Philosophy Broadly Construed (Part I): An Initial Suggestion

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Photo Credit: By Trebol-a via Wikimedia Commons

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.


  1. 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. 

  2. 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. 

  3. 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. 

3 thoughts on “Philosophy Broadly Construed (Part I): An Initial Suggestion

  1. Having been part of these conversations about how to expand the meaning of philosophy, I welcome this initial attempt to articulate a broader conception. I appreciate too the initial definition you suggest: “Philosophy is the free pursuit of truth, knowledge, or understanding.”

    Two things strike me about this initial articulation. First, I wonder about the disjunction. Obviously, truth, knowledge, and understanding are different in important ways. Given my Socratic tendencies, I am much more comfortable with philosophy as the free pursuit of truth then I am with understanding it as the pursuit of knowledge or understanding. The latter two remain, from my perspective, too epistemic and thus perhaps more limiting than is appropriate here. Truth, on the other hand, can function as ideal toward which we direct ourselves in the practice of philosophy.

    This brings me, however, to my second point. Philosophy ought not just to be about pursuing ideals, but also it is about weaving them into our lives and communities, that is into our relationships with one another. As the free pursuit of truth, philosophy cannot simply be an academic or intellectual activity. It must also be a practical activity oriented toward the world in which we live.

    Obviously, these ideas are in development. In fact, as we have discussed, part of the point of publicly writing about such ideas that are not fully worked out is in fact to weave them into a public space of collaboration and dialogue. My hope is that this comment will lead to a further deepening of our ongoing dialogue on this issue.

  2. Thanks for the comments, Chris. Let me respond by, first, acknowledging the significance of the two points you make and, then, saying a bit more about what I take myself to be up to. I agree that philosophy is not simply an epistemic endeavor and it isn’t just about pursuing ideals. So, I think we are on the same page there. ‘Truth’, ‘knowledge’, and ‘understanding’ are terms that are closely linked in common usage, and I mean to be using them in a rather broad sense here, as roughly equivalent terms. I agree that much more can be said about each to give them finer edges, and I intentionally refrained from doing that, in part, because including them all together makes sense to me when describing things at this level of generality. My own understanding of Socrates is that he, too, thought of philosophy as the pursuit of a kind of knowledge or understanding, but (and here is the important point I think you are getting at) it would be a mistake to identify what he is up to with the kind of detached, theoretical endeavor that we sometimes think of when we think about pursuing knowledge. Just as I think there are good reasons to use the term ‘philosophy’ in ways that are broader and more inclusive than it is often used in academic circles today, I think there are good reasons to use the terms ‘knowledge’ and ‘understanding’ in ways that are not as narrow as they become in certain discussions amongst philosophers (in the narrower sense). Those reasons, in my view, are closely related to the points you make here about life, community, relationships, and the world in which we live. I think similar caveats might need to be made going forward in talking about the use of the term ‘truth’ as well. It, too, can take on narrowly epistemic and intellectual connotations in certain contexts. So, I see similar challenges arising for all three… (and we haven’t even picked on my use of the term ‘freedom’ yet).

  3. @Chris Long  Thanks for the comments, Chris. Let me respond by, first, acknowledging the significance of the two points you make and, then, saying a bit more about what I take myself to be up to. I agree that philosophy is not simply an epistemic endeavor and it isn’t just about pursuing ideals. So, I think we are on the same page there. ‘Truth’, ‘knowledge’, and ‘understanding’ are terms that are closely linked in common usage, and I mean to be using them in a rather broad sense here, as roughly equivalent terms. I agree that much more can be said about each to give them finer edges, and I intentionally refrained from doing that, in part, because including them all together makes sense to me when describing things at this level of generality. My own understanding of Socrates is that he, too, thought of philosophy as the pursuit of a kind of knowledge or understanding, but (and here is the important point I think you are getting at) it would be a mistake to identify what he is up to with the kind of detached, theoretical endeavor that we sometimes think of when we think about pursuing knowledge. Just as I think there are good reasons to use the term ‘philosophy’ in ways that are broader and more inclusive than it is often used in academic circles today, I think there are good reasons to use the terms ‘knowledge’ and ‘understanding’ in ways that are not as narrow as they become in certain discussions amongst philosophers (in the narrower sense). Those reasons, in my view, are closely related to the points you make here about life, community, relationships, and the world in which we live. I think similar caveats might need to be made going forward in talking about the use of the term ‘truth’ as well. It, too, can take on narrowly epistemic and intellectual connotations in certain contexts. So, I see similar challenges arising for all three… (and we haven’t even picked on my use of the term ‘freedom’ yet).

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