What is philosophy?

Why do some people philosophize? What need is there for philosophy today? Who cares, right? Well, some people do. And some people ask you: What is philosophy?


φιλοσοφία: “love of wisdom”

Why be concerned with philosophy, if it is a complicated matter? There are too many questions to start. Why not start simply: I am about to tell you the biggest problem that faces me today. I find the discussion of this topic quite problematic in front of parents and peers. I also find it to be of crucial significance for academic philosophy today. The following discussion, I hope, will connect my research into Objectivism, views of other philosophers, and my own philosophy, and thus it may interest the widest audience on this blog. It’s a topic that we all should think through and share.

All of my own

At first, I must start where we all start: with our birth. My birth, however, was perhaps not so unusual, as it would later seem to me. I was born in Russia into a family of atheists and Marxists, back in the good ol’ USSR. I couldn’t find myself but was sure of one thing within myself: I was a believer. I believed in God, since I was 6, and I remember the moment when I raised both of my hands and jumped up after my teacher had asked this question: Who believes in God? I evidently wasn’t raised religiously and even had no idea about religion. I’d been to a church once, I think, and it was breathtaking, for a moment. But I was never interested in any one particular religion. It was just a feeling, something in my nature that I thought I believed in God. And I still do.

During my adolescence I liked to build things and create worlds. All in my room, of course, but it was grand. It started before my teens, when my cousin and I set up chairs and covered them with blankets. It’s like it was underground, where each of us had several rooms and secret places, and we crawled, excitedly, in the world of our own making. I craved to repeat that experience, but my cousin grew out of it. In my early teens I created a city with countryside in my room, always with an overarching storyline, little characters, streets, cars, marketplaces, and even economic relations with made-up paper currency. Later, I wrote poems and short stories but never drew pictures, like my parents did, who were professional artists. In my middle teens I was into the paranormal, my mystical side, of which I am proud today.

So how does this relate to philosophy? Do you see here a philosophically-barren beginning or a sign of things to come, my future dabbling in what I thought was genuine philosophy? Only in my early twenties I’d started developing abstract thought, theories, and models. I was also imagining fantastical stories and worlds, and kept them in my head for many years. You see, my fantasy had always been parallel to my philosophical developments. And then, a few years ago, I discovered Ayn Rand.

In the company of others

What surprised me most about Rand’s philosophy (or, as some would, add the “so-called” to “philosophy”) was not only that she was a female Russian philosophical anti-Marxist novelist. As I later discovered, Rand’s philosophy is unique. Yes, it was partially inspired by Nietzsche and Aristotle, but what makes her philosophy unprecedented and without a lucid tradition is her scope. Rand’s scope for philosophy is grander than what academic philosophers have imagined so far. And I think this scope causes an unfavorable opinion to be forced upon Rand and her followers by those educated in philosophy because Rand generalized philosophy to an extent that boggles general philosophers’ minds. She said everything has to do with philosophy, “a philosophy for living on earth,” even the way you have sex. And her motto to live philosophy appeared quite breathtaking to me, so much so that I’ve received a Master’s degree inspired by her and her followers’ works and of those she affected, among whom I quickly had found myself.

More than two years of polemics with anti-Randists like the notorious Bill Harris (whose comments yet linger on this blog) and I am still under her effect. Now I’ve made a decision to get a philosophy degree and study Rand’s greatest scapegoat: Immanuel Kant. I will study all of Kant’s published works, in German, starting in 2017. It’s important to know that what has led to Kant, that end of a thread, was Rand’s philosophy.

To study Kant means to be academic about it. This is a big deal. And it will be even bigger when I finally face my academic superiors concerning my views on the topic. Because I know: throughout history philosophy always has been a very limited affair. Yet I love philosophy. As I now realize, I’ve always loved it. And what you love you allow freedom because love transcends boundaries, right? This means that philosophy, my love, cannot have the limits forced on it, like chains, by millennial, pedantic traditions. Philosophy is much greater than what the likes of Kant think of it. So, then, returning to my first question: What is philosophy? You may notice now that the question has been given another tonality that deepens its impact.

