I endlessly struggle with the question of what philosophy is or just what I’m doing when I do philosophy (assuming I ever manage to do any philosophy!). What, for example, is it that distinguishes philosophy as an activity from science? This is an especially pressing question for a materialist and naturalist such as myself; for I’m repeatedly asked the question “if nature (immanence) is all there is, shouldn’t we just be doing science?” I don’t think so, but why? Is it just some sort of disciplinary commitment on my part that leads me to hold that there’s a crucial place for philosophy in human thought? Is it just a desire to maintain my job? Again, I don’t think so.
It might not sound particularly sexy– and it certainly doesn’t tell us what is worth thinking –but I can’t help but believe that philosophy is the critical and reflective investigation of basic concepts that guide our investigation of the world about us, how we ought to live our lives, and what form of governance might be best. Compare two figures. A scientist might ask,
what causes depression?
We can very well imagine a philosopher turning around and asking the scientist,
what is causality?
The scientist presupposes a concept of causality in her investigations. She uses this concept in her inquiry. Now she might have a sophisticated concept of causality or she might never have thought much about causality at all, using it in the sort of colloquial and unreflective way that Plato decried when, for example, people like Euthyphro talked about piety.
A whole cascade of questions arise when we raise a question like “what is causality?” We can ask whether or not causality exists at all. We can ask how we distinguish between correlation or two events that merely accompany one another from genuine causation. This, for example, was Hume’s question. But perhaps most importantly we can ask whether there is only one form of causality or many forms of causality. Is there only one-to-one causation; one cause and one effect? Is there many-to-one causation; or many events conspiring to produce an effect? Is there one-to-many causation; or one event producing a variety of different effects? We can even ask whether causality necessarily moves from past to present or whether there aren’t forms of causality that move from future to past!
Notice how our answers to these conceptual questions influence our inquiry. If our scientist works on the premise that there is only one-to-one causality she will look for a single cause of depression such as chemical imbalances. This will also determine her proposals for treatment. If, however, she also has a many-to-one concept of causality, she might look for conjunctions or confluences of events such as brain chemistry, diet, working environment, meaning, exercise, alcohol use, etc. This would lead to a very different model of treatment. Similarly, Freud works with a concept of causality that moves from past to present: the psychic maladies we suffer from in the present are the result of our childhood experiences. However, if humans are the sorts of systems that are futural as Heidegger argued, then the psychic maladies from which we suffer in the present might not be so much the result of our past, childhood experiences, as the way in which we project a future before ourselves. We get two very different psychic models here.
Concepts matter because concepts are like lenses. They draw our attention to some things, while plunging others that fall outside the concept into obscurity or invisibility. We can use concepts in an unreflective and unconscious way, taking their content for granted, or we can try to make them explicit (as per Brandom’s famous formulation), striving to determine whether or not they’re adequate, what they ought to include, and so on. For example, we can move from denouncing something as unjustice to asking “what is justice?”. We might here find that we have many more duties pertaining to justice than we ever imagined; ones that extend far beyond punishment.
Here I think it’s important to understand that philosophy is not so much a discipline as a style of thought or an activity. We are fortunate to have a discipline that houses those who engage in this sort of conceptual reflection, that provides a site for this reflection, and that preserves the thought of those who have reflected on basic concepts. However, I can imagine someone objecting that certainly the scientist can (and does!) ask questions like “what is causality?” To be sure. However, I would argue that when she does this she’s not doing science but rather philosophy. Philosophy doesn’t have to happen in a department to be philosophy, nor does it have to be in a particular section of the bookstore. One need not have a degree in philosophy to engage in this sort of reflective activity; though it certainly helps. It can take place anywhere and at any time.
What’s important to understand, I think, is that we’re engaged in a different sort of investigation than that of science when engage in this conceptual reflection. I am also not suggesting that this is exhaustive of what philosophy is, only that it is a core component of philosophy. This form of inquiry is not one that stands in contradiction or opposition to scientific investigation. However, it is investigating something that is prior to and different from, say, an observational account of some phenomenon in the world. It’s hard for me to see how circumstances could ever arise where conceptual reflection is not needed.