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Posts Tagged ‘culture’

09 APRIL, 2012

What is Philosophy? An Omnibus of Definitions from Prominent Philosophers


“Philosophy is 99 per cent about critical reflection on anything you care to be interested in.”

Last week, we explored how some of history’s greatest minds, including Richard Feynman, Carl Sagan, Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, and Isaac Asimov, defined science. Kant famously considered philosophy the “queen of the sciences” — whether or not that is true, philosophy seems even more elusive than science to define.

From Philosophy Bites, the book based on the wonderful podcast of the same name, comes an omnibus of definitions, bound by a most fascinating disclaimer — for, as Nigel Warburton keenly observes in the book’s introduction, “philosophy is an unusual subject in that its practitioners don’t agree what it’s about.”

The following definitions are excerpted from the first chapter of the book, which asks a number of prominent contemporary philosophers the seemingly simple yet, as we’ll see, awfully messy question, “What is philosophy?”

Philosophy is thinking really hard about the most important questions and trying to bring analytic clarity both to the questions and the answers.” ~ Marilyn Adams

[P]hilosophy is the study of the costs and benefits that accrue when you take up a certain position. For example, f you’re arguing about free will and you’re trying to decide whether to be a compatibilist or incompatibilist — is free will compatible with causal determinism? — what you’re discovering is what problems and what benefits you get from saying that it is compatible, and what problems and benefits you get from saying it’s incompatible.” ~ Peter Adamson

Philosophy is the successful love of thinking.” ~ John Armstrong

It’s a little bit like what Augustine famously said about the concept of time. When nobody asks me about it, I know. But whenever somebody asks me about what the concept of time is, I realize I don’t know.” ~ Catalin Avramescu

(Cue in Richard Feynman’s similarly-spirited answer to what science is.)

A few common themes begin to emerge, most notably the idea of critical thinking:

Philosophy is 99 per cent about critical reflection on anything you care to be interested in.” ~ Richard Bradley

I don’t think it’s any one thing, but I think generally it involves being critical and reflective about things that most people take for granted.” ~ Allen Buchanan

Philosophy is critical thinking: trying to become aware of how one’s own thinking works, of all the things one takes for granted, of the way in which one’s own thinking shapes the things one’s thinking about.” ~ Don Cupitt

Another running theme — sensemaking:

Most simply put it’s about making sense of all this… We find ourselves in a world that we haven’t chosen. There are all sorts of possible ways of interpreting it and finding meaning in the world and in the lives that we live. So philosophy is about making sense of that situation that we find ourselves in.” ~ Clare Carlisle

I think it’s thinking fundamentally clearly and well about the nature of reality and our place in it, so as to understand better what goes on around us, and what our contribution is to that reality, and its effect on us.” ~ Barry Smith

[Philosophy is] a process of reflection on the deepest concepts, that is structures of thought, that make up the way in which we think about the world. So it’s concepts like reason, causation, matter, space, time, mind, consciousness, free will, all those big abstract words and they make up topics, and people have been thinking about them for two and a half thousand years and I expect they’ll think about them for another two and a half thousand years if there are any of us left.” ~ Simon Blackburn

Also recurring is the notion of presuppositions:

Philosophy has always been something of a science of presuppositions; but it shouldn’t just expose them and say ‘there they are’. It should say something further about them that can help people.” ~ Tony Coady

Philosophy is the name we give to a collection of questions which are of deep interest to us and for which there isn’t any specialist way of answering. The categories in terms of which they are posed are ones which prevent experiments being carried out to answer them, so we’re thrown back to trying to answer them on the basis of evidence we can accumulate.” ~ Paul Snowdon

Philosophy is what I was told as an undergraduate women couldn’t do* — by an eminent philosopher who had best remain nameless. But for me it’s the gadfly image, the Socratic gadfly: refusing to accept any platitudes or accepted wisdom without examining it.” ~ Donna Dickenson

I think it used to be an enquiry into what’s true and how people should live; it’s distantly related to that still, but I’d say the distance is growing rather than narrowing.” ~ John Dunn

Philosophy is conceptual engineering. That means dealing with questions that are open to informed reasonable disagreement by providing new concepts that can be superseded in the future if more economic solutions can be found — but it’s a matter of rational agreement.” ~ Luciano Floridi

