Imagine teaching a subject that is very hard to describe. So hard, that almost every student that enrolls in the subject has no idea what it is.
What is Philosophy?
I don’t get this question often in everyday conversation, but I suspect it is for quite a different reason. I think that people are generally ashamed when they hear that I teach philosophy, and this is because they literally have no idea what the subject is. The next sentence by them is usually like, “Oh, that’s cool…or WOW, Philosophy…yup“.
Heck, half the time they think I said Psychology and remark something like, “Freud was crazy wasn’t he!”
It’s funny, the social interactions we humans have.
I have taught the answer to this question to a total of around 80+ classes and I am still changing my opinion of it. Here are some of the transmutations I have gone through if you happen to be so inclined as to fain interest:
1) My graduate epistemology teacher gave it the following definition. Basically he said that there are 6 areas of philosophical questions. Half of them are Theoretical and half of them are Practical. Theoretical-wise there are the areas (and questions) of Metaphysics, Epistemology, and Aesthetics. Practial-wise there are the areas of Ethics, Social-Political, and Logic. This is a great definition for anyone trying trying to nail down the subjects you might discuss in a philosophy class.
2) There is the Bertrand Russell definition, which is that “Philosophy… is something intermediate between theology and science. Like theology, it consists of speculations on matters as to which definite knowledge has, so far, been unascertainable; but like science, it appeals to human reason rather than authority, whether that of tradition or that of revelation.” I have been teaching now for about 6 years. I love this definition of well, because you could see how the subjects mentioned above (in #1) fit this categorization.
3) Peter Thiel (who apparently got a bachelors in the subject) has classified the ultimate philosophical question as, “…What do people agree simply by convection vs. what is the fundamental truth?” Notice, this is a very broad definition, but it is interesting considering the history of Philosophy and what it has dealt with as past topics. In other words, man has always asked the questions that are challenging to the status quo. Whether the subject is God, the Mind-Body Problem, Politics. We are always sort of challenging the conventional way/belief in the pursuit of truth.
My newest thoughts are much more inline with Thiel than any of the others and the following explains why.
Applied Critical Thinking
Philosophy is really critical thinking. It is specifically critical thinking as it pertains to subjects that don’t have what we would consider a definite answer (or perhaps couldn’t have a definite answer- think about a question like “is murder wrong?”…can that possibly have a 99% answer?). If you look back at the Russell definition, you can see this is a shrinking (as well as growing) subject. Philosophy is diminishing in the scienticifci realm at some level, but alive and well with almost any social-political-ethical-meaning of life question.
So, if you take Thiel’s definition as a great characterization, then you realize that really philosophy is just applied critical thinking that goes against (or attempts to challenge) the Status Quo of any given subject or thought process. If this is true, then technically philosophy can be about anything.
For me, this is a great way to think about it. While I don’t want to study cake decorating or auto work…I do love to consider meaning of life topics, real estate, and personal finance with an eye to critical thinking about how we currently do these things. I love blogs and theories that challenge the Status Quo of these subjects.
This maybe explains a little about why I would write a blog about these things. I am searching for the forest in these areas personally.
So, what do you critically think about? In what ways are you questioning the Status Quo?