Robinson on ‘What is Philosophy?’




What differentiates philosophy from other disciplines that attempt to get at truth about being and existence? Is there a core idea, method, or behavior that sets it apart from the rest? Historically, the work of philosophers has evolved but there may be a core set of practices and concepts that can help us define what it is that philosophers do (or what each of us does when we philosophize). I took a stab at my own, brief definition in which I attempted to establish a starting point for such distinctions. Recently, however, I was listening to The Teaching Company’s excellent series by Oxford scholar Daniel N. Robinson titled, Great Ideas in Philosophy, 2nd Edition in which Robinson offers his own take on the subject. His description is more narrative in nature and he attempts to isolate the key features of philosophy in terms of its historical significance and looks at the ways in which it differs in comparison to fields in the near vicinity. He provides this description in the context of the question, “Did the Greeks invent philosophy?”

Below is the transcription from his lecture as I think it provides some unique insights into what makes philosophy what it is.

“What is the difference between a philosophical perspective, and, let’s say, the perspective that Homer had in composing Iliad and Odyssey? Or the perspective the singers and writers of the Upanishads had, or that of the Hebrew prophets? In what sense did Pythagoras have the right to call himself for the first time “a philosopher” over and against, say, Moses or Isaiah? Why not begin the history of philosophy equally with say Buddha, Confucius, and Socrates instead of distinguishing the last of these from all earlier, non-Greek thinkers?

And what of the scientific and medical and engineering achievements of Egypt and the mathematical discoveries of India? Sharp lines can be drawn here only at peril. Indeed, the more developed thinking becomes, the more philosophical and scientific thinking tends to merge. So too with great literary works, with the poetic imagination, with the realized dreams of great architects and good kings, with the noble and proven teachings of saints and prophets. Just where personal genius and virtue in such figures rise to the level of impersonal and trans-historical significance, will always be a topic of joyful dispute among scholars.

But there is, nonetheless, a special feature of philosophy that really does mark it off from all the rest. Not in the sense of being better, or more advanced, or reserved to a privileged few. The philosophical perspective is one of criticism, and, yes, skepticism. I hope this won’t be taken as indelicate, or worse, heretical, but if God were to declare a truth to the community of philosophers, at least the best of them would say (and one would hope, worshipfully), “But how can we be sure of that?”

The point, of course, is that philosophy carries its truths, earns its truths, the hard way–by working for it. What the scientist actually sees, through aided or unaided sight, what the poet dreams and the prophet has revealed to him, the philosopher must find through argument, analysis, doubt, and yes, disinterest. The operative word here is disinterest not uninterest. The blindfold that decorates the face of justice is intended to signify just that judicious disinterest that would have the chips fall where they may. The verdict will depend on evidence, not on the rhetorical skill of the advocate, the wealth of the defendant.

This, needless to say, is the judicial ideal and, we know, it is rarely achieved. But it is the recognized ideal. So too in philosophy. Let the successful arguments fall where they may. We are prepared to abandon one that was long favored, and accept one that we find personally odious. Philosophy takes a systematic and critical perspective on all the assumptions and claims that we in the other compartments of human endeavor accept.

It’s not that the others have no epistemological or quasi-epistemological aims. The playwright, indeed, is attempting to get at a kind of truth, even a fundamental truth. Indeed, the great playwright reaches the deeper level of human sensibility and thought and presents the discovery in a memorable way. Are not the greatest “depth psychologies” served up by Euripides, Sophocles, Escalus. We reach levels of self-understanding by way of such dramatists and in a manner that would be almost impossible to approximate in any other way.

Still, philosophy is different. The bottom line in philosophy is not to solve practical problems; it’s not to solidify the civic bonds among people; it’s not to make us feel better–or worse. Rather it is to test the most fundamental beliefs, the most fundamental values and convictions we have, and to test them for the purpose of getting them right while at the same time realizing that basic questions as to what it could mean to “get it right” are, often, finally unanswerable.

So the central aspect of the philosophical perspective is a critical aspect. Criticality. Criticism. Self-criticism. This is what is at the very center of the philosophical project, the philosophical way of thought. It’s at the very center of the philosophical enterprise. What is believed by way of the philosophical worldview is wisdom itself. Not wisdom-so-that, not wisdom-in-order-that, not to get more of this or more of that, not to be reassured, not for the good night’s sleep, not for its consolations (with all due respect to Boethius). No, it’s to get it right and where “getting it right” might indeed be, bad news also.

It is not inevitably good news. Sometimes it is not news at all: it’s a question that is answered with yet another question. And answered with yet another question. I sometimes say that profound philosophical insights should always be followed, not with exclamation points, but with semicolons. Because the long debate goes on. If it wasn’t concluded by Plato or Aristotle, we can be sure that it will not be ended in the editorial pages of the New York Times.” (Daniel N. Robinson, Great Ideas in Philosophy, 2nd Edition, Lecture 2, “Philosophy: Did the Greeks Invent It?”