Blue statue

What is Philosophy?

This November marks the 12th anniversary of World Philosophy Day, a moveable feast endorsed by UNESCO and aimed at underlining the significant and often overlooked impact and value of philosophy on everyday life and human thought.

The benefits of philosophy on intellectual development have been well-documented, with a recent wide-ranging study in UK schools demonstrating that children who spent an hour each week participating in philosophical discussion, debate and reflection over the course of a year saw significant gains in maths and literacy skills, with disadvantaged students reaping the greatest benefits in terms of improvement. This of course attests to philosophy’s demonstrable social and economic ‘impact’ – a word quickly that has, quite deservedly, become anathema in humanities departments – but doesn’t speak to philosophy’s broader implications for self-reflection, confidence and reasoned deduction. At at a fundamental level, philosophy equips us with the tools to ask the questions that occur to most thinking people: Why am I here? What is it to be conscious? How can I live a good life?

At the Institute of Art and Ideas, you might not be surprised to learn that we take all of this quite seriously. It is our vision that philosophy and big ideas are an essential tool in determining what is possible; to finding new and better ways to make sense of our world.

This was why we began HowTheLightGetsIn, our annual philosophy and music festival, which will celebrate its 10th anniversary in 2018. Gathering together many of the world’s leading philosophers, scientists, politicians, activists, poets, sociologists, filmmakers, writers, and theologians, our festival has broken down the idea of philosophy as being an impenetrable and irrelevant discipline. With next year promising to be our biggest and best festival yet, we can attest firsthand to the important role of philosophical ideas in the daily lives of the public.

With that in mind, we’ve asked some of the IAI’s friends old and new to offer their own interpretations of what philosophy means to them and its value to our public and private lives. My own interpretation follows on from the late French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who likened philosophy to “an endless rocking back and forth between knowledge and ignorance”. At its best, philosophy takes you out of your comfort zone – challenging your preconceptions, sharpening your critical faculties and attentiveness towards oneself and others. The road ahead might may not be easy, but the journey is one well worth undertaking.

—David Maclean


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Rebecca Goldstein, MacArthur Fellow and recipient of the National Humanities Medal. Renowned for her elucidation of the ideas of Spinoza and Gödel, she currently serves on the World Economic Forum’s Council on Values.

“The point of philosophy is to maximize the coherence among the multiplicity of beliefs and attitudes that we generate in the course of trying to get our bearings in this world and in the largest sense possible.  Compartmentalized creatures that we are, we cohabit happily with our contradictions.. It’s philosophy’s goal to destroy that happiness.”

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Massimo Pigliucci, K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. An outspoken critic of pseudoscience, his work and public engagement sees him as an advocate for greater scientific literacy and Stoicism. His latest book is How to Be a Stoic: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Living.

“I take the Greek etymology of the word philosophy seriously: it means love of wisdom. So, even though I do academic philosophy of science and write technical papers in that field, I also take seriously my choice of Stoicism as a practical philosophy of life. Moreover, I devote a significant amount of time to outreach, trying to get other people to engage in critical reflection on what they are doing and why. Hopefully, this is one path to a better world.”

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Jennifer Morton, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York and a senior fellow at the Center for Ethics and Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In 2017, she was awarded the inaugural Israel Scheffler Prize in Philosophy of Education

“Philosophy is the space within which we take the first critical step in a radical refashioning of our selves and our world. To imagine and create better selves and a better world, we must be able to step back from life as we find it. By refusing to allow us to accept anything as necessary or obvious without good reason, philosophy forces us to take this step.”

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David Papineau, Professor of Philosophy of Science at King’s College London. His work focuses on metaphysics, philosophy of mathematics and science, as well as philosophy of mind. A frequent contributor to the Times Literary Supplement, his latest book is Knowing the Score: How Sport Teaches Us about Philosophy (And Vice Versa).

“The kind of philosophy I do – analytic philosophy – tries to answer hard questions, where the difficulty isn’t just due to lack of empirical information, but to some kind of blind spot in our theories. Questions like these can arise in any area, from quantum measurement to human freedom. Many serious intellectuals prefer to keep away from nagging conundrums of this kind. But human understanding cannot advance if they are not addressed.”

