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What is 'Philosophy?'

Philosophical Papers - September 3, 2003

Philosophy may be broadly construed to be an inquiry into the most comprehensive or underlying principles and issues of any branch of knowledge or of knowledge in general.  It is no small doubt, then, that when a Ph.d is conferred in any discipline, it means a 'doctor of philosophy.' A Ph.d in physics is a 'doctor of philosophy of physics' and a Ph.d in economics is a 'doctor of philosophy' of economics, etc...  Philosophy, as contradistinguised from science, which studies particular organisms and objects, studies the whole and final significance of things, including the final significance of the results of science.

Philosophy is typically composed of five parts:  epistemology, logic, ethics, aesthetics, and metaphysics.  Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that is concerned with investigating the nature, grounds, limits, criteria, and validity of human knowledge, offer various theories of cognition.  In this regard, epistemology bears some relation to modern psychology, which also offers various theories of cognition.  Logic is the part of philosophy which studies the proper laws of thinking, of valid reasoning and correct inference, either in deductive or inductive reasoning.  Modern logic is highly symbolic and is sometimes considered a branch of mathematics, but is typically taught in Philosophy departments.  Ethics is the study of human conduct, particular of right and wrong conduct.  Ethics bears a relation to disciplines such as the philosophy of law; law, under one interpretation  may be considered a codification of ethical principles.  Aesthetics is the study of the principles underlying beauty as in productions of art.  And metaphysics, which has fallen into disrepute in modern philosophy, is the branch of philosophy that deals with principles underlying reality which transcend any particular science.

There are three basic ways to study Philosophy:  first, the history of philosophy, i.e., particular philosophers, such as Kant or Aristotle; second, philosophical systems or schools (the -isms), such as rationalism or positivism, and finally, philosophical problems, such as the mind-body problem.

In colloquial usage, a 'philosophy' is an approach or method, such as a baseball manager's philosophy, a Texaco's corporate philosophy, or an automotive manufacturer's engineering philosophy (the approach they take to building cars).  This represents the most common usage of the term 'philosophy' in modern language.  An even more denigrated usage is "my philosophy," which amounts to "my set of opinions."   But, this denigrated use of the word 'philosophy' only represents the true discipline of philosophy inasmuch as it designates the underlying principles or methods of an endeavor.

One view of modern philosophy is that it is to be meta-science, i.e, whereas the special sciences study particular phenomena, such as biology studies living things, and physics studies the laws governing inanimate objects, philosophy studies the principles and issues that underly biology and physics, giving rise to the disciplines of the philosophy of biology, and philosophy of physics, with such systems as animism and operationalism, and such problems as 'the definition of life' and 'reductionism.'  It was once the case that science, including physics, WAS just a branch of 'natural philosophy;'  Newton, for example, when he wrote his treatise on physics (mechanics) entitled it "The mathematical principles of natural philosophy."  Whereas specialized sciences study particular domains of phenomena, some study, philosophy being the candidate, must study those issues, problems, and principles that span the specialized sciences, such as 'reductionism' (reductionism is the question whether one science can be 'reduced' to another, e.g. whether we can understand biological entities merely as physical objects, or whether principles of biology are 'irreducible' to physics).    But, some philosophers argue that a 'meta-scientific' view of philosophy is too confining, and that philosophy has to concern itself with both the social sciences, and with macro-phenomenal experience as well.  One certainly can argue that 'capitalism' is a philosophy of the way labor and goods should be organized, and that 'existentialism' is a philosophy of personal experience, as is 'phenomenology,' and that all of these as well as the philosophy of biology and physics are properly within the domain of philosophy.  The philosophy of mathematics must be covered in the broad definition of philosophy as well.

Philosophy seems poised to be the only discipline that can bridge the gap between the sciences and humanities, as philosophy studies the principles that underlie ALL experience, be it personal or social (represented by the humanities), or scientific.  This is especially true of epistemology, which is concerned with the question of  "how do we know something" both in personal experience and in scientific experiment, but also in logic and metaphysics.

