Defining Philosophy

Defining Philosophy


It is an embarrassment to philosophers that they cannot define their discipline. It makes them look like shady operators. I propose to alleviate their embarrassment by offering a succinct definition of philosophy.

If you ask a physicist what physics is about, he will say that it is about physical reality, and you will learn what physics is. If you ask a psychologist what psychology is about, she will say that it is about the mind, and you will learn what psychology is. Similarly for geography, astronomy, botany, history, etc. But if you ask a philosopher what philosophy is about, you will not get such a straightforward answer—instead you will be subjected to vague mutterings about our conceptual scheme or incipient science or language or Being. You will rightly protest: “But what is it about?” The other disciplines can tell you what sector of reality they concern, but philosophy seems not have a specific sector to call its own—it seems to include both everything and nothing. This is theoretically unsatisfactory and bad PR. Every discipline is defined by the properties and relations that constitute its subject matter, but philosophy seems like the odd man out—the exception to the rule. What sector of reality does it take as its own? Don’t say “all sectors” because that is merely mystifying, and makes it look like it is all the disciplines added up, which it certainly is not.

It used to be said, perhaps a touch defensively, that philosophy is about concepts (or possibly the language in which concepts are expressed): it deals with the property of having a concept and with relations between concepts. The trouble with this answer is that it makes philosophy sound like psychology, and as a consequence not about the world beyond the mind. We need to say what it is about concepts that renders them of philosophical relevance. The answer might be returned: the analysisof concepts. Again, that is not entirely on the wrong track, but what kind of analysis? Isn’t analyzing psychological entities just more psychology (compare psychoanalysis). Similarly if we prefer to talk about language: what then makes philosophy differ from linguistics? What kindof analysis characterizes philosophy? The obvious answer is logicalanalysis. But this formulation describes the method of philosophy not its subject matter (imagine a physicist saying “physics is about the analysis of matter”). I propose that we make the obvious amendment: philosophy is about logical reality—as physics is about physical reality. That is the sector of reality with which philosophy is essentially concerned—the logical sector. The use of the word “reality” in this style of answer is intended to contrast the concern of the practitioner with such things as the concerns of a fiction writer: the scientist is concerned with reality not fantasy (like the science fiction writer). So the philosopher, being a sober factual type, is concerned with a certain part of reality—the part I am calling “logical”. Thus when asked what philosophy is about the philosopher can answer simply, “Philosophy is about logical reality”—as physics is about physical reality, psychology is about mental reality, history is about historical reality, etc.

Of course this short answer will not put an end to all questions, just as the comparable answer for other disciplines may well prompt further questions. We will need to say what we mean by “logical”, as the physicist needs to say what he means by “physical”. The correct answer, though not perhaps the best pedagogically, is that logical reality consists of all the relations of entailment, consistency, and inconsistency that exist. An example might help: the philosophical problem of free will concerns whether free will logically implies determinism or indeterminism. Thus we have compatibilists and incompatibilists debating the logical relations between free will and these other concepts. Some say free will rules out determinism, some say the two are compatible, and some say that free will logically implies determinism. Philosophy therefore differs from psychology and physiology when it comes to acts of will, being concerned with a logical question. Here are some other examples chosen more or less at random. Does the mind entail the body or are the two logically separable? How are sense experience and material objects logically related? Is knowledge logically compatible with non-conclusive evidence? How are mind and behavior logically related? Are truth and meaning logically connected? Do descriptive propositions ever entail ethical propositions? Does identity of reference entail identity of sense? Do modal propositions entail the existence of possible worlds? Do general terms logically imply abstract universals? Does death entail the end of the soul? Does survival of persons require identity through time? Are causation and constant conjunction mutually entailing? These questions are the stuff of philosophy and they all concern what I am calling logical reality; so our definition of philosophy looks to be on the right lines.

