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Why It Is So Difficult To Define Philosophy?

Subject Matter: 1) Philosophy does not have any specific subject matter and hence cannot
be defined with regard to any particular area of investigation. It may
deal with every dimension of human life and can raise questions in any
field of study or endeavor (owing to this circumstance we have a variety
of philosophies-of discipline and philosophies-of-subject). Hence trying
to tie philosophy exclusively to one or any specific sphere would be an
unjustified limitation of its reach.
Questioning: 2) Philosophy pursues questions rather than answers. The responsibility
of philosophy is not so much to answer our questions as to question given
answers. It is not an exaggeration to say that a philosopher is someone
who can make a riddle out of any answer. A true philosopher is not
bound by any particular "truths" that set limits to his/her urge to continue
asking questions. Hence philosophy cannot be defined with recourse to
some accepted tenets, beliefs and established class of propositions.
History: 3) Philosophy changes historically both in respect to its content and its
character. Over the centuries it has assumed very different forms
(wisdom, science, art, piety, critique, analysis, linguistic game, literary
genre) and has been practiced in very different settings (market place,
temple, monastery, studio, university, institute, conference, the Internet).
The only overriding notion that could encompass all these manifestations
of philosophy is something like "mental activity", but it is too general to
give an informative definition of what philosophy is. Thus we cannot
find a definition of philosophy that would be both essential and sensitive
to its historical variety.
Note: There are many other activities that are of mental nature too. One may be
tempted to say that philosophy deals with concepts (which is true) but many sciences do
the same.

A Side Approach to Philosophy

Three Regards: In view of the above difficulties philosophers tend to refrain from giving
any object-related definition of philosophy and by rule are very reluctant
to single out one exemplary form of philosophizing. We are on a much
safer ground if we choose instead to demonstrate what philosophy is not
(negative way) or (at best) what distinguishes it from other intellectual
pursuits (dialectical way). While we cannot commit ourselves to one
single definition of philosophy we can formulate many pertinent
determinations of philosophizing. Rather than by defining
its object (field) or the supposed permanent core essence) the nature of
philosophy could be (better) determined by making reference to
its attitude, source and objective.
Philosophic Attitude
Striving: The very meaning of the word philosophy (derived from the Greek
compound philo + sophia) points at once to a special attitude of a
philosopher and her/his objective. According to this etymology,
"philosophy" is "a love of wisdom", which means that it combines both
cognitive and emotional dimension of our mind. "Love" is named first
and it is not knowledge - it is a craving and striving to attain the object of
love. But striving to learn precedes knowledge. We need the passion of
love to start and keep questioning the things that are either too familiar or
too removed from everyday concerns. The continuation of this striving
points to the essence of wisdom. Its posture is a passionate search for
wisdom, not the possession of it. Nothing great has ever been
accomplished without passion. Thus knowledge proves again less
defining for philosophy than its posture. In western tradition it is not
possible to attain wisdom as a final equilibrium. Consequently,
philosophy is a state of mind (inquisitive) rather than a particular kind of
Love Wisdom
Emotion Cognition
Striving Accomplishment
Attitude State of Mind

The Source of Philosophy
Wonder: The main source of philosophic questioning is the sense of wonder,
a childlike wonder just about everything. Philosophy starts with
bewilderment, astonishment, amazement about the world, life, and
ourselves. Philosophy arises from the workings of an inquisitive mind
which is bewildered by seemingly common things or by those that appear
to be entirely impractical. It emerges out of readiness to follow the call of
human intellectual curiosity beyond common sense acquaintanceship
with the world. The same idea is expressed in the old saying that the
business of philosophy is to deal with the things supposedly familiar, but
not really known and cognized. Philosophy reveals the illusion of
knowledge where none in reality exists. Indeed, everything touched by
philosophic bewilderment miraculously changes its character from a
known to an unknown. B. Russell resuscitates the same idea in claiming
that philosophy "keeps alive our sense of wonder by showing familiar
things in an unfamiliar aspect". As soon as we begin to philosophize, we
find that even the most everyday things lead to confusing problems while
those initially "impractical" issues often prove very significant even for
our mundane needs and certainly for our self-understanding.
The Aim of Philosophy
Insight: Philosophy does not stay by pure bewilderment and amazement.
Philosophers articulate their initial amazement by
formulatingquestions (mostly what- and why-questions) that guide their
curiosity toward comprehension of the problem. This does not mean that
they seek a simple formula for all the puzzles of the world (the proverbial
"philosophic stone"). Philosophy aims at understanding and enlightenment
rather than shorthand answers. While striving to bring some light into the
complexity of human life and the universe it pursues the old longing for
the truth about the whole. Philosophy is absolutely committed to the truth,
"the whole truth and nothing but the truth". However, the truth of
philosophy is never given and complete as we cannot definitely close out
the totality it strives to capture (as Lacan says: I always speak the truth but
only partail). Therefore the search for truth is rather like perpetual striving
for more insight than for the final word on the matters of life and the
world. Whenever one is engaged in philosophizing the chances are that
things will become more complex and difficult than before.

Philosophic Questioning

Questions Man is a questioning being. But our questions could be of very different
kinds. Some are simple and casual, some very difficult and complex, some
mindboggling or even obscure.

Type of
Asked by Answered by
All Human
Common Sense,
Collecting Data,
Analyzing Facts,
Raising New Issues.

Inconclusive Results When we look at the history of philosophy it appears that philosophy
never attains final conclusions about anything. Even though philosophy
takes its subject-matter both from our everyday experience and the
sciences, it constantly remains on the level of conceptual analysis, critical
examination, new ideas, and so time and again fails to produce definitive
"positive results". Russell admits that philosophy is not very much
successful in providing "definite answers" to its questions but explains the
apparent inconclusiveness of philosophic answers partly as deceptive,
partly as inevitable:
(a) "Those questions that are already capable of definite answers are
placed in the sciences, while those only to which, at present, no definite
answers can be given, remain to form the residue which is called
philosophy." Thus philosophic questions can turn into scientific truths as
soon as hey are answered. In other words, many scientifically established
truths have started as philosophic questions, but once they received
definite answers they get moved to the realm of science. If one is not
familiar with the historical development of science and does not know that
its many questions originated in philosophy s/he may think that
philosophers have been doing philosophy over two thousand years without
being able to produce anything valuable ("positive results"). But this
impression of perpetually continuing futility would be a very deceptive
(b) There are also many interesting questions both in science and
philosophy that are currently unanswered. Sometimes it is difficult to
predict whether and when they will be answered. Hence they could be
pursued both by philosophy and science (just think about the cosmological
questions regarding the origin, size and future of the universe, or the
questions about the neurological foundations of our thinking and value
judgments). If it becomes clear that these questions are definitely
answerable philosophy will deal with their general implications while
relegating them to the sciences.
(c) Philosophy does not deal only with the questions that currently do not
allow complete answers. It studies the questions that are in principle not
answerable. "There are many questions - and among them those that are of
the profoundest interest to our spiritual life - which, so far as we can see,
must remain insoluble to the human intellect unless its powers became of
a quite different order from what they are now." In other words, there are
questions that are in principle insoluble although very important and
interesting. For instance, the questions like "What is the meaning of life?",
"Does God exist?", "Does the universe have a final purpose?" resist
definite answers by their very nature. Typically these unanswerable
questions tackle either Cosmology (pertaining to the whole of the
universe) or Theology (pertaining to the transcendent of the visible
world). Philosophy is interested in these two realms but it cannot
encompass the whole of the universe as a given object nor conclusively
prove or disprove the transcendent content of religious beliefs.
Note: There have been many philosophers, from st. Thomas Aquinas to Descartes and
Leibniz, who were convinced that the content of religious belief could be proved to be
true "by strict demonstration". That was the ambition of Descartes' Meditations that
purported to prove the existence of God and the immortality of the soul. Based on his
epistemological and logical studies Russell came to the conclusion that we must
renounce any hope in any valid proof of that kind.

Status of
In Principle
In Principle
Why philosophy appears to be a futile undertaking? For one, people
overlook the positive answers reached by philosophers but transferred to
the sciences. For another, philosophy does keep asking unanswerable
Futility of Philosophy
Futility Reasons Outcome
Answered Questions
Removed from Philosophy
= Residue of
Unanswered Questions
Repeatedly Asked
No Results in
If philosophy is just "a residue" of unanswered questions or a pursuit of
unanswerable questions why should we keep doing it? One may ask, why
bother with problems we can not solve? The answer is simple: just dealing
with the puzzle increases our understanding of the problem and the
difficulties involved in it. Moreover, without philosophic curiosity
displayed in this way many important issues would have been overlooked
or forgotten a long ago. Thus by continuing to raise questions and
studying their implications, as Russell points out, we keep theoretical
interest alive no matter whether it can yield positive results or not. This is
a pretty rational strategy as many questions that are now unanswered
could turn one day into new areas of study. Those that are unanswerable
in principle are still meaningful and important both intellectually and
humanly. Therefore, despite the fact that philosophy does not provide
definitive answers it is not a futile activity of human mind. It can achieve
very profound and very significant insights into the world and the nature
of human condition. We just need to understand the special nature of
philosophic questions, very different from everyday and scientific
Anamnesis If we piece together both the old and modern determinations of
philosophic attitude and put them along those of the source and the
objective of philosophy, we obtain the following table of its main features:
A Screening of Philosophy
PHILOSOPHY Traditional





Comparison With Other Intellectual and Spiritual Pursuits
Philosophy does not emerge out of nothing nor does it live in separation from other
disciplines and subjects. On the contrary, it is in a constant interaction with them
receiving intellectual stimuli and challenges both from within and without. Therefore
trying to explain the relations philosophy bears to science, art and religion, could tell
us more about the nature of philosophy than any handy definition which takes it in
isolation from other areas. While many common links, points of contact and even
overlaps make it sometimes difficult to ascertain whether we are dealing with
philosophy or some cognate disciplines, overall and in principle we can distinguish
philosophy from the following four areas of human endeavor.

