In order to better appreciate what something is…it is often helpful to look at what it is not. If you want to distinguish a hawk from a cat, for example, it will help you to know what a hawk is not (e.g., it is not a mammal, it is not four-legged). The same can be said for philosophy. That is, getting to know what philosophy is can be discovered (at least in part) by revealing what it is not. Here are some important things to consider about the nature of philosophy, specifically what it is not.
Some Common Misconceptions
- Philosophy is not simply whatever one believes about a matter. Everyone can have a “philosophy” about something, of course, but this is not the same as philosophy as a discipline, activity or practice (i.e., approaching something philosophically).
- Philosophy is not just concerned with thoughts and ideas. Actions and behavior are important! In other words, philosophy is not just interested in “reflection” or “contemplation.” It also values putting things to the (practical) test. For example, conclusions drawn from philosophical reflection and contemplation can have a significant impact on the structure and success of our government, legal, educational, and healthcare systems.
- Philosophy is not all the same in terms of quality. Scholarship and intent matters. Philosophical activity should be rigorous and be led with the intent of following reason where reason guides us and getting closer to the truth about a matter. As is the case with any discipline…there are better and worse instances of philosophy.
- Philosophy is not simply fancy speech or technical writing. The ability to present an argument clearly and concisely requires a person to have a certain level of command over her speaking (or writing). This may or may not involve “fancy words or “technical speech.” But even if it does, this does not mean that philosophy is nothing more than its speech or writing. In the end, one should remember that a goal of philosophy (regardless of one’s particular style) should be to make the unclear more clear (not the opposite).
- Philosophy is not propaganda and rarely what we see on t.v. There are many cases in pop culture (some propagandistic, others not) where activities are incorrectly referred to as ‘philosophical’ or ‘representative of the discipline of philosophy’…but are not really cases of either (e.g., they might lack the scholastic rigor or have the goal of persuading audiences regardless of an interest in the truth about a matter). This is not to say that there are not legitimate cases of philosophy in pop culture….there are. It is just more of a rarity to encounter these than commonplace.
- Philosophy is not not concerned with answers. While questions can certainly arise as a result of a discussion about a matter (hence leading to more questions than answers), the “north star”(or guiding light) of philosophy is still always reason and getting closer to truth about a matter (an answer) still always a (the) motivating factor. An answer that is in line with reason and supported by evidence is a better answer than one that lacks such qualities.
- Philosophy is not interested in telling people what to believe. Instead, what is of paramount import is helping people discover for themselves what they believe and why (and whether what they believe is justified). While a philosopher may have a particular belief about a matter, and may in the process of discussion share this view, her primary aim is assisting others give labor to thought.
- Philosophy is not the same as debating or arguing. While philosophy involves debate and argumentation, it is not equivalent to such activities. Getting closer to the truth about a matter is an imperative of philosophy. Arguing a position just for the sake of arguing (i.e., engaging in discussion simply to “showcase one’s talents of rhetoric” or without regard to getting closer to the truth about something) is not the same as engaging in philosophy or philosophical discussion.
- Philosophy is not irrelevant to matters of everyday living. While it is true that some of philosophy’s subject matters are (or seem) “somewhat out there,” it is not the case that all (or even any) of its subject matters are removed from matters of everyday living. Philosophy is, at its core, grounded in the here and now, not some otherworld. Its aims include getting closer to the truth about such matters as justice, rights, knowledge, virtue, and happiness…and translating this into action.
- Philosophy is not opposed to passion, feelings, emotion and imagination. There is no doubt that philosophy values the use of reason. It is the driving force behind philosophical thinking. But just because philosophy gives reason preferential treatment, does not mean that it disregards passion, feelings, emotion, and imagination. In fact, the process of reasoning itself — as many researchers have discovered — is extremely emotional, creative, and highly complex. All of these play an important role in critical thinking.
- Philosophy is not just another name for logic. While philosophy uses logic it is not the same as logic. Logic is a tool of philosophy that supports the application of reason. Logic helps us to distinguish good reasoning from bad reasoning and is used in critical thinking.
- Philosophy is not just another name for critical thinking. True…critical thinking is the central component of philosophy. But there is more to it than this. Philosophy is also an art….and way of life. This means, that in addition to critical thinking, we must also embrace (in our approach to matters of thought and experiences in life) certain character-related attributes (or dispositions).
- Philosophy is not just for the classroom. Many people hold the unfortunate view that philosophy’s usefulness is confined to the walls of academia. But this is simply not the case. Whether we are discussing topics in a classroom, writing or researching, or enjoying conversation with a friend or a walk along the beach, philosophy is useful and relevant to each and every one of us. Its methods and attributes help us gain clarity, insight, distinguish good from bad arguments, gain perspective, make more informed decisions, and better understand ourselves and experiences.