There can be different theories of logical reality: some say it involves concepts, some say it is a matter of words, others say that it is about reality itself (this is my position). Never mind: philosophy is about whatever logic is about. Note that I am adopting a very broad notion of logic here—certainly not restricted to standard propositional and predicate calculus. Logic in the broad sense includes any type of consequence relation—entailment in the most capacious sense (but it has to involve necessity). What is important is that this sector of reality exists and can be studied. In addition to physical objects, psychological subjects, biological forms, historical epochs, and geological strata, there is a realm of logical relations along with their relata (whatever we determine these to be). Let’s adopt for the nonce full-blooded realism about this sector: there is an objective mind-independent logical reality into which we can inquire.  Like other regions of reality it can be difficult to penetrate, presenting puzzles and mysteries, and be capable of leading us up the wrong track (some have said that our ordinary language distracts us from its actual nature). So we might want to preface our answer to the question of what philosophy is by remarking, “Well, there is something called logical reality, which is a genuine part of what there is, though there are debates about its nature…and philosophy studies that”. It might help to soften the inquirer up by saying a few words about mathematics or even logic itself (i.e. the subject of a typical logic course). But don’t spend too long on these preliminaries, just blurt it out without hesitation and in a confident no-nonsense voice: “Philosophy is the study of logical reality”. This should obviate the shady operator suspicion and pave the way for a healthy and fruitful discussion.  It is also entirely accurate.

One nice feature of this definition is that it does justice to the breadth of philosophy: philosophers talk about everything, though from a specific point of view. For everything has entailments, logic being universal. For instance, if you are investigating the logic of identity, you will be dealing with everything that exists, since everything is self-identical. This gets philosophy a reputation for being “abstract”, dubiously airy-fairy: but you should resist this idea. Philosophy has a perfectly solid subject matter, given that logical reality is real: entailment is as real as the things it relates. We investigate it by employing the faculty of reason, not the sense organs, but that doesn’t detract from its reality (compare mathematics). Reasoning is the method whereby logical relations are exposed. There is thus no objection to rephrasing our definition as follows: “Philosophy is the study of rational structure”. Logic deals with what is rational, so philosophy is concerned with the domain over which rationality operates. I prefer the blunter “logical reality” for reasons of rhetoric, but “rational structure” can be offered as a useful gloss (but beware of its psychologistic connotations). In any case, the general conception is consonant with the generality of philosophy. But this is not an indication that philosophy has no subject matter to call its own, only that its specific subject matter extends over all of reality (in this sense philosophy is a “higher-order” discipline). We might picture philosophy as lying alongside the other sectors of reality studied by the various disciplines, so that we have such philosophical topics as philosophy of history, philosophy of mind, philosophy of physics, philosophy of knowledge, etc. It is not that philosophy somehow includesthese other subjects (it is not history, psychology, physics, etc.); rather, it studies the logical relations into which these various subject matters enter. It studies, for example, the logical relations between physics and biology or history and psychology (as well as logical relations existing within those disciplines).

What are the paradigms of philosophy as so conceived? I hesitate to single certain philosophers out because that may suggest a tendentious picture of the discipline, but Frege and the Wittgenstein of the Tractatusmake good examples. Consider Frege’s apparatus of sense and reference, of objects and functions, and Wittgenstein’s vision of reality as a logical space fixed by logical language. The world is depicted as a logical structure into which we may inquire. At the other extreme we have Hegel’s dialectical theory of the logic of history, or Sartre’s investigation of being and nothingness (consciousness entails a “nothingness at the heart of being”). Husserl’s Logical Investigationsdeals with the logical structure of mental acts. Grice’s work tells us that conversational implicature does not entail logical implication. Quine assures us that a behaviorist view of meaning entails indeterminacy. Kripke contends that names don’t imply descriptions. Rawls argues that justice entails fairness. And so on. A philosopher is always concerned with what follows from what, and what does not follow. Problems arise when reflecting on our knowledge of the world—logical problems—and we strive to solve these problems by reasoning. We try to get a clear view of logical reality (whether bewitched by language or not).

Philosophy so understood is not confined to mere description. It can be revisionary, even radically so. There may be hidden implications that undermine parts of common sense or even science. There may be lurking paradoxes that call whole areas of thought into question. Such is the way of skepticism: if we examine the logical nature of knowledge we see that it is inconsistent with many of our knowledge claims—it implies certainty where none is to be had. Truth may turn out to entail its own negation, as in the semantic paradoxes. Modality may imply an unacceptable metaphysics. So logical reality may diverge from the way it seems to us in common sense, requiring revisions in our conceptual scheme (maybe free will turns out to be impossible given its entailments). Logical reality may be difficult to discern, and not what we expect: so there is nothing quietist about this conception of philosophy.

