Definitions of Philosophy

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Updated August, 2020

Arthur Schopenhauer:

‘The two main requirements for philosophising are: firstly, to have the courage not to keep any questions back; and secondly,to attain a clear consciousness of anything that goes without saying so as to comprehend it as a problem.’ Essays and Aphorisms, Trans R. J. Hollingdale (London Penguin, 1970) p.117.

Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, p. 43:

". . .philosophy is merely an elucidated experience."


Bernstein, Beyond Objectivism and Relativism, p. 5 [quoting Dummett]

Only with Frege was the proper object of philosophy finally established: namely, that the goal of philosophy is the analysis of the structure of thought; secondly, that the study of thought is to be sharply distinguished from the study of the psychological process of thinking; and finally, that the only proper method for analyzing thought consists in the analysis of language. . . . The acceptance of these three tenets is common to the entire analytical school . . . [but] it has taken nearly a half-century since his death for us to apprehend clearly what the real task of philosophy, as concieved by him, involves.


William James

"Philosophy is the unusually stubborn attempt to think clearly."


G. E. Moore, gesturing towards his bookshelves:

"It is what these are about."


Wittgenstein, Tractatus,

4.0031 All philosophy is a 'critique of language' (though not in Mauthner's sense).
4.112 Philosophy aims at the logical clarification of thoughts. Philosophy is not a body of doctrine but an activity. A philosophical work consists essentially of elucidations. Philosophy does not result in 'philosophical propositions', but rather in the clarification of propositions. Without philosophy thoughts are, as it were, cloudy and indistinct: its task is to make them clear and to give them sharp boundaries.

Georges Sorel, Reflections on Violence, p. 6:

But philosophy is after all perhaps only the recognition of the abysses which lie on each side of the footpath that the vulgar follow with the serenity of somnambulists.


McKenna, Andrew J.Violence and difference : Girard, Derrida, and Deconstruction.p. 50, quoting Derrida, (Writing and Difference, 62):

"To define philosophy as the attempt-to-say-the-hyperbole is to confess-- and philosophy is perhaps this gigantic confession-- that by virtue of the historical enunciation through which philosophy tranquilizes itself and excludes madness, philosophy betrays itself (or betrays itself as thought), enters into a crisis and a forgetting of itself that are an essential and necessary period of its movement. I philosophize only in terror, in the confessed terror of going mad. The confession is simultaneously, at its present moment, oblivion and unveiling, protection and exposure: economy"


Marx, Karl, Theses on Feuerbach, #11

The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.
Die Philosophen haben die Welt nur verschieden interpretiert; es kömmt darauf an, sie zu verändern.


Heraclitus Diogenes Laertius, Bk. 9:1,7, Fragment #46

Thinking [Philosophy?] is a sacred disease.


Billacois, François, The Duel: Its Rise and Fall in Early Modern France, p. 158

For there had been a rumour that only one of them made a pious end, while his companion `died like a philosopher... because he neither moved nor spoke [as he went to his death]'. This rumour was not unlikely. Séguenot admitted that Condren had to work hard at the spiritual preparation of Bouteville, who received:
"things that were said to him with the strength of his mind and his courage and behaved more like a philosopher than a Christian; for his mind was naturally of a rare and excellent cast, he was firm in his reasoning, relying on his own maxims and distanced from common and popular sentiments, and he seemed to have something of the ancient philosophers. All these are qualities that are not very favorable to that grace which is only given to the small and humble.
For the society which saw Bouteville as a paradigmatic duellist, that duellist was (except for miraculous cases of intervention by divine grace) a gentleman who placed all his confidence in his own virtue, a superbly magnanimous man, closer to Epictetus than to the Imitation of Christ.


Habermas (Preface to Legitimation Crisis)

[Philosophy is]. . . clarification of very general structures of hypotheses.


From Ambrose Beirce's Devil's Dictionary:

PHILOSOPHY, n. A route of many roads leading from nowhere to nothing.
TRUTH, n. An ingenious compound of desirability and appearance. Discovery of truth is the sole purpose of philosophy, which is the most ancient occupation of the human mind and has a fair prospect of existing with increasing activity to the end of time.