Science - Philosophy
(1) Science is the methodical study of the universe in its various aspects
(physical, chemical, biological, social, mental). Science deals with
questions that can be decided by experiment and observation.
Consequently, it can attain a "definite body of truths" ("positive results")
at least in some domains. Says Russell: "If you ask a mathematician, a
mineralogist, a historian or any other man of learning what definite body
of truths has been ascertained by his science, his answer will last as long
as you are willing to listen." Wherever science is effective, it achieves
not only "well defined" but accurate and valid knowledge as well.
Scientific knowledge advances
byaccumulation constantly superseding its previous historical stages.
Scientific language is univocal and its propositions have unambiguous
However, science has its limits. It cannot tell us what is beautiful, good
or just, what is the meaning of life, and what we can hope for. Science
does not provide evaluative and interpretive knowledge. Moreover,
science does not include full knowledge about itself. As Russell points
out, the sciences cannot attain the unity of scientific knowledge by
themselves. For that purpose they need to turn into a meta-study, which
surpasses their methods and competence and leads to philosophy.
Philosophy deals with those fundamental questions that underlie
everyday notions or lay ground for scientific concepts.Examples: Who
am I? Where I am coming from? What is the meaning of life? Does the
history of mankind lead somewhere (or anywhere)? What is time? "Has
the universe any unity of plan or purpose, or is it a fortuitous concourse
of atoms? Is consciousness a permanent part of the universe, giving hope
of indefinite growth in wisdom, or is it a transitory accident on a small
planet on which life must ultimately become impossible? Are good and
evil of importance to the universe or only to man?" (Russell) These
questions are as important as the big questions of science dealing with
the structure of matter or the evolution of organic life. They are about
meanings and ends, not simply about facts.
Facts are relevant to philosophic study as well, but they alone cannot
resolve philosophic questions. The latter both precede and transcend
scientific procedures. Although philosophic questions receive different
answers throughout history, the cognitive effort of philosophizing is not
futile. If previous answers are seen to be inadequate this means that we
can learn from them which is a strong indication that past philosophies
do not become obsolete by the mere flow of time. On the contrary, the
history of philosophy is itself an area of intensive philosophic study that
constantly reveals new insights and brings old ideas in new light.

Note: It seems that in this early work (written in 1912) Russell views the historical
relation between philosophy and science as a development from "speculation" to
"positive knowledge". Philosophy and the sciences were one at the beginning of
Western culture but that unity fell apart for the benefit of scientific progress. A remnant
of the initial unity is the practice of calling philosophy a science or treating physics and
mathematics as theoretical philosophies. As Russell indicates, well into the 18th century
the natural sciences were regarded as a variety of philosophy, the fact which is reflected
in the title of Newton's work Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (= The
Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy). There is no other reason why we
should still apply the Ph.D. (= Philosophiae Doctor) title to as different disciplines as
mathematics or chemistry. As time passes by the emancipated sciences strip away more
and more of the original body of philosophic knowledge. It is likely that some currently
puzzling philosophic questions will be resolved with the new advances in neurology,
physiology, and physics. But many will remain for ever in that "residue which is called
philosophy". This means that "positive knowledge" will never entirely replace
philosophy, and "speculation" will never become absolutely pointless.
Art - Philosophy
(2) Art is a very diverse phenomenon which resists any simple and
exhaustive definition. Like philosophy, the concept of art is also an open
one both historically and in terms of its possible current applications.
Hence, different definitions only stress different dimensions of art:
formal signification, emotional expressiveness, intuitive character,
meaningful organization of interrelated parts, etc. We are on the safe
ground if we say that art is a creative activity aimed at producing objects
of appreciation. No matter what is its form or content, art is oriented
more toward subjective expression of views, unconscious desires, and
emotions than toward argumentation, cognition or transmission of
information. It emits powerful messages but the language of art is
more visual, acoustic, metaphorical,allusive and therefore more
ambiguous than the language of philosophy.
Philosophy, in contrast, is rather a theoretical than productive activity. It
seeks to find some inter-subjective methods of inquiring truth and to
establish the standards of evidence and norms for evaluating our beliefs,
ideas and arguments (Russell). It aims at rational knowledge and uses
discursive methods in dealing with the views drawn from experience,
history, work, or any other realm of human life. Its language is
conceptual although not so standardized as scientific terminology.
Philosophical language is very oftenequivocal and its references cannot
be easily (if at all) checked by observation and experiment. But its ideas
are organized according to more rigorous procedures that are bound to
the truth and not only exposition of our opinions.

