David Young: What is philosophy?

What is philosophy? Illustrate your answer using the example of the mind-body problem.

What is Philosophy? This is an extremely difficult question and if the requirement is a definition which combines conciseness with clarity, almost impossible to answer. Concise definitions tend to be along the lines of ‘The exploration of questions of perennial interest’ or ‘It is concerned with the nature of world and self’ or ‘It is about the nature of ultimate reality’ or the literal translation, ‘love of wisdom’. None of these statements is untrue, but they are not very informative, if the reader is starting from a zero knowledge base.

It will be more helpful if we approach the definition by way of the subject matter and methods of Philosophy. The simple definition that most closely relates to this approach is ‘Philosophy is an activity, a way of thinking about particular sets of questions’. Now, let us explore what this means.

Not so long ago the subject matter of Philosophy covered virtually all fields of study. Now, much of the philosophy concerning matter (the physical world) has spun off as the sciences, for instance, physics and chemistry. Some of the older universities still classify the sciences as natural philosophy (e.g. St Andrews). Much of philosophy concerning mind has spun off as psychology and neuro-sciences. This is an important characteristic of philosophy. Once argument and disputation has produced some theory and a methodology able to cope the philosophical issues, the issues are separated from philosophy and can be considered as another discipline. This is one reason why there are difficulties over simplistic definitions. The boundaries of philosophy are not fixed, the subject is continuously re-defining itself.

So, what particular sets of questions are the concern of philosophy? Classically, the major sets of questions concern:

– What exists? (Metaphysics)

– What do we know? (Epistemology)

– What is moral? (Ethics)

– What is beautiful? (Aesthetics)

– Logic (The process of valid reasoning)

In modern times a number of sub-specialities have emerged as fields in their own right and some are more active than the original core areas. Examples would be the philosophy of language and the philosophy of mind (despite the separation of psychology, some critical areas of mind still remain in the realm of philosophy).

Some of the fundamental questions have been argued about for thousands of years, for example, ‘What makes an action right or wrong?’, ‘How should we live?’, ‘ How should we treat other people?’. What relevance can this have to real life? None in the sense that one will come up with a moral code that everyone will accept. But it can provide insights about how to deal with real moral issues, clarify the implications, and show how judgements can be consistently applied. In modern times issues such as abortion and genetic engineering present major ethical problems and Applied Ethics is an increasingly important field.

How are the questions handled? The question is analysed and through critical thinking and logic, inferences are made to the best explanation, the one most likely to be true. This raises another important point about philosophy; it does not produce definitive answers. Valid reasoning and argument can lead to quite different inferences. Then it is our task to decide which is likely to be the best answer. Once it becomes definitive there are no fundamental arguments left on that issue; we have a fact or a new field of study.

To summarise, Philosophy is the formulation of questions about issues concerning reality, knowledge and other fundamental matters and then, by reasoning and argument, the search for solutions/ explanations.

Let us take a closer look at these activities, using problems in the philosophy of mind as an example. We can start with a very basic question, ‘What is a person?’ Clearly a person is a complex being. He can walk, talk and see. He has brain functions which regulate the body processes. But, the person can do things that seem to go beyond body functions and processes, for example, they can think, take decisions, desire and dream. These mental states seem quite different from body states. The question of what we are and how we work has always been of interest to humans. This has given rise to a mass of common sense explanations and beliefs Some consider these beliefs constitute a theory, sometimes described as Folk Psychology. Although an individual may have deep convictions about some of these beliefs, many of the beliefs are not consistent with each other and with a little probing many are found to have weak foundations.

Take the assertion often made on religious grounds, that there is a soul quite separate from the body. That it is the soul that is the person, it is linked with the body but does not die with the body. In examining this belief we do not have to probe very far before difficulties start to appear. Where in the body does the soul reside? How does it leave the body when the body dies? How does the soul/ mind direct the physical body without exercising some physical force (assuming the soul is immaterial)?

It rapidly becomes obvious that any attempt to reconcile all the disparate common sense and religious beliefs would be an exercise in futility, many of them are mutually exclusive. So, what does the philosopher do? Put simply, probably over simply but it will serve in this context, they will start by formulating the fundamental questions to be addresses, this initial analysis and the precision that comes from it can be of great importance. Then through a process of critical argument develop explanations which are valid and hopefully take us nearer to the truth (at least in terms of producing better questions). Certainly there is nothing definitive about thinking in this field: at present there are at least seven schools of thought on the mind-body problem. Does this mean that the activity is pointless? No, there has been progress. In the area of philosophy concerning mind there were equal differences about brain activity; eventually there was sufficient consensus and methodology for psychology to become a fully fledged science.

Now with the work that has been done on the biological basis of behaviour and developments in neuroscience, most areas of the brain have been charted. Perhaps the mind-body problem will never be resolved to certainty but the continuing search is important. From this brief discussion of the mind/body problem a more useful concise definition might be ‘The critical examination of the grounds for fundamental beliefs and an analysis of the basic concepts employed in the expression of such beliefs’. But, that still does not get you very far. Theory is useful but philosophy is essentially an activity.

© David Young 2014