Bradley, F.H. Appearance and Reality: p. xii:

I see written there [his notebooks] that `Metaphysics is the finding of bad reasons for what we believe upon instinct, but to find these reasons is no less an instinct.


Alasdair McIntyre :

The teaching of a method is nothing other than the teaching of a certain kind of history.


Davis, Grady Scott Warcraft and the Fragility of Virtue, p. 172:

Reading philosophy won't make someone good, it can only clarify how a person of practical reason deliberates about actions.


Edie Brickell, "What I Am" from the album shooting rubberbands at the stars, 1986 Geffen Music, ASCAP:

Philosophy is the talk on a cereal box, religion is the smile on a dog;
Philosophy is a walk on the slippery rocks, religion is a light in the fog,


Dan Shannon

Those who either follow a rational method in their argument for discovery or who engage in the content of philosophical speculation, specifically on the question, `Whether it is possible to gain knowledge of the absolute?', would be eligible for the title `philosopher.'


Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

§9 Philosophy is this tyrannical drive itself, the most spiritual will to power.
§61 The philosopher as we understand him, we free spirits-- as the man of the most comprehensive responsibility who has the conscience for the over-all development of man-- . . .


Hegel, Preface to The Philosophy of Right:

To comprehend what is is the task of philosophy, for what is is reason.


Robert Ginsberg :

Philosophy is a creative art of making problems.
. . . Philosophy probes problems. It tries to show what a problem is in the sense of what is problematic about it. It explores alternative possibilities of dealing with the problem.


Hawaii Rent-All, message billboard, Honolulu, 9/95:

A philosopher has a problem for every solution.


Callicott, J. Baird. In Defense of the Land Ethic, p. 4-5

Today the need is greater than ever for philosophers to do what they once did-- to redefine the world picture in response to irretrievably transformed human experience and to the flood of new information and ideas pouring forth from the sciences; to inquire what new way we human beings might imagine our place and role in nature; and to figure out how these big new ideas might change our values and realign our sense of duty and obligation.


Dilworth, David, Translator s Preface to Nishida s Art and Morality, p. xi:

The emergence of an original, yet intrinsically coherent, interlocking vocabulary may be said to be the mark of a philosopher. (Cf. Rorty and later Wittgenstein)


From the Web Page of Peter J. King

I take 'philosophy' to be an English word referring to a certain kind of thinking, a certain kind of approach to a certain kind of problem. To explain those 'certain kind of's would take a book; the best I can do here is gesture at what it is that English-language philosophers do. In most languages there are words that are translated into English as 'philosophy' -- in European languages, those words often share the same Greek roots as the English word. The activities to which such words refer have a history shared with philosophy, but at some point after Kant there was a parting of the ways. The activities referred to by `philosophy' are different in various ways from the activities referred to by words like 'philosophie', 'Philosophie', 'filosofia', etc.


James W. Heisig, Rude Awakenings, p. 270:

The perennial task of philosophy does not consist in transmitting accumulated knowledge but in reassuring the love of truth. This demands a special relationship of mutual criticism between teacher and student for which reason and not rank provides the basis.


John Dewey, Quoted by Cornel West in The American Evasion of Philosophy, p. 112

When it is acknowledged that under the disguise of dealing with ultimate reality, philosophy has been occupied with the precious values embedded in social traditions, that it has sprung from a clash of social ends and from a conflict of inherited institutions with incompatible contemporary tendencies, it will be seen that the task of future philosophy is to clarify men's ideas as to the social and moral strifes of their own day. Its aim is to become as far as is humanly possible an organ for dealing with these conflicts.


Aquinas, Aristoteles librum de caelo, XXII, §228:

Now, some claim that these poets and philosophers, and especially Plato, did not understand these matters in the way their words sound on the surface, but wished to conceal their wisdom under certain fables and enigmatic statements. Moreover, they claim that Aristotle's custom in many cases was not to object against their understanding, which was sound, but against their words, lest anyone should fall into error on account of their way of speaking. So says Simplicius in his Commentary. But Alexander held that Plato and the other early philosophers understood the matter just as the words sound literally, and that Aristotle undertook to argue not only against their words but against their understanding as well. Whichever of these may be the case, it is of little concern to us, because the study of philosophy aims not at knowing what men feel, but at what is the truth of things.


