Characterization of Philosophy

One reasonably good beginning characterization of philosophy is that philosophy is the sustained inquiry into the principles and presuppositions of any field of inquiry. As such, philosophy is not a subject of study like other subjects of study. Any given field of inquiry has philosophical roots and extensions. From the philosophy of restaurant management to philosophy of physics, philosophy can be characterized as an attitude, an approach, or perhaps, even a calling, to ask, answer, or even just comment upon certain kinds of questions. These questions involve the nature, scope, and boundaries of that field of interest. In general, then, philosophy is both an activity involving thinking about these kinds of ultimate questions and an activity involving the construction of sound reasons or insights into our most basic assumptions about the universe and our lives.

Quite often, simply asking a series of "why-questions" can reveal these basic presuppositions. Children often ask such questions, sometimes to the annoyance of their parents, in order to get a feel for the way the world works. Asking an exhaustive sequence of "why-questions" can reveal principles upon which life is based. As a first example, let us imagine the following dialogue between two persons as to why one of them is reading this philosophy book. Samantha is playing "devil's advocate."

Samantha: " Why are you reading Reading for Philosophical Inquiry?"

Stephen: "It's an assigned book in philosophy, one of my college courses."

Samantha: "Why take philosophy?"

Stephen: "Well, philosophy fulfills the humanities elective."

Samantha: "Why do you need that elective?"

At this point in the dialog, a growing resemblance to the insatiable curiosity of some children is beginning to be unmistakable. We continue with the cross-examination.

Stephen: "I have to fulfill the humanities elective in order to graduate."

Samantha: "Why do you want to graduate?"

Stephen: "What? Well, I'd like to get a decent job which pays a decent salary."

Samantha:"Well, why, then, do you want that?"

Undoubtedly, at this point, the conversation seems artificial because for some persons, the goal of graduating college is about as far as they have thought their life through, if, indeed, they have thought that far—and so for such persons this is where the questioning would have normally stopped. Other persons, however, can see beyond college to more basic ends such as Stephen's want of an interesting vocation with sufficient recompense, among other things. Even so, we have not yet arrived at the kind of basic presuppositions we have been talking about for Stephen's life, so we continue with Samantha's questioning.

Stephen: "What do you mean? A good job which pays well will enable me the resources to have an enjoyable life where I can do some of the important things I want to do."

Samantha: "Why do you want a life like that?"

Stephen: "Huh? Are you serious?"

When questions finally seem to make no sense, very often, we have reached one of those ultimate fundamental unquestioned assumptions. In this case, a basic principle by which Stephen lives his life seems to be based on seeking happiness. So, in a sense, although he might not be aware of it at the moment, he believes he is working toward this goal by reading this textbook. Of course, his choice of a means to obtain happiness could be mistaken or perhaps even chosen in ignorance—in which case he might not be able to obtain what he wants out of life. If the thought occurs to you that it is sometimes the case that we might not be mistaken about our choices and might actually be choosing knowledgeably and even so might not achieve what we desire, then you are already doing philosophy.

If we assume that Samantha is genuinely asking questions here and has no ulterior motive, then it is evident that her questions relate to a basic presupposition upon which Stephen is basing his life. Perhaps, she thinks the quest for a well-paying job is mistaken or is insufficient for an excellent life. Indirectly, she might be assuming that other fundamental values are more important. If the questioning were to continue between Samantha and Stephen, it quite possibly could go along the lines of attempting to uncover some of these additional presuppositions upon which a life of excellence can be based.

In philosophy these kinds of questions are often about the assumptions, presuppositions, postulates, or definitions upon which a field of inquiry is based, and these questions can be concerned with the meaning, significance, or integration of the results discovered or proposed by a field of inquiry.[1]

For example, the answer "Gravity" is often thought to be a meaningful answer to the question, "Why do objects fall in the direction toward the center of the earth?" But for this answer to be meaningful we would have to know what gravity is. If one were to answer "a kind of force," or " an attraction" between two objects, then the paraphrase gives no insight into the nature of what gravity is, for the paraphrase is viciously circular.

Many scientists hold the view that, "If we know the rules, we consider that we 'understand' the world."[2] The rules for gravity are:

…every object in the universe attracts every other object with a force which for any two bodies is proportional to the mass of each and varies inversely as the square of the distance between them.

…an object responds to a force by accelerating in the direction of the force by an amount that is inversely proportional to the mass of the object…[3]

Yet, there must be more to understanding gravity than this. Consider a mentalist who stands before a door and concentrates deeply. Suppose the door opens, and no one, neither scientist nor magician, is able to see how the mentalist accomplishes the opening of the door. So we ask, "How did you do that?"

The mentalist responds, "Smavity."

We reply, "What is 'smavity'?"

The mentalist says, "Smavity is a force—an attraction between me and the door."

The scientist on the scene observes and measures:

The mentalist attracts the door with a force which between them is proportional to the mass of each and varies inversely as the square of the distance between them.


The door responds to the mentalist by accelerating in the direction of the force by an amount that is inversely proportional to the mass of the door.

From a philosophical point of view, even though we know the rules, we do not "understand" the phenomenon.

Gravity Wave Measurements in the Upper Atmosphere over North America, NASA. JPL

Philosophy also involves new assumptions or presuppositions as reasons for the explanation of natural phenomena. For example, the questioning of the fifth postulate of Euclid which led to the development of non-Euclidean geometries or the questioning of Aristotle's assumption that heavier bodies fall faster than lighter bodies of similar shape which led to more modern theories of gravitation, are assumptions which helped to establish new fields of knowledge. What's more, the application and reinterpretations of the results and discoveries of the resulting different fields of inquiry properly belong to the domain of philosophy as well—even though, in many instances, the investigators, themselves, might have had no formal philosophic training. Since philosophical questioning covers so much territory, some people characterize a philosophical problem as any question that does not have a well-established method of solution, but that definition is undoubtedly too broad.

Perhaps the point can be clarified by the following excerpt from the legendary story of the barometer problem in physics. This oft-quoted account illustrates great ingenuity in creative problem solving; ultimately, however, the description catalogs admittedly standard, though clever, methods of thinking. Philosophical thinking begins when we are frustratingly confused as to how to proceed to answer a question, and, after conceptual reframing, philosophy can end with the kinds of solutions summarized here by a physics professor at the University of Washington—St. Louis.



Our characterization here omits what are sometimes termed the "antiphilosophies" such as postmodernism, a philosophy opposing the possibility of objectivity and truth, and existentialism, a group of philosophies dismissing the notion that the universe is in any sense rational, coherent, or intelligible. The characterization of philosophy proposed in the text is provisional and is used as a stalking horse for the discipline.


Richard P. Feynman, et. al.. The Feynman Lectures on Physics. Volume 1. Reading, Mass.:Addison-Wesley, 1963, 2-1.


Ibid, 7-1.