Part II:   Philosophy and the Organization of Knowledge (please see the diagram attached)

To understand Philosophy, one must first understand the organization of all knowledge.  Knowledge may be divided into practical knowledge and applied science (these are similar but not the same), the special sciences in their experimental aspect and  theoretical aspects, and finally, general theoretical knowledge, such as math, logic, and philosophy, disciplines which have applications in ALL special sciences.  Philosophy interprets the results of and analyzes and criticizes the theoretical apparatus of the special sciences.  The experimental aspects of the special sciences, as well as the theoretical principles are used in applied sciences.  Practical knowledge is in some sense macrophenomenal and pre-scientific, and the applied sciences often include a mix of practical knowledge and applied scientific knowledge.  Knowledge, therefore, proceeds from the more particular, as in practical knowledge and applied science, to the more general, as in the theoretical special sciences, finally to the universal, as in math, logic, and philosophy.  This is why philosophy then has the broadest principles and yet is most removed from practical application.

The Special Sciences:

The special sciences include:  physical science (physics, chemistry, geology, meterology), biological science (including molecular biology, botany, zoology, anatomy, physiology,  cellular and microbiology, genetics and evolutionary theory), psychology, and the social sciences (history, religion, economics, sociology, anthropology, and linguistics-1).  Each of these sciences have both a theoretical aspect and an experimental (or more practical) aspect, although the experimental aspect of the social science is less clear than in the physical and biological, and even psychological sciences.  The special sciences partially overlap, so between physical sciences and biology, there is biochemistry and biophysics; between biology and pyschology, there is biopsychology; and between psychology and the social sciences, there is social psychology.  One note about mathematics:  mathematics may be considered a general science or theoretical knowledge, with its primary application in physics and chemistry and economics, with primarily only statistics being used in the other sciences.  Nonetheless, note it is the theoretical apparatus of science which uses mathematics.

Applied Sciences

Each of the special sciences have practical applications.  Applied physics includes most of the inventions of modern industry (through the applied physics disciplines of mechanical and electrical engineering, e.g. creating washing machines and computers, etc...), as does applied chemistry (through chemical engineering, e.g. creating polymers such as plastics and polyesther fibres, as well as toothpaste and pharmaceuticals).  Applied biology includes modern medicine, pharmacology (remember many pharmacological agents come from applied botany mixed with applied chemistry), and even modern agriculture. Applied psychology includes clinical psychology and psychiatry (although the latter includes applied biology and chemistry as well).   Applied social sciences include business, which is really applied economics, a social science, and occaisionally such fields as applied social science and political science in government, police work, and legislation.

Philosophy and its relation to the Special Sciences

Each of the special sciences also has theoretical correlates in Philosophy.  The philosophy of science is primarily concerned with the philosophy of physics and chemistry, as these are the sciences that exemplify science at its best, with such questions as reductionism, and such schools as postitivism and operationalism, but is also concerned with biology, for which there is the discipline of the philosophy of biology.  There is also the discipline of the Philosophy of Mathematics which has as its object the general science of mathematics.  Logic, a branch of philosophy,  also relates heavily to mathematics. The philosophy of mind is primarily concerned with psychology, ranging from biological psychology (as in the mind-body problem) to cognitive psychology.  The philosophy of language is concerned with the deeper aspects of linguistic processing, such as meaning and reference, and relates to semantics in the psychosocial discipline of linguistics.  Political, social, and economic philosophies, such as capitalism and imperialism, relate to history, law, political science, economics, and sociology in the social sciences.  And ethics relates strongly to the philosophy of law and to law.  The five parts of philosophy mentioned in the begining of this note relate to the other parts of philosophy as follows.  Logic is used in the whole of philosophy as a method to insure proper reasoning in the absence of evidence of the senses.  Ethics is of primary use in political and social philosophy (even bio-ethics concerns questions of social policy and not of biology proper).  Aesthetics is strictly concerned with the arts, which I have here included between psychology and the social sciences, as they are expressions of individual and social psychology.  Epistemology is prior to all other types of philosophy, as it is concerned with the nature of knowledge per se and not applied to any special sciences (although it may be argued it bears some relation to psychology).  And metaphysics is problematic for modern philosophy, but relates to all other parts of philosophy.

Philosophical Explanation

Here are some characterizations about what philosophy does:

1.  Conceptual Analysis and Clarification

Philosophy studies conceptual issues in the sciences and clarifies conceptual confusions.  In this way philosophy helps science as advances in science are often advances in scientific concepts. philosophers schooled in conceptual analysis help scientists avoid conceptual confusions and do conceptual clarification.  In this way, philosophy analyzes and clarifies the conceptual apparatus of scientific theories.

As an example, in the philosophy of biology, philosophy may analyze the concepts of "adaptation, extinction, speciation, etc..."  The philosophy of biology looks at how things are explained in biology and realizes that 'teleological explanations' are used as well as 'causal explanations,' and that the concept of  'teleology' needs to be further analyzed into 'teleomatic' and 'teleonomic.'

2.  Analysis at one level more general than the sciences

Philosophy analyzes at one level more general than science.  Science has scientific explanations for various sorts of phenomena, but philosophy is interested in what constitutes a scientific explanation IN GENERAL, not any particular scientific explanation, but ALL scientific explanations.  There are different scientific theories, but philosophy is concerned with what constitutes and is the structure and function of A scientific theory IN GENERAL, ie. what is true of all scientific theories, not a particular one.  It then takes these generic concepts and looks at their interrelations, such as ' what is a scientific explanation, prediction, postulate, model, hypotheses, and law, and how are these related,' constructing, as it were, a theory of scientific theories.  Philosophy of science looks not at particular experiments and their results, but what is required for a 'scientific experiment' in general, such as repeatability, intersubjective verification, and operational definitions.  It looks at 'paradigmatic shifts in science,' 'functional analyses,' themes which occur in many sciences and theories, not just particular ones.  It looks at issues which cross several sciences such as reductionism (can psychology be given a biological explanation, can biology be given a physical-mechanistic explanation).  It also looks at 'schools' or 'approaches' in science, such as operationism, logical empiricism, and positivism.

3.  Philosophy applies its traditional branches of epistemology, ethics, logic, and metaphysics to specific sciences.  An example is in the philosophy of mathematics, there is an attempt to give a theory of knowledge or epistemology of how we come to know mathematical truths, which gets in trouble as most theories of knowledge require an knower and an object to be known, but what are the objects in mathematics?  The question of ontology arises, ontology being related to metaphysics,  a number doesn't exist in space time so what type of object is it, an abstract object, but what is an abstract object?  And there have been several attempts by philosophers and mathematicians to reduce mathematics to logic or logic and set theory, for which there is a school, known as logicism.  Ethical questions related to sciences exist, as should we develop nuclear power, given its dangers, and what are the rights of an unborn fetus, is stem cell research ethical, etc...

In this characterization, derived from a survey of philosphical questions and problems below, the question is whether what philosophy does is 'explanation?'  Does philosophy look for 'causes,' or 'reasons?'  It is clear that philosophy does do 'explanation' inasmuch as it 'clarifies concepts,' using one of the definitions of 'explanation.'  But, is abstracting questions to a higher level of generality, such as asking what constitutes a theory a case of clarifying a concept or of explanation?  Is providing a theory of knowledge for mathematical propositions or how we obtain meaning in language an explanation?  If so, I need an explanation of your concept of 'explanation' that ties all of these philosophical activities together.

