13 August, 2010

Philosophy: a theory of anything - or a theory of everything?

What is philosophy about? What really is the subject-matter of philosophy? With other sciences the questions seems to be so much easier: usually we don't have a lot of trouble deciding on the subject-matter of physics, for example. But with philosophy it is so much harder. Philosophical questions are everywhere, some claim. There are only very few valid philosophical questions, other argue. To some, philosophy as a whole is meaningless gibberish. After all this, the young would-be philosophy student is surely feeling nauseous and decides that a career in bureaucracy actually sounds quite intriguing.

Let's take a closer look at the statement, that philosophy is a theory of anything. And bu anything, I really mean anything. It can be about politics, moral, the chair you're sitting in, Donald Duck, or a five-legged venom-drooling monster from the planet 'Czazch. Now that's one hell of a field to cover. According to this view, philosophical questions are everywhere. By chaining questions about being one always ends up with a philosophical question. To demonstrate:
"I see a table."
-> "What is a table?"

"A table is a flat-surfaced object."
-> "What is an object?"

"An object is something hard and three-dimensional that you can touch."
-> "What means that it is something?"

"That it has these qualities."
-> "What means having qualities?"

And so on. This ensures that we always end up with a question regarding being, meaning or some other final principle. To some extent this can be thought of searching for the final cause. But how can we decide, when the question is philosophical? How do we know that we've reached the edge of, say, physical explanations and need to divert our attention to philosophy? I mean, if philosophy can be about anything, then what is philosophy, really? Is the explanation of subject-matter really useful in any way?

On the other hand, philosophy can be a theory about everything. Whereas every branch of science tries to explain its own piece of turf, philosophy goes beyond the lawn and tries to explain the big picture. This holistic view often tries to tie the knots together and for example explain what questions we can actually answer, or how we interpret the phenomenal world. But can we have a theory of the whole? If its pieces consist of partial theories of the world, shouldn't the "theory of the world" be actually outside the world? Isn't that at least outside our understanding, if not a logical paradox altogether?

All the above shows that there are really no clear answers as to what philosophy really is. But as any philosopher knows, usually asking the right questions is more important than answering them.

This text was heavily influenced by Roger Scruton's Modern Philosophy. For more insights on the subject, see chapter 1 "The Nature of Philosophy".

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