What is Philosophy?

Feb 6, 2018

by Dr. H.A. Nethery IV
Assistant Professor of Philosophy

When someone asks what I do and I tell them that I am a philosopher, I am usually faced with two immediate questions: (1) what is philosophy and (2) what does a philosopher do? These are not easy, nor simple questions to answer. 

First, what is philosophy? For the most part, philosophy is understood as an investigation into the fundamental nature of reality, which is then broken up into the investigations of knowledge, truth, existence, nature, and ethics. That is, philosophy is an investigation into the ultimate questions that inform our existence on this planet.

Usually, this understanding of philosophy is connected to one of the many inscriptions on the Oracle of Delphi’s temple – “know thyself.” However, this was not the only inscription at the temple, and a focus on simply “knowing” misses the mark, turning philosophy into a fruitless enterprise. I would like to argue for a different, but related, understanding of philosophy.

“For Socrates, in the early Platonic dialogues at least, there is a direct connection between what one thinks one knows and how one treats others.”
Dr. H.A. Nethery IV

The 20th century French philosopher Michel Foucault, in his lecture series Hermeneutics of the Subject, points out that there was another inscription on the Oracle’s temple, that, in a sense, seems much more basic than “know thyself.” This other inscription, “care for oneself,” is much more closely related to what Socrates was up to in the early dialogues, particularly the Apology. In fact, Foucault argues, “know thyself” can only be subservient to a more general maxim of “care for oneself.” Ultimately, to care for oneself (and others) requires one to know oneself. What might this mean?

For Socrates, in the early Platonic dialogues at least, there is a direct connection between what one thinks one knows and how one treats others. For example, in the Apology, Socrates argues to his jurors that the politicians of Athens all believe that excellence is tied to the accumulation of wealth and power. However, as he points out, money does not make one excellent – one makes money excellent with what they do with it. In this vein, Socrates tells his jurors that he “will obey the god rather than you, and as long as I draw breath and am able, I shall not cease to practice philosophy, to exhort you and in my usual way to point out to anyone of you whom I happen to meet: Good Sir, you are an Athenian, a citizen of the greatest city with the greatest reputation for both wisdom and power; are you not ashamed of your eagerness to possess as much wealth, reputation, and honors as possible, while you do not care for nor give thought to wisdom or truth or the best possible state of your soul?”

In this passage, Socrates makes a direct reference to the practice of philosophy, and tells us that to practice philosophy is to care for oneself and others through critical thinking. That is, we must constantly check what we think we know because it has a direct role in how we treat others. This understanding of philosophy moves it from the esoteric ivory tower back into life itself, where it originated (at least in Western Europe) with Socrates.

So, what does a philosopher do? A philosopher lives the Socratic definition of philosophy given above, and strives to make real changes in the world that will improve our lives. No matter where we are, our job as philosophers is to strive to make the world better, by teaching the art of critical reflection.