What is philosophy
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What is Philosophy?. Minds and Machines. 3 Definitions of ‘Philosophy’. ‘Philosophy’ is used in a variety of ways. Indeed, dictionaries give multiple entries for ‘philosophy’. Roughly, these entries can be divided into 3 groups: 1. ‘Philosophy’ as an academic discipline

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What is Philosophy?

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What is philosophy

What is Philosophy?

Minds and Machines


3 definitions of philosophy

3 Definitions of ‘Philosophy’

  • ‘Philosophy’ is used in a variety of ways. Indeed, dictionaries give multiple entries for ‘philosophy’. Roughly, these entries can be divided into 3 groups:

    • 1. ‘Philosophy’ as an academic discipline

    • 2. ‘Philosophy’ as a set of beliefs or worldview

    • 3. ‘Philosophy’ as a study or inquiry


The stereotype of philosophy

The Stereotype of Philosophy

  • Definition 1 merely states that philosophy is something that is done at a university, and does not say what philosophy actually is. This, however, easily leads to the common stereotype of philosophy involving two distinct elements:

    • 1. Mental Masturbation: Philosophy is done at a university, and at a university only. Indeed, philosophy is seen by many as a kind of intellectual exercise in futility: absent-minded, bearded, white guys discussing abstract topics having no practical use whatsoever.

    • 2. Intellectual Bullying: Philosophers always seem to know better, and constantly plague us with questions.


Philosophy as a set of beliefs

Philosophy as a Set of Beliefs

  • Definition 2 defines ‘philosophy’ as a worldview or set of beliefs. Notice that we can say ‘a philosophy’ in this case. Indeed, there can be multiple philosophies in this sense of the word: ‘My philosophy in this regard is …’, ‘Plato’s philosophy’, ‘Eastern Philosophy’, etc.

  • Philosophies provide answers to difficult questions, and thus often serve as a kind of guide or compass to conduct life and navigate the world.

  • All ‘isms’ (and all religions) fall under this definition of philosophy: Buddhism, Capitalism, Mysticism, Existentialism, Dualism, etc.


Philosophy as rational inquiry

Philosophy as Rational Inquiry

  • Definition 3 expresses philosophy as we are going to understand it in this class. Philosophy in this sense is (like definition 1, but unlike definition 2) an activity: it is something you do. In particular, doing philosophy is using our rationality in trying to figure out the answers to difficult questions (related to any subject matter).


The generation and evaluation of ideas and beliefs

The Generation and Evaluation of Ideas and Beliefs

  • Doing philosophy roughly consists of two parts:

    • 1. The generation of possible ideas, concepts, views, beliefs, or answers with respect to some issue or question.

    • 2. The evaluation of those generated beliefs in order to figure out which make sense and which don’t, which is true and which is false, which is good and which is bad, or which we should accept and which we should reject.


Creativity and reason

Creativity and Reason

  • The two steps show that the philosopher should be able to create as well as destroy ideas or beliefs. The philosopher thus must be both imaginative as well as reserved, liberal as well as conservative, ‘artsy’ as well as ‘nerdy’ (indeed, there are links from philosophy to literature as well as science), creative as well as rational. In sum, the philosopher should be open-minded but (as someone once nicely put it), not so open-minded that his or her brain is going to fall out!


A common myth about open mindedness

A Common Myth about Open-Mindedness

  • Some people believe that they are open-minded because they believe in things that are not commonly accepted. However, this has nothing to do with open-mindedness, as being open-minded has nothing to do with what you believe (see next slide)!

  • Even worse, if you believe things to be true exactly because they are not commonly accepted, you are in fact quite narrow-minded, since apparently you are unwilling to consider the commonly accepted answer as a possible answer.


Open mindedness an attitude

Open-Mindedness: An Attitude

  • OK, so what makes one open-minded? Open-mindedness has to do with your attitudetowards beliefs:

    • You are able to consider alternative beliefs.

    • You have no initial preference of one belief over the other.

    • You accept the possibility that existing beliefs are false.

    • In sum: You are critical towards existing beliefs.


A common myth about being critical

A Common Myth about Being Critical

  • Many people incorrectly equate being critical with being dismissive, cynical, or negative:

    • First of all, when you are critical of a certain belief, you merely consider the possibility that a certain belief is false; you do not automatically reject that belief.

    • Second, even if you do reject a certain belief, then that is not automatically a bad thing; if you had good reasons to reject that belief, then that belief was probably false, and eliminating false beliefs may well be considered a good thing!


Being critical what it is

Being Critical: What it is

  • Being critical about a certain belief means to think about that belief, and to decide whether to accept it, reject it, or suspend judgment on that belief.

  • Thus, you consider alternative beliefs, and you make arguments for or against any of those beliefs to figure out whether the original belief was indeed the best belief or not.

  • In other words, being critical involves the same two components as philosophy: the generation as well as evaluation of alternative beliefs.

  • Indeed, philosophy can be understood as critical thinking with regard to difficult issues.