The American Philosophical Association, Statement on Outcomes Assessment (Proceeding and Addresses 69:5, p. 66)

The APA calls upon administrators to recognize that philosophy is fundamentally a matter of the cultivation and employment of analytic, interpretive, normative and critical abilities. It is less content- and technique- specific than most other academic disciplines. The basic aim of education in philosophy is not and should not be primarily to impart information. Rather it is to help students to understand various kinds of deeply difficult intellectual problems, to interpret texts regarding these problems, to analyze and criticize the arguments found in them, and to express themselves in ways that clarify and carry forward reflection upon them.


Cesare Beccaria, On Crimes and Punishments, chapter XLII

Philosophers acquire needs and interests unknown to uneducated men; above all, philosophers do not recant in the public forum the principles that they have upheld in private, and they acquire the habit of loving truth for itself. A good selection of such men constitutes the happiness of a nation, but that happiness will be temporary unless good laws augment their number so as to diminish the ever considerable risk of a poor choice.


Feuerbach, according to Marx in "Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic and Philosophy as a Whole"

Philosophy is nothing else but religion rendered into thought and expounded by thought, hence equally to be condemned as another form and manner of existence of the estrangement of the essence of man;


Cornel West, The American Evasion of Philosophy, p. 231:

For him (Gramsci), the aim of philosophy is not only to become worldly by imposing its elite intellectual views upon people, but to become part of a social movement by nourishing and being nourished by the philosophical views of oppressed people themselves for the aims of social change and personal meaning.


Rolf Ahlers, on

That is what philosophy is: Its time grasped in thought.


Wilfrid Sellars:

The aim of philosophy, abstractly formulated, is to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term.


Heidegger:  An extraordinary enquiry into the extraordinary.

Chris Nagel:

My point is this: when I teach Introduction to Philosophy, I meet a great many students who are convinced that going to college is a matter of purchasing a document that entitles them to certain societal benefits, and which has almost nothing to do with what happens in classes.  They so disrespect the institution of education (not the college, but the cultural form) that they consider my efforts to prod them to think as quaint or insulting.  Our society rewards this behavior.  It's odd to ask the question who is responsible, since this has become the pervading cultural climate.


John Shand
        Mon, 5 Jun 2000 on PHILOS-L@LISTSERV.LIV.AC.UK

Philosophy is not, I think, a body of truths, but a way of thinking and living. It might not make you happy - but it does embody that courageous openness and questioning that is perhaps the noblest feature of human beings.
    Without philosophy, as far as one's basic beliefs are concerned one will just end up believing what one is given. The duty of a philosopher is to free people to think for themselves.
    So next time you're at a party, and someone asks you, having heard you're a philosopher, 'So what is philosophy then?' - instead of shifting about looking for an excuse to leave or falling back on the old classic of  'well, that's best understood by doing it?errm, mind if I go and get another drink?', try: philosophy is what happens when people start thinking for themselves.


Bernard Williams, in "Philosophy As a Humanistic Discipline"

I have already started to talk about philosophy being this or that, and such and such being central to philosophy, and this may already have aroused suspicions of essentialism, as though philosophy had some entirely distinct and timeless nature from which various consequences could be drawn. So let me say at once that I do not want to fall back on any such idea.


Michel Foucault The Masked Philosopher, Le Monde, April 6-7, 1980

What is philosophy after all? If not a means of reflecting on not so much what is true or false but on our relation to truth? How, given that relation to truth, should we act?


