Academic Tutor: What is Philosophy?

Posted by The Aged Tutor on 5/21/13 9:15 AM

My name is Enoch and I am, among other things, a philosophy tutor in Boston. This is my first blog post with Cambridge Coaching and I thought that I would begin by writing about what philosophy is from the perspective of responding to people who want to know what I do. 

philosophy tutoring

Here is a schematic representation of conversations I am often involved in:

Typical Question: “What do you study?”

Me: “Philosophy”

Some typical follow-ups:

“Which philosopher do you follow?” Or “Who is your favorite philosopher?”

“Oh!? What is your philosophy?”

“So what’s the meaning of life?”

“Oh. What can you do with THAT?!”  

Behind these responses are some interesting assumptions about who philosophers are and what they do.

While some of those assumptions may be true about some philosophers at some times in history, most are false about the average person who studies and teaches philosophy in an academic program today.  On the one hand, philosophers do tend to be interested in the most fundamental questions about the world and our place in it. But philosophy today is an academic discipline like many others with its own culture, norms, history, and traditions that aspiring philosophers must be engaged with.

Let me give a sense for what philosophy is like today by responding to the questions above:

1. “Which philosopher do you follow?” or “Who is your favorite philosopher?” 

Academic philosophy is not just a glorified fan club for philosophers of yore. Many of us want to be our own philosophers and think about and come up with our own answers to philosophical problems! Next, a commitment to one’s own independent use of reason is one of the most highly valued standards of contemporary philosophy. Even if we do have a (or a few) favored philosopher(s), we do not tend to uncritically follow them. Rather, what we aspire to is critical engagement with their work, trying to understand it, provide independent argument for why one philosopher is closer to the truth than another, and so on. If anything, one usually likes a philosopher because she or he has found that philosopher most useful in assisting one’s own quest to exercise her or his own faculties of reasoning in understanding the world.

2. “Oh?? What is your philosophy?”

While philosophers today do want to come up with their own answers to philosophical questions, or new and better arguments for traditional answers, they tend to focus on smaller, more manageable problems rather than constructing comprehensive “philosophies”. Philosophy tends toward specialization today, like most academic disciplines. There is so much good work on so many different topics out there, it has become impossible to master it all. To make progress in academic philosophy one must specialize and work piecemeal on small problems (even if they are interpretive problems concerning grand philosophers of the past). It is the rare genius that constructs comprehensive philosophical systems these days (perhaps the best, most recent example is David Lewis). That doesn’t mean that philosophers don’t still aspire to such systems in their heart of hearts.  But you’ll have more luck asking the above question of someone closer to the end of their career than the start. This is not to say that most philosophers have not reflected on many (or most) of the fundamental philosophical questions. But there is a certain intellectual humility that often comes, and always ought to come, with sustained exposure to the many philosophical systems of the past. Such humility cautions against comprehensive theorizing prior to sustained effort trying one’s mettle out on a few particular problems. So what kind of problems do philosophers work on today? This brings me to another oft-asked question:   

3. “So what’s the meaning of life?”

If you ask a “big” question like this one and get a simple, straightforward answer, you are most likely dealing either with a sarcastic philosopher or an impostor.  If anything, a philosopher is likely to be suspicious that the form of words above succeed in asking one clear, meaningful question for which we could easily recognize a satisfactory answer.  What is meant by “life”? “Meaning”? (Can a human life, for instance, have a “meaning” in the same way that a word can have a “meaning”?).  Must there be a single, unique “meaning of life” that the definite article “the” seems to imply? And once one starts down the road of clarifying the question, it becomes much longer than one might have initially suspected. Eliding details in the interest of space, further questions down this particular road will include: can there be purpose independent of the intentions of an intelligent being? How, if at all, would we recognize such purpose?  What is it about an intelligent being that makes intention and purpose possible? Can the life of a Robinson Crusoe have the same significance as a life lived in society with other humans? And that’s just for starters. The same process reiterates itself with respect to each of the fundamental philosophical questions concerning “deep” topics like truth, knowledge, reality, God, free will, morality, consciousness, and so on. My own particular path has lead me from questions like, “what is the relationship of the mind to the body?” toward reflection on questions like: “what is the relationship of our everyday mental concepts, like ‘belief’ and ‘desire’, to concepts coming out of the maturing psychological sciences, like ‘top-down processing’, ‘subpersonal representations’, and ‘declarative vs. procedural memory’?”.  But what is the point of engaging in such clarification and reflection? This brings me to the inevitable:

4. “Philosophy, huh? What are you going to do with that?”

Great question--one that deserves its own blog post.

Download our  Guide to the 80-minute essay!

Tags: philosophy