Note: Russell does not explicitly discuss the relation between philosophy and art, but
his critique of subjective urge to subsume the universe under the self indicates that he
repudiates artistic approach to the world if it is supposed to provide more profound
cognition than science or philosophy. He rejects the "view which tells us that Man is the
measure of all things, that truth is man-made". For him, this is a kind of subjectivism
which is determined solely by "the here" and "now" of our own self - which is by
definition limited and cannot encompass the universe from within itself. In contrast, he
thinks that a "free intellect will value more the abstract and universal knowledge" than
the knowledge "brought by the senses, and dependent, as such knowledge must be, upon
an exclusive and personal point of view and a body whose sense-organs distort as much
as they reveal". Translated to our comparison, art is a great source of emotional
satisfaction, but its products are cognitively inferior to objective study and cannot
replace science and philosophy.
Religion/Theology - Philosophy
(3) Religion and its conceptual articulation (theology) are grounded on
a revealed truth. The former preaches certain beliefs that make a claim to
a privileged truth, the latter tries to make these beliefs understandable
and believable by explaining rationally the content of the main tenets.
The attitude of all religions is well represented through the self-
proclamation of Jesus: "I am the truth." This identification between the
Person and the truth is essential for religion and cannot be overcome
without losing the tautological mystique of religious message. If you ask
God who is He the only appropriate answer would be the biblical one: "I
am who I am." Man cannot get more than this about God. Religious
beliefs cannot and do not need to be derived from controlled experience,
let alone proved by strict demonstration (Russell). Their certainty is
based on personal acceptance of religious tradition and authority. The
common aim of both religion and theology is to strengthen our
convictions and to give us an overarching sense of life and the universe.
Philosophy, by contrast, is a critical (sometimes even skeptical) activity
of human mind based on the ability of natural reason to understand and
follow logical implications. Its aim is not to uphold any set of beliefs but
rather to undermine everything that tends to get inculcated in the mind. It
is Pontius Pilate with his skeptical response "What is truth?" who
assumes a philosophical stance, not Jesus. In general, philosophy is a
systematic effort to avoid any kind of dogma or clich that can arrest our
questioning and suspicion. This is why philosophy often challenges faith
and dogmatic tenets offering instead only doubt and uncertainty. On the
other hand, in regard to the intelligibility of the universe, it prefers the
audacity of human mind over religious epistemological modesty.
However, while striving to capture the the essence of the universe
philosophy does not construe extemporized theories but attempts to
provide inter-subjectively acceptable reasons for proposed hypotheses.

Note: Russell recognizes that both philosophy and religion arise from the concern for
fundamental questions of meaning and purpose. As he puts it elsewhere, they both
emerge from the insight that the whole and infinity transcend our finite self. However,
religion accounts for the quality of infinity by invoking the idea of other (true) world,
whereas philosophy "does not divide the universe into two hostile camps"and in fact
combats the religious doubling of the world. It strives to achieve more impersonal
("impartial") and more comprehensive contemplation of this world in its totality. Its
goal is to enlarge our own self by contemplatively partaking in the infinity of the
universe (this is a kind of "objective Platonism" which negates the subjective moment as
a distortion of the truth). In this sense philosophy, for Russell, is "a contemplative
vision" or "speculation". (Russell uses the word "speculation" without any negative
connotation because he takes it in its Aristotelian sense of "sightseeing adventure for its
own sake".)
Later on (in the forties) Russell started to regard the allegedly "residual character" of
philosophical questions as an unavoidable consequence of philosophy's placement "in-
between" science and religion. According to this view, philosophy is a neglected and
uncertain area ("No Man's Land") stretching between the certainties of science and

Eastern Wisdom - Philosophy
(4) Eastern Thought, has different forms ranging from Taoism to Zen-
Buddhism and Transcendental Meditation; despite some practically
oriented strains (Confucianism), it is mostly intuitive, directed toward the
Self and introspection; its insights come from our inwardness that needs
to be emptied from all external influences; the Self is meditative, with
ready made precepts for the resolution of all life problems; this is why so
many self-help books draw on this tradition; Eastern sage is balanced,
poised, silent; his/her prototype is the Buddha. The findings of Eastern
wisdom are not fully communicable which prevents it from being
entirely discoursive and argumentative.
Philosophy as practiced in the Western tradition also tackles the Self but
it, as Russell notes, believes that the Self must be enriched by embracing
the outside universe. Otherwise it is regarded as void and worthless.
Philosophizing in the manner of Western thought means engaging
ourselves in a discursive activity of our intellect, rather than divining the
blank slate of the supposed Self; Western philosophy is also reflexive but
more methodical and analytic; a Western philosopher is extrovert,
talkative, suspicious, relentless in the quest to think things through;
his/her model is Faust = expanding knowledge even at the cost of our
Despite many deserved attempts to integrate Eastern thought (primarily
Indian and Chinese) into Western intellectual tradition the differences are
so huge that it is advisable not to apply the same term "philosophy"
(itself of Western origin) to both.

Means Explanation Expression Illumination Enlightenment

Form Knowledge Creation Revelation Wisdom Insight
Goal Mastery Fulfillment Salvation Tranquility Truth

What does Philosophy know?
Knowledge: A deep commitment to knowledge is what unites Philosophy with the
sciences. Yet the knowledge of science is not the same as the knowledge
of philosophy. The common origin, kindred procedures and obvious
congruencies cannot conceal big differences between philosophic and
scientific knowledge. Philosophic knowledge is not "demonstrably true"
whereas scientific knowledge seems to be well established and accepted
as truly supported by factual evidence.
Methodology and
What kind of knowledge does philosophy boast if it does not consist in
"definite" and "positive" answers? According to Russell, philosophy aims
at the knowledge that could be described in one of the following ways:

