Over the last couple of years, I’ve been involved in a number of conversations where I found myself using the term ‘philosophy’ in a way that differs from common usage in contemporary academic settings.1 “It’s not just what goes on in philosophy departments” has gotten me only so far in the direction of articulating the view that lies behind my potentially strange usage. “Who do you think put the Ph. in Ph.D?” hasn’t quite gotten me the rest of the way there. So, I thought it might be useful for me to say something a bit more enlightening concerning the rather broad and inclusive way in which I have been using this term lately.2
So, what is this broader and more inclusive view of philosophy? The description of the practice that I think is most relevant here would look something like this:
Philosophy is the free pursuit of truth, knowledge, or understanding.
I recognize that this description doesn’t provide a real sense of the shape or definition of philosophy. Rather than clearly delineating between philosophy and other academic disciplines, it appears to lump together all sorts of activities that our linguistic norms and our institutional structures suggest that we should keep apart. Math, physics, biology, chemistry, psychology, sociology, and history are all free pursuits of knowledge, aren’t they? Does it follow that they are all philosophy?
Well, yes, in a way. To the extent that each involves pursuing knowledge in a way that is not entirely constrained within the limits of received doctrine, each of these disciplines involves philosophy. They all clearly involve other things as well. I am not saying that they are nothing more than philosophy. I am not even saying that what is most important or noble in these practices is that philosophical aspect.
I am merely suggesting that there is a coherent and promising way of thinking about what philosophy has been, and what it continues to be, that allows us to see that philosophical activity takes place within all sorts of practices that we are used to identifying primarily by reference to other, more salient, features. Philosophy isn’t what distinguishes the sciences from the liberal arts, math from physics, biology from sociology, or classics from modern literature. It is, rather, the common thread that runs through all of them and allows them to be related to one another in ongoing critical dialogue.3
The pursuits mentioned above (math, physics, biology, etc.) and whatever other examples of the free pursuit of truth that we might come up with are each relatively separate and distinct enterprises. However, we shouldn’t think of them as atoms that float around in some intellectual void, occasionally bumping into one another, and coming to be configured in certain ways within particular bodies of knowledge. Their relationships to one another are far more interesting and complex than this picture would allow.
Maybe we should consider them as all having been born out of a common drive for knowledge coupled with a reluctance to accept received doctrine without any further questioning. The disciplines take on different shapes as the pursuit evolves, over time, in specific environments. These environments involve their own sets of received doctrines, present their own peculiar challenges, point to various different questions, and lead people to develop different methods and standards for seeking and evaluating answers. Viewed in this way, philosophy is like a family that includes generation after generation of members spread out into different locations. It evolves into several genera, species, sub-species and varieties, each of which exhibit different characteristics and come to be called by different names. The shape or definition of philosophy, according to this broad construal, is identifiable at particular points in time though a focus on the states of the practices that were born out of, and that, among the other things they also do, carry on the free pursuit of truth, knowledge, or understanding.
This is the first of a series of posts in which I will join Chris Long, André Avillez, and Kris Klotz in reflecting on various aspects and challenges peculiar to our work establishing the Public Philosophy Journal – a joint venture between the Philosophy Department at Penn State and the Matrix Center for Digital Humanities and Social Sciences at Michigan State University.
As colleagues and I have been working to design the Public Philosophy Journal, we have sought buy in from academics across the university and from non-academics in various walks of life. Since academic philosophy is not exactly known for its inclusiveness, I have tried to make sense of the use of the term ‘philosophy’ in the title of the journal by drawing on a view of philosophy that is somewhat broader and more inclusive. ↩
What I have to say on this point isn’t completely worked out and, yet, it is also too much to include within a single post. This first attempt represents what I hope is at least a step in the right direction and a starting point for further conversation. ↩
Sometimes it seems perfectly okay to include many things under a common heading, even when we also want to be able to distinguish these things from one another. For example, my library is a collection of my books. Each of these books is different from the others in many ways, but that doesn’t prevent me from lumping them together, or even organizing them into sections, and calling them my library. My non-fiction section, my English literature section, and my German literature section all fit the description ‘a collection of my books’. Should I conclude from this that they are all my library? Well, each of these collections is a part of the larger collection, so yes, of course, they are all in included when I refer to my library. Maybe the broad and inclusive view of philosophy works in a way similar to this. ↩