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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Queer Theory: an annotated syllabus

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Consider three familiar categories that structure so much of life: sex, gender, and desire. Standardly, we assume that sex is the biological fact that determines our gender, and our gender, in turn, determines our sexual desires. In this course, we critically examine this “sex/gender/desire” conception of the self, with a special focus on the elaborate efforts societies make in creating and reinforcing conditions that are supposed by those societies to be “natural.” Is the “sex/gender/desire” conception of the self correct, and, if not, what does it mean for sex, gender, and desire—and for practices, institutions, and societies built upon the logic of that conception?

Overview of the course

This course began as an outgrowth of my scholarly interest in gender (especially masculinity) and as a response to the heterosexism I was noticing both on and off campus. Since that first class, I’ve taught various versions of the course, at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, at several universities. This syllabus reflects a refinement of the material I have used over the years.

The arc of the course can be understood as a (mis)reading of the history of feminism; in particular, we look at how queer theory is a part of the reaction to the perceived centering of second-wave feminism on the experiences of white, middle-class, straight women.1 To that end, we posit a basic distinction between sex and gender, and we examine “gender norms.” We then examine how these gender norms assume either (implicitly or explicitly) that their objects are heterosexual. From there, we highlight how raising that particular criticism threatens to undermine undermine both feminism (for a lack of a single subject that is “woman”) and the sex/gender distinction itself. We then look to the consequences of this “queer theory” critique for various social institutions.

In all, the course proceeds through five major sections:

  1. Framing: examining Foucault’s account of institutions, the internalization of norms, and the production of a self.
  2. A first go at the sex/gender distinction: developing the basic move in our theoretical repertoire, the distinction between sex (a function of biology) and gender (a function of social norms).
  3. Feminism’s gender trouble: critiquing the picture of gender as envisioning a “universal” woman when there is not—with a focus on sexuality and feminism.
  4. Biopolitics and sex/gender/desire: rethinking various institutions that are built up around a logic of “sex/gender/desire,” including scientific inquiry into human biology and the medicalization of trans persons.
  5. Heterosexism and cissexism: understanding how the foregoing leads to systems of oppression and privilege.

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Moral Dimensions of Power: An annotated syllabus

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We are quite familiar with many of the obvious ways in which power operates: a campus police officer confiscates a case of beer, a professor assigns grades, one boxer defeats another, someone lifts a heavy object, a commuter avails herself of a secret shortcut, and the like. Are these forms of power “the same”? Who has power? Are there constraints on what one may do with one’s power, however it is constituted? This is the subject matter of my course, “Moral Dimensions of Power.”

Overview of the course

I’ve taught several versions of this course since 2002 or so. Its first incarnation was as “The Moral Dimensions of Wealth and Power,” which was a surprisingly popular course.1 Much of the same material appeared as “Social Philosophy” at Pitt-Johnstown and as “Moral Dimensions of Power” at Washington and Lee. This syllabus reflects the totality of material that I’ve taught plus some material that I’ve been interested in and had queued up but lacked the time to use.

The course covers themes I’ve been exploring in my (unpublished) scholarly work during the last few years: determining the extent and manner in which power, institutions, and norms create persons. The class has three sections:

  1. Philosophical analyses of power: accounts of power provided by Friedrich Nietzsche and Michel Foucault.
  2. Applications of these analyses: examining the how the insights of Nietzsche and Foucault play out in various contexts. Topics that we look at include wealth, gender, race, ability, size, discourse, classrooms, and software distribution.
  3. Understanding transgression: in the shortest of the three sections, we start to think about how one might go about resisting morally problematic institutions and forms of power.

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Philosophy & Film: an annotated syllabus

lee-marvin-in-point-blank1

In the last few decades, there has been an increase in interest in using film (and popular culture, more generally) to teach philosophy. In addition, there has been some effort to use film and popular culture in philosophical work, and there have been philosophically-minded film makers. Given my own obsessive consumption of popular culture and philosophy, a “Philosophy & Film” course was all but inevitable.

Overview of the course

The course began as a series of conversations with David Magill; at the time, we were both at Pitt-Johnstown, and we thought it would be great to team teach a course on this material. Although that course never came to fruition, the courses brought together as a composite in this syllabus eventually did.

The class has three major sections:

  1. Philosophy through film: how have film makers explored traditional questions in or highlighted problems from the history of philosophy? Topics in this section include: truth, knowledge, mindedness, and personal identity.
  2. Social thought through film: how film can illustrate, reinforce, and critique norms of femininity, masculinity, and race?
  3. Film as literary pursuit: how does a mass medium like film stand up to analysis using standard tools from literary analysis? Topics in this section include the nature of adaptation, satire, authorship, and the morality of cinematic representations.

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Jiro’s dreams in my class

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

In my “Philosophy and Film” class, one of the documentaries I show is 2011’s Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Jiro depicts the life and work of Jiro Ono, who is the proprietor of the Michelin 3 star winning sushi restaurant Sukiyabashi Jiro. Kicked out of his house in first grade, he spent the subsequent seven decades mastering the art of sushi preparation. He has been relentless in pursuing excellence. The advice he gives the film’s audience provides a flavor of his work ethic:

Once you decide on your occupation… you must immerse yourself in your work. You have to fall in love with your work. Never complain about your job. You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That’s the secret of success… and is the key to being regarded honorably.

I’ve resolved that I will require students in all of my classes to watch Jiro Dreams of Sushi before the first day of class. Then I will announce in class on the first day:

If you aren’t working “Jiro-hard” on your schoolwork, then do not report that you “worked really hard” on a project.

It strikes me as a potentially effective way to communicate expectations to students from a media-saturated, No Child Left Behind/Common Core, everyone gets an award educational culture. . . .