What IS Philosophy?

Complexity of such a question

If you were to ask any person in philosophy such a question, you’re almost guaranteed to be told to wait a minute for an answer. I myself struggle, yet become quite envigorated simply by looking at the wording. I consider myself a self-taught philosopher and when I come across questions which put my passion into scrutiny, regarding its usage, its relevance or indeed its ontology, I feel humbled to silence. Because first of all, philosophy is silence: It is taking the time to listen and learn. Many philosophers claim philosophy begins with “wonderment”, which on its own does not mean very much of anything.

Philosophers don’t come upon a realization like theists would with revelation or a “eurêka” moment like scientists would with complicated formulas. It’s a genuine curiosity that, without directing them toward a one truth, tells them they wish to know more about the world, to take a step back from it all and contemplate. They will be content with taking a walk and reflecting upon their life’s doings, their work, until the moment when they sit and let their mind empty itself of all thought, to enjoy the gentle rustling of leaves in the wind; the distant crashing of waves against the shore; the sight of a setting sun in the distance… And once in bed, close their eyes with their thoughts reeling about the many questions they have asked and the many possible answers they each consider.

I give a spiritual definition of philosophy, which is deeply poetic, because I happen to believe poetry and philosophy are part of the same art. An art that speaks to the human mind more than any other, because it makes us silence ourselves and sit down, to think and then perhaps to decide that we cannot know everything or that what we know will never be enough and that on its own is all the more reason to continue pursuing philosophy. Can I give one definition of philosophy? I don’t think I can, because as there are as many doctrines as there are philosophers, so too are the definitions of philosophy a plurality of interconnecting ideas.

At one time, philosophy is the analysis of ideas and concepts. Another, it is the contemplation of life, nature and culture. It cannot be centered around one unifying definition, which may make the positivists among you skeptical that philosophy is not just another form of religion. It is not, but when done correctly, it provides a comforting alienation of self to the profit of thought. One does not merely seek out philosophy, one lives it.


A part of philosophy that gets a bad rap from scientists is its reliance on spiritual terminology, when it comes to explaining reality. “Metaphysics” too often refers to the supernatural, in the minds of those who do not know or understand philosophy. Much of the spiritual side of philosophy resides in making aphorisms that project a certain amount of wisdom yet may contain none. They were at once pearls of such wisdom but today can be nothing but the thoughts of a bumbling savage.

Existentialists are perhaps the only brand of philosophers, aside from absurdists, who have tried to give reason to the existence of the human mind beyond religion, in philosophy. For if most philosophers will agree that God is an unknown quantity and cannot be defined within reason without violating the laws of logic, most will concede that they cannot know whether God or Gods exist or not.

Phenomenologists are then the ones who have tried to provide a methodological approach to existentialist analysis of everyday life. In that, existentialists often share certain arguments (and conflicts) with phenomenologists. If existentialism can be considered the first study of human life, phenomenology was the first to consider the human mind as an object abstract from the body, though science will for the most part prove that part of phenomenology wrong, with the advent of the neurosciences. What remains in phenomenology is notions of “The Other” as existing outside of our rational conception of reality and always beyond our complete comprehension. For I may imagine “The Other” but he forever escapes reason.

It also brings into account the problems of perception upon the mind and how that perception can be modified at will, using for exemple recreational drugs. That would however stray us too far from this post and into deeper analysis of phenomenology, which would require an essay on its own.

The spiritual types of philosophy also include new ways of seeing religion. Spinoza, for example, is associated with the term “pantheism”, wherein God is in all of us and we are God. Such ideas were controversial at the time of their creation, and still might be, depending on where you live in this world. Such thoughts can give a simple example of the types of thoughts that exist in philosophy, and that despite academic philosophy’s reliance on logic and critical thought, philosophy itself does not reside solely in that realm.


When you study philosophy, you will find yourself hearing terms like “kantian”, “nietzschean”, “hegelean”, “sartrean”, “foucauldian”, “hobbesian”… so on and so forth. We call those “dialectics”. Dialectics are part of a doctrine, typically put forth by a philosopher, which explains the world in a specific fashion. Often times, in social sciences, you’ll hear about “critical theory” as being a “marxist” theory. That means that using Marx’s dialectic, thus his doctrinal teachings, we analyze the world using “critical theory”.

Some doctrines can group specific philosophers, such as with existentialism, above. When you wish to speak of a specific type of dialectic, you will invoke such terms or the theories therein. These are necessary, when we wish to explain things from the point of view that other philosophers have expressed. They are not primordial and may be circumvented with proper terminologies and explanations, but when speaking to specialists, explaining your points while referencing dialectics will skip unnecessary verbiage.

These are good tools to have, which will show that you have (or have not, should they be misused) read the works of the philosophers you are referencing and can implement them into your study of philosophy. While reading Sartre is not absolutely necessary to understand Existentialism, likewise it is not necessary to read Montesquieu in order to understand the philosophy of legal systems. That philosophers had influence was because their works were clarifying around questions that most could only feel at with uncertainty.

Doctrines as such follow a set of paradigms that should not be seen as progress but as simple change in dialectics, each having their pros and cons but none prevailing over all other. It may be necessary, in order to gain a systematic methodology in your research to use a set of dialectics, so as to sound clear, but it is again, not of the utmost importance. These doctrines reflect the times in which these philosophers existed and as such, give us an intimate look at how people thought back in those times. You could be surprised at how modern some of their thoughts appear to us even to this day.

The Notions

In the book “Les Grandes Notions de la Philosophie”, Jean-Pierre Zarader had a collective of specialists in philosophy write entire essays and dissertations on the primary notions of philosophy. They were:

  • Art
  • Beauty
  • The Other
  • Culture
  • The State and Society
  • Perception
  • Interpretation
  • Religion
  • Truth
  • Work, skill and trade
  • Rights and justice
  • Mind and Matter
  • Theory and experience
  • The living
  • Duty
  • Desire
  • Happiness
  • Freedom
  • Language
  • Sovereignty
  • History
  • Consciousness

As you can see, many different theoretical fields are encompassed in these notions. From science, to arts, from culture to religion. You need not restrict your research in philosophy to only one, but you may if you so desire. It would be advised to have knowledge in each, so that you may easily view things from different viewpoints. Notions in philosophy help to agglomerate ideas into neat categories for what may sometimes seem like dense over-intellectual analysis of relatively simple things.

You will realize that you like philosophy the day you prioritize learning more about something before dispensing your judgement on it, and when you will dispense your judgement, you will have taken the time to consider a fair assessment of that subject. Yet, it is very important for the philosopher never to remain on the sidelines and to commit to a position. We as humans can never be truly objective and it is pointless to attempt to do so. That is why we require the viewpoints of others in order to attain a semblance of objectivity, because only others can view us in ways we cannot and thus give us an angle of ourselves that is alien even to us.

To conclude?

Philosophy is not easily defineable, and that is perhaps on purpose. Its etymology is used as a starting point for most people: “Love of wisdom”.

Going from there, we all make our own paths, but a definite answer to this question can never be found, as certainty eludes the philosopher, whereas it beseeches the scientist. Both scientists and philosophers have curiosity as a common trait, but one seeks answers more than he seeks questions and when answers are not readily available, ceases to ask questions. The philosopher is never satisfied with answers provided and continues on, knowing that there is no end to this love of wisdom, and that is for the better.



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