What is a comprehensive definition of philosophy? Or is it impossible to define philosophy?

At the risk of being ‘too broad’ a question, I would like to point out that the question of what philosophy is is a recurrent topic in the history of philosophy. To an extent, maybe it’s not any different than the science of linguistics trying to figure out what “language” actually is.

I am not inviting any free general speculation on what philosophy means to you, but curious what robust, theoretical attempts at definition have been offered in contemporary times.

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    According to Dictionary.com it is the rational investigation of the truths and principles of being, knowledge or conduct; any of the three branches, namely natural philosophy, moral philosophy, and metaphysical philosophy, that are accepted as composing this study. So it's investigating and studying what makes up the world, and the act of existing.
    – John M.
    Commented Jun 7, 2011 at 21:19
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    This question is too vague. It could be a community wiki question collecting historical definitions of philosophy. I am voting to close, but will vote to reopen after an appropriate edit.
    – Phira
    Commented Jun 7, 2011 at 21:20
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    Hmm I dont see why this question is closed as Not Constructive...
    – BugShotGG
    Commented Nov 22, 2013 at 23:10
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    @GeoPapas, agreed, you'd say this kind of question would be particularly on-topic on a site on philosophy (I'm aware that of the fact that meta-philosophy is an existing unanswered branch of philosophy).
    – 11684
    Commented Apr 25, 2014 at 21:05
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    It is etymological fact that philosophy is "love of wisdom". In the sense of initial utterance as philosophy was distinguished from sophistry, "love of wisdom" can be read "respect" or "reverence" for or "virtue of" "obtaining knowledge". Wisdom requires knowledge, not opinion and philosophy contends with ponderables, not imponderables, not ways of looking at things nor sentiment. The domain is epistemology and ontology, the purview logic, rhetoric and reason.
    – MmmHmm
    Commented Mar 10, 2017 at 23:23

7 Answers 7


Philosophy is the practice of discovering new ideas and analyzing claims. The two parts can't themselves claim to be "philosophy" on their own since the very name means lover of wisdom. Can the collector of first editions who never reads them be considered a lover of books? What about the woman who reads every book she finds at the library, but never owns one? What about the man who reads romance novels, but will never look at non-fiction? What about the reviewer who reads books for their job, but never for their own pleasure. Or the reader who never finds fault in what they read? No! The lover of books will not despise them in these ways. In the same way, the true philosopher will not tire of seeking the truth.

It's been claimed that the work of philosophy can been distilled into the conflict between Plato and Aristotle. Roughly speaking, the difference between the two can be found in the "discovery" portion of philosophy and thinkers of all sorts may be divided into the Platonic and the Aristotelian camps. If you think from the abstract to the concrete (top-down) and believe that given a sufficient set of axioms you can deduce all truth, then Plato is your man. On the other hand, if you start with observations of the world and use inductive reasoning to discover truth (bottom-up), you are a philosophical child of Aristotle. Both men pioneered new territory in the tools of philosophy (abstract reasoning, logic, preservation of the ideas of previous thinkers, skepticism, and so on), but each remains relevant long after their specific ideas were shown to be wrong. We remember them because of their unique approaches to how we discover truth.

All ages seem to have their controversies which seem to fall on lines drawn between the two Greek philosophers: Anselm of Canterbury v. Gaunilo of Marmoutiers, Bertrand Russell v. Kurt Gödel, René Descartes v. Blaise Pascal, Leonhard Euler and Daniel Bernoulli v. Gottfried Leibniz and Christian Wolff, Bishop Berkeley v. Samuel Johnson, Immanuel Kant v. David Hume, etc. That's not to say philosophy hasn't moved on, but rather each bit of new ground has features that resemble the philosophical territory covered by those great Athenians from the 4th-century BC.

Much of the thinking that once fell under the banner of Philosophy has been pushed into more specialized disciplines. Practically every department at universities can be traced back to philosophy at some point in the distant past. Even the study of music (studied by Pythagoras and his followers), poetry (Aristotle wrote the book on it), political science (Plato's Republic is standard reading in both departments), and law (the Socratic method plays an important part in many law schools) can be seen as sub-disciplines of philosophy. If Mathematics is "The Queen of the Sciences"1, then Philosophy is her King.


1) It was too much a stretch to use the original Queen: theology. Thankfully Carl Friedrich Gauss reappropriated the term.

