Some people (who are sadly mistaken) think that the question “What is philosophy?” can be answered simply by picking up a dictionary and reading the definition (or definitions) of the word “philosophy”. Although it is delusional to look to a dictionary to resolve this issue, it is not a bad idea to start out this investigation by taking a look at some dictionary definitions, on the assumption that this is only a first step of an inquiry, not the last step.
Some basic clarification and disambiguation can be accomplished by dictionary definitions, and by carefully examining and critiquing dictionary definitions, one can at least come up with some hints and criteria for development of a definition or analysis that is better than available dictionary definitions.
When you work on constructing your own definition or analysis of “philosophy” you want to produce something that is AT LEAST as good as a dictionary definition, and that, hopefully, is AN IMPROVEMENT over available dictionary definitions. One way to determine whether a proposed definition or analysis of “philosophy” is better than a dictionary definition is by first establishing some specific problems or defects contained in some dictionary definitions of “philosophy”. If the new proposed definition avoids those specific problems or defects, then that would be evidence that the new definition is an improvement over the dictionary definitions.
Before we begin looking at dictionary definitions, there are a couple of points concerning conceptual analysis that we can borrow from modern philosophy. First, there might be no essence of philosophy. There might be no specific characteristic that ALL instances or examples of philosophy have in common. There might only be a “family resemblance” among a fairly diverse range of examples of things that count as “philosophy”.
If that is so, then a necessary-and-sufficient condition definition will not fully and accurately capture the meaning of the word “philosophy”. Instead, we might need to construct a criterial definition, which specifies various relevant criteria or characteristics that tend to make something an instance of “philosophy”, where no particular criterion must be satisfied by ALL instances of philosophy, and where the more criteria are satisfied by a particular example, the more clearly and definitely the word “philosophy” would properly apply to that example. With criterial definitions, there can be significant ‘gray areas” and “borderline cases” where a word is somewhat applicable, and somewhat not applicable.
Closely related to “family resemblance” and criterial definitions, is the idea of a paradigm case. If there are borderline cases of a concept, then there can also be central or paradigm cases of a concept. So, if “philosophy” is a family resemblance concept, or if it needs to be defined in terms of a criterial definition, then we will need to think about paradigm cases and clear-cut cases, and contrast those with borderline cases, where the word “philosophy” partially fits, but also partially does not fit.
So, keeping in mind these points about conceptual analysis, lets take a look at some dictionary definitions, and note both positive features of some definitions, as well as any apparent problems or defects with those definitions. Based on identification of both positive and negative aspects of dictionary definitions of “philosophy”, we might be able to establish some hints and/or criteria that would be useful for evaluation of any new proposed definitions of “philosophy”.
Jesus H Christ. There are twelve different definitions of “philosophy” in The American Heritage Dictionary (2nd College Edition).
The first defintion is also divided into three different related senses of the word. Since the three related senses in the first definition don’t look very similar to me, this dictionary in effect provides FOURTEEN different definitions for the word “philosophy”. I will, however, stick with the numbering scheme provided by the dictionary. Hopefully, we can eliminate several of these definitions as irrelevant to our inquiry:
1a. Love and pursuit of wisdom by intellectual means and moral self-discipline.
1b. The investigation of causes and laws underlying reality.
1c. A system of philosophical inquiry or demonstration.
2. Inquiry into the nature of things based on logical reasoning rather than empirical methods.
3. The critique and analysis of fundamental beliefs as they come to be conceptualized and formulated.
4. The synthesis of all learning.
5. The investigation of natural phenomena and its systematization in theory and experiment, as in alchemy, astrology, or astronomy: hermetic philosophy, natural philosophy.
6. All learning except technical precepts and practical arts.
7. All the disciplines presented in university curriculums of science and the liberal arts, except medicine, law, and theology: Doctor of Philosophy.
8. The science comprising logic, ethics, aesthetics, metaphysics, and epistemology.
9. A system of motivating concepts or principles: the philosophy of a culture.
10. A basic theory; viewpoint: an original philosophy of advertising.
11. The system of values by which one lives: his philosophy of life.
12. The calmness, equanimity, and detachment thought to benefit a philosopher.
I put definitions 2, 3, and 8 in red font, because those three definitions seemed to be the best of the bunch. I definitiely want to take a closer look at these three definitions to see what insights they contain and what we might be able to borrow from them in constructing a new and better definition of “philosophy”.
Definitions 4, 6, and 7 are in gray font because they are obviously too broad and can be immediately set aside. We are interested in the idea of philosophy as a particular academic discipline (or as a possible academic discipline), so uses of the word “philosophy” that encompass diverse acadmic disciplines are irrelevant to our current investigation.
Definitions 1b and 5 are in purple font because they seem to be definitions of “science” or attempts at definitions of “science”. It might be useful to try to compare and contrast philosophy with science, and these two definitions might help one to make this comparison and contrast.
The remaining defintions in black font seem off target, but they touch on aspects of philosophy and so it would probably be useful to do some thinking about these definitions and how they relate to the idea of philosophy as an academic discipline.
We have already stumbled upon a couple of basic criteria for evaluation of a definition of “philosophy”:
C1. The definition should be such that it excludes other established academic disciplines (e.g. history, psychology, mathematics, biology, chemistry, physics).
C2. The definition should be such that it excludes scientific investigation, and sheds light on the difference between philosophy and scientific investigation.
To be continued…