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Philosophy 102: Introduction to Philosophical Inquiry
The Nature of Philosophical Problems

Abstract: A working definition of philosophy is proposed, and philosophical problems are characterized.

  1. Some general comments about the nature of philosophy can be summarized from the previous outline.

    1. Etymologically, "philosophy" can be broken into the following roots and examples.

      • philo—fond of, affinity for; e.g., the name "Philip" means "lover of horses."

      • sophia—wisdom; e.g., the name "Sophie" means "wisdom."

    2. Hazarding a beginning definition and some general characteristics of philosophy might be of help.

      1. Philosophy is the systematic inquiry into the principles and presuppositions of any endeavor.

        1. Some restaurants have printed on the back of the customer's bill their philosophy of restaurant management.

        2. Recently, philosophy of sport and medical ethics have generated much interest.

      2. In general, philosophy questions often are a series of "why-questions," whereas science is often said to ask "how-questions."

      3. E.g., asking "Why did you come to class today?" is the beginning of a series of why-questions which ultimately lead to the answer of the principles or presuppositions by which you lead your life.

  2. Avrum Stroll and Richard H. Popkin, in their highly readable book, Introduction to Philosophy, isolate seven characteristics of a philosophical problem. These characteristics serve as a good introduction to the kinds of problems which can arise in philosophy.

Characteristics Topical Examples
1.  a reflection about and the things nothing in it If I take a book off my hand, what's left on my hand? Nothing? What is that? Does everything exist "in" nothing?
2. a conceptual rather than a practical activity According to gravitation theory, as the ballerina on a NY stage moves, my balance is affected.
3. the use of reason and argumentation to establish a point Does a tree falling in a forest with no one around to hear make a sound?
4. explanation of the puzzling features of things Does a mirror reverse up and down ? Does it reverse left and right?
5. digging beyond the obvious What is a fact? Is this book a fact? Is it a big or little fact? Is it a brown fact?
6. the search for principles which underlie phenomena Is a geranium one or many flowers?
7. theory building from these principles Is nature discrete or continuous? E.g., Zeno's paradoxes of motion.
  1. In practice, philosophy is an attitude, an approach, or even a calling to answer or to ask or to comment upon certain peculiar kinds of questions.

    1. Attitude—a curiosity about questions such as the following.

      1. Under the assumption that time is a dimension just like any other, the case of the surprise examination can arise: Suppose students obtain the promise from their teacher that a surprise quiz to be given next week will not be given, if the students know, in advance, the day the exam will be given. If the teacher agrees, then the students can argue as follows: Assuming the class meets only on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, the students know the surprise exam cannot be given on Friday because everyone would know Thursday night that this day is the only period left in which to give the exam. One would think that the teacher could give the exam Wednesday, but since Friday has been eliminated as a possibility, on Tuesday night, the students would know that the only period left in the week would be Wednesday; hence the exam could not be given Wednesday. Monday, then, is the only possible period left to offer the exam, but, of course, the teacher could not give the exam Monday because the students would expect the exam that day. Consequently, the teacher cannot give a surprise examination.

      2. In his Nobel Prize speech, Richard Feynman explained that from the perspective of quantum electrodynamics, if an electron is seen as going forward in time, a positron is the same particle moving backwards in time. Is time-reversal really possible?

      3. Is a positron possible? Consider the paradoxical result. Suppose a "positron gun" would fire a particle going backward in time—it could "trigger" an off-switch to turn off the gun before it could be fired.

    2. Approach—to devise a methodology to answer such puzzles. Very often, all that is needed is the old maxim, "When there is a difficulty, make a distinction."

      1. E.g., for the problem of the sound of a tree falling in a forest with no one around to hear, all we need do is to distinguish two different senses of "sound."

      2. If by "sound" is meant a "phenomenological perception by a subject," then no sound ("hearing") would occur. If by "sound" is meant "a longitudinal wave in matter," then a sound did occur.

    3. Calling— if a person has had experiences of curiosity, discovery, and invention at an early age, these experiences could leave an imprint on mind and character to last a lifetime.

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