By Rosie Mulray
The topic of this blog is a follow on from the highly entertaining Socratic Society debate last Monday and the challenges it posed to my definition of Philosophy. Although the point of the debate wasn’t strictly about its definition (but rather its existence as some distinct entity), it caused me to question how I define it for myself.
How do I define philosophy?
It relates to a point made by Dr Madison; to define philosophy we should (or at least, it would be easier to) apply a bottom-up way of thinking. Look at examples of philosophy and see what they have in common.
Trying to put that into practice is harder than it sounds. Being a humble first year I’m not too sure what the disciplines of philosophy are, or if they are even distinct from each other, but if they can display some common theme then maybe we can get somewhere.
Regardless of their names, they must have at least one common theme. So what is it?
It seems to me that they all involve discussing abstract concepts. Take for example, the discussion group last Tuesday was a 2 hour discussion on the abstract concept of conformity (in Morven Brown 327 from 12 – 2, every even week!). By abstract I mean to say that it isn’t tangible, something that can’t be quantified. You can quantify degrees of conformity, but not conformity itself. In the same way, you can’t quantify knowledge, love, belief, discrimination, justice, God or morality. So does that make it philosophy?
Surely philosophy involves more than just discussion.
This brings me to my second idea.
I think it is necessary to think long and hard about philosophy, not just discuss the issues it concerns. To really engage in philosophy I think it is necessary to sit down (in an armchair by the fire, in any good café or even the Doncaster) and think about a topic as in the examples above to form (or begin to form) a personal opinion on the matter. I hesitate to use the word opinion, because that implies reaching a conclusion and often has connotations of aggressive applications, but I think you catch my drift.
Here it could be possible to ask, “Is discussing one of these intangible ideas engaging in philosophy?” and my answer is no, it is discussing philosophy, not engaging in it. It is certainly possible to enter discussions that are not philosophical. Although I do agree that discussion is an integral part of philosophy and is perhaps part of what it is to be a philosopher, but not what it is to be a philosopher. To continue with the discussion group example, I would say that if someone came to one of the meetings without an opinion and left with one, they’d be engaging in philosophy with themselves. If they came prepared with a personal opinion, voiced and developed it during the discussion, they’d be engaging in philosophy with the group. If someone came to the meeting and didn’t manage to form/develop an opinion, but instead discussed the issue at hand from a purely objective perspective, they would be discussing philosophy, not engaging in it.
I think what I’m trying to say is that it involves some degree of personal involvement.
That being said, it is almost impossible to remain completely disengaged from a philosophical discussion, so it would be quite rare to discuss philosophy and not engage in it.
So, is it unfair to say that almost everyone could be considered a philosopher? Assuming that all it takes to be a philosopher is to engage in philosophy and given that most people at some stage wonder about the meaning of life, say, or perhaps the nature of love or the existence of a God or Gods, does it not follow that most of the population capable of grasping abstract concepts could be counted as a philosopher?