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Lodi Nauta, Professor in the History of Philosophy at University of Groningen. Nauta’s work on Western thought – particularly on the highly influential Lorenzo Valla – has been awarded several prizes. In 2016, he received the Spinoza Prize, with a research budget of 2.5m euros, as well as being appointed a Knight of the Order of the Netherlands.

“Philosophy has shaped my life in many ways. It’s the combination of analytical skills and a broad cultural-historical education that makes philosophy such a terrific and vitally important subject. Philosophy has helped me – and I’m sure this sounds hardly surprising – to think clearly about matters, to raise questions about convictions, opinions and theories, to analyze arguments and concepts, and to lay bare hidden premises and assumptions.

As a historian of philosophy I’m working primarily on medieval and early modern philosophy – a fascinating period that saw the demise of a powerful paradigm (Aristotelian scholasticism) and the rise of another powerful paradigm (the mechanical scientific world view). It’s a story of de-essentialization: a world no longer conceived as a meaningful whole with inner goals, purposes, essences and norms, but a world on which we, humans, project our concerns, aspirations, and beliefs. In this narrative the name of David Hume looms large, and his view of the world, knowledge and morality is a continuing source of inspiration for me.”

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Skye C. Cleary, philosopher, teaches at Columbia University, Barnard College, and City College of New York.  She is the Managing Editor of the APA blog and received a New Philosopher Writers’ Award in 2017.

“Philosophy, for me, is trying to make sense of being. It’s exploring whether and why we should live, and if so, how and under what conditions.  A classic understanding is that it’s an insatiable desire for truth, beauty, and goodness. That’s true! And yet, I prefer Nietzsche’s description: “Philosophy…is a life lived freely in ice and high mountains – visiting all the strange and questionable aspects of existence, everything banned by morality so far.”

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Simon Blackburn, Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, distinguished research professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and visiting professor at New College of the Humanities, London.

“A small pride in standing alongside Socrates dissatisfied rather than the pig satisfied. An endless attempt to find how things, in the widest sense, hang together, in the widest sense. A perpetual openness to new considerations, arguments, insights and perspectives on the problems that beset us, simply because we are conscious, and self-conscious, and therefore want to understand both our lives and the world around us. A desire to profit from what thinkers whose ideas have stood the test of time have left us. A feeling of being especially alive in the hurly-burly of challenge and debate. The pleasure of igniting the interest of students, and of seeing the dawn of understanding in them, as some revelation opens up.

Sometimes the annoyance of finding that I once did not put something as I now think it should have been put. Sometimes as well a battle against ideas that do not stand up as well as their possessors suppose, or even fury at blatant illogicality and unreason. Contempt for those whose scorn for philosophy springs only from ignorance, apathy, or even fear of what it might tell them about themselves. Concern for those whose capacity to think well and act well is impaired by credulity and ineptitude. Fear of power without virtue.”

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Kwame Anthony Appiah, Professor of Philosophy and Law at New York University. With interests spanning philosophy of language and mind, African intellectual history, and political moral theory, he pens the Ethicist column for The New York Times. His latest book is the prize-winning Cosmopolitanism.

Let me be clear. Thinking things through is tough:
You need the proper concepts, rightly understood.
And no one working on their own will be enough.
It takes a crowd of minds, working together. Then we should
Speak to the culture, speak our truths … the stuff
We’re sure of and the doubts: the bad news and the good.
This is our role. We work things through
Mostly because we want ourselves to understand,
Repaying the privilege by sharing, old or new,
Whatever we discover, slight or grand.
We know that what you’ll take from us is up to you.”

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This article was originally published on the Institute of Art and Ideas website and is reprinted here with permission.  

1 thought on “What is Philosophy?

  1. Philosophy appears to me, as an ‘outsider’, doomed from the start because it’s committed to language which derived from feelings, no matter how far back one has to go to find their origin and, in an indeterminate and ever-changing universe, ‘asking questions’ presupposes answers. Likewise, ‘thinking clearly’ fails to see, taste, hear, smell and touch the fast-disappearing trees for the wood.

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