What is Philosophy?

Merlin MCC | Oar in Water & PhilosophyMany people think of philosophy as nothing more than pointless musings with no practical effect.  But nothing could be further from the truth. Philosophy is the art of critical thinking.  It is an extremely valuable resource that can help you in an abundance of ways.  In addition, it is a genuinely fun, exciting, & rewarding activity!

The word ‘philosophy’ (philosophía) is Greek in origin and technically means a friend or lover (phílos) of wisdom (sophía).  Philosophy is an activity of the heart & mind.  It is a method, thinking activity & way of life and a valuable compass & navigational tool that can help you find your way.  But how exactly does it do this?  In order to answer this, it is helpful to first gain a better appreciation of what philosophy is & what it is not.


Philosophy is an activity of the heart & mind.

A Thinking ActivityPhilosophy is a thinking activity.  This means that you approach a topic of investigation in a way that honors critical, creative thinking (or reasoning) and employ several methods commonly associated with philosophy, such as argument, refutation, systematic doubt, logic, justification of belief, and so forth.

A Way of LifePhilosophy is also a way of of life.  This means that you approach a topic of investigation & experiences in your life with certain dispositions, including open-mindedness, a sense of wonder, imagination, sincerity, humility, and dialectical justness.

An ArtTaken together, philosophy (as a thinking activity & way of life) is an art.

 A Philosophical Approach

Caspers Park Flora

Philosophy as a thinking activity, a way of life & an art constitutes an approach to life that involves active engagement & a willingness to “dive into” and “elevate” our (processes of) reasoning.  It’s a method and approach that is particularly advantageous because it facilitates and equips us with a unique & valuable vantage point with that “thing” with which we are concerned, thinking about and/or experiencing (i.e., our object of concern).  In other words, approaching life philosophically can help us narrow our focus on a particular issue & broaden our view, as well as help us identify and examine the philosophical undercurrents beneath our (and others’) “streams of thought.”  Moreover, it can provide us with the tools to traverse those spaces in between.  Metaphorically speaking, philosophy arms us with a set of oars & a looking glass and a means by which to approach, recognize &  more successfully navigate the vicissitudes inherent in life.

What Is Philosophy Concerned With?

Willy | Montana Picture

Philosophy is concerned with a lot things, all of which in some form and to varying degrees, concern questions having to do with the human condition, our lives, and the world around us.  In other words, the questions of philosophy are the questions of life.  Traditionally, these areas of philosophical inquiry are broken into what we fondly refer to as “the four cornerstones of (human) living”: Ethics, Metaphysics, Epistemology & Logic.  Ethics concerns questions about how one should/ought to live, metaphysics about what sorts of things exist & their essential nature, epistemology about how/what we can know and our justificatory platform, and logic about the correct principles of reasoning.  Within these pillars lie a variety of specialties which speak to the layers & complexity of life (e.g. philosophy of science, existentialism, environmental ethics, aesthetics, philosophy of mind, eastern philosophy, philosophy of religion, personal identity, philosophy of language).  Philosophy’s investigations are led by reason & the general maxim that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” 

What Are Its Aims?

Merlin MCC | Gulls in Flight & Philosophy

Philosophy aims to improve the quality of our lives.  In its commitment to “follow reason where reason guides” & “get closer to the truth about a matter,” it strives to do this by helping to clarify and answer matters of thought (ideas, concepts, emotions, etc.) & action (behavior).  In other words, it aims to help us remain open to the world and understand what we think & why and, further, whether or not our thoughts are philosophically justified.  It also helps us translate these (conceptual) activities into practical terms (actions/behavior) so that we can structure our lives in ways that help to promote health & happiness and and enrich our lives (and the lives of others) in meaningful ways.

Philosophical Sensitivity

Aspen | Montana PictureWhen talking about embracing philosophy as a “thinking activity, an art, and a way of life” and thus “approaching life philosophically,” one must consider what sorts of things facilitate this way of being. Cultivating “philosophical sensitivity” is a helpful (and we feel necessary) means by which to do so. 

In light of this, we felt it important to include here a snapshot of what philosophical sensitivity is, its relationship to our conception of philosophy as a “thinking activity, an art, and a way of life,” and how to cultivate it.

What is Philosophical Sensitivity? 

One conception of philosophical sensitivity that we find particularly valuable and enlightening is advanced by philosopher and scholar Jana Mohr Lone, according to which:

Philosophical sensitivity is “the development of a general capacity to engage in questioning and reflection about the…questions underlying the human condition and the world in which we live.  It is a kind of ‘perceptual capacity’ — in the Aristotelian sense of a natural faculty that can be developed over time and with training.

Its Relationship to Philosophy as “a Thinking Activity, an Art & Way of Life”

Metaphorically speaking, cultivating philosophical sensitivity is an important part of embracing philosophy as “a thinking activity, art, and way of life” because it provides, at minimum, the perceptual capacity necessary to identify and distinguish Plato’s “shadows in the cave.”  It is a necessary aspect of approaching life philosophically and a critical skill (and ‘virtue’) to develop.  Just like other forms of sensitivity — like that of a naturalist, for example, that involves (according to J.M. Lohr) a particular sort of awareness about the world that enables her to “see relationships, details, and changes in the natural world that many of us [who have not cultivated this sense of awareness might] miss”philosophical sensitivity involves a particular way of “seeing” and reflecting upon the world.  Cultivating this faculty is important & very connected to our day to day lives.  The questions of philosophy are, after all, the questions of life.  So what’s the relationship between this unique perceptual capacity & philosophy?  Or, at least, our conception of philosophy?  Consider this analogy:

Philosophical sensitivity is like a pair of eyeglasses that allow you to pick up on the philosophical dimensions of life that you would not have without putting them on.  This “perceptual capacity or faculty” is important and integral to embracing philosophy as “a thinking activity, an art, and way of life.”  It is necessary but not sufficient for the latter, which has the distinguishing feature of pushing further by demanding that one never take these glasses off.

Some Ways to Cultivate Philosophical Sensitivity

So how do we cultivate philosophical sensitivity and set up ourselves up with a pair of philosophical glasses that will help us — should we take heed to the imperative to follow reason where reason guides —  embrace philosophy as “a thinking activity, an art, and a way of life?”  In two words:  practice & training. “You got to lace up and get in the game!”  There are a number of ways to do this.  Here are some examples (offered by J.M. Lone):

  • Engage in structured philosophical conversations
  • Read philosophical works
  • Listen to philosophical lectures
  • Observe the facilitation of philosophy discussions
  • Take philosophy classes
  • Participate in a community of philosophical inquiry (in which philosophical topics are explored in a collaborative group)

Ultimately, cultivating philosophical sensitivity involves fine-tuning our natural faculties for the philosophical and developing our “philosophical selves.” 

“We traditionally recognize as important the development of [our] physical selves, intellectual selves, moral selves, and social and emotional selves, but we pay little attention to the cultivation of the philosophical self. Consequently, the philosophical selves…remain undeveloped…This is a loss.” — Jana Mohr Lone

We couldn’t agree more.  Philosophy is relevant and valuableAnd that’s why we do we what we do here at Merlin!

Comments are closed.