Jacques Derrida, Who's Afraid of Philosophy?, p. 7:

But can the same be said about the question "What is the philosophical?"? This is the most and the least philosophical of all questions. We will have to take it into account. It is in all the institutional decisions: "Who is a philosopher? What is a philosopher? What has the right to claim to be philosophical? How does one recognize a philosophical utterence, today and in general? By what sign (is it a sign?) does one recognize a philosophical thought, sentence, experience, or operation (say, that of teaching?) What does the word philosophical mean? Can we agree on the subject of the philosophical and of the very place from which these questions are formed and legitimated?"
These questions are no doubt identical with philosophy itself. But in accordance with this essential unrest of philosophical identity, perhaps they are already no longer completely philosophical. Perhaps they stop short of the philosophy they interrogate, unless they carry beyond a philosophy that would no longer be their final destination.

Zeno of Citium, in Diogenes Laertius, VII:24

The right way to seize a philosopher, Crates, is by the ears: persuade me then and drag me off by them; but if you use violence, my body will be with you, but my mind with Stilpo."

From: Jeremy Bowman

One of the reasons why philosophical disagreement looks nasty to outsiders is that philosphers are very comfortable disagreeing with each other. In my experience, they are more comfortable disagreeing with each other than physicists. In fact, I think it's the ONE thing philosophers really excel at!


About footnotes (4.00 / 1) (#82) by Pac on Wed Sep 11th, 2002 at 10:53:59 PM EST

It has been said that all of philosophy is just footnotes to Plato

In an article like that, one want to be really precise about this footnote business. Actually, German philosophy is a footnote to Plato. French philosophy is a footnote to a bad translation of German philosophy. English philosophy is a footnote rebuttal to a bad translation of French philosophy. American a matter of fact, American philosophy is a footnote to the Wall Street Journal as understood by the Reader's Digest


William James, Some Problems of Philosophy

Philosophy, beginning in wonder ... is able to fancy everything different from what it is. It sees the familiar as if it were strange, and the strange as if it were familiar. It can take things up and lay them down again. Its mind is full of air that plays round every subject. It rouses us from our native dogmatic slumber and breaks up our caked prejudices....A man with no philosophy in him is the most inauspicious and unprofitable of all possible social mates.


Kwasi Wiredu, Philosophy and an African Culture, p. 20.

"It is a function, indeed a duty, of philosophy in any society to examine the intellectual foundation of its culture."


Erasmus, The Praise of Folly

But Counsel, you'll say, is not of least concern in matters of War. In a General I grant it, but this thing of Warring is no part of Philosophy, but manag'd by Parasites, Pandars, Thieves, Cut-throats, Plow-men, Sots, Spendthrifts and other such Dregs of Mankind, not Philosophers.


J.G. Fichte. "First Introduction to the Science of Knowledge." (tr. Heath and Lachs.) Gesamtausgabe I, 434.

What sort of philosophy one chooses depends, therefore, on what sort of man one is; for a philosophical system is not a dead piece of furniture that we can reject or accept as we wish; it is rather a thing animated by the soul of the person who holds it.

Marquis de Sade (1740 - 1814), Justine ou les Malheurs de la vertu

Le chef-d'œuvre de la philosophie serait de développer les moyens dont la Providence se sert pour parvenir aux fins qu'elle se propose sur l'homme, et de tracer, d'après cela, quelques plans de conduite qui pussent faire connaître à ce malheureux individu bipède la manière dont il faut qu'il marche dans la carrière épineuse de la vie, afin de prévenir les caprices bizarres de cette fatalité à laquelle on donne vingt noms différents, sans être encore parvenu ni à la connaître, ni à la définir.


George Berkeley, A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge

1. Philosophy being nothing else but the study of wisdom and truth, it may with reason be expected that those who have spent most time and pains in it should enjoy a greater calm and serenity of mind, a greater clearness and evidence of knowledge, and be less disturbed with doubts and difficulties than other men. Yet so it is, we see the illiterate bulk of mankind that walk the high-road of plain common sense, and are governed by the dictates of nature, for the most part easy and undisturbed. To them nothing that is familiar appears unaccountable or difficult to comprehend. They complain not of any want of evidence in their senses, and are out of all danger of becoming Sceptics. But no sooner do we depart from sense and instinct to follow the light of a superior principle, to reason, meditate, and reflect on the nature of things, but a thousand scruples spring up in our minds concerning those things which before we seemed fully to comprehend. Prejudices and errors of sense do from all parts discover themselves to our view; and, endeavouring to correct these by reason, we are insensibly drawn into uncouth paradoxes, difficulties, and inconsistencies, which multiply and grow upon us as we advance in speculation, till at length, having wandered through many intricate mazes, we find ourselves just where we were, or, which is worse, sit down in a forlorn Scepticism.