If philosophy is about logical reality, it is centrally about linkages—its focus is on connection. It wants to know how things hang together, or fail to. It is always interested in how things are related, joined or disjoined. But it is not concerned with physical or psychological linkages, but with logical linkages. In the philosophy of free will, for example, the concern is less on free will itself as on how it is related to determinism (or indeterminism)—how are these things linked? Likewise we want to know about the linkage between mind and body—whether the mind logically precludes emergence from the body or not. So philosophical acumen largely consists in the detection and articulation of such logical linkages—in seeing what follows and does not follow. That’s what you’ve got to get good at. That’s what you’ve got to be interested in. The philosopher is a linkage enthusiast, an artist of logical connection (scientist too).

It is tediously repeated that philosophy used to include the sciences till they found their independence, and that the rest of philosophy will eventually go that way, disappearing up its own success. But if what I have said here is correct, this will not happen; and it betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the subject to think that it will. For philosophy is concerned with the linkages that constitute logical reality, and no other discipline is so concerned. Just as logical reality will never collapse into other areas of reality, so philosophy will never be replaced by the disciplines that study those other areas.[1]


Colin McGinn

[1]This essay is meant to complement my Truth By Analysis: Games, Names, and Philosophy(Oxford University Press, 2012).


58 responses to “Defining Philosophy”

  1. I am putting this out there so that teachers of philosophy can begin the term with a concise definition of their subject, useful for calming querulous students. And we all need a well defined identity.

  2. Apropos your ” Comment” on your own,” Defining Philosophy”, post. Was your reference to “querulous students ” directed at me? If so, I have but one response: I’m not so much querulous as queerulous—an ill-tempered queer. There now, I’ve a “well-defined identity”. (I know, pretty lame)

  3. Colin, my last comment was a joke. I am queer, as we say these days—and ill-tempered too. Just as Wittgenstein was. I lament in comparison not the similarity of personality traits but only the lack of genius (his not mine).

  4. Henry Cohen says:

    One of your philosophical questions puzzles me: “Does death entail the end of the soul?” If you are using “soul” as a synonym for “mind,” then the question seems the equivalent of another question in your list, “Does the mind entail the body or are the two logically separable?” If you are using “soul” in its usual sense, then, there being no evidence of the existence of a soul, the question, “Does death entail the end of the soul?,” does not seem to be a philosophical question. If the soul is a fiction, then we can attribute any qualities we want to it. A believer in an afterlife may say that the soul survives death; a non-believer in an afterlife may say that it does not survive death.

    • They are certainly closely related but the question about death is compatible with many approaches to the mind-body problem. One might hold that at the moment of death God steps in to detach the mind from the body in a miracle, or that the body survives death in a new form.

  5. Leslie Glazer says:

    I will propose a different definition: philosophy is the use of logic and metacognition [reflection] to articulate some vision of the answers to ultimate questions. To say it is about logical reality as such is to frame it in a way that is hard to see as avoiding vacuousness. We are rather interested in articulating the true, the good, and the beautiful, in answering the questions of what can I know, what ought I to do, and what can I hope, in articulating the most general concepts to understand ourselves and the world, and in living a self conscious life.

    • It’s not a terrible definition but the reference to “ultimate questions” invites the response “But aren’t the sciences also interested in ultimate questions?”–plus the phrase is vague and uninformative. My definition is not vacuous at all since most disciplines are not interested in logical reality, i.e. entailment relations.

  6. Damn, Henry,—I thought I was rhetorically nit-picking. You might be “queerulous” as well.

  7. Last comment on Colin’s blog: Ever honor the Biblical injunction not to post while drinking.

  8. Ken says:

    Hey Colin – Your second discussion with Michael Shermer on his podcast (Science Salon) just came out. Here are the links:

  9. Check out the recent “Comments” section of Robert Paul Wolff’s blog, “The Philosopher’s Stone”. Go back a few posts. Things got weird. I’m afraid I still post while drinking—or is it drink while posting?

