Do you need to know what philosophy is to study it?

The question was prompted by one about literature, but I'll ask here. Poets tell me that you need to know what post-modernism and modernism are to avoid pastiche. I disagree. These are useful critical terms, but feel that, naivety etc. aside, along with how contested broader terms are, one only needs to understand the materials one is using. Whether or not that involves concept, as well as process and form. Not the place of the materials in the history of the art. To avoid pastiche one needs to understand antecedents: not the actuality today of what you are doing.

Could something similar be said of philosophy: you don't need to know if you are a philosopher, only how the questions you face have been asked and answered before?

  • "what philosophy is" may mean a sort of definition... and this is quite difficult to answer. Otherwise, it mean what philosphers do: and this is quite reasonable. The study of philosophy is mainly the study of the work of past philosophers. Dec 31, 2018 at 15:18
  • @MauroALLEGRANZA you seem to be saying "no"?
    – user35983
    Dec 31, 2018 at 16:18
  • 3
    No. People do not know what mathematics is when they start to study it either. This is called the Meno paradox: "He cannot search for what he knows--since he knows it, there is no need to search--nor for what he does not know, for he does not know what to look for." Good definitions come at the end of study, if then, not at its beginning. And in some sense studying never ends.
    – Conifold
    Dec 31, 2018 at 19:39
  • “Poets tell me”, generalization? Or is this a quotation? And how can someone study philosophy and not have an idea of what it is? Just asking.
    – Robus
    Dec 31, 2018 at 23:54
  • Or is it that philosophy is different than the history of philosophy?
    – Robus
    Dec 31, 2018 at 23:56

2 Answers 2


Do you need to know what philosophy is to study it?

I think it perfectly possible to be exercised by questions, to be involved in topics, which are (or are generally classified as) philosophical without knowing that they are philosophical. For instance, a real one in my own case, when I was studying history many years ago I started to wonder how one could understand the past since it didn't exist. I struggled with this question, which is a philosophical question. But I had no idea of what philosophy was or that this was indeed a philosophical question. Again, I was puzzled by questions such as : If I survived death, what would this 'I' be ? A transformed body, a soul (whatever that was), my 'self' (& what was that?).

Anyone is free to doubt my word but I had no idea that there was a subject or inquiry, 'philosophy', to which such questions belonged. Light dawned only when I took political philosophy as a part of my course and connexions with ep & met & logic & ethics drew themselves out in my perplexed little head (or 'mind' if you're a dualist).

'You don't need to know if you are a philosopher, only how the questions you face have been asked and answered before?'

Three points :

1. Mistakes

Locke's epistemology is important if only to show us in detail why that road leads to destruction. If he hadn't trod it, someone else would have had to. (Roy Mash, 'How Important for Philosophers is the History of Philosophy?', History and Theory, Vol. 26, No. 3 (Oct., 1987), pp. 287-299: 295.)

On this approach you may not need but it is helpful to know 'how the questions you face have been asked and answered before' since this knowledge saves you from following a false or at least unpromising track. You needn't make certain mistakes yourself; somebody else has already made them for you.

2. Problem solved

What if it has all been said? Or at least everything of consequence? If "nothing can be said which has not been said already," then is history of philosophy all that is left to us? Are we to be footnoters and nothing more? Does progress in philosophy consist merely in finding new and interesting ways to cross-index the past? (Mash : 295.)

This is too extreme, too unlikely but there are cases where problems are puzzled over to which either the answer or an interesting part of the answer, or the conceptual means towards an answer, are already to hand in the history of philosophy. Tentatively I would cite the instance of Franz Brentano's work on intentionality which, 'rediscovered' in the 1960s and 70s, threw light on a range of problems in the philosophy of mind. Knowing what Brentano had asked and answered before was indeed something useful to know.

3. Critical history of philosophy is itself philosophy - the two are identical

The history of philosