In order to convey a philosophical idea, a speaker must regularly interpret an original work. Not only that, but subsequent to the all to frequent 'discussion', he must interpret the listener's point of view. Then the speaker must find means to 'translate' between his interpretations, to hopefully disseminate an accurate understanding of the original idea.

Can you adequately discuss Philosophy, without doing philosophy?

EDIT: "Adequate" is a vague term to use here, but that is intentional. I propose there is a line to be drawn between "philosophy that can be objectively communicated" and "philosophy that is always subjectively communicated". Consider secondary works, their purpose is to interpret an original work, for an audience, into a more receptive form. It follows that there are a lot of "subjective philosophy going around. We guard against that by reading more commentaries and the original (even learning new languages for this purpose). We draw our own conclusions from as many view points as possible to gain a hopefully more 'objective' understanding. But all of these steps involve yet again subjective interpretations. So the Question becomes:

If we take the volume of objective philosophic 'knowledge' and compare it with the volume of subjective philosophy, Would the objective philosophy constitute an adequate education in Philosophy?

  • 1
    Can you provide any sort of argument for what you're stating. You have merely stated that "it must be so that philosophical discussion works this way" but that isn't an argument. I can think of clear counter examples to your title question. Philosophy can easily be discussed by people without them actually contributing their own interpretations of texts.
    – Not_Here
    Commented Nov 1, 2018 at 6:42
  • Take your first sentence for example. A child who has never learned anything about the philosophy of mathematics might think to themselves "hm, I can sit all day and add '1' to itself over and over, but each time there will always be another number higher than the one I have. Numbers must be of a certain nature where there is no largest number, because we could always simple add one more to it." They can then go and tell their parents or a friend this very much so philosophical position they hold. This has nothing to do with interpreting texts.
    – Not_Here
    Commented Nov 1, 2018 at 6:43
  • 3
    If you reject that counter example because it only touches on philosophical issues but not concrete examples of specific philosophers talking about their ideas, under the belief that this criterion is included in 'adequately', I would completely reject that as being necessary for an adequate discussion about philosophy and again I think you need to clearly argue for why that is a supposition we need to take. That, you have not done in your question.
    – Not_Here
    Commented Nov 1, 2018 at 6:45
  • Speculative question. "Not doing philosophy" is too broad. Seems to refer to communicate philosophical ideas with absolute objectivity (the dream of most politicians).
    – RodolfoAP
    Commented Nov 1, 2018 at 7:45
  • @Not_Here counter examples would of course be very welcome as an answer. Provided that (I realize now, my very vague) stipulation of "adequate" is met. I did not entertain the very basic musings of "novice philosophers". More specifically, I was thinking on the level of philosophical treatises that might require referencing secondary work to attain a proper comprehension of the work. - So, could a professor of philosophy explain a challenging or subtle idea to a post-grad without resorting to a little bit of incidental philosophy?
    – christo183
    Commented Nov 1, 2018 at 10:16

2 Answers 2


This could be worked out in a couple of ways:

In the sense that to properly understand a philosophical Idea, one must not only recreate its formal content in one's mind but also imagine the implications of said idea in the domain it purportedly applies, any transmission of philosophy, rather than just mere communication of words vaguely understood, implies the doing, or attempted re-doing, of philosophizing done before.1 To understand any proposition, it is requisite that one has some basic knowledge of the domain of experience it applies, and even with this knowledge, the linking of the pertinent phenomena with the correspondent philosophical abstraction is still an arduous task, necessarily individual due to the individuality of one's experience.2

Would it be possible to communicate a philosophical idea, insufficiently clear for intended audience in itself, without 'doing philosophy' incidentally, without interpolating some iota of content? If one believes that the form of the philosophical idea is the idea, then one is adding 'new' content with extended explanation, but if one conceptualizes an idea by its sense, a vague yet evident concept, then if one stays true to the original categories and synthetical relationships between them evident in the idea, one is not necessarily adding new content3 -- not producing new philosophical content, not doing philosophy, in a sense.

