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Sunday, March 17, 2013

On the Subject Matter of Philosophy

Most disciplines have a very specific, known (and in some cases quite narrow) subject matter. The subject matter of the discipline specifies a domain over which research might take place. For biology, for example, the Greek origins of the term suggest the domain of study is life. Psychology is the study of the mind.

While it's not always the case we can define clear-cut boundaries, there are definite subject matters which we can point and say "that's a question that the psychologists should investigate".

This raises the question of what counts as the genuine subject matter of philosophy. In a broad sense, the term philosophy means "love of wisdom". It seems to encompass all that might be learned or discovered. For example, in its early stages, physics was often referred to as "natural philosophy".

While I am very much sympathetic to this idea, in practice, philosophers have tried to separate their discipline from other disciplines. So what is it that makes philosophy a unique discipline?

In my series on That's an Empirical Question, I pointed out that philosophers often considered "empirical questions" to be outside the domain of philosophy. Philosophers will allow certain questions to be dealt with by physicists and psychologists. So at the very least, philosophers consider philosophy to be non-empirical.

But are there any non-empirical questions to be answered? This is not as straight forward as it seems.

Forms as Subject Matter

If we trace our roots to Plato (cue the quote from which this blogs name comes from a la Whitehead: "The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato."), Plato posited that there existed eide (forms or ideas) which existed independent from us but were somehow responsible for our experience of the sensible world.

The eide were not sensible themselves creating an epistemic problem for Platonic philosophy. One proposed solution to this is found in Plato's Meno. Socrates proposes that we were once acquainted with the eide and that, through various techniques, we might be able to recollect that acquaintance.

Philosophy had a definite subject matter - discovering and understanding these forms.

Moving forward about 2000 years and we arrive at Immanuel Kant. He, too, took Plato's eide seriously but instead of them being something existing independent of us humans, postulated that they existed in minds.

In either case, we have a definite object to which our inquiries are directed. If we postulate that there exist these forms (whether independent of human beings or features of human minds), then philosophy has a definite subject matter. This still leaves open the epistemological question: what methods does philosophy possess to study these forms (assuming that they even exist)?

So when a philosopher asks a question - what is Knowledge? - what is Justice? - if there exist these forms (whether mental or extra-mental) they exist in a definite sense and we can perhaps study them by some means. There would, at least in theory, be potential answers to these questions. The problem, then, for philosophers would be to determine what methods are required to determine answers for these questions.

Subject Matter without Forms

But what if we don't have forms? What if Knowledge or Justice doesn't exist out there somewhere? Or what if they aren't necessary features of our minds?

Not all philosophers subscribe to some form of Platonism or Kantianism. But many of them still hold that there are answers to such questions. If so, that really raises the question of what an answer to a question of that sort would actually be?

For example, when we ask the question - what is knowledge? - are we asking how people use the term? And is this any different than what a lexicographer does? (Wouldn't that be an empirical question?)

Or, are we asking how people ought to use the term? I think this latter avenue of inquiry might be fruitful. For if there is one domain which philosophy considers to have a unique claim on is the area of ethics which fundamentally deals with how people ought to behave.

So I'd like to suggest the following postulate:

The domain of Philosophy's Subject Matter is a concern over what ought to be. 

In some of my subsequent blogs, I will dancing around this postulate. 

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