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Introduction to Philosophy

What is Philosophy?

Week 1: What is Philosophy? [Welcome to the first handout of your Introduction to Philosophy MOOC! This handout is designed to complement the video lecture by giving you a written summary of the key points covered in the videos. You can use it, or not, however you like! In my seminars at University of Edinburgh I encourage my students to write their thoughts on the material we cover alongside the relevant parts of the handout. Or you might like to simply have it open alongside the videos as you watch them, or to read back over it after watching, to refresh the key points in your mind. However you choose to use it, we hope you enjoy this weeks material, and the course!] 1. What is Philosophy? Thinking about this question is our mission for this week. Here are some first strategies for thinking about it: The practical strategy: There aint nothing to it but to do it! In fact, I think this is the best strategy to understand what philosophy is, you need to get stuck in to thinking about philosophical problems, and the ways other thinkers have approached them. This is what well be doing on the rest of the course. So much of philosophy is learning specific tools and techniques to reason, argue, and express yourself. We wont focus on that this week, but the best way to get a grasp of those tools and techniques, and to get a sense of the questions that interest philosophers, is to work your way through the rest of the course! The definitional strategy: What does philosophy mean? The word philosophy comes from the Greek philosophia meaning, roughly, the love of knowledge. This does capture something important, but we need to know more: what kind of knowledge are we interested in? How do we go about getting that knowledge? The deferential strategy: What do other people say philosophy is? In the video, I give some examples of how other people have defined philosophy. Two of my favourites: Philosophy is an activity that uses reasoning and rigorous argument to promote human flourishing (Martha Nussbaum) [Philosophy is] thinking clearly and well about reality and our place in it (Barry Smith) At the end of the lectures, you might like to return to the quotes from the first video, and think about what they all have in common: are they all saying the same thing, or do they express different visions of what philosophy is?

Introduction to Philosophy

What is Philosophy?

Heres my attempt at a definition: Philosophy is the activity of working out the right way of thinking about things. So this week, were doing philosophy about philosophy (or meta-philosophy) trying to work out the right way of thinking about philosophical enquiry. 2. Is Philosophy Fundamental? It is often claimed (often by philosophers!) that philosophy, or the questions it asks, are in some sense fundamental. What might this mean? Is it true? One sense in which its not true: There are plenty of questions you can ask, and activities that you can pursue, perfectly legitimately without doing any philosophy. The sense in which it is true: No matter what sort of questions youre asking, or activities youre pursuing, further philosophical questions can always arise. o This is because philosophy involves stepping back and examining the presuppositions of what youre doing, or the questions youre asking. What are those presuppositions? Are they the right ones? o This is why philosophy, as a subject, is so broad this stepping back is something we can always do, whatever were asking or thinking about. In the video, I suggest that it might be interesting to think here (or perhaps at the end of this weeks lectures) about what a philosopher would, or should, say in response to a claim like Steven Hawkings: that philosophy is dead, and has been replaced by science. See the appendix for some links if youd like to see what others have said! 3. Is Philosophy Important? As with the claim that philosophy is fundamental, when trying to define philosophy its often said that the subject, or the questions it asks, have some special importance. Is this true? Again, theres a sense in which its clearly not because (as Ive suggested) philosophical questions can arise about anything, there will be many that are too trivial or boring to bother asking! But there are reasons for thinking philosophy, at its best, often is important: o Most philosophy (or at least, most worthwhile philosophy) aims at thinking clearly about the things that matter most to us. o Thinking philosophically (for example, stepping back and examining presuppositions) can help us to question or see past dogma or accepted wisdom that may not be the best thing for us to think or believe.

Introduction to Philosophy

What is Philosophy?

o These ideas come together in this great quote from Isaiah Berlin: "[People] cannot live without seeking to describe and explain the universe to themselves. The models they use in doing this must deeply affect their lives, not least when they are unconscious; much of [their] misery and frustration is due to the mechanical and unconscious, as well as deliberate, application of models where they do not work... The goal of philosophy is always the same, to assist [people] to understand themselves and thus operate in the open and not wildly, in the dark." So Id like to suggest a new definition: Good philosophy is the activity of working out the right way of thinking about the things that matter most to us. 4. Philosophy and the (question of the) Meaning of Life The rest of the course will give you plenty of examples of the sorts of questions that philosophers try to answer, and how they go about it. But to illustrate what weve said so far this week, lets think how philosophers might approach the question what is the meaning of life? One approach would be to try to dismiss the question to argue that its not a sensible one to ask, that its presuppositions are somehow confused. o And one way to do this might be to claim that the question presupposes a confused way of thinking about meaning: it presupposes that a life is the sort of thing that can have a meaning, whereas (someone might argue) words, phrases and sentences are the only sorts of things that really have meanings. o For this to be convincing, itd need to be shown (1) Why that is the right way to think about meaning; (2) Why it seems to make sense to ask about the meaning of life Another approach would be to try and answer the question, rather than dismiss it. But suppose someone has actually made the challenge above theyve suggested that the question we want to answer is somehow confused. Then it seems we need to justify why we should keep trying to answer our question. o The obvious way of doing this would be to dispute the above claim about meaning: to argue that words, phrases, sentences, arent the only kinds of things that can have meaning. o So perhaps before we can answer our question, we need to think about a dispute between two alternative ways of thinking about meaning: Designative: To mean something is to stand for it, or point to it. The word jumper stands for the object jumper. The meaning of the word is the thing in the world it stands for.

Introduction to Philosophy

What is Philosophy?

Expressive: To mean something is to express something the act of expression brings about the meaning in a same way that a great piece of music or film might bring about the feelings or ideas its trying to convey. o Perhaps on this second, expressive view, lives are the sorts of things that have meanings. But can we state this view clearly? Can we give convincing reasons that its a better way of thinking about meaning than the designative view? Our job for this week is not to try to answer these questions [Though youre encouraged to discuss them in the forums if they interest you!]. The purpose of the above was to give you an example of the way philosophy can put all kinds of different questions on our agenda, and the unexpected places that those questions can lead. Weve just seen, for example, how trying to think clearly about the meaning of life might lead us to thinking about the way a piece of music can express a mood. Importantly, if we did want to settle the above dispute, wed need to do so through reasoning and critical thinking wed need to give reasons for one of the above views of meaning over the other, and show how the reasons given by our opponents were either wrong, or not in fact incompatible with our view. Thinking through the issues and questions that well consider on this course will give you a good grasp of what tools and methods philosophers use for this, as well as of the sorts of questions they apply these tools to.
[Remember, after thinking about the material from each week, its a great idea to go and discuss it with your fellow students in the courses discussion forums. What didnt make sense? What do you disagree with? Did any parts of the weeks material seem especially important, or interesting?]

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Appendix One potential topic to think about and discuss in the forums is how we should think about Steven Hawkings statement that philosophy is dead. Is he right? How might a philosopher respond? If youd like to see what others have thought (on behalf of the philosophers!), then here are a couple of resources: http://www.economist.com/node/16990802 http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/sep/30/stephen-hawkingdisproved-gods-role-creation