Saturday, February 16, 2013

On Philosophy

What is Philosophy?

Before trying to answer this question, let me pose a different one- For what field of study x, does the question "what is x" fall within the realm of x itself? It's not mathematics, for what is mathematics in not a mathematical question. Neither is it science (what is science isn't a properly scientific question that can be decided empirically) nor it's politics or psychology etc. The only candidate for x that fits the above criteria seems to be philosophy. "What is philosophy" is strictly a philosophical question. In fact, all other such "what is x" type questions mentioned above are themselves philosophical questions.

Now how does this relate to the original question? I think this highlights a crucial distinction between philosophy and other specialized field of studies and it is this - for any specialized field of study, the particular aspect in which it studies reality is fixed and this aspect is given to it as if from outside; philosophy, on the other hand, is not constrained by any such boundaries. It is free to choose any and the most generic aspect under which it wants to study reality. And therefore only philosophy seems sufficiently capable of self-consciously looking at itself in a manner in which other sciences, being limited by their own definition, are not.

In fact, it is only when a particular aspect of reality under consideration becomes sufficiently articulated does it become a separate discipline. Thus what was once studied under philosophy as natural science, once it got articulated, became physics as we know it and thence got subdivided further into chemistry and biology and so on.

So, philosophy is simply an "enquiry into the unknown". And the only distinction between it and other specialized studies is a negative one - once everything is accounted for by one specialized field or the other, whatever else is left is philosophy.

The best definition that I came across for Philosophy, and which succinctly sums up my views as well, is due 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. 

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