I have never seen an adequate definition of philosophy. It seems like a "family-resemblance" concept to me, to borrow Wittgenstein's famous phrase. It is easy to give definitions of, say, physics, or chemistry, or biology, or even mathematics. But philosophy seems like a more vague, imprecise concept. Why is that? And is there even a good definition of philosophy?

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    One might take the original word strictly enough, and compare/contrast with a concept of erosophy and agapesophy, so to say. Friends of sophia did not take advantage of her beauty, whereas the Sophists with their convenient rhetoric did (or so the old story goes; if I remember correctly, Pirsig tries to disabuse his audience of this narrative in his Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance). But then we also have maniasophy (perhaps the murderous logicism that Arendt attributes to totalitarianism), among other things. Sep 13, 2023 at 19:51
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    It is not easy (indeed, substantively impossible) to give a good definition of science generally or, say, biology in particular either, see demarcation problem. It only seems easy if one uses equally vague and undefinable terms, like "study of nature" or "scientific study of living organisms". But then one can "easily" define philosophy too, as "reflection on being and reason" or as "love of wisdom". Those are all family resemblance concepts.
    – Conifold
    Sep 13, 2023 at 23:00
  • It's hard to give a good definition of almost anything, because almost everything is a fuzzy set. Even worse, it's a n-times iterated fuzzy set for all n = 1, 2, 3, .... Sep 14, 2023 at 3:49
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    It's so hard for philosophy compared to many other fields is it cannot merely admit and play with any artificially stipulated precise object languages and push all other unexplained or deeper deepity to some meta, there's simply no meta in philosophy ultimately and thus philosophy must break the infinite regress while avoid amorphous contingent psychologism as reminded by Frege and Husserl in recent times. Wherefore the answer to your question is not unlike today's another post... Sep 14, 2023 at 5:06
  • " It is easy to give definitions of, say, physics, or chemistry, or biology, or even mathematics." Please, provide them :-) Sep 14, 2023 at 7:42

4 Answers 4


Simply put, there is no good definition of philosophy because in this sense you mean stipulative definition; for definition by stipulation you need agreement, and there is a considerable disagreement about what philosophy is and what it should be used for. Since philosophy began under the Pre-Socratics, philosophers have been commenting on this topic, however, recently the sub-field of metaphilosophy has begun to catalogue and marshal the debate. From the IEP article on metaphilosophy:

What is philosophy? What is philosophy for? How should philosophy be done? These are metaphilosophical questions, metaphilosophy being the study of the nature of philosophy. Contemporary metaphilosophies within the Western philosophical tradition can be divided, rather roughly, according to whether they are associated with (1) Analytic philosophy, (2) Pragmatist philosophy, or (3) Continental philosophy.

Thus, you will see that philosophers who make arguments about what philosophy is and what its methods should be fall into a number of schools, of which one can supplement the list above:

The one introductory text I own on the topic is:

Note that the lack of consensus is not a bad thing necessarily; in fact, one can make the argument that the diversity inherent in metaphilosophical pluralism adds some value above and beyond the individual opinions by showing that philosophy itself seems subject to diversity as a function of the psychology of the philosophers themselves.

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    Enumerating the schools of philosophy amounts to saying that "philosophy is what philosophers do". Sep 14, 2023 at 7:44
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    And this is exactly what the IEP's entry on "meta-" is doing: enumerating main (current) philosophical schools. When I was young, this was "history of philosophy". Sep 14, 2023 at 7:48
  • @MauroALLEGRANZA The approach the book by Overgaard et al. is to examine the distinguishing features of the metaphysical, ontological, and epistemological theories relatively free of historical context and to build a somewhat classificatory and diachronic approach. Philosophy seems to recycle some of the basic dichotomies of positivity and normativity, empirical and rational, subjectivity and objectivity, and examine it in the light of the progression of whatever the impact of contemporary science is.
    – J D
    Sep 14, 2023 at 14:00

Demarcation, investigating definitions and boundaries between disciplines, are core concerns of philosophy. So when you turn it on itself in this way, of course you are going to have to do philosophy, which is hard to do well.