(a) The knowledge that gives unity and system to the body of science
(this is what we would nowadays call the methodology or philosophy of
(b) The knowledge that critically examines the grounds for our beliefs
(this comes down to epistemology or theory of knowledge).
Are these two realms the only ones that are amenable to philosophic
cognitions? Obviously not. Russell does not say that these two kinds of
knowledge are the only kinds of philosophic knowledge. He mentions
them only as representative examples of philosophic cognition (a tribute
to his rationalistic and scientific preferences).
Truth: If we stayed only by (a) and (b) our conception of philosophy would be
too narrow. Philosophic knowledge cannot be reduced to the study of
sciences or to the study of reasons for our beliefs. It is a pursuit of truth
in a very broad sense. Philosophy asks border and transcendent questions
with regard to the sciences. It strives to give unity to all human
knowledge - not just the sciences. It is the best rational substitute for the
ultimate truth in the absence of full demonstrability for a whole range of
"fundamental" questions. In order to keep "speculative interest" in truth
alive philosophy is permitted to go beyond "positive knowledge" and
pure demonstration and formulate some ideas and hypotheses that right
now do not possess a sufficient empirical foundation and corroboration.
However, by venturing to go beyond established facts philosophy makes
it possible for us to deal rationally with unascertainable knowledge that
would otherwise remain outside of human reach and interest. In addition
to these speculative concerns, philosophy provides guidance to our
evaluations and to our quest for our personal truth: the meaning and the
purpose of our existence.
Note: By the end of his book, Russell makes several remarks about the nature of
"philosophic knowledge" that sound very platonic, something one would hardly expect
from a logically and empirically minded philosopher. For instance, despite his critique
of the tendency to assert the Self at the expanse of the world he concedes that:
"Knowledge is a form of union of Self and not-Self". This statement goes counter the
main stream of Modern philosophy which conceives knowledge rather as a process of
distinguishing Self from the object that should be represented as such: to know
something means to represent it in its distinctness from the knower. To take knowing as
becoming one with the object of knowing was an ancient doctrine which has found its
last echo in the Renaissance. But Russell makes it abundantly clear that this "union"
cannot be accomplished by "taking the Self as it is" and projecting it to the world
("assimilating the universe to Man"). On the contrary, the Self needs to adjust itself to
the world, to enlarge itself by cognizing the world ("All acquisition of knowledge is an
enlargement of the Self."). Hence the desired "enlargement of the Self" depends on the
full appreciation of the object, not the other way round. If these lines still sound
idealistic, the sort of idealism one can detect here is certainly not that which is called the
"subjective idealism". Russell's language (Self, not-Self, Union) should be perhaps
linked to the very similar statements by F.H. Bradley, a British Hegelian who had
influenced Russell before he became a "logical empiricist" (cf. Bradley's Ethical
Objectivity Philosophy does not divide the world into two opposing camps: one that
suits our personal interest and the other that appears inimical. It studies
the whole impartially and objectively - the only "partiality" of philosophy
is its insistence on the truth. The desire for truth that Russell finds in a
properly understood philosophic striving for the enlargement of the Self
is not limited to the theoretical realm. If consistently pursued it stretches
into the "world of action and emotion" where a philosopher seeks non-
cognitive counterparts for impartial truth: compassionate love and justice.
Thus we obtain a unity of all three dimensions of human being.
Contemplation Action Emotion
Impartiality Justice Love

Is Philosophy Impractical?

Ineffectiveness: The inability of philosophy to produce positive and applicable knowledge
gives rise to the view that it is a "useless" pursuit. In comparison with
other fields of human knowledge, particularly applied sciences,
philosophy really seems to be deprived of any practical value and
effectiveness. This is generally regarded as its most serious defect,
especially nowadays when everybody values usefulness and
effectiveness. As Einstein has noticed: "People like chopping wood,
because it shows immediate results." For good or for bad, philosophy
does not have any utility of that kind. (Russell) It is, therefore, widely
perceived as a completely otiose activity in the world of universal nitty-
gritty (know-how). In short, it is worth of nothing. At best it is "innocent
but useless trifling, hair splitting distinctions, and controversies on
matters concerning which knowledge is impossible." (Russell)
Maladjustment: Consequences: Philosophers appear as maladjusted and bungling
individuals (for an illustration of how people typically react to this
inability of philosophy to be "successfully" engaged in world affairs, cf.
The story of Thales and a Thracian maid). Or worse, they are perceived
as a threat for the accepted life routine or the status quo in society. With
its protracted questioning philosophy only complicates our life and
disturbs the peace of our mind. We live in a world of efficiency and
effectiveness, not reflectiveness. Making things more difficult and more
uncertain in a culture wherein the ease of living becomes the law of
everyday grooving makes philosophy embarrassing, subversive and even
Negative Attitudes: Russell names two main sources of negative attitudes toward philosophy:
(A) The influence of science (it would be more accurate to speak
about scientism and technocratic consciousness),

(B) The influence of practical affairs (in fact of pragmatistic, philistine

The former recognizes only definite, applicable knowledge derived from
scientific questions, while the latter values only practical action as an
immediate response to everyday trivial (= little) questions. The former
does not bear the indefinite, uncertain character of philosophic study, the
latter does not tolerate philosophic procrastination and the ineffectiveness
of thinking. Both are insensitive toward the beneficial effects of the
uncertainty philosophers cultivate as their typical state of mind.
Misconceptions: Russell is convinced that both attitudes espouse a superficial view of
philosophy based on some misconceptions. These misconceptions pertain

(a) the ends of human life, and (b) the goods of philosophy.

