“Since what you teach is philosophy, what is philosophy?” I’ve already posted one response to this question, titled “Bullshitting With Parameters.” What follows are more serious, and much more detailed, thoughts on what I take philosophy to be (and not to be).

The American philosopher Wilfrid Sellars writes in “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man”: “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. Under ‘things in the broadest possible sense’ I include such radically different items as not only ‘cabbages and kings,’ but numbers and duties, possibilities and finger snaps, aesthetic experience and death. To achieve success in philosophy would be, to use a contemporary turn of phrase, to ‘know one’s way around’ with respect to all these things, not in that unreflective way in which the centipede of the story knew its way around before it faced the question, ‘how do I walk?,’ but in that reflective way which means that no intellectual holds are barred.” Philosophy involves serious reflection, no doubt; I remember reading in G. K. Chesterton somewhere that philosophy constitutes the deepest thinking one can do about any subject.

For this reason, philosophy is closely associated with argument. It is the “bread and butter” of philosophy. Some even go so far as to say that one only does philosophy when one asserts a conclusion on the basis of premises, often as part of a dialectic. This support with the use of premises can be direct or indirect. In direct arguments, the author asserts that the argument’s conclusion and premises are all true. Take St. Anselm’s famous ontological argument for God’s existence as an example of a direct argument:

  1. God is the most perfect conceivable being.
  2. If a thing doesn’t actually exist, that in itself is an imperfection.
  3. Now, if the most perfect conceivable being didn’t exist, we would be able to conceive of a more perfect being (namely one who does exist).


4.  The most perfect conceivable being, namely, God, must actually exist.


Reductio ad absurdum and conditional proofs, on the other hand, are indirect, since at least one premise is merely supposed. “Skeptical argument typically is ad hominem, that is, aimed at positions held by others, showing that there is something wrong with them in a way that does not depend on having a position of one’s own” (Julia Annas, Voices of Ancient Philosophy, 208). For example, the famous skeptic Sextus Empiricus “lets the premises be the dogmatist’s beliefs and then confines himself to internal criticisms in which he exposes contradictions or shows that his adversary’s position has implausible consequences” (Sorensen, Paradox, 153). An argument that Sextus Empiricus would appreciate is the Benedictine monk Gaunilo’s reply to Anselm:

  1. The Lost Island is the most perfect conceivable island.
  2. If a thing doesn’t actually exist, that in itself is an imperfection.
  3. Now, if the most perfect conceivable island didn’t exist, we would be able to conceive of a more perfect island (namely one that does exist).


  1. The most perfect conceivable island, namely, the Lost Island, must actually exist.

Gaunilo assumes for the sake of argument that these premises are true. We don’t know whether he in fact thinks they are true—the strength of his counterargument doesn’t depend on this at all. His purpose is to show that Anselm’s logic is faulty, for it shows that a non-existent being (the Lost Island) does in fact exist, which is absurd.

Philosophy’s close connection with argument, however, is sometimes greatly exaggerated. The following confession was offered on a well-known philosophy blog: “… I can honestly say that I learned to philosophize only after I abandoned my study of [Friedrich Nietzsche]—and that other aphorist, [Ludwig] Wittgenstein—to concentrate on folks like [Roderick] Chisholm, [Alvin] Plantinga, and [Peter] Van Inwagen. No arguments, no philosophy.”[1]

This is rather silly, on a couple of levels. First, Nietzsche does argue. His conclusions are usually not mere proclamations, though they may often sound like them. Rather, it is often the case that Nietzsche’s arguments are opaque or highly condensed or conflated—as he explains in Twilight of the Idols, “honest things, like honest men, do not carry their reasons in their hands …. It is indecent to show all five fingers” (Twilight of the Idols 5). What Ezra Pound attempts to do in his poetry, Nietzsche attempts to do in his philosophy: “it is my ambition to say in ten sentences what everyone else says in a book—what everyone else does not say in a book” (Twilight of the Idols 51). And, to make his point even clearer, Nietzsche claims that “the worst readers of aphorisms are the author’s friends if they are intent on guessing back from the general to the particular instance to which the aphorism owes its origin; for with such pot-peeking they reduce the author’s whole effort to nothing; so that they deservedly gain, not a philosophic outlook or instruction, but—at best, or at worst—nothing more than the satisfaction of vulgar curiosity” (Mixed Opinions and Maxims 129).


