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The Nature and Function of Philosophy

Philosophy is for everyone.  In fact, although most people may be vague about what philosophy is, we all engage in philosophy whether we are aware of it or not.  We all have some ideas concerning free will, human nature, morality, the meaning of life, and the like.  Everyone, at one time or another, either because of startling events or simple curiosity, asks philosophical questions like:  "Does God exist?"  "Is there life after death?"  "Are there any absolute or universal moral principles?"  "What do ethical terms like good, bad, right, and wrong mean?"  "What is beauty?"  "What are the characteristics of a 'good' work of art?"  "From what sources do we gain our knowledge?"  "Does sensory experience provide indubitable knowledge?"

So what is philosophy?  Literally the term philosophy is derived from the Greek words philos ("loving") and sophia ("wisdom"), and means "the love of wisdom."  But philosophers do not always agree on the nature and function of philosophy.  Here are four definitions thatt attempt to explain what is generally meant by the term philosophy.  These definitions do not necessarily reflect a consensus of philosophical opinion.

1. Philosophy analyzes the foundations and presuppositions underlying other disciplines.  Philosophy investigates and studies the underpinnings of science, art, and theology.  Philosophers do not ask "Are Pablo Picasso's paintings 'good' works of art?" (as art critics do) but "Is aesthetic judment a matter of personal taste, or are there objective standards that we can apply to evaluate a work of art?"  Philosophers do not ask "Is the theory of evolution true?" (as biologists and physical anthropologists do) but "How do we distinguish truth from error?"

2. Philosophy attempts to develop a comprehensive conception or apprehension of the world.  Philosophy seeks to integrate the knowledge of the sciences with that of other fields of study to achieve some kind of consistent and coherent world view.  Philosophers do not want to confine their attention to a fragment of human experience or knowledge, but rather, want to reflect upon life as a totality.  In speaking of this particular function, Charlie Dunbar Broad, an English twentieth century philosopher, says: "Its object is to take over the results of the various sciences, to add to them the results of the religious and ethical experiences of mankind, and then to reflect upon the whole.  The hope is that, by this means, we may be able to reach some general conclusions as to the nature of the universe, and as to our position and prospects in it."  (Scientific Thought, NewYork: Harcourt, 1923, p. 20)

3. Philosophy studies and critically evaluates our most deeply held beliefs and attitudes; in particular, those which are often held uncritically.  Philosophers have an attitude of critical and logical thoughtfulness.  They force us to see the significance and consequences of our beliefs, and sometimes their inconsistencies.  They analyze the evidence (or lack of it) for our most treasured beliefs, and seek to remove from our perspectives every taint and trace of ignorance, prejudice, superstition, blind acceptance of ideas, and any other form of irrationality.

4.  Philosophy investigates the principles and rules of language, and attempts to clarify the meaning of vague words and concepts.  Philosophy examines the role of language in communication and thought, and the problem of how to identify or ensure the presence of meaning in our use of language.  It is a method--a practice--which seeks to expose the problems and confusions which have results from the misuse of language, and to clarify the meaning and use of vague terms in scientific and/or everyday discourse.

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