(N.B.C.) Is Everyone a Philosopher?

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?


14 responses to “(N.B.C.) Is Everyone a Philosopher?

  1. I like the way you build up your argument, and I do agree with what you say. In the end you you discuss that everybody is a philosopher, because they will sometime wonder how life begun…I guess that is basic philosophy, but I know too many people who will ask the question, but then a second later will be busy watching a new TV program, run for the Tube even though there is one only 1 minute later… would you call these philosophers, when the questions remained in their mind for less than a minute?
    I don’t know… but I don’t think they would call themselves a philosopher.

  2. Cogito,
    perhaps you wouldn’t, or they wouldn’t, but I would.
    I’m assuming here that your conditions for being a philosopher are different to mine. I see a philosopher as one who engages in philosophy, perhaps you require something different or more than that to calss someone in this way?

  3. Rosie,

    I just think a lot of people don’t seem to be bothered about what extraordinary life they are living, that they are actually ‘alive’…which is why I see a philosopher as someone who will wake up in the morning and think, ‘wow, I am actually living on a round ball in the universe, that was created from nothing (or was it) and I am able to think and dream and wonder…how is all this possible? I am intrigued and I am amazed.’

    🙂 Its good that you have a positive view on people, and that you think most people do ‘care’ (if you can call it that) and I think most people can become one (I have managed to get some of my friends interested) but sometimes it takes a little bit of persuading…:)

  4. I’m no longer a student at UNSW but I still receive these Socratic Society annoucements. I followed the link to this discussion which looks very interesting.

    Wittgenstein warned against the type of thing which you’re doing: the craving for generality. For example, you say that we should “look at examples of philosophy and see what they have in common.”

    You go on to say that “Regardless of their names, they *must* have at least one common theme.” [the asterisk is for emphasis]

    They must? Why? Where does this requirement come from? (Here, it looks as if the ‘must’ is a logical requirement. But where did this come from?) This is the ‘Socratic Method’ – looking for what’s in common to all the things that are subsumed under a general term.

    I think you’re making another mistake: you say that the discussion wasn’t about definitions but rather the existence of an entity. This mistake is related to the Socratic Method. This method is analogous to doing chemical analysis – we distill our ideas to find the ‘the thing’ that makes it ‘philosophy’ (or ‘justice’, or ‘meaning’, etc.). Here the analogy should shed light on why you’re talking about the existence of entitities. A philosophical tendency is to say that if there is a thing (say, a real object) we should be able to talk about it. Perhaps on conceptual analysis, break down to find its purest essence. And this tendency then make you immediately say that ‘it made you question how you define it’ (i.e. how you talk about it). (Moreover, abtract ideas can only be talked about and this is why want a definition).

    If we can’t define something, or if we can’t find something in common, does this mean that we cannot know it?

  5. Dev,
    thanks for the comment!

    Surely, if some number of things is grouped under a general term, they mush have something in common? In the same way that History involves the study and discussion of past events and their impacts and that Chemistry is the study of chemicals, surely diciplines of Philosophy must have some common element?

    Also, when you said:

    “I think you’re making another mistake: you say that the discussion wasn’t about definitions but rather the existence of an entity.”

    I was referring to the debate a few weeks ago, not my own blog. I was demonstrating how the debate inspired my entry for the NBC.
    Sorry if it wasn’t clear =)

    thanks again,
    ~ Rosie

  6. Dear Rosie,

    Thanks for the response.

    I understand the overwhelming tendency to assume that there must be something in common – but this may be a trivial (in the sense that what is common is simply that the same word is used in each instance).

    But I suspect there is a deeper philosophical urge that compels you to say that “there *must* be something.”

    Also, think about what it means for something to have something in common with another thing. Perhaps you and I have something in common (philosophy and UNSW). Perhaps a chair has something in common with a table (they may be constructed using the same type of wood, or may be aesthetically similar, and so on). What do all pieces of furniture have in common?

    All I’m trying to articulate is that ‘seeing what’s in common’ often depends on the way we choose to compare (or contrast) and this depends on context. There is no one way to ‘see what they have in common’. (Hence, this is why I was a little skeptical about giving a definition of philosophy by giving examples and seeing what they have in common).

    So far we may be in total agreement but what you’re aiming at might be something like this: “Of coure can see what’s in common in many different ways. But there *must* be something, given the right criterion, we find in all those cases.” So although we can compare different chairs in many ways (type of wood, design, price range, etc.), there is something that’s essential to it being a chair (its ‘chairness’, let’s say).

    So I guess I’m just curious about your *must*. You probably want to get in there and clarify so I’ll stop babbling on!

    Cheers 🙂

  7. Dev,
    ” what you’re aiming at might be something like this: “Of coure can see what’s in common in many different ways. But there *must* be something, given the right criterion, we find in all those cases.” ”
    Yep, that’s pretty much it! 🙂
    I’m basically trying to say that in the same way that all chairs have something in common and all laptops have something in common, all the things we decide are philosophical issues, or a part of philosophy must have something in common with one another.
    This on its own will probably not cover the whole definition, but I think it’s a good starting point at least.

    thanks again,

    ~ Rosie

  8. Dear Rosie,

    I sympathise with your position to a certain extent although I’m not convinced. Finding things in common, I think, is a context-sensitive task. Of course, we may find something in common upon looking – but my interest is in your insistence that we *must* find something in common. To ask again, what do all pieces of furniture have in common?

    You should check out Wittgenstein’s ‘games’. He deals with the topics which we are discussing now. He asks ‘What do all games have in common?’


  9. Dev,
    thanks for the reccomendation, I’ll definately check it out =)

    “The movable articles in a room or an establishment that make it fit for living or working.” (according to http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/furniture … how lazy of me!)
    I’m saying that the mere fact that we put something in a class gives it common ground with other things in that class. So, by definition, it must have something in common with everything else it is classed with. This is something empirical and can be articulated, as in the definition of furniture there.
    I also agree with you in that this can be sensititve to perspective, but that only changes what does or doesn’t belong to the class.
    The fact that we put chairs in the ‘furniture’ class means that it is a movable article in a room or an establishment that make it fit for living or working, as is a table or anything else we put in that class. If we apply a different context to the tables and chairs, then we may find they belong in different classes depending on that different context, but whatever they are classed as they must have something in common with that class of things.
    But, my point is that if something belongs in a class then it can be classified as such, meaning that is has something in common with the rest of the things in that class.
    So, all things philosophical have something in common, just as all things furniture have something in common.

    ~ Rosie

  10. i really i preciate this authentic idea

  11. Hi,
    Plz, i need you guys to help me answer this question; Every body is a philosopher discuse?

  12. Emmanuel Nnadozie

    Everybody is a philosopher, Discuss

  13. I met a colleague who teaches educational philosophy at university.His first confrontation was on the meaning of philosophy and contradicted the general belief that “everyone is a philosopher in his own right” he does not want to begin with such a motion.is he correct?

  14. What is the modern definition of ‘Philosophy’?

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