Formed Under
Influence of
(A) Practical
(B) Science Correct
Conceptions of
Life Ends and
Goods of

(a) Ends of
Human Life








(b) Goods of
Mind Game


Waste of


and Reflection
(Giving Unity
to Human
Grounds for
Foresight and
Interest alive)

The first group of misconception identifies ultimate human goals with
acquisition, power or pleasure, whereas the other inappropriately
measures philosophical goods upon the yardstick of positive, tangible
and useful results of other human endeavors. These misconceptions are
only prejudices of the people who are fascinated by material goods and
the effectiveness of technology (Russell calls them "instinctive men").
Who are they? And why are they "wrongly called practical men"?
They are modern philistines who view philosophical questioning as an
idle game played by lazy, intellectual slackers who avoid real problems
of everyday life. These philistines present themselves as advocates of
practical needs and concerns. But the philistine notion of useful thinking
is obviously formed upon the model of instrumental thinking ("what is
the utility of this?") and doe s not take into account practical concerns
regarding our personal existence, identity and the sense of life. And
precisely these concerns make up the realm of the traditional "practical
philosophy" which deals with the problem of "good life" and "just
community". In view of this, the notion of "useful" practicality in the
sense of immediate and everyday "utility" is very narrow. This is the
reason why Russell indicates that in fact it is wrongly called practical (it
should be perhaps named pragmatistic).

What is the Value of Philosophy?
Why it is necessary to consider the question of value with regard to philosophical thinking?
Simply put, because its value is not self-evident. On the contrary, philosophy is under suspicion
of being not only practically useless but of being deprived of any value. We have admitted that
philosophy is not useful in producing tangible, immediate results. It is so helpless that it cannot
even pull a dog out of its house (Hegel). The fact is that philosophical questions do not bring
income, do not fix broken gadgets, do not help us attract the person we may like. But they are not
worthless for that matter. They satisfy intellectual and spiritual needs (the "needs of the mind").
They achieve their value indirectly, through their effect "upon the lives of those who study"

A comparison with the sciences as to the respective impact on people gives the
following picture (after Russell):
Impact of /
Sciences Philosophy


Impact on

Direct Impact


Humankind Impact
(through some

Impact of Science: The impact of the sciences on mankind could be described as "direct"
only if we accept technology as an immanent extension of science, which
is a very plausible supposition for modern science. Technology is the
realm where scientific discoveries find their practical applications. But
what about the impact of science on those who study it? That Russell
believes it exists follows from the phrasing that "the study of physical
science is to be recommended not only, or primarily, because of the
effect on the student". This must mean there is some impact on those who
study and do science. This effect could be either external (mentally
absorbing or materially rewarding for the student) or of a more cognitive
nature (enlarging their knowledge, influencing their current scientific
views). But if we have in mind the potential influence of the content of
the study on the personality and the general outlook of the students, then
it is difficult to see how it could be anything else but "indirect". What
shapes the identity, the character, the attitude and the views of a scientist
is not what he does as scientist but what he experiences as a human
Impact of
While the impact of philosophy on mankind must be viewed as only
"indirect", coming through those who study it, its impact on students
themselves must be recognized as "direct". By critically examining the
grounds for our beliefs and convictions philosophy inevitably influences
our identity and stature (we are by and large what we believe). Owing to
the ability of philosophy to influence our individual existence in this
manner, its value does not have to be measured in terms of positive
material gains. Philosophizing is not like gambling which makes sense
only if we are winning. It is a worthwhile activity even if you are not
wining (or solving the problems for that matter). It is desirable for itself
not because of some prize that should result from it but because of the
potential to autonomously shape and guide our lives.
Food for the Mind The needs of the mind are no less important than the needs of the body.
"Each of us has an intellectual dimension to his experience. we need
ideas as much as we need food, air or water. Ideas nourish the mind as
the latter provide for the body. In light of this, it's clear that we need good
ideas as much as we need good food, good air, and good water." (Tom
Morris, If Aristotle Ran General Motors, 1997)
Uncertainty: Philosophy may be very embarrassing in shattering our beliefs but it
could be no less liberating in releasing us from the bondage of prejudices.
It can keep spurring human mind to new intellectual adventures against
any kind of dogmatism and prejudices precisely because it is not bound
to any set of doctrines and the demand to abide by accepted beliefs and
customs. Yes, in some areas we need certainty and definite answers. But
we have other resources to tap from for certainty. Science and
mathematics meet that need effectively and progressively on a very large
scale, common sense supplants certainty in everyday situations.
Philosophy would be redundant if it tried to replicate what research,
common sense and faith already provide. It has its own objectives and
should be judged based on its specific merits.