All this works under the assumption that the meaning of the philosophical idea to be conveyed has a canonical interpretation capable of a wide enough understanding for consensus, preferably corroborated by the original author -- in works of older origin, this level of certitude is impossible.4 Though, at what level of plausibility an interpretation of a work becomes certain enough to be the objective sense of said work is up for debate. in other words, given enough variables in a text that need to be decided upon without there being enough explicit or contextual evidence to assure validity, all accounts of the text are in some sense interpretive and add content that cannot be proved to be objectively contained in the text itself -- even those accounts which are taught at a University, ideally the most rigorous and certain available, are not certain in the words absolute sense. In such cases, additional philosophy has already been done to render the thoughts of a distant philosopher intelligible, even before any particular situation of pedagogy.5

If the doing philosophy entails the creation of new concepts, concepts being defined by their sense rather than their verbal forms, then one can -- meaning it is possible -- communicate philosophy without doing philosophy6, but what one thinks qualifies a concept as itself, what one believes about the nature of sense, and what one thinks 'doing philosophy' means would be key in determining one's individual stance on this issue. I made some assumptions here, the only implicit one in my answer -- evident to me at least -- being the nature of sense, which I find hard to intellectualize. I hope this gives at least an elementary purview of all the relevant categories that need to be determined to decide one's own answer on this rather vague7 question and that, at least someone, finds mine thought provoking.

Wikipedia on Plato's theory of forms:

"The Forms are expounded upon in Plato's dialogues and general speech, in that every object or quality in reality has a form: dogs, human beings, mountains, colors, courage, love, and goodness. Form answers the question, "What is that?" Plato was going a step further and asking what Form itself is. He supposed that the object was essentially or "really" the Form and that the phenomena were mere shadows mimicking the Form; that is, momentary portrayals of the Form under different circumstances. The problem of universals – how can one thing in general be many things in particular – was solved by presuming that Form was a distinct singular thing but caused plural representations of itself in particular objects."

Plato's solution to the problem of universals regarding forms can, by analogy, help us understand the problem of sense -- how can multiple iterations of speech mean the same thing? By positing the existence of the Form that is common to and generative of each particular object, Plato was able to give, at at least in theory, an objective reality to our categories and answer the question "what makes two similar things similar?" If we transpose this concept to sense, each written or spoken manifestation of given idea would be "mere shadows" mimicking and implying a sense which is distinct from them. This concept gives theoretical support to the intuitive notion that we are talking about the same idea, even when we put it in a different linguistic form than the one we were first exposed to it in.

The Stanford Encyclopedia Of Philosophy, on Plato says:

Forms are immaterial, non-spatial and atemporal. Particulars are material and extended in space and in time. Forms do not change and may not even be subject to Cambridge-change, i.e. relational changes involving, for instance, a soul cognizing them at various moments. Particulars change, may even be subject to change in any respect, and may even be subject to change in every respect at any given moment, i.e., total Heraclitean flux. Particulars are complex or multi-form (polyeidetic) composites (suntheton), whereas Forms are pure, simple or uniform (monoeidetic, hen).

This conception, with a feel alterations, works perfectly for the difference between sense and a particular manifestation of that sense. A particular manifestation of sense is extended spatially in writing and then given a temporal quality through either reading aloud or in one's head, but the sense itself is atemporal and transphenomenal, equally present in each of its transient and changing particulars. Again, this gives us theoretical support for notions of 'saying the same thing as' something else, even when we use different words.

It could be inferred that in comparing Plato's theory of forms with a theory of sense and manifestation of sense, we imply a metaphysical existence for sense in some 'hyle' as plato did for his Forms, but many "modern" systems such as Kant's Transcendental Idealism solve this apparent absurdity .

Transcendental idealism, also called formalistic idealism, term applied to the epistemology of the 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who held that the human self, or transcendental ego, constructs knowledge out of sense impressions and from universal concepts called categories that it imposes upon them.

By reference to universal categories of thought, we also have grounds to say that we're talking about the same thing when using different words, while not implying any metaphysical existence for said categories anywhere but within the constitution of our reason. Kant's terminology is not consistent nor completely applicable to the terms that I have been using, but one can see the obvious analogy between an independent sense and universal categories of reason -- further than that, I believe, with a great deal of work, the notion of a sense independent of manifestation could be given a formal definition in Kant's system, if hasn't been done already.8

I include the above considerations on sense and manifestation because, as previously stated, the ideas one has about sense is paramount in deciding this question of 'doing philosophy or not doing philosophy'; if doing philosophy is the creation -- or according to most forms of idealism -- the discovery of new sense, the idea we have about it is important. Even if one were to give a different definition of doing philosophy, I find it unlikely that the nature of sense and its manifestation will not be a factor in said definition.9