I’m afraid I have a very unhelpful answer to that, because it’s only a negative answer. It’s the answer that Friedrich Schlegel gave in his Athenaeum Fragments: philosophy is a way of trying to be a systematic spirit without having a system.” ~ Raymond Geuss

Philosophy is thinking as clearly as possible about the most fundamental concepts that reach through all the disciplines.” ~ Anthony Kenny

[A philosopher] is a moral entrepreneur. It’s a nice image. It’s somebody who creates new ways of evaluating things — what’s important, what’s worthwhile — that changes how an entire culture or an entire people understand those things.” ~ Brian Leiter

(A good editor, then, is also a philosopher — he or she, too, frames for an audience what matters in the world and why.)

I think that philosophy in the classical sense is the love of wisdom. So the question then is ‘What is wisdom?’ And I think wisdom is understanding what really matters in the world.” ~ Thomas Pogge

I’m hard pressed to say, but one thing that is certainly true is that ‘What is Philosophy?’ is itself a strikingly philosophical question.” ~ A. W. Moore

I can’t answer that directly. I will tell you why I became a philosopher. I became a philosopher because I wanted to be able to talk about many, many things, ideally with knowledge, but sometimes not quite the amount of knowledge that I would need if I were to be a specialist in them. It allows you to be many different things. And plurality and complexity are very, very important to me.” ~ Alexander Nehemas

A number of philosophers are particularly concerned with teasing out the difference between science and philosophy:

Philosophy is thinking hard about the most difficult problems that there are. And you might think scientists do that too, but there’s a certain kind of question whose difficulty can’t be resolved by getting more empirical evidence. It requires an untangling of presuppositions: figuring out that our thinking is being driven by ideas we didn’t even realize that we had. And that’s what philosophy is.” ~ David Papineau

I regard philosophy as a mode of enquiry rather than a particular set of subjects. I regard it as involving the kind of questions where your’e not trying to find out how your ideas latch on to the world, whether your ideas are true or not, in the way that science is doing, but more about how your ideas hang together. This means that philosophical questions will arise in a lot of subjects.” ~ Janet Radcliffe Richards

(Though, one might argue, some of the greatest scientists of all time, including Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking to name but just two, were only able to develop their theories because they blended the empirical with the deeply conceptual.)

Philosophy is reflecting critically on the way things are. That includes reflecting critically on social and political and economic arrangements. It always intimates the possibility that things could be other than they are. And better..” ~ Michael Sandel

Well, I can tell you how philosophical problems arise in my view, which is where two common-sense notions push in different directions, and then philosophy gets started. And I suppose I also think that anything that claims to be philosophy which can’t be related back to a problem that arises in that way probably is empty.” ~ Jonathan Wolff

I think the Greek term has it exactly right; it’s a way of loving knowledge.” ~ Robert Rowland Smith

Philosophy Bites is excellent in its entirety, examining such diverse facets of philosophy as ethics, politics, metaphysics and the mind, aesthetics, religion and atheism, and the meaning of life.

* The complete selection of answers in Philosophy Bites features 44 male philosophers and 8 female ones — it seems, sadly, many women took, and perhaps continue to take, the words of that token old-order “eminent philosopher” at face value. What might Einstein say?

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06 APRIL, 2012

What Is Science? From Feynman to Sagan to Asimov to Curie, an Omnibus of Definitions


“The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious — the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science.”

“We live in a society absolutely dependent on science and technology,” Carl Sagan famously quipped in 1994, “and yet have cleverly arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. That’s a clear prescription for disaster.” Little seems to have changed in the nearly two decades since, and although the government is now actively encouraging “citizen science,” for many “citizens” the understanding of — let alone any agreement about — what science is and does remains meager.

So, what exactly is science, what does it aspire to do, and why should we the people care? It seems like a simple question, but it’s an infinitely complex one, the answer to which is ever elusive and contentious. Gathered here are several eloquent definitions that focus on science as process rather than product, whose conduit is curiosity rather than certainty.

Stuart Firestein writes in the excellent Ignorance: How It Drives Science:

Real science is a revision in progress, always. It proceeds in fits and starts of ignorance.