  10. “Why should you look at it?” I don’t know. I guess I thought you might find some of it amusing. In the Age of Trump, we all need our little diversions of sentiment and temperament. See Wolff’s post heading, “The greatest possible compliment” (from about a week ago). I thought my next few “Comments” were pretty funny. Others did not—in Wolff’s oh so serious-minded blog.

  11. Me and my cat are finding you far less clear. Is the “conversational implicature” of your comment that I should stop bothering you? If so, say so—but be gentle. I am in truth a delicate sort.

    • Not at all. I was just puzzled about what specifically you wanted me to look at. And I think Wolff is better than other bloggers. Is this clear enough? My cats find me very clear, and I them.

  12. Alan says:

    “For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry…. …For he rolls upon prank to work it in. For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself.”
    (Christopher Smart, 1763)

  13. Alan says:

    Such perception of ‘secondary qualities’ too!
    I occasionally (though rarely) glimpse a mouse in our garden but Muff can apparently just decide to get one.

  14. I’ve used Boswell’s, “Life of Johnson”, as a bed-book for over twenty years—though not so much lately. The reference to Christopher Smart rang a bell, but I couldn’t quite hear it. His poem about his cat, which I’ve just read on-line, is very cleverly apt. Anyway, I was always more a fan of Boswell’s, “Journals”, than of his, “Life of Johnson”. Favorite entry in a Boswell journal (from 1763): “I lay in dire apprehension that my right testicle, which formerly was ill, was again so”.

  15. Damn it, just one more thing. .. My first comment on Robert Paul Wolff’s blog, “The Philosopher’s Stone” was under his title,”Satire is not dead”, not under his, ” The Greatest Possible Compliment”. But no one mentions my reference to Violette Leduc in that comment. As we say in queer Orlando, Fl.,” she was a hoot”.

  16. I make only important clarifications. I re-read Christopher Smart’s poem about his cat Geoffrey. There’s way too much going on in there. I would scorn to determine what in particular applies to me. I have my pride. The length of the poem alone indicates the author’s lunacy. Smart should have “aspired to the brevity of a foul pecking at a single grain of corn” (you know, Alan whomever, like Colin and me). The quote is from Violette Leduc—but then she was nuts too. Ahh, poor Violette. She gets no respect. I think I’ll re-read, “La Batarde”.

  17. F Lengyel says:

    At the end of “Philosophy for Graduate Students,” Alex Broadbent proposed that philosophy is “the study of the relation between thought and [the] world.” This to me beats the notion that philosophy considers unanswerable questions (or questions unanswerable by science) that are nevertheless considered worthy of study (by whom? Russell?). But perhaps I assume too much.

  18. Now that my prescription has been re-filled (lawfully prescribed), “procrastination” will (again) be my name. Mine is a “necessary” if not “sufficient” condition. An exchange largely of “indirect speech acts” could not but soon begin to cloy. Fare thee well, my dear Colin. Your’s, Thomas de Quincey.

  19. Rest assured that I will annoy you again in a couple of weeks.

  20. Friends tell me that my last Comments were too cryptic. Opal, my cat agrees. Pushing the boundaries of humor, irony and indirection has it’s hazards—as does drinking. But it’s all in good fun. Rahael Nadal will win the U.S. Open.

  21. Good grief. “I can’t quit you”, as was said in the movie, “Brokeback Mountain”. Rahael Nadal is the obscure alter ego of Raphael Nadal. However insubstantial Rahael might be, he could still beat Andy Murray in a tennis match—were Murray still viable . I don’t give two shits about “it’s”.