Immanuel Kant, Opus postumum 22:489-90

It is important, too, to distinguish philosophical knowledge, including its principles, from philosophy itself (the formal from the material aspect of philosophy). The philosophizer cannot be recast as a philosopher; the former is a mere underlaborer (as a versifier is in comparison with a poet-- the latter must have originality).
Even if, as is proper, one takes account in the word "philosophy" of its concept as a doctrine of wisdom, the science of the final end of human reason-- that is, of what is not just techincal-practical but of that which is moral-practical, the keystone of the edifice--philosophy with its principles will still be subject to the concerns of human reason, even where the latter's aim is scholastic (mere knowledge). It must set metaphysical foundations prior to mathematical ones (although both are given a priori) for the former have in view the unconditional employment [of reason]--the latter, however, only its conditional employment as a tool for a particular purpose.

Adorno's 14th lecture from "Lectures on Metaphysics"

I once said that after Auschwitz one could no longer write poetry, and that gave rise to a discussion I did not anticipate when I wrote those words. I did not anticipate it because it is in the nature of philosophy - and everything I write is, unavoidably, philosophy, even if it is not concerned with so-called philosophical themes - that nothing is meant quite literally. Philosophy always relates to tendencies and does not consist of statements of fact. It is a misunderstanding of philosophy, resulting from its growing closeness to all-powerful scientific tendencies, to take such a statement at face value and say: 'He wrote that after Auschwitz one cannot write any more poems; so either one really cannot write them, and would be a rogue or a cold-hearted person if one did write them, or he is wrong, and has said something which should not be said.' Well, I would say that philosophical reflection really consists precisely in the gap, or, in Kantian terms, in the vibration, between these two otherwise so flatly opposed possibilities.  I would readily concede that, just as I said that after Auschwitz one could not write poems - by which I meant to point to the hollowness of the resurrected culture of that time - it could equally well be said, on the other hand, that one must write poems, in keeping with Hegel's statement in his Aesthetics that as long as there is an awareness of suffering among human beings there must also be art as the objective form of that awareness. And, heaven knows, I do not claim to be able to resolve this antinomy, and presume even less to do so since my own impulses in this antinomy are precisely on the side of art, which I am mistakenly accused of wishing to suppress.

Michel De Montaigne  1533-1592 (Trans. M.A. Screech)

Since philosophy is the art which teaches us how to live, and since   children need to learn it as much as we do at other ages, why do we   not instruct them in it?

Charles Jones, on, Sept 28, 2007:

If there's consensus, it's not philosophy.
It's a religion or a science or a political ideology.
Philosophy is reports from solitary scouts somewhere beyond the front lines.

(Professor Angela Livingstone, University of Essex, cites)

Boris Pasternak: What is art if not philosophy in a state of ecstasy?

Epicurus, According to Porphyry in To Marcella 31:

Empty are the words of that philosopher who offers therapy for no human   suffering. For just as there is no use in medical expertise if it does not give therapy for bodily diseases, so too there is no use in philosophy if it does not expel the suffering of the soul.

Wiliam James, in Reflex Action And Theism

Philosophies, whether expressed in sonnets or systems, all must wear this form. The thinker starts from some experience of the practical world, and asks its meaning. He launches himself upon the speculative sea, and makes a voyage long or short. He ascends into the empyrean, and communes with the eternal essences. But whatever his achievements and discoveries be while gone, the utmost result they can issue in is some new practical maxim or resolve, or the denial of some old one, with which inevitably he is sooner or later washed ashore on the _terra firma_ of concrete life again. Whatever thought takes this voyage is a philosophy.