Why it is hard to be critical i

Why it is hard to be critical I

  • Habit

    • It’s hard to change our thinking patterns

  • Difficulty

    • It can be hard to generate or evaluate alternative beliefs. Sometimes we can’t comprehend suggested ones

  • Laziness

    • We don’t want to spend the time and effort

  • Futility

    • Being critical does not guarantee any kind of improvement in our beliefs.


Why it is hard to be critical ii

Why it is hard to be critical II

  • Fear and Desire

    • We fear or desire the consequences of the truth of a belief

    • We desire acceptance and fear rejection by people around us

    • We hate to lose the ‘investment’ we have put in our beliefs

    • We like certainty and hate uncertainty

    • We love to be right and hate to be wrong


Wishful thinking

Wishful Thinking

  • We often like certain beliefs to be true. For example, it would be nice if there is a God, if there is life after death, etc. Wishful thinking frequently makes us believe exactly that what we want to be true, and at the same time makes us uncritical of those beliefs as well.


Herd instinct partisan mindset and leadership

Herd Instinct, Partisan Mindset, and Leadership

  • Humans are very social animals, and we have a lot to gain or lose depending on our social status. Thus, we tend to do three things:

    • 1. Herd Instinct: We are quick to accept the beliefs of those around us (family, friends, culture, etc.): we would hate to come off as being critical of those beliefs, as they may result in being rejected from our support group.

    • 2. Partisan Mindset: We reject the beliefs of other groups, since they are, as a group, in competition with our group. Thus, we adopt a ‘Us vs Them’ Mindset: ‘We are right, and they are wrong!’.

    • 3. Leadership: Within the group that we’re in, it is best to be ‘on top’. To be a leader, however, you must take control, and act as if you know what you are doing. As such, believing something (whether it is true or bad), and holdingon to that belief, is better than trying to figure out what’s best. Indeed, admitting that you don’t know what’s best is often considered a sign of weakness.


Beliefs and actions

Beliefs and Actions

  • Whenever, we make a decision, we rely on our beliefs: Beliefs are what we act upon. This makes us uncritical of our beliefs in 2 ways:

    • 1. We hate to find out that in the past we have acted on bad beliefs, since as such we may have to admit that we have done harm.

    • 2. We hate to change our daily routines as the result of changing our beliefs (laziness), especially if they seem to work fine (futility).


Certainty and uncertainty

Certainty and Uncertainty

  • We like to have a sense of certainty, even if that is a false one, for having a definite belief means:

    • 1. that we don’t have to spend time and effort to really think about what we’re doing: we can just do it.

    • 2. that we can take control, which is good for our social status within the group that we live in.

  • Especially when it comes to the ‘big’ questions in life (‘What should I do with my life?’, ‘What happens when I die?’ etc.), we grasp for whatever answer is able to relieve us from the uncomfortable feeling of not knowing the answer.


Being right and being wrong

Being Right and Being Wrong

  • We love to be right, and hate to be wrong! Our beliefs are a big part of who we are: how we see, define, and identify ourselves. Thus, we hate to be critical of our beliefs, as that would amount to being critical of ourselves!

  • Also, there is again a lot of social status to be lost if we would admit that we were wrong about something: Leaders are strong-headed (even if that means pig-headed!).


Critical thinking and evolution

Critical Thinking and Evolution

  • As you can see, there are many obstacles to critical thinking, and some of those have a straightforward evolutionary explanation:

    • habit and a sense of certainty allows us to act quickly (the ‘Perfect Deliberator’ will simply not survive in a hostile world)

    • there is strength in numbers (herd instinct), there is competition between groups (partisan mindset) and within a group, it is good to be ‘on top’ (status)

    • the benefit of wishful thinking is not so clear: maybe it relieves stress


Why critical thinking isn t much liked

Why Critical Thinking isn’t much liked

  • Many of the reasons for why it is hard to be critical explain also why we associate critical thinking with negativity. We simply hate to be critical of our own beliefs, and we also hate others to be critical of the beliefs we have.


Revisiting the stereotype of philosophy

Revisiting the Stereotype of Philosophy

  • It should now be clear why many people have such a negative stereotype of philosophy:

    • Philosophers are critical thinkers, and we don’t like critical thinkers. In fact, by being critical, philosophers always seem to know better (‘intellectual bullying’).

    • Since the questions that philosophers ask are big, progress will be slow, and seemingly non-existent. Thus, philosophy seems like a waste of time (‘mental masturbation’).


The value of philosophy

The Value of Philosophy

  • What, then, is the value of philosophy? Here are some answers:

    • First, philosophy may provide answers to difficult questions, even if this takes a lot of time. In fact, science is one example where philosophy became very successful (‘natural philosophy’).

    • Second, even if philosophy does not provide one with any clear answers, it may still be able to say that certain answers are better than others.

    • And third, even if philosophy seems to be going absolutely nowhere, just the act of doing philosophy can still be very useful:

      • Doing philosophy will improve your critical thinking skills, and those can be successfully applied to almost any aspect of life.

      • Philosophy will open your mind, and get us out of our mental rut. It is, as Bertrand Russell called it, ‘liberating doubt’.

      • Philosophy forces one to be precise, clear, and rigorous. These are all useful qualities to have as well.


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