  22. Colin Mcginn, I propose that you help me finish my novel. I propose a literary collaboration. I require your clarity, your knowledge of philosophy mind, and your clout (as well as your punctuational acumen—see: your masterly insight into the use of the word, “it’s”). My book is half-done, but I’ve felt hopelessly stalled for far too long. Go to my facebook page, click on the “Jeffrey” profile, scroll to the bottom (to my very first post—there’s only about ten of them), then work your way up. None of the posts are very long, and each is but a pretext for referencing my literary purposes. If you sense any prospect of the worthiness of the effort, I will provide you with more details about the author himself and about his conception of his work. I would send you an e-mail, say, every other day, consisting of a short excerpt from my book. You would respond with a bit of brief constructive criticism. Destructive criticism might prove useful as well. You could bail at any time without fear of affront on my part. I’m expecting in response an abrupt, stentorian and maybe even a little contemptuous, “No”. But give it a thought. If your response is,”no”—whether abrupt or considered—no harm done.

    • I’d like to encourage you to finish it, but not with my help. Sounds too much like hard work to me, and it’s not as if I’ve got nothing else to do with my last few years. Sorry old chap.

  23. Understood. This long exchange has helped me some. I’ve been flattered by your patience. If I can finish my book to my satisfaction this will be victory enough—irrespective of publication.

  24. I forgot to sign-off properly. No exit absent at least some degree of humor, irony or indirection. “I was flattered by your patience”, wrote I. Well, yes, I was flattered by your patience—at least when I didn’t think that you were just trying to keep the goose unsteady on its'(!) feet.

  25. Henry Cohen says:

    “Its'” is incorrect. It should be “his or her.”

  26. My biggest complaint about philosophers is that they are obsessed with logic. To say that there is ‘logical reality’ is already to make an assumption: that reality IS ultimately logical. What if the methods employed by the logician (in the widest sense) are doomed to fail?

    If reality is logical, through and through, then it must be possible, in principle, to give a complete answer to the question: Why is there anything? or the question: Why am I here? Science (quantum mechanics, say) only takes you so far. ‘These are the laws, and so that’s why something had to be.’ Or maybe you believe in God (and think you have a ‘logical’ proof!).

    OK, you’ll say, then let’s restrict the definition of philosophy to ‘reality insofar as it is logical’. We hope that our investigations won’t crash against the rock of illogicality, but if they seem to, we can always say that the fault is ours, not that of reality. We must have skipped a step, or made a wrong inference somewhere.

    Philosophy can break your heart. When logic fails, and there’s absolutely nothing more you can say or do.

    • I fear that you don’t know what logic is. In the sense meant here logic is just the study of entailment and entailment is an undeniable fact–syllogism etc. Do you think conjunction elimination is not part of “reality”?

  27. Alan says:

    Logic is not constrained by our capacity to know anything.
    I suppose paradoxes may be a symptom of our parochial acquaintance with logical reality.

  28. Interesting that you picked conjunction elimination, rather than the law of excluded middle or the law of double negation elimination. Some ‘logic’ is relatively uncontroversial. Other cases more so. Although I’m not ruling out that there could be a counterexample to conjunction elimination. (A 50s ‘ordinary language’ philosopher could probably come up with one but you’d have a ready reply along Gricean lines.)

    Reality is logical to the extent that a proof of a theorem in a system of propositional or predicate logic is a guarantee of that theorem’s truth. As you rightly say, entailment isn’t restricted to systems of formal logic. The trouble comes when we realize that there are questions that are not the province of any of the empirical sciences, but which also seem to resist a logical solution.

    Maybe, as Alan implied, these ‘ultimate’ questions are soluble, but not by beings with our relatively limited capacity for logical/ rational thinking. That’s an interesting possibility. It is also possible that these questions don’t have answers, period. (When I first started out in philosophy, that was a possibility that I never considered for a moment.)

    But if logic, or logical analysis, has a limit, who is to say where that limit lies? It may be closer than you think. Free will, for example. A Pyrrhonic view would be that for many of the problems of that ilk, and positions taken on those problems, there are equally persuasive arguments on both sides.

    • I’m not seeing any limitations of logic in what you say. Logic is just about the correctness of reasoning and has no implications for what can be solved. Nothing substantive can be solved by logic alone, of course. I have the feeling you may be talking about the limits of rationality (the ineffable, mystical, etc). All I’m talking about is the subject matter of philosophy as opposed to other disciplines.