Below is a survey of some common questions and issues is different parts of Philosophy.  :

Questions in the Philosophy of Science (predominantly physical science)

Some questions in the Philosophy of Science include the following.  These questions are followed by various answers which constitute the domain of the philosophy of science.  What is a 'scientific explanation?'  What is a 'scientific law?' or law of nature?  What is a 'probabilistic explanation?'  Expanations, predictions, and laws - how are these related?  What is Functional Analysis - how a part functions to support the system of which it is a part - used mostly in bio and socio sciences (what about a car, the water pump and the cooling system and the cooling system and the engine?)  Paradigmatic shifts in science, how and why these occur in the history of science (e.g. Newtonian to relativity or to quantuum mechanics).  Scientific Theories - their structure and function - what is a theory?, theories as partially interpreted formal systems, fictionalism, the ontological status of theoretic entities, the status of theoretic terms.   Hypothesis - what is a hypothesis and how does it function in a theory?  Postulates - what is a postulate and how does it function in a theory?  Models - what is a model and how does it function in a theory, e.g.  a model is a formalized or semi-formalized theory.  What constitutes the confirmation of scientific hypotheses?  What is the role of induction and deduction in the scientific enterprise?  Are there value judgement made in science?  Is there a logic of scientific discovery?  Could that logic be discovered and programmed as by a computer (to do computer based discovery?)

Philosophy of science studies the various 'schools' of scientific thought including positivism, functionalism, operationalism, logical empiricism etc...  Operationism - says scientific terms are defined by an operation, by an instrument or symbolically, e.g. 'harder than' means 'when x is drag across the surface of y, x makes a mark in y' then 'x is harder than y.'  Positivism - sum human experience in a uniform picture so mutually consistent judgements are possible in all situations in life (what does this have to do with science?)

Logical Empiricism - statements in theories must imply statements that are testable by direct observation

Requirements for scientific experiments - e.g. repeatability, intersubjective verification, etc...  operational defintions.  Reductionism is a school in the philsophy of science that attempts to give a mechanistic explanation of organismic biology - it explores the question of whether all sciences can be reduced to physics. 

Questions in the Philosophy of Biology:

is biology an autonomous science (related to the question of reductionism)

cause and effect in biology (causal explanation in biology)

should teleological explanation be used in biology, can biology get along without it?  Conceptual clarification:  teleologic = teleonomic, teleomatic,

indeterminancy in biology - law in physics and chemistry are deterministic, but those in biology appear indeterminate.

does natural selection give the reason for progressive evolution?  why not just adaptive radiation?

the defintion of life or of 'living things.'

the question of the existence of extraterrestial intelligent life

Darwinian evolution and the evolution of human ethics

analysis of the concept of 'natural selection.'  an analysis of 'adapation' and the relation between selection and adaptation, concept of 'species'  concept of 'diversity' speciation, microevolution (intraspecies), and macroevolution (evolution of new species) - does microevolution explain macroevolution?  phenotype, genotype, extinction, evolution, saltational evoution, transformational evolution, variational evolution, punctuated equilibria

evolution of sex - competing theories

evolution of life from inanimate matter - competing theories


Issues in biological classification - there are competing schools of classificationists (ways to classify living things) - the pheneticists, the taxonomists, the cladists

Questions and Issues in the Philosophy of Psychology (or of Mind)

whether psychology reduces to neurology and ultimately to physics

is psychology a natural science or is it a science of the mind and of society?  my answer both:  biopsych is a natural science, psychology proper is a science of the mind, and social psychology is a science of the mind and society

it studies schools of psychology such as behaviorism, physicalism, and functionalism.

functionalism:  functional analysis - explains a system by its working parts and their interrelations;  computation-representation functionalism - our mind is a program, it is fundamental composed of representations and computations on these representations.;  functional state identity theories or metaphysical functionalism - is concerned with what types of mental states we have, they characterize mental states in terms of their causal roles, their causal relations to sensory stimulations, behavioral outputs, and other mental states.  some types of functionalism may hold that the mind is a Turing machine.

functionalism could be said to reduce mentality to input-output structures.

behaviorism - defines mental events in terms of their stimuluses and responses

intentionality - a theory of mind, that it is composed of beliefs and desires. (as shown by an analysis of language)

Questions and Issues in Social Philosophy

Philosophy of Law:  the concept of (moral) law, liberty and law, concepts of justice, the concept of responsibility (for our actions), the concept of punishment, issues in punishment like capital punishment.