Value Thus the value of philosophy appears to be twofold:
-Overcoming narrow-mindedness by contemplating the whole of the
universe impartially.
- Discovering unsuspected possibilities by becoming uncertain about
those that are given;

These two aspects separate philosophy both from common sense and
Common Sense Philosophy
Definite Answers
Certainty Uncertainty
Confidence Shattered Convictions
Prejudices Critical Scrutiny
Dogmatism Skepticism

Compensation As Russell indicates, the value of philosophy could lie precisely in its
uncertainty and incompleteness. Its uncertainty is not just a deprivation
of scientific, common sense and religious certainty. Its uncertainty is
very stimulating both cognitively and practically (see below). As Russell
says, while diminishing our confidence and certainty as to what things
actually are it immensely increases our ability to envision them in terms
of what they may be if viewed from a different angle or from a more
viable standards. Hence "unascertainable knowledge" is worthy both of
the effort and of the name of knowledge, especially if it helps overcome
the bondage of prejudices.
Reversal Philosophy is perceived as a departure both from common sense and
reality. It is very often regarded as their distortion. In a sense it presents a
"topsy-turvy world" of what appears to be real. But if this appearance is
itself an illusion, what philosophy does is in fact a reversal of a previous
inversion and in that sense a recovery of reality that was distorted before.
Comparison The nature and the quality of our knowledge determines our attitude and
our own nature. The world is perceived differently by "practical"
("instinctive") men and those who have "tincture of philosophy". An
open-minded person sees more (and more differently) than the one
imprisoned in habitual and un-reflected beliefs. How these postures look
like and how their respective world-views differ? The following chart
summarizes Russell's comparison between these two kinds of human
existence and attitudes:
Two Styles
Kind of Person World Life
Instinctive Man
Philosophic Man

Benefits: While philosophy cannot boast many "positive results", its study is
valuable for many reasons that go beyond an individual's immediate
livelihood. Studying or doing philosophy could be beneficial in many
regards out which the following appear to be the most important ones:
Educationally and
Philosophy enlarges our understanding of the world, it expands our
intellectual horizons and freedom of thought. Philosophy releases from
the "prejudices derived from common sense", from the "habitual belief of
an age or nation", and from convictions that have grown up "without the
cooperation or consent of (our) deliberate reason". (Russell) Philosophy
may help develop the capacity to look at the world from the perspective
of other individuals and cultures. Perhaps it is not as effective as science
and religion, but it is the most free and valuable of all intellectual
endeavors. (Aristotle) The old idea of liberal arts survives in the study of
philosophy that liberates from prejudices and creates free spirits. It
develops at once tolerance and critical sense.
Socially and
By discussing political and social issues philosophy raises public
awareness and helps in forming engaged and responsible citizens. By
performing critical examination of current social and political conditions
it can enlighten people as to the shortcomings of the current order. By
viewing social practices from the perspective of a better and more just
future it can foster necessary social change. "While diminishing our
feeling of certainty as to what things are, it greatly increases our
knowledge as to what they may be." (Russell) In this sense, although
indirectly, philosophy can make a difference and even change the world.
If the ambition to change the world is not shared by all philosophers the
fact is that some philosophical theories have practical intent and that
some had ignited the energy for change (think about the Great French
Revolution and the role of Les Philosophes in stirring the masses).
Morally and
Philosophy can increase our sensitivity for universalistic moral values
and stimulate our readiness to stand up for the principles of justice and
fairness. Since it provides tools and opportunity to reflect on our basic
values and concepts, it may prove very practical in defining our choices
and acts. In view of all potential benefits we can argue that studying
philosophy is a very practical undertaking. Philosophy is practical in the
sense that its questions pertain to the value of our personal existence as
well as to our relations with others. Remember: practical life is not
necessarily an acquisitive life, but life focused on self-reflection and
ethical issues.
Psychologically and
On a personal level, philosophy can give one self-knowledge, foresight,
and a sense of direction in life. It touches upon our own existence (in a
way we are fully humans only if we are capable to reflect upon our
humanness) and tackles the questions of our personal identity. It can lead
to self-discovery, expansion of consciousness, and self-renewal.
Philosophy nurtures individuality and self-esteem and broadens the range
of things one can understand and enjoy. It enhances one's ability to
understand other disciplines and to perceive the relationship among
various fields of study.

If studying philosophy can bring all these benefits why people do not study it in great
numbers? Why students do not throng around philosophy departments? The answer is:
they are afraid that a degree in philosophy is not marketable. But even this seems to be a
Pragmatic Uses of
While studying philosophy does not help directly one's job search, it has
an indirect impact even in nonacademic fields. Contrary to the wide
spread view, employers prefer candidates with general and flexible skills
that could adjust to new situations rather than high specialists. They look
for and reward many of the capacities developed by the study of
philosophy, for instance, the ability to analyze problems, to organize
ideas and issues, to assess pros and cons, and to boil down complex data.
A report of the American Philosophical Association cites that majors in
liberal arts with philosophy as the core discipline "continue to make a
strong showing in managerial skills and have experienced considerable
business success". A congressman from Indiana has noticed "that
philosophers have acquired skills which are very valuable to a member of
Congress." These skills include:
Transferable Skills

