This may come off weird, but I'm new to the subject of philosophy. In many aspects it seems to be fully theoretical and based on subjective perceptions of truth. So what can be a basis for answering philosophical questions?

If I said something like "Philosophy is all about telling people what/how to think about something, or why they're wrong about their perceptions". The question is, how can this be disproved? If you agreed, then I'm right, but if you try to tell me otherwise, then you're just proving my point.

I may have a completely wrong idea about the basis of philosophy, but it's like some saying that they're not liars. It can be said, and they're either telling the truth or they're liars, but then it's "ok" to not tell the truth.

  • 1
    your argument is kind of weird - it seems kind of similar to this: "If I said something like 'Philosophy is all about telling people that the earth is a giant cube and why they're wrong about their perceptions.' The question is, how can this be disproved? If you agreed, then I'm right, but if you try to tell me otherwise, then you're just proving my point."
    – nir
    Commented Nov 12, 2015 at 12:19

3 Answers 3


A short answer to the title of your question is: Asking the question 'Why?' and trying to answer it without saying 'Just because! Everyone knows!'.

In the light of this, philosophy is all about justification. In basic courses in philosophy you might hear statements like 'Basically, you can tell me the moon is made of cheese. But you will have to present good reasons to be convincive.'

This includes some steps that are normally just not taken:

  1. Begging the question.
  2. Developing an intuition towards an answer.
  3. Thinking of the premises implicit in these intuitions and making them explicit.
  4. Justifying the premises.
  5. Illustrating the connection between the question, the premises and the answer.

Some do this by formalization and logic, others by illustration. This is a rough sketch though, as in academic philosophy, often the first step is to attack the question itself by its premises without questioning one's own, not even taking into consideration if the question is justifiable.

Therefore it is not wrong to state that it often seems like philosophy is just a battle of statements about truth and everyone defends his 'own truth'. But this is bad philosophy. If you want to be convincing, you have to take your opponent seriously, developing a criticism out of his very own position. Alas, it is a very rare feature these times.

A good philosophical argumentation attacks the premises of every position that can be held against it (no matter how obscure it seems at a first glimpse) out of these premises by at the same time having very good justifications for its own explicit and sufficient premises. It is about knowing the enemy better than he knows himself in order to beat him. And, in addition, know youself (your implicit premises) better that anyone else.
It has to be convincing for its opponents, not dogmatic. The power of the argument should be a power of reasons, not an institutionally supported one. And in this sense it is indeed to tell people how to think things right.

Having said this, it is not by accident that authors like Aristotle, Spinoza, Hume, Kant, and Hegel are still read today, because they tried to convince by making the weaknesses of contemporary philosophical positions and their own premises explicit before by this justifying their alternative. Dewey and Sellars are examples out of the 20th century, others might add names.

The most famous example of someone who made weaknesses explicit without adding any own solution is Edmund L. Gettier. This is still better that just making and justifying statements without taking contemporary or historical challenges seriously. It is asking challenging questions.

I think your question is linked with this one, perhaps you can get more input from there, as my answer seems to fit there, too.


It's a good question. But you are over-thinking it, and hoping or assuming there is an "answer."

One way to approach philosophy is to ask and attempt to answer normal, daily questions. But to do so making every effort to avoid personal opinion and to frame every answer so that it does not begin, "Well, I think..."

A second way to approach philosophy is to recognize that the attempt to carry out the above has a long history.

Unlike "science," philosophy always entails its own history. You just have to read and read how the "philosophers" retained by history addressed those questions. From Thales or Plato on there is a long, long discussion about... everything. As you discover in Plato, part of philosophy is just carrying on, from generation to generation, the "best possible, most enlightening conversation." Which takes the form of an argument. After all, how could "good conversation" evolve out of agreement?

A third, more modern way to approach philosophy is to ask what is "true" or, more effectively what "cannot be true." This is the battle of beliefs and justifications and "logics" that arise in argument and thus underlie "good conversation." Such arguments force people into the "either-or" positions you outline in your question. You begin by challenging someone else's beliefs. Or being challenged. You attempt to wrestle them though "either-or" positions.

If you are still frustrated and dissatisfied with the outcome, you begin to read. Half or more of philosophy is reading what has already been said. Many perspectives you had never imagined appear. You read and read and avoid the temptation to stamp you foot and say: "That's ridiculous, everyone knows..."


Different philosophers have answered this quite differently. Plato believed that people have access to an internal "memory" of the truth, and the philosopher's job is just to guide them towards recovering that memory. Because of that perspective, many of Plato's arguments contain deliberate errors, paradoxes and inconsistencies --they are intended to stimulate the mind, rather than necessarily to convince the audience.

In contrast, Descartes's position was that our beliefs should be certified by reason, and developed from first principles. For this reason, he strove to create arguments without "defects" of the type ascribed above to Platonic arguments.

Finally, for an empiricist like Hume, the justification for believing a claim is that it accords with experience. It doesn't matter what your abstract musing tell you, if they lead you to any conclusion counter to your own experience, they must be discarded.

There are other ways to justify philosophical claims but these are arguably the three most influential.

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