a three-year degree in Philosophy at KU Leuven University in Belgium and is back home in Wellington while on his (European) summer break. 

2 Comments on What actually is Philosophy?

  1. Clearly the current wealth of knowledge is over whelming as such it’s easy to pull the wool over peoples eyes. You only have to look to Government for an endless string of examples.


  2. Great article. Breaking down the innate skepticism people seem posses when you tell anyone you’ve studied philosophy would have a lot of benefit for the, excuse the term, public good.

    Philosophy is something which people are unaware that they have, possessing their own view and understand of the world around them, and I think there would be limitless benefits if people engaged in discussion about those beliefs.
    Discussion of our plurality of different life experiences I believe would help our society to progress and understand where our views come from, and more awareness from articles like this will promote it too.


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