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Consider the following "psychological" take on what philosophy is about.

To do philosophy means:

  • To have disorder in your mind: conflict between one idea and another, or insufficient justification/unifying principles.
  • To seek to resolve the disorder by altering the ideas that you hold, to eliminate the conflicts or justify/unify.
  • To describe this resolution process in the form of an argument that could guide others to perform a similar resolution process in their own minds.

The argument produced is meant to allow others to see clearly the mental conflict or disunity you faced and your solution to it. This gives them the choice of whether to make that change in their own mind too, based on their own preferences.

Can philosophy be viewed as a mental conflict-and-disunity-resolution and solution-sharing activity?


Note: I don't mean to say that all mental conflict-and-disunity-resolution and solution-sharing is philosophy, just that what is philosophy can be characterized that way.

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    Wittgenstein would agree: Philosophy is about clearing away misconceptions, but it does so in order to stop trying to theorize--"To repeat: don't think, but look!" and Philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday and What we are destroying is nothing but houses of cards and we are clearing up the ground of language on which they stood. What follows after is, perhaps, ethics and religion.
    – Rushi
    Sep 6, 2023 at 5:09
  • @Rushi I'm glad you think Wittgenstein agrees, but I'm not sure how those quotes relate. I view mental conflict-resolution as a valuable activity.
    – causative
    Sep 6, 2023 at 5:15
  • No, it is not. It is the elucidation and understanding of difficult problems: what is life, knowledge, good, human culture and society. Sep 6, 2023 at 5:46
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    But "mental conflicts" sounds to me introspective and their resolution means "peace of mind". Philosophy is "conflict" between ideas, inter-subjective, it is struggle between argumentations and - as every human activity - is eminently social. Sep 6, 2023 at 5:58
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    Insofar as learning anything of any field with a confused mind, what's not conflict resolution mentally? Many people are trying to resolve conflict with QM and GR in physics. Therefore your thesis is not unique at all for philosophy unless you hold 'panphilosophysim'... Sep 6, 2023 at 17:39

3 Answers 3

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This sounds like it could be Eleatic possibly. To Ancient Greek proponents, there is one thing, a unity of being. Thought is being. Nothing can be said about non-being. And humans are stuck by their mortal ken into two-headedness, the inability to fully remove all appearances of disunity.

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This is an odd, but not unproductive way of conceptualizing philosophy, one that approaches it from a standpoint of functional analysis. As you mentioned, however, this could describe a fairly large subset of human activities. As a workable definition, I would expect it to narrow down more effectively on what makes philosophy unique.

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  • I'd say that philosophy's particular subject matter is somewhat of a historical accident. It used to be all human knowledge, and then separate fields of science and history and mathematics etc. split off to be studied by specialists in those subjects. Philosophy's current subject matter tends more towards the abstract, the generalized, and the meta-level. But there's no single, simple way to demarcate between philosophy and non-philosophy, because the demaraction is a historical accident.
    – causative
    Sep 7, 2023 at 19:54
  • @causative - Please see my answer here for my view on the relationship between science and philosophy: philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/102333/… In short, I'd say what you're talking about is not accidental but rather definitional. Sep 7, 2023 at 19:58
  • You say in that post that "all philosophical questions are unsolved and/or controversial by definition." But there are questions in other fields that are unsolved and/or controversial, so that is not sufficient to distinguish philosophy from other fields. Is string theory philosophy? Is sociology philosophy? I think that to say that philosophy is about the "highest meta-levels" is closer to an accurate demarcation of philosophy, but string theory and QM are about pretty abstract, high meta-levels as well. So is computer science, or a lot of abstract mathematics.
    – causative
    Sep 7, 2023 at 20:01
  • I think that the split-off of other fields from philosophy is partially to do with (some of) the questions of those fields having been solved, but it also has a lot to do with those fields starting to demand a specialized skillset (advanced mathematics, engineering, specialized knowledge bases and methodologies) that the philosopher lacks. It also has to do with practical application; if a field starts to acquire a lot of direct practical applications, it splits away from philosophy.
    – causative
    Sep 7, 2023 at 20:08
  • @causative I'm personally happy stating that there are philosophical questions that remain in other disciplines. After all, we have a field called "philosophy of science," "philosophy of mathematics," etcetera. String theory IS arguably primarily philosophy, and so is a lot of sociology. Sep 7, 2023 at 20:42
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There is some precedent for this view in ethics, that is, the principle of reflective equilibrium.

From SEP: The method of reflective equilibrium consists in working back and forth among our considered judgments (some say our “intuitions,” though Rawls (1971), the namer of the method, avoided the term “intuitions” in this context) about particular instances or cases, the principles or rules that we believe govern them, and the theoretical considerations that we believe bear on accepting these considered judgments, principles, or rules, revising any of these elements wherever necessary in order to achieve an acceptable coherence among them. The method succeeds and we achieve reflective equilibrium when we arrive at an acceptable coherence among these beliefs. An acceptable coherence requires that our beliefs not only be consistent with each other (a weak requirement), but that some of these beliefs provide support or provide a best explanation for others.

So this bears some resembelance to your characterization.in as for as it does, there are also similar criticisms, in particular the notion of coherence at play is subject to the usual epistemological worries.

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