Richard Hayes, in The Land of No Buddha, p. 149:

In the strictest sense of the word 'philosophy', as it was used in ancient Greece and in the Hellenistic age, Buddhism is a philosophy, a love of wisdom. But the word has become so vulgarized that it hardly means more now than either a set of opinions about something or a fondness for argument about matters that have almost no bearing on how we actually live our lives.

David Hills , quoted by Jason Stanley in "The Crisis of Philosophy" in Inside Higher Ed,

“the ungainly attempt to tackle questions that come naturally to children, using methods that come naturally to lawyers."

John Rawls, The Law of Peoples, p. 123:

Some may find this fact hard to accept. That is because it is often thought that the task of philosophy is to uncover a form of argument that will always prove convincing against all other arguments. There is, however, no such argument.

J.G. Fichte, The Science of Knowing: 1804 Lectures on the Wissenschaftslehre, Walter E. Wright, trans., p. 23:

Without doubt: philosophy should present the truth. But what is the truth, and what do we actually search for when we search for it? Let's just consider what we will not allow to count as truth: namely when things can be this way or equally well the other; for example the multiplicity and variability of opinion. Thus, truth is absolute oneness and invariability of opinion. So that I can let go of the supplemental term “opinion,” since it will take us too far afield, let me say that the essence of philosophy would consist in this: to trace all multiplicity (which presses itself upon us in the usual view of life) back to absolute oneness.

Josiah Royce, The Philosophy of Loyalty, p. 14.

We are to use our reason as best we can; for philosophy is an effort to think out the reasons for our opinions. We are not to praise blindly, nor to condemn according to our moods.

Cuvier, quoted by Renan as related by Edward Said, Orientalism, p. 132.

To do philosophy is to know things; following Cuvier's nice phrase, philosophy is instructing the world in theory.

Slashdot, Feb. 13, 2013,

philosophy: The ability to bear with calmness the misfortunes of our friends.

David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding

Though a philosopher may live remote from business, the genius of philosophy, if carefully cultivated by several, must gradually diffuse itself throughout the whole society, and bestow a similar correctness on every art and calling.

Joseph Wood Krutch, The Modern Temper, 1929

Metaphysics may be, after all, only the art of being sure of something that is not so, and logic only the art of going wrong with confidence. 

Diogenes of Oinoanda:

“Many men pursue philosophy for the sake of wealth and power, with the aim of procuring these either from private individuals, or from kings, who deem philosophy to be a great and precious possession. Well, it is not in order to gain wealth or power that we Epicureans pursue philosophy!  We pursue philosophy so that we may enjoy happiness through attainment of the goal craved by Nature.”

Martha Nussbaum, in Vox:

Vox: Name a writer or publication you disagree with but still read.
Nussbaum: This strikes me as the most hilarious question, given that I'm a philosopher. Philosophy is all about respectful disagreement, and learning from disagreement. No decent philosopher simply parrots some other philosopher, so there must be disagreements somewhere in every case. . . . If I didn't disagree with a philosopher it would hardly be worth engaging with him or her, because there would be nothing to learn.

Andrew Taggart in Quartz

“Philosophers arrive on the scene at the moment when bullshit can no longer be tolerated, we articulate that bullshit and stop it from happening. And there’s just a whole lot of bullshit in business today.”

Eric Thurm attributes to Stanley Cavell

Philosophy isn’t thinking about things ordinary people never think about; it’s thinking about precisely the kinds of things that ordinary people think about all the time, without distraction.

Jordan, comment on Daily Nous:

Philosophy is not a settled body of knowledge, nor even a settled body of questions, but the constant, dogged pursuit of wisdom, of trying to live in such a way that one’s overriding concern is to know whatever it is that is most important for us to know.

Charles Sanders Peirce: The Century's Great Men in Science,

“It is the man of science, eager to have his every opinion regenerated, his every idea rationalized, by drinking at the fountain of fact, and devoting all the energies of his life to the cult of truth, not as he understands it, but as he does not yet understand it, that ought properly to be called a philosopher.”

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