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    Last night I realized that I've only covered the Western branch of philosophy here. I believe my first paragraph covers the Eastern branch as well, but since I know so very little about non-Western thought, I cannot know for sure. I'm very open to correction there. Commented Jun 21, 2011 at 16:59

I think Wittgenstein is very illuminating in this respect. Some relevant quotations, dealing with some aspects of the question (PI stands for Philosophical Investigations):

PI§109 [...] Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of our language.

PI§126 [...] One might also give the name "philosophy" to what is possible before all new discoveries and inventions.

PI§127 The work of the philosopher consists in assembling reminders for a particular purpose.

And as far as philosophy speaking of itself posing a problem:

PI§121 One might think: if philosophy speaks of the use of the word "philosophy" there must be a second-order philosophy. But it is not so: it is, rather, like the case of orthography, which deals with the word "orthography" among others without being second-order

In general I highly recommend anyone troubled by the question 'What is philosophy?' to read PI§89-138 - one of the most brilliant self-reflections on the purpose and nature of philosophy in the history of thought. Of course you have to be minimally aware of the context of Wittgenstein's thought, but I feel these passages are elucidatory nonetheless.


Philosophy is the study, and use, of logic and logical reasoning. Philosophy forms the foundation for the principles of scientific reasoning, deductive reasoning, formal debates, and similar.

  • What about alternative logics? Where does that fit? Commented Jun 8, 2011 at 0:58
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    I would say they are also forms of Philosophy. Commented Jun 8, 2011 at 5:44
  • Philosophy transcends logic and logical reasoning in many respects, however. Logical reasoning is a subset of natural language, does not philosophy address concerns inherently beyond the expressive capabilities of language? If something has contradictions it cannot be logical, but it can be a topic of philosophy.
    – sova
    Commented Jun 17, 2011 at 15:10
  • @Sova I believe what you are referring to are 'Zen Koans', which are largely unrelated to the real field of philosophy. Commented Jun 17, 2011 at 20:30

I think the study of philosophy can get accurately said to seek for the most comprehensive understanding of things. Epistemology seeks the most comprehensive understanding of knowledge. Metaphysics seeks for the most comprehensive understanding of reality. Ontology seeks for the most comprehensive understanding of being or existence. Ethics seeks for the most comprehensive understanding of proper conduct. Aesthetics seeks for the most comprehensive understanding of art. Logic seeks for the most comprehensive understanding of reasoning (hence the plurality of logics, and symbolic logic as a formal discipline). And the philosophy of particular disciplines like the philosophy of biology, physics, etc. seeks for the most comprehensive understanding of those disciplines.


Philosophy is just a word, like many others. As a 'science' it has no scope, and it's entirely based on the difficulties we have in understanding our own language. Look around, there are no genuine philosophical problems. We define words, like "soul" or "God" and then, we talk endlessly about them, that's Philosophy.

  • What would constitute genuine philosophical problem? In its root philosophy is a way of critical thinking about us and the world around us and all sciences has emerged from that kind of reflection. Philosophy doctor is a title most commonly awarded to postgraduate students. Let me ask this, do questions like "why is there something instead of nothing", "what does it mean to be, to exist" are not genuine problems? What about Kant's 4 basic problems: 1) what can I know, 2) what should I do, 3) what can I expect, 4) what is a man?
    – Zefiryn
    Commented Dec 9, 2012 at 20:19
  • Sorry, but none of the above strikes me as a genuine problem. Let's put it this way, if you would have lived in a perfectly sealed impossible to break, huge box all your life, asking what's outside of it (and trying to use words to define what's out there) would have been a great thinking exercise, but not problem solving. In a similar way, Philosophy is a great thinking exercise, but not a science anymore. (it's true that in the past, the lines between Maths, Physics, etc and Philosophy were dim, so it had it's practical uses too).
    – Rad'Val
    Commented Dec 9, 2012 at 21:29

Here are some popular definitions of philosophy.

The word "philosophy" comes from the Greek φιλοσοφία (philosophia), which literally means "love of wisdom"

Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental problems, such as those connected with existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language. It is distinguished from other ways of addressing such problems by its critical, generally systematic approach and its reliance on rational argument.

Webster says,

Philosophy is the love of, or the search for, wisdom or knowledge. It's theory or logical analysis of the principles underlying conduct, thought, knowledge, and the nature of the universe"

Another dictionary says,

Philosophy is the most basic beliefs, concepts, and attitudes of an individual or group


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    "love of wisdom" is an awesome way to put it.
    – sova
    Commented Jun 17, 2011 at 22:05

Philosophy is the discipline that undertakes to realize most completely the ideal of consistent answers to all possible questions and a logical interconnection of these answers.

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