The Meaning of "Philosophy"

When I use a word, Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less.
(Lewis Carroll)

I take "philosophy" to be an English word referring to a certain kind of thinking, a certain kind of approach to a certain kind of problem. To explain those "certain kind of"s would take a book; perhaps the best I can do here is gesture at what it is that English-language philosophers do.

The main point, though, is that philosophy isn't distinguished so much by what it's about as by the nature of the activity. The presentation of opinions, theories, or advice isn't philosophy, no matter what the content. Doing philosophy involves thinking about things in a certain (rigorous, questioning) way, offering arguments for one's ideas, meeting arguments against them, and being prepared to change one's mind.

In most languages there are words that are translated into English as 'philosophy' -- in European languages, those words often share the same Greek roots as the English word. The activities to which such words refer have a history shared with philosophy, but at some point after Kant there was a parting of the ways. The activities referred to by `philosophy' are different in various ways from the activities referred to by words like `philosophie', `Philosophie', `filosofia', etc.

When we come to non-European cultures, matters are even more complex. When Europeans encountered other cultures, they attempted to understand them by identifying aspects of those cultures with aspects of their own. If an activity or object shared some of the attributes of European religion, or philosophy, or gods, or saints, then those words were applied. Thus deeply different cultures were forced into the European conceptual mould. (One of the initial problems for, say, the philosophy of religion, is to see how terms like `faith', `god', or `prayer' mean very different things in different cultures.) So again, I prefer not to use the English word `philosophy' to refer to activities in such different cultures.

This isn't evaluative. When I say that something isn't really philosophy, I'm not necessarily saying that it's inferior, only that it's different. Philosophy, in this central English sense, and other disciplines may well have things in common, and there may be people whose work draws on both - but that's true of philosophy and many other academic disciplines. As an English word, I prefer to use `philosophy' to refer to what's done in English, to its antecedents, and to sufficiently similar activities in other cultures (for example, to certain thinking and writing in China and India over the centuries).

All this is really meant to explain why the resources I list are overwhelmingly concerned with what is generally called `analytic' or `Anglo-American' philosophy. The main exceptions are the Sites Devoted to Individual Philosophers, the Philosophy by Region, the Directory of Philosophers on the Web, and, of course, the Continental Philosophy section of my Philosophy by Topic pages.

Actually, my position is slipping - very pleasant people ask me to include links to pages relating to one or another writer or school that doesn't fit what I say above, and I just can't say no. My policy has now become: I actively seek out resources in philosophy as (loosely) defined above, and use my skill and judgement (and weakness of will) to decide on resources brought to my attention by others.

If you're interested in any of the `fausses amies', you'll find links to relevant resources at some of the sites I give links to. If you'd like concrete examples of what I do when I do philosophy, I've included some of my own work. Also, my African Philosophy page includes material that might make my position clearer.


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