WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY?

Bertrand Russell, one of the most prestigious and best known philosophers of the twentieth century, summarized the value of philosophy in this way:

Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions, since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation; but above all because, through the greatness of the universe which philosophy contemplates, the mind is also rendered great, and becomes capable of that union with the universe which constitutes the highest good.

While Russell's claims for philosophy may seem a bit optimistic, you should keep two of his claims in mind as you proceed.  First, your introduction to philosophy will be guided, not by the answers given, but by the questions asked.  Philosophy is to be distinguished from other fields in terms of the sorts of questions posed; since everyone asks these questions at one time or another, everyone is in a position to study philosophy.  What distinguishes "philosophers" from everyone else, then, is the careful, relentless exploration of these questions which is found in their work. 

     Secondly, Russell stresses that philosophy demands an open mind. Indeed, exposure to philosophy should help us to be open minded, in the best sense, by introducing ideas and possibilities which you might otherwise never consider in your own attempts to deal with life's puzzles.  Because you will encounter views very different from you own, and will be asked to seriously consider views that will conflict with your normal assumptions and point of view, it is essential that you approach philosophy with an open mind.  When questions are raised, it is important that you not dismiss answers that conflict with your previous assumptions.  Be open minded! Philosophers attempt to answer the questions that they raise by examining all of the reasons for and against different answers; philosophers settle issues by appeal to arguments.  A position that is accepted without the support of good reasons, without an argument, is a prejudice or bias, and such positions are of no value in a philosophical setting.  You are not being asked to abandon your current views on such issues as the nature of morality or reality, but you are expected to examine the reasons behind such views.  Who knows?  You may discover that your prior assumptions lack support and that positions you've always dismissed as crazy actually have good reasons to support them.

     There is no simple explanation of what philosophy is.  Be patient.  You will learn what philosophy is by doing some philosophy.  That is an important point to keep in mind; philosophy is not just something we study, as we might study literature or chemistry.  Philosophy is an activity, a way of dealing with certain questions.

 

 

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            Last updated June 2, 2004