Yet for all Nietzsche’s bombast, here’s a transparent argument from his own hand: “In Christianity neither morality nor religion has even a single point of contact with reality. Nothing but imaginary causes (‘God,’ ‘soul,’ ‘ego,’ ‘spirit,’ ‘free will’—for that matter, ‘unfree will’), nothing but imaginary effects (‘sin,’ ‘redemption,’ ‘grace,’ ‘punishment,’ ‘forgiveness of sins’). Intercourse between imaginary beings (‘God,’ ‘spirits,’ ‘souls’); an imaginary natural science (anthropocentric; no trace of any concept of natural causes); an imaginary psychology (nothing but self-misunderstandings, interpretations of agreeable or disagreeable general feelings) …” (The Antichrist 15). There is certainly nothing esoteric or aphoristic here; the reasoning behind his conclusion is laid bare for all to see.[2]

The case appears similar with Wittgenstein; sometimes he will come clean and offer a complete argument, but generally speaking transparent arguments are not his style. “As a student, Wittgenstein would think ferociously about a problem and then just proclaim his solution, rather like an edict from the czar.  [Bertrand] Russell chided him for not including the reasoning behind his conclusions. Wittgenstein wondered aloud whether, when he gave Russell a rose, he should give him the roots as well” (Sorensen, Paradox, 7).

Wittgenstein Banjo

Second, philosophy without argument, whether transparent or opaque, does have its place. I don’t mean arguments where all or some of premises are unstated. (Incidentally, such arguments are called enthymemes.) Rather, there are other ways “to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term” (Sellars) besides argument. On the question of the origin of philosophy, Diogenes Laertius, an ancient biographer of Greek philosophers, informs us that “the Gymnosophists and Druids … uttered their philosophy in riddles” (Sorensen, Paradox, 3). Sorensen himself notes, “The oldest philosophical questions evolved from folklore and show vestiges of the verbal games that generated them” (Sorensen, Paradox, 3). Consider this Chinese tale, or I guess more accurately, parable:

Chang Tzu Butterfly dream

No answer (conclusion) is given here. No conclusion is easily forthcoming either. This parable poses difficult questions, philosophical in nature since they require thinking about “dreams” and “reality” in the broadest possible sense of each term in the broadest possible way. Those with formal training in philosophy know that René Descartes famously takes up these questions in his Meditations. And surely he wasn’t the first, nor the last.

The following riddle from Africa requires similarly deep thinking about “justice.”

A man whose wife was dead had two sons and a daughter. During a famine he had only a bit of bread, and if he divided it among the three children, all would die. If he gave it all to one, the other two would die. To whom must he give the bread? (William R. Bascom, African Dilemma Tales, 90)

This riddle invites us to consider the consequences of determining the morality of an act based on its consequences. Or are there moral obligations—duties—that must be followed, whatever the consequences may be? How reliant should our determination of morality be on predictions of the future? These are philosophical questions, perennially part of the subject matter of ethics (and probably every ethics course), but there is absolutely no argument. We have no clue as to what answer the “author” would give. This is how one of my students responded to this riddle:

