What is philosophy?

by Professor Jonardon Ganeri FBA

9 Mar 2021

When they invented philosophy, our ancestors in the ancient world were thinking about the ways of the wise and, indeed, of the ways to become wise. Philosophy was a pathway, a way of life, the way to lead one’s life if what one wanted – and who does not? – is wisdom, a word whose meaning is elastic enough to include everything from Stoic impartial understanding of the workings of the world to Buddhist enlightened awakening, from Confucian sagacity to Christian saintliness.

Part of a Japanese scroll from ca. 1310-20, showing the Buddhist monk Hōnen (1133–1212), founder of the Pure Land School of Buddhism, inscribing a portrait of himself for one of his foremost disciples, Shinran (1173–1262)
From the 'Illustrated Biography of Hōnen (Shūikotokūden-e)'. The monk Hōnen (1133–1212) is inscribing a portrait of himself for one of his foremost disciples, Shinen. Artist Unknown, circa 1310-20. Photo by Heritage Art / Heritage Images via Getty Images.

Fortunately for those of us who make our living as professional philosophers, these days the expectations are not quite so high. Philosophy now means a particular style of inquiry, or better, a distinctive mode of attention. To do philosophy nowadays is to attend to the ways things are by attending to the concepts according to which we understand them. It is to look – closely, carefully, patiently – at how things hang together by looking at how they are presented in thought. I have used the word “thing”, which is one of the English language’s great contributions to world literature, deliberately here, because philosophy can literally be about anything and everything: there is philosophy of science, philosophy of literature, philosophy of mind, of language, of politics and indeed, of philosophy itself. That is because what makes it the case that one is doing philosophy is not the topic, the identity of the things one is thinking about (and so philosophy has no special domain), but the peculiar way in which one thinks about them. And I have used the word “attend” for this peculiar way of thinking because philosophy is not only about argument and analysis, though these are certainly its cardinal tools, but also about contemplation, the clearing of a place in thought as a way to gain both clarity and clarification.

To illustrate what I mean let me tell you a story. It’s from an ancient Sanskrit Buddhist text which was later translated into classical Chinese. The story tells the tale of a traveller’s unfortunate encounter with a pair of demons, one of whom is carrying a corpse. As the first demon tears off one of the man’s arms, the second demon takes an arm from the corpse and uses it as a transplant, attaching it to the traveller’s dismembered shoulder. This sport continues until his whole body has been replaced with the body-parts of the corpse. To make the story up-to-date, let’s imagine that each of his braincells also undergoes a similar process of transplantation. The traveller is given to ask himself, “What has become of me?", his understandable existential angst being addressed by a group of Buddhist monks, to whom the traveller recounts his story on his return. The monks provide one sort of therapy for the man’s angst when they inform him that what he has discovered is that there is no essential self, the key discovery in the path to enlightenment.

As a practicing philosopher I am not recommending that you try this at home, with or without the assistance of any passing demons. The point about the story is rather that it invites us to attend to what we think is involved in our personal survival and how we can reconcile the need for identity with the inescapability of change. What makes me me? The traveller in our story seems to feel that he has survived, but his confidence that his identity over time is guaranteed by the persistence of his body is shaken to the core. So is there something else that makes him who he is? In contemporary philosophy this is still a lively and hotly contested issue.

People sometimes indeed find it odd that philosophy has so rarely come to any definite conclusions, that there are very few, if any, definitively solved philosophical problems. But in this philosophy is more akin to other humanities than it is to the sciences, and the intellectual virtue most strongly associated with philosophy is the one the poet John Keats describes as negative capability, which is, he says, when you are “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts”, resisting the temptation too swiftly to reach for cognitive closure. That doesn’t mean that there is no progress in philosophy, but that progress, when it comes, is in better seeing how and why things fit together rather than in solving intellectual puzzles.

Jonardon Ganeri is Bimal K. Matilal Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto and a Professorial Research Associate at SOAS. He was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 2015. His most recent book, Virtual Subjects, Fugitive Selves: Fernando Pessoa and his Philosophy was published by Oxford University Press in 2020.


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