I have been wondering about the role and goal of philosophy as a discipline and as a practice. Some people might say that philosophy is about finding the truth, or at least getting closer to it. But what if there is no absolute truth, or if it is inaccessible to human reason? What if different philosophical systems are equally valid, or equally flawed, depending on one’s perspective and criteria?

In that case, is the purpose of philosophers to believe in the thing that seems most reasonable to them, based on their own arguments, evidence, intuition, and preferences? Is this a legitimate and respectable way of doing philosophy, or is it a sign of dogmatism, bias, or relativism? How can philosophers justify their beliefs to others who might disagree with them, or who might have different standards of rationality? How can philosophers avoid falling into self-deception, circular reasoning, or wishful thinking?

  • If there is no objective truth (absolute may be another matter, depending what precisely you mean), then philosophy is a waste of time. Of course, the claim "there is no objective truth" is a contradiction, since it implicitly asserts an objective truth, namely, that there is universally no truth that can be universally applied. So, because all honest people are convinced that Aristotle's Principle of Non-Contradiction is axiomatic to human thought, we have to reject this claim.
    – jaredad7
    Aug 24 at 12:59
  • I wonder how it might be a purpose that philosophers have rather than a default mode of behavior. It's not as if most philosophers think, "I have a choice: believe in what seems reasonable to me, or believe in what seems foolish to me." Perhaps most people automatically believe on what they believe are sufficient reasons (objective or not). Where their meta-beliefs/meta-meta-beliefs, etc. come from is a complicating question; we'd like to keep a sense for the phrase "self-deception"; see also about belief merging/aggregation. Aug 24 at 13:39
  • Too many question marks... :-) "what if there is no absolute truth?" Up to now, there are few hints that we humans can achieve "absolute" truth (if any). "What if different philosophical systems are equally valid, or equally flawed, depending on one’s perspective and criteria?" This is exactly the history of philosophy: every new philosopher on the stage declare that ALL previous systems are flawed and his own is the NEW and only TRUE one. Aug 24 at 14:02
  • About arguments, evidence, intuition... obviously every philosopher will support his own ideas with rational arguments and evidences: in what other way may he support them. The same regarding disagreement: it will be approached through rational discussions and arguments. Aug 24 at 14:04
  • Re te title: in general, we (humans) believe in "things" that seem most reasonable to us... at least in a perfect world. Usually, we believe in many many stupid, useless, wrong ideas, etc. Maybe the (one of?) goal of a good philosopher is to help us to understand what is the real content of our belief and what are the ground of it, helping us to debunk wrong ones. Aug 24 at 14:20

3 Answers 3


There's a misleading element here in the phrase "most reasonable," because to a large extent philosophy is about determining what 'reasonable' is. Everyone in the world believes that whatever they're thinking or doing right this moment is 'reasonable': saints and sinners, upright citizens and criminals, good people, bad people, indifferent people... People only behave the way they behave because they've (somehow) come to the conclusion that such behavior is right and justified — and therefore reasonable — in context. And each of us thinks that everyone else is thoroughly unreasonable when they do different things that oppose, contradict, or interfere with what we think is reasonable.

And so we get the messy, conflictive world we deal with on a daily basis, where everyone (to quote an old song) is pleasantly furious at having to deal with all the 'unreasonable' idiots around them...

This is where philosophy starts. Philosophers look at this mess of mutually inconsistent thoughts and behaviors and want to give them structure, bring them into agreement, and make them have meaning beyond the momentary focus of convention and impulse. Philosophers try to develop the concept of 'reasonable' so that people can see how unreasonable they actually are in their day-to-day lives, and perhaps find a better approach. It's why a lot of people hate philosophy. Philosophy is 'judgey'; it's constantly saying: "I know you think this behavior is right and reasonable, but if you look at it closely you'll see it doesn't make much sense." It isn't about what the philosopher personally thinks is most reasonable (though there may be an element of that). It's about what the philosopher's analysis says is universally most reasonable, which is a different kettle of fish entirely.


According to Dominique Pagani, a French philosopher whose courses on the subject are available on youtube, the philosophic field or domain of inquiry is about "sophia", which means both knowledge and wisdom in Greek. The history of philosophy starts there, in this conflating of both a quest for knowledge ("what can I know?") and the search for wisdom ("what should I do? How should I conduct myself?").

Pagani insists on the following points:

  1. What is inherently philosophical is the pairing of these 2 quests for knowledge (about what we can know) and wisdom (about what to do, i.e. ethics and politics). One can very well focus on knowledge only, but then one is a scientist or science lover, not a philosopher. Vice versa, one can opt for seeking wisdom only, not based on knowledge about the world, but for instance based on intuition or divine revelation. But then, one is a sage, not a philosopher. A philosopher wants to be both a savant and a sage.
  2. The second question is the key one: what to do? But all the philosophical answers to it go through a very long detour through the first question, about what we can know. So much so that some philosophers forget the second question and remain mired in their exploration of epistemology. At best they are commentators of the scientific world.
  3. What makes these questions properly philosophical is that they are not specific to one or two circumstances, but general. It's not about what we can reasonably know and do about, say, climate change or the obesity epidemic. It's more universal in scope; about epistemology in general or about ethical/political action in general terms. This is perhaps the hardest challenge: to look for universal answers to these two questions.

Hope this helps.


Your question is a very wide-ranging one, and I suspect it might prompt answers from several differing perspectives. I would like to address its final sentence.

To anybody, it should be clear that the world is full of people who make insufficiently justified claims while being convinced that their claims are true. You can see this in all walks of life- in religion, politics, business, and so on. In philosophy, there is no end of conflicting discussions about a wide range of topics, where different schools argue emphatically for their own points of view, even though there is no more reason to favour one than another. Even in theoretical physics- which should be a beacon of objectivity- you will find physicists arguing with complete conviction for particular views for which no conclusive evidence is available, such as the competing interpretations of quantum theory.

If you want to avoid the trap of self-deluding convictions, you must develop an open-minded attitude. That does not mean to say that you must given every idea the benefit of the doubt, for some ideas are clearly wrong, but you should always have some degree of skepticism, and never believe wholeheartedly in a particular set of ideas if there is no overwhelming evidence to justify such a belief.

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