General Problem Solving
Communication Skills
Persuasive Powers
Writing Skills
Ability to Conceptualize
Anticipatory Capacity
These capacities are transferable skills, meaning - they are applicable in a
great variety of ways and areas. Moreover, they represent basic abilities
on which other skills depend or build. No wonder that philosophy majors
score better than any other humanities major on the LSAT (the law
school admission exam) and the GRE (aptitude test for graduate
programs). Thus, at a closer look philosophical questioning proves both
very useful and effective even in a very pragmatistic sense. (Cf. The story
of Thales' renting all the olive mills.)
Philosophical Lexicon
Reflection = (from Latin: reflectere = bend back): the way of thinking which is "mirrored" back
to itself; reflexive thinking is one that takes itself as an object of thought.
Contemplation = (from Latin: contemplari = gaze at attentively): activity of thinking,
theoretical thinking.
Demonstration = (from Latin: de=from, monstrare = show): indirect knowledge based on the
proof that clearly shows the inferences that lead to the conclusion.
Speculative = (from Latin: speculum = mirror): theoretical thinking that reflects the totality of
objects involved. Speculation leads thinking from visible effects of a distant cause to the ultimate
(first, most general) principles.
Equivocally = (from Latin: aequivocus = with equal voice, but different meaning):
speaking ambiguously, using one nominal designation (Latin: vox) for different things.
Univocally = (from Latin: unus vox, one voice) using one expression in only one sense, speaking
Scientistic = stemming from uncritical trust into sciences which are considered to cover the
whole realm of sensible questions (don't confuse with "scientific"!).
Pragmatistic = focused only to immediate useful consequences (from the Greek pragma, thing):
to be distinguished from the practical in the sense of ethical and political concerns
(Greek praktikos, pertaining to human conduct).
Common sense = ordinary, everyday knowledge of ourselves and our surroundings.
Little questions = conventional questions that can be answered by relying on our common sense
(what time is it?).
Big questions = questions that require systematic technical and scientific research (how did the
ozone hole come into existence?).
Fundamental Questions = questions that make sense but cannot be answered by relying on
common sense or scientific procedures (what is time?).

Doing Introduction To Philosophy:
If philosophy is concerned with the "fundamental questions", then its study obviously
cannot be exhausted within the limits set by a single course of study. One semester is
not enough time for more than a beginning in a realm that is as rich and limitless as
human experience. It's a life task.
However, there are many things we can and have to do - here and now. First of all, we
need to acquire some philosophical skills, like asking meaningful questions,
understanding philosophical texts, discussing issues at stake and arguing rationally.
Thus we have some long-term and some short-term objectives in philosophy.
The chief long-term task is to introduce ourselves to philosophy as much as to
introduce philosophy to ourselves. Meaning, we should try to expose our values and
convictions to philosophical scrutiny and in that way we may discover that philosophy
can do a lot for us and with us in our lives!
On the other hand, just because we recognize the immense life-value of doing
philosophy, we do not want to hide hypocritically that studying philosophy has many
burdensome and unpleasant sides. There is no royal way in philosophy. On the
contrary, studying philosophy requires a lot of hard work for class and in the class.
The three following aspects are perhaps the most important in our work:
Philosophical Language: The capacity to understand and correctly apply fundamental
philosophical concepts is of paramount importance in doing philosophy. A serious
student must pay particular attention to philosophical terminology. One of the earliest
and most persistent difficulties in doing philosophy is the complex language used by
philosophers. Philosophers need to express thoughts that sometimes push the language
beyond its limits, not because they like to be obscure, but because they consider new
ideas and unusual aspects of reality. That is the reason why they often coin new terms
or use already existing words in a new peculiar sense. Nominal familiarity with some
expressions could be very deceptive. Looking up into philosophical dictionaries has,
therefore, to become student's regular habit. Among other things, philosophy is about
words and their meanings.
Reading: We'll try to acquire a workable command of philosophical language by
reading and interpreting selected philosophical texts. As first understanding of what
philosophy is cannot be conveyed by producing a definition of the word "philosophy",
it is essential to become acquainted with a range of its specimens. To read
philosophical texts correctly one must read slowly and attentively. This goes against
the prevailing stream of our time, which requires quick and often superficial reading.
However, the measure of success in philosophy can hardly be expressed as a fraction
of read pages and a time unit. Successful reading is one that starts with a careful
interpretation of the text and ends up with an examination of the arguments that
support the conclusions.
Writing: Writing is an area of philosophical training equally important as our oral
teaching and in class exercising. Expressing your thoughts in a written form helps you
and your readers better understand what you mean. It reveals both strong and weak
points in your position. Therefore it is vital that you practice writing as often as
possible. As in all other skills: practicing raises your ability and keeps you in shape.
Did you know?
Celebrities who have studied philosophy include: Martin Luther King, Iris Murdoch, Angela Davis, Jim Morrison,
Tom Stoppard, The Pope (Karol Voytila), Lewis Carrol, John Ellway, Steve MartinCould you continue the list?