What do philosophers do?

This is not a philosopher.  [These are philosophers](http://looksphilosophical.tumblr.com/)

This is not a philosopher.
These are philosophers.

Given the recent negative attention given to “philosophy” by Stephen Hawking, Lawrence Krauss, and Neil deGrasse Tyson, I thought it might be worthwhile to offer a perspective on what it is that professional philosophers do qua philosopher.1 To streamline the discussion, my focus will be on academics, though it is possible to be a professional philosopher outside of the academy.

What is philosophy?

Unlike many academic endeavors, specifying what it is that we’re doing when we do philosophy is a problematic task: there are contentious disagreements among philosophers about what they do, what methods are appropriate, who counts as a philosopher, and the like. My plan is to come at this a few different ways: examining the kind of inquiry that philosophers work on, the source materials they use for that inquiry, and the nuts-and-bolts of their labor. (The latter two will appear in subsequent posts.)

So, let’s begin with a formulation from Wilfrid Sellars, the protagonist of my dissertation:

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. — “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man

Perhaps that sentence, by itself, isn’t all that helpful—though right away we can see that philosophy involves a kind of abstract thinking. The claim Sellars makes is that the goal of this abstract thought is to understand . . . well, what exactly is it that we’re supposed to understand? It turns out, everything:

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. (ibid)

That’s a mighty big—and vaguely specified—task. But we can put some flesh on these bones. The general picture is that we have a whole bunch of things we believe and do. Some of these beliefs we hold explicitly, while others we hold merely implicitly in our doings; some we hold for good reasons, while others we hold for bad reasons or for no reason at all. What philosophers do, then, is try to work out how all of these beliefs and doings work—spelling out how they might reinforce or contradict one another, specifying or clarifying the concepts that the beliefs are made of, making explicit presuppositions, working out consequences, analyzing our doings, and the like.

So, philosophy is, in part, a mode of inquiring about our world. It is an attempt to clarify, explain, or analyze concepts, institutions, practices, texts, arguments, etc. as well as their relationship to one another. We can get clearer about what philosophy is by looking at what philosophers inquire about.

Some questions that philosophers attempt to answer

Since philosophy is a mode of inquiry, it might help to understand what sorts of questions philosophers try to answer. The website philpapers, which is (among other things) a comprehensive index of the research literature in philosophy, maintains a bibliography with 4963 categories of material. I, uh, won’t go into all of those. Instead, I’ll select a few parts of philosophy and give some example questions that philosophers working in those parts might ask.

The highest-level categories of questions are, roughly:

  1. Metaphysics
  2. Epistemology
  3. Value Theory
  4. Logic
  5. History of Western Philosophy

Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that is concerned with questions about the “fundamental” nature of reality. Some questions a metaphysician might ask would include: “what is a mind, and how is it related to a body?”; “is the apparent “flow” of time a feature of reality or an illusion?”; and “is there a conception of “free will” that is compatible with the causal worldview depicted in physics?”

Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that is concerned with questions about knowledge. Some questions that an epistemologist might ask would include: “does knowledge have a foundation?”; “can we know anything, given that our experiences could be the result of a sophisticated simulation (as in The Matrix)?”; and “what, if anything, makes scientific inquiry epistemically special?”

Value Theory is a broad category that includes the subfields that inquire into aspects of reality involving values:2 aesthetics (understanding art), ethics (rules governing individual action), political philosophy (rules governing collective action), and social thought (understanding how social institutions like race and gender work). Questions that value theorists are interested in would include: “what is the relationship between beauty and truth?”; “what makes an action the morally right one?”; and “how do institutions structure our existence?”

Logic is the branch of philosophy that examines the formal structures we use in reasoning. This might include material that overlaps with mathematics or with science. Questions that logicians might ask include: “how can we (re)solve a paradox?”; “are there true contradictions?”; and “what explains objectivity in mathematics?”

History of Western Philosophy is the branch of Western philosophy that actively, deeply, and systematically engages in the philosophical work of previous periods so as to gain a deeper understanding of the arguments that earlier philosophers have made and to see if there are any insights relevant to contemporary debates.3 Typically, the history is divided into Ancient (usually Greek and Roman), Medieval (roughly Augustine (354-430 CE) through Suarez (1548-1617 CE), and Modern (1620-1850)—though there are historians who work on 19th and 20th century philosophers. Questions that historians of philosophy might ask are: “how did Aristotle understand perceptual judgment?”; “how best are we to understand the Thomistic “five ways” of proving the existence of god?”; and “does Riemannian geometry undermine Kant’s work in Critique of Pure Reason?”

Next time

In my next post about philosophy, I’ll talk about the sources that philosophers use for their work and the typical activities that philosophers undertake in their work lives.


  1. One thing we do is use the term ‘qua‘. Also, too, footnotes. 
  2. This way of talking suggests a problematic dualism of fact and value—a dualism that I reject for many reasons. However, this way of talking is standard within philosophical circles, and so I’ll begrudgingly use it here. 
  3. I have specified “History of Philosophy” as “History of Western Philosophy,” since virtually all of what is labeled as the former in the West really is the latter. In my next post, about the sources of philosophy, I’ll talk about the divide between “Eastern” and “Western” philosophy. For now, it will suffice to say that “Eastern Philosophy” is generally considered a separate specialization, even if the authors are addressing core metaphysical or epistemological questions. 
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