  29. I do appreciate that your proposal is an exercise in demarcation, in a technical sense: we can characterize the activity we call ‘philosophy’, you say, by identifying the ‘reality’ that it deals with. Physics, chemistry and biology all deal with ’empirical reality’, but there is a way to distinguish these three sciences by giving a finer grained description of this reality (one that would include borderline cases such as ‘physical chemistry’, etc.)

    In these terms, philosophy is not concerned with ’empirical reality’, so it is not a science. Correct. Philosophy’s concern is with ‘reality insofar as it is logical’, or, more precisely, those aspects of reality that are amenable to logical investigation. And if we concluded that ‘logical investigation’ only goes so far — that certain questions belong to the ‘mystical’ as Wittgenstein asserted in the Tractatus — then that too would be part of philosophy.

    Philosophy is the ‘art of reason’ (according to Jonathan Barnes). This nicely captures the sense that this is more than just a technical exercise. The philosopher, in employing logic, is also exercising his or her judgement concerning any given topic: for example, how far it is reasonable to analyse, or the point of raising a particular question. To practice the art of reason also involves an interest in the structure of reasoning itself: hence, the philosophy of logic. All this is consistent with your demarcation proposal.

    However, this is not the whole story. Take F.H. Bradley, for example, one of the greatest English philosophers of the 19th/ 20th centuries. He is talking about ‘metaphysics’ but it is fair to say that for him, metaphysics just IS philosophy: he calls it ‘the finding of bad reasons for what we believe upon instinct; but to find these reasons is no less an instinct.’ Notice that a new idea has appeared here: belief. Whether the reasons are ‘good’ or ‘bad’, we have an interest in the exercise: something is at stake for us, as human beings.

    It is not guaranteed in advance that when a philosopher writes about ‘what is at stake’ in in Bradley’s sense, that they will necessarily be deploying the methods of logic. Because there are other things a philosopher can do. Philosophers interpret. Philosophers describe ‘what is at stake’ in a way that illuminates. A paradigm example would be Nietzsche. Of course, you’ll find plenty of examples of brilliant reasoning (in ‘Genealogy of Morals’, for example) but Nietzsche also offers compelling interpretations.

    Interpretations of what? Not just ‘logical reality’, but the Universe, Life and Everything. There’s no limit to the philosopher’s interest. And although logic and the capacity for reason are necessary tools, they are not sufficient on their own. A demarcation exercise, to be successful, must either avoid making a claim that will be contested by some, or else be prepared to say (as Popper said of ‘pseudo-science’) ‘This is philosophy, and that just isn’t.’

    • There is logic as a method and logical reality (entailment) as a subject matter. All the sciences use logic as a method; philosophy takes logical relations as its topic. Of course there is more to reality than logic (matter, mind) and more methods than logic (e.g. observation).

  30. You and I agree that philosophy takes logical relations as its topic but where we disagree is that I think that philosophy casts its net wider than this. But that depends a lot on your make of ‘philosopher’. However, I am happy to leave the matter there.

    You would be very welcome, Colin, to join the panel of ‘Ask a Philosopher’ any time you feel the inspiration. We are older (by several years) than the AskPhilosophers project at Amherst College but still getting more visitors despite their heavy ‘guns’.

    • I’d be happy if it covered everything done by a standard-issue analytical philosopher (which would include most historically recognized philosophers). I don’t mind if it failed to cover those deemed “philosopher” in popular parlance.

  31. Having you on the panel would definitely raise the standard (which is by no means low). We don’t go in for ‘pop’ philosophy but we are prepared to consider any question from the public, if we can see a philosophical angle to it.

    • The “it” in my “I’d be happy if it covered” meant my definition of philosophy not your no doubt very worthy panel. About that I’d prefer to leave it to others–I don’t have the patience for that kind of work any more, life being short.

  32. Allison Glenzer says:

    Hello Mr McGinn,
    I am very interested in your work and would love the chance to share some discourse with you – mostly to ask you questions about the pursuit of a productive rather than reproductive approach toward researching and cultivating insight into creative thinking, problem solving thru a Tesla-esque sensibility of energy.
    I am an actress by profession and have a spark that could use some kindling and a thought that would love to be challenged and engaged.
    Is there any way to reach you ?

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