Given only the two options of giving one child the piece of bread and him or her living and dividing the bread amongst the three, one is faced with a difficult decision. Ultimately, the situation is a very unpleasant one that yields poor results in any case. If the father were to divide the bread all would die, this being the ultimate loss. Alternatively, if the father gave the bread to one child, who then survived, he or she would have to live with the guilt of being chosen over his or her siblings. However, one must believe that the child that lived would eventually develop in a rational being and when looking back would not feel guilt but would realize the gravity of the situation and would be forced to shed him or herself of any guilt because just like we should realize, in this situation there are only two options—either one child lives, or all die. And when faced with this conclusion the child would realize that his or her father made the right decision and he or she would perhaps cherish life even more and live a full life to respect his dead siblings. He or she would ultimately want him or her to be happy. Therefore, the father must choose to feed one child who would survive. (Bret Larson)

It’s interesting that Larson writes this from the child’s perspective. Also, he doesn’t consider which child. Does that even matter? How would you respond? Are you willing to accept, for instance, the conditions of the riddle? We are told that there are only two options, but in real life is this ever true?

Besides argument and riddle, philosophy comes in another form. I call it “sounds right” philosophy—the distilled wisdom of past generations. Take the oft-told tale of “Beauty and the Beast.” Besides being a good story, what is its main moral? Perhaps it is that something can be loved before it is lovable, or that beauty is not requisite for love. These are distinctly philosophical morals, however there is no argument here. At best, “Beauty and the Beast” constitutes an illustration of a claim that simply “sounds right.” Consider the following expressions of two distinct cultures sharing a similar message about education. The first is from the Republic of Georgia:

During a great storm at sea, a learned man heard the skipper giving his orders, but could not understand a word. When the danger was past, he asked the skipper in what language he had spoken. The sailor replied: “In my mother tongue, of course!” The scholar expressed his regret that a man should have wasted half his life without learning to speak grammatically and intelligibly. A few hours later the storm arose again, and this time the ship sprang a leak and began to founder. Then the skipper went to the scholar and asked if he could swim. The man of books replied that he had never learned. “I am sorry, sir, for you will lose your whole life. The ship will go to the bottom in a minute, and my crew and I shall swim ashore. You would have done well if you had spent a little of your time in learning to swim.” (Wardrop, 167f)

The following is an excerpt from a 17th century letter by a Native American elder explaining to the local “authorities” why young native tribesmen were ignoring scholarships offered to them by American universities.

[B]ut you, who are wise, must know that different Nations have different conceptions of things; and you will therefore not take it amiss, if our Ideas of this kind of Education happen not to be the same with yours. We have had some Experience of it. Several of our young People were formerly brought up at the Colleges of the Northern Provinces; they were instructed in all your Sciences; but, when they came back to us, they were bad Runners ignorant of every means of living in the woods, unable to bear either Cold or Hunger, knew neither how to build a Cabin, take a deer, or kill an Enemy, spoke our Language imperfectly, were therefore neither fit for Hunters, Warriors, nor Counsellors, they were totally good for nothing…. We will take Care of their Education, instruct them in all we know, and make Men of them. (Drake, 77)

Both passages—one fictional, and one not—express not only the idea that wisdom or true education is useful, but also that what’s useful in one culture or environment may not be useful in another. What is the purpose of education if one can’t do the simplest things needed to survive in one’s circumstances? It is also interesting to consider the following question: Which do you prefer—the lore or the letter? Which is more philosophical? At any rate, neither express bona fide arguments.

Let me end with a couple of things said supposedly by the inimitable Wittgenstein: “a serious and good philosophical work could be written that would consist entirely of jokes (without being facetious). Another time he said that a philosophical treatise might contain nothing but questions (without answers).”

[1] Robert Allen in the Leiter Reports,  May 17, 2009.

[2] And another argument, if for some reason you think that the above is Nietzsche’s only argument: “The schools have no more important task than to teach rigorous thinking, cautious judgment, and consistent inference; therefore they should leave alone whatever is not suitable for these operations: religion, for example. After all, they can be sure that later on man’s fogginess, habit, and need will slacken the bow of an all-too-taut thinking. But as far as the influence of the schools reaches, they should enforce what is essential and distinctive in man: ‘reason, and science, man’s very highest power’—so Goethe, at least, judges” (Human, All-Too-Human 265, 56f).



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