Isaac Asimov knew this when he appeared on the Bill Moyers show in 1988 and shared some timeless, remarkably timely insights on creativity in science and education:

Science does not purvey absolute truth, science is a mechanism. It’s a way of trying to improve your knowledge of nature, it’s a system for testing your thoughts against the universe and seeing whether they match.

Carl Sagan echoed the same sentiment when he remarked:

Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge.

In a letter to Hans Mühsam dated July 9th, 1951, an elderly Albert Einstein observed:

One thing I have learned in a long life: that all our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike — and yet it is the most precious thing we have.

In his recent New York Review of Books piece on Margaret Wertheim’s Physics on the Fringe: Smoke Rings, Circlons, and Alternative Theories of Everything, Freeman Dyson offers:

All of science is uncertain and subject to revision. The glory of science is to imagine more than we can prove.

Claude Lévi-Strauss, widely regarded as the father of modern anthropology, articulated the same idea in 1964 in the first volume of his iconic Mythologiques collection of cultural anthropology:

The scientist is not a person who gives the right answers, he’s one who asks the right questions.

In the fantastic A General Theory of Love, psychologists Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon give this beautiful definition:

Science is an inherent contradiction — systematic wonder — applied to the natural world.

This element of wonder and whimsy also comes through in the words of iconic physicist and mathematician Max Born (thanks, Joe):

Science is not formal logic — it needs the free play of the mind in as great a degree as any other creative art. It is true that this is a gift which can hardly be taught, but its growth can be encouraged in those who already possess it.

In his iconic book On Human Nature, which should be required reading for all, the great biologist and naturalist E. O. Wilson observed:

The heart of the scientific method is the reduction of perceived phenomena to fundamental, testable principles. The elegance, we can fairly say the beauty, of any particular scientific generalization is measured by its simplicity relative to the number of phenomena it can explain.

In 1894, upon having received her second graduate degree, Marie Curie wrote in a letter to her brother:

One never notices what has been done; one can only see what remains to be done…

Curie also likely inspired this interpretation of her famous words on the essence of the scientific ethos:

Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.

Richard Feynman would have nodded in agreement. Einstein certainly did when he observed:

The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious — the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science.

This comes full-circe to Firestein’s book on ignorance, where he asserts:

Being a scientist requires having faith in uncertainty, finding pleasure in mystery, and learning to cultivate doubt. There is no surer way to screw up an experiment than to be certain of its outcome.

But hardly anyone captures the essence and ethos of science more eloquently than The Great Explainer. In 1966, the National Science Teachers Association asked the great Richard Feynman to give an address that answers the question, “What is science?” The answer comes true to character:

And so what science is, is not what the philosophers have said it is, and certainly not what the teacher editions say it is. What it is, is a problem which I set for myself after I said I would give this talk.

After some time, I was reminded of a little poem:

A centipede was happy quite, until a toad in fun
Said, “Pray, which leg comes after which?”
This raised his doubts to such a pitch
He fell distracted in the ditch
Not knowing how to run.

All my life, I have been doing science and known what it was, but what I have come to tell you–which foot comes after which–I am unable to do, and furthermore, I am worried by the analogy in the poem that when I go home I will no longer be able to do any research.

Later in the speech, Feynman hones a more answer-like answer:

[I]f you are going to teach people to make observations, you should show that something wonderful can come from them. I learned then what science was about: it was patience. If you looked, and you watched, and you paid attention, you got a great reward from it — although possibly not every time.


[Science] teaches the value of rational thought as well as the importance of freedom of thought; the positive results that come from doubting that the lessons are all true.

He closes with a keen point for his audience of professional science educators:

Science alone of all the subjects contains within itself the lesson of the danger of belief in the infallibility of the greatest teachers of the preceding generation.

Science, then, necessitates a certain comfort with being wrong, a tolerance for the fear of failure — perhaps cultivating that capacity is an essential prerequisite not only for science but also for the basic appreciation of science.

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04 APRIL, 2012

The Old Man and the Sea, Animated in Hand-Drawn Stop-Motion


“Perhaps I should not have been a fisherman, he thought. But that was the thing that I was born for.”

From German photographer and designer Marcel Schindler comes the best adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea since that Russian father-and-son duo’s animation finger-painted on glass — a lovely hand-illustrated stop-motion in a style reminiscent of Flash Rosenberg’s and the now-classic RSA animations, and a worthy addition to the finest literary art projects.


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