The question of what is the best social or political organization.  What should be the relationship between the rulers and the ruled?  between members of the society, e.g. between men and women, between parents and children, etc...

What is the best way to organize goods and labor (consider the differences on this between marxist and capitalist theories).

Questions and Issues in the Philosphy of Mathematics

Can mathematics be reduced to logic (Frege's project) or logic and set theory (Russell), representing the school of logicism.  Is mathematical intuition required for arriving at mathematical truths, representing the school of intuitionism.  There is also the school of formalism.  What is the nature of mathematical truth, mathematical propositions?  What kind of knowledge is secured in mathematics and how do we come to have this knowledge (e.g. mathematics is about analytic statements, or synthetic a priori statements).  What is the nature of mathematical objects (the ontology of mathematical objects like geometrical objects and numbers)?  What is the nature of mathematical proof?  Can proof be automated (as in attempts in computer science), i.e., is there a logic of mathematical proofs?  What constitutes 'proof' in mathematics (e.g. evidence of the senses is not a candidate).  What role does induction and deduction play in mathematics (are mathematical truths arrived at deductively or also inductively)? 

Questions and Issues in the Philosophy of Language

The philosophy of language is concerned with such things as a theory of meaning, i.e., how do we construct meanings out of words and the rules of grammar?  The philosophy of language is also concerned about the propositional nature of language, the use of analycity in language, language and truth, language and reference.  But a universal question about language, whether there is an underlying universal grammar seems to be a subject of linguistics and not philosophy of language. 

Questions and Issues in the Philosophy of Religion

The philosophy of religion done properly presupposes a study of comparative religion, i.e., ALL religious experience is to be explained, not just that of a particular religion, from Buddist, Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Taoist, Zoroastrian, to the more unusual apsects of religions, such as totemism, animism, and pantheism and demonisms, agnosticism, and atheism.  Central concepts concern the nature of deities, the definition of omniscience, omnipotence, etc...  The nature of the after-life and its relation to the current life (e.g. nirvana, re-incarnation, heaven and hell, etc...).   The relation between ethics and religion (i.e., the ethical imperative and precepts of religions).  Arguments for the existence and non-existence of God.  Mortality and immortality, the question of the persistence of mind after death.   Causation and religion:  e.g. the prime cause, teleology and the final cause.  Natural law and devine law.    Claims to knowledge of a supreme or ultimate reality.  Epistemology, how do we know a supreme being (if there is one).    The finite and the infinite.  The question of the existence and nature of evil.  Egoism and altruism.  Church and state (the proper relationship?)

The Philosophy of Human Nature or Philosophical Anthropology

What is universal or essential  in humans is a question of philosophical anthropology.  Reasonable philosophical anthropology presupposes a study of comparative anthropology, both diachronic and synchronic, or of comparing cultures and even physical anthropology (e.g. races).  That man is defined by and distinguished from the animals by the production of culture, or the acquisition of symbol systems, by rationality, abstract thought, or by some other attribute is a question of philosophical anthropology.  What distinguishes a human mind from an animal mind or a computer program is equally a question for the philosophy of mind as it is a question of philosophical anthropology.  Is this difference one in kind or a matter of degree?  Are human beings inherently good or evil, or what is inherent in them?  Is religion universal, is art universal, is tool-making and use universal, is the acquisition of a knowledge structure universal, is myth universal and definitive?  What distinguishes modern man from ancient man, technological man from agricultural or hunter-gatherer man? 


1 -  (Note, the categorization of linguistics as a social science is somewhat problematic, as language is also part of our mental or psychological makeup, and it is also a feature of general knowledge, especially in its deeper aspects of semantics and logic). Clearly language is a social phenomenon, and the study of different languages involves the study of different societies, but it is also an important aspect of our cognitive apparatus, that by which we describe the world, especially semantics, and in its deeper manifestations it is logical as well.  For the purposes of this organization of knowledge, I have categorized language as a psycho-social phenomenon.

 Copyright Eric Wasiolek September 3, 2003

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