1 This assumes a more rigorous criteria for understanding than being able to correctly answer multiple choice or even short essay questions about a given work.
2 The difficulty of this task also being individual based on the amount of relevant experience one has in relation to a concept -- experience in the usual sense and in the intellectual sense.
3 This assumes one can't communicate the same sense with different categories; this seems reasonable to me but is be no means given.
4 I assume such works exist, though I have not read enough obscure philosophy to give you a specific example.
5 Assuming that unsure interpretation of sense is equivalent, or at least close, to its creation; the creation of sense regarding philosophical questions being what doing philosophy is.
6 If I had to pick a definite thesis for my answer, it would be this sentence.
7 By vague I don't mean to imply 'bad' or not valuable.
8 If anyone knows of any such formal definition, feel free to add it in the comments or within the answer itself.
9 An interesting question posed in the comments: if one is ignorant of previously created philosophical sense but then recreates it, is one then doing philosophy? Even if someone who already knew of the concept would not be in thinking the same thing?

  • So you're saying if we want to be able to "... discuss Philosophy, without doing philosophy", then "Philosophy" should be defined as a much narrower activity? If so, would that definition be a new concept and thus fall under philosophy? Or, would the subjective process of obtaining such a definition disqualify it as itself? Your delineation of "meanings of philosophy" is indeed thought provoking. It would be much appreciated if you could add some references that are relevant, even if only tangentially.
    – christo183
    Commented Nov 2, 2018 at 10:10
  • I mean to say that one needs thorough definition of what acts qualify as 'doing philosophy' -- what properties of a verbal exchange are necessary to it-- before one can decide if one is in fact doing it. "Doing Philosophy" is an informal 'term', one that doesn't have a canonical interpretation -- at least to my knowledge -- in any system, so to give a true answer, one must first fix the terms one is using in posing the question. I added some sources I thought were 'at least tangentially' related. I hope you find them somewhat helpful. @christo183
    – Ethan NOPE
    Commented Nov 2, 2018 at 18:26
  • I was thinking about 'self reference' problems that may be encountered in the process of fixing such a definition. - Thanks for a good answer to a rather 'fringe' question.
    – christo183
    Commented Nov 3, 2018 at 5:21

I would suggest that this question is Mu (無). It is a question that should be unasked, because all possible roads lead to suffering.

The tricky part of this question is the term "objective." Defining such a word qualifies as a subjective philosophy topic, so it runs afowl of your question right there. Your words in the edit suggest an understanding that the scale between subjective and objective is a rather continuous one that is often murky. Accordingly, one has to recognize that that means the answer to your question depends on what artificial line you draw to distinguish the terms.

Now, subjectively I feel our definitions of "objective" are probably rather aligned, so if I may suggest a wording: all of objective philosophy is reified, meaning all of what we call objective truth is truths about our models, rather than truths about reality itself. We can study someone who believes:

  • All people should operate under the same principles. No one person is intrinsically "better" than others.
  • People should not steal from eachother.
  • But I should steal from others because I am a better person than they are.

We can come to the conclusion that this person is inconsistent. We did so in a very objective abstract manner, without ever once actually asking any questions about the person which isn't covered in those 3 bullets.

However, the usefulness of this depends on its ability to be tied to the real world. If we take our objective model, and go talk with the person, we may find that we feel subjectively that they are a very consistent person, those 3 bullets just didn't capture them very well. We then might engage in philosophy in a way which teases information out of our subject and presents them in a model for objective study.

This is the same line as is drawn by the Chinese Room argument by John Searle. Whether we can discuss philosophy without doing philosophy is analogous to whether the room in his argument merely transcribes characters or if it knows Chinese. Searle was quite confident in the answer, but many have brought up philosophical arguments against it.

So whether or not that qualifies as "adequate" probably is the answer to your question. Personally, I choose to use a different definition that I borrowed from Alan Watts because it serves me well.

A philosopher is a sort of intellectual yokel. He goes around gawking at all the things other people take for granted.

  • Isn't the question what is Mu itself Mu - or as once told a cat: Isn't, Mu, Mu -- I'm a yokel? You're a rockstar.
    – christo183
    Commented Nov 3, 2018 at 6:04
  • @christo183 I'm sure there are those who argue that "What is mu" is mu. They're probably right enough in their own minds. Personally, the concept makes me grin from ear to ear, so it does not cause suffering in my own personal life =)
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Nov 3, 2018 at 21:14

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