Many philosophers have wondered about the definition of philosophy. I will only name two modern discussions, so that we won’t bother ourselves profusely with what had passed us long ago. Martin Heidegger (the author of Being and Time) thought that philosophy is about principles that really matter, rather than matters of fact[1]. To that effect, according to Heidegger, the task of defining philosophy is primarily concerned with avoiding the errors of overdetermination and underdetermination. If philosophy is the most fundamental science, a “deeper” and “higher” science, one without standard limits or traditional historical constraints, then it should only be “lived,” and thus the task of definition would be abandoned. Instead, the definition of philosophy is about the dynamic between being most general and formal (like a genus), involving the entire history of philosophy, and then also being exact and based on experience (like a species). Within the limits of this description, ontology-driven questions of the “what” of this object in the “how” of its being possessed must be addressed. Of course, in the end, knowing philosophy’s definition is different from actual philosophizing, in which the factor of consciousness makes a difference.

Perhaps less obscurely, Alain Badiou (the author of Being and Event) explicates his views, starting with a grounding from Nietzsche’s commentaries that our epistemological cravings are limited to our biographies (Human, All Too Human, §513) and that great philosophies are ultimately confessions and memoirs (Beyond Good and Evil, §6). For Badiou, philosophy proceeds from our own lives, so he tells 9 stories from his life because he thinks that this is the best way to show the meaning of philosophy mathematically and artistically (“Philosophy as Biography”). For Badiou, politics, science, art, and even love are all proper subjects of philosophy, and philosophy serves in discussing them more universally.

Drawing our conclusions

If you ask me about what philosophy is, I would start to answer: to differentiate philosophy from science, as all honest philosophers do, we must differentiate the analysis of facts from the analysis of humanity qua humanity. While science looks at facts and digs in them deeper, thus discovering more facts, philosophy, on the other hand, is, seemingly, a simpler matter. What philosopher must try to understand is human nature, that is, the laws by which we think, create, live, feel, and do all the things. The whole universes we perceive, in our human fashion, and the touch we imprint upon them – all of this is the concern of philosophy. So, to analyze people, individuals in their traditions, in the most general, universal terms – that’s what makes a philosopher a philosopher, and nothing more. And if you look at this – look truly and deeply into this entire affair – you will find no limitation, for, as humankind is, the study of human nature is open-ended. Thus I conclude that, while our efforts may seem quite different, each human being adds something to philosophy, even while we don’t realize what our contribution might have been. And after all our attempts to understand each other, why don’t we try a bit more philosophically? 😉

Happy New Year

[1] Heidegger’s early career notes in Phenomenological Interpretations of Aristotle: Initiation into Phenomenological Research (2001, pp. 11-31), volume 61 of his Collected Works in German edition.


26 thoughts on “What is philosophy?

    • I think the key and repeating element in those descriptions of the purpose of philosophy is you. That’s what differentiates philosophy from science. Philosophy deals with people more than it deals with objective facts of physical nature. Nonetheless, I am starting to think that an objective whole can be formalized from philosophy, a so-called science of philosophy, a science that only deals with people, yous. An alternative to psychology, in fact.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. “An alternative to psychology”…I like this. I agree with you.The hole purpose of philosophy is you, a human.We all should be philosophers, to understand human nature, but our findings , we need to implement on our life,otherwise we stepped into the field of demagogy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, and we need to be careful not to step ‘into the field of demagogy’ regardless of what field we work in. This is an important advice that deals with not mixing ethics with our objective pursuits. Ethics is necessary for our own life, but when we deal with others scientifically we need to be more objective. So when I speak of science of philosophy, I mean necessarily transcending ethics when evaluating others. The terms ‘good’ or ‘bad’ should not be applied to people, unless you speak of immediate decisions you have to make in your own life, a practice, in a way, not a theory. So I guess the difficulty here is that I have to make a theory that does not objectively support ethical evaluations, but allows individual insights into subjective ethical evaluations. In other words, a theory that can be applied to practice without being limited to practice.

      Liked by 1 person

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