You assume those other subjects are easy to define. If you approach them not with their definitions from inside their practice, but philosophically, then I don't think they are. Scientific Method cannot be defined exhaustively and rigorously, it varies profoundly between disciplines in ways that don't always overlap, and so I'd defend that science fundamentally is a culture, it is what scientists do: Can one speak unambiguously of "the" scientific method? Similar to doing philosophy, in deciding what it is. And the status of mathematics is I'd say very high in the pecking order of most contentious subjects in philosophy, as discussed in this answer: The Unreasonable Ineffectiveness of Mathematics in most sciences

I would argue that in defining philisophy, we need to look at how it came to distinguish itself from previous similar practices, which we now group under 'wisdom traditions'. The word philosophy was used before Socrates (it's disputed but some argue it was coined by Pythagoras), but I'd argue that Socrates with the 'mutual enquiry into truth' of Socratic Dialogue, really codified the distinguishing quality of philosophy, and was himself paradigmatic in living the role by his example abd especially acceptance of 'martyrdom' for his views. Discussed here: Weren't there any philosophers from Africa, America or the Middle East before Socrates? Plato fused Socratic methods with the math-mysticism of Pythagoras to create the Academy and academia of professional scholars rather than sophists and rhetoriticians for politics and law that had been the previous educational elite. Aristotle developed the aspiration of universal enquiry and education, that became the ambition of universities. And the success and wealth of his most famous student, Alexander the Great, made sure the reputations were amplified and records survived (though it's thought none of Aristotle's own writing survives, only lecture notes of his students).

To understand Socrates, who the Oracle at Delphi called the wisest man in Athens, we need to enquire into wisdom, and what it does for people. My picture is here: Wisdom and John Vervaeke's awakening from the meaning crises? The TLDR is: It's the skill of dilemma solving, cultivated by finding the integrated centre of our concerns ('Know Thyself', the highest admonition of the Oracle). And what it does is maximise our relative freedom, from coercion, impulses, and self-deception, when they don't serve the self that the wise person has come to know. Crucially though, Socrates chose the mutual pursuit of truth over the wisdom of not dying (he could have gone into exile, as Aristotle was forced to), he talked about always listening to his daimon, his conscience, wjen it forbade him to do something. And this is why his philosophia distinguished itself from love-of-wisdom (an equally valid translation), for love-of-truth. His Euthyphro Dilemma had far reaching consequences, in placing even the gods under constraints of reason, a still controversial and uncompromising stance.

If you look at Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow, I'd call philosophy the slowest carefullest thinking. It is meta-thinking, which you might even go as far as to call 'system 3' thinking. We develop a personal practice, a toolbox, for stepping back from or outside of the rails our thinking has run on, and consider the general grounds of our thought, typically when progress has got stuck in some way, or we seems to face contradictions unsolvable in the current framing or paradigm. Discussed here: (Why) is this negative outlook on the concept of philosophy misguided?

What I take from this is, trying to fully define philosophy, is misguided. Define it by doing it, by taking up the endeavour, the culture, and practicing it ccording to your own understanding, by trying to do it well according to that. That will be the wise way, to pursue the truth of the matter.

Any student of philosophy should develop their own working picture of the subject. And it will develop, as their practice does. I would advocate to any aspiring student, enquire for yourself into what this subject is, and make sure to go about doing it in the terms you understand it should be done. A great philosopher doesn't do someone else's philosophy, they do their own. Let us all aspire to that.


Philosophy, traditionally, has been defined as the study of

  1. Metaphysics
  2. Logic
  3. Ethics
  4. Epistemology
  5. Aesthetics

In how many different ways can we do philosophy?

5 (1, alone) + 10 (any 2) + 10 (any 3) + 5 (any 4) + 1 (all 5) = 31 different ways of doing philosophy (I used combinatorics).

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    Y tho? I think you need a story, to make sense of the list.
    – CriglCragl
    Sep 14, 2023 at 8:19
  • That seems to be on target.
    – Hudjefa
    Sep 14, 2023 at 9:24

I defer to the classical definition of Aristotle - it is the search for truth. Lloyd Strickland in Philosophia 41, 1079-1094, in 2013, examines how modern philosophy conforms or does not conform to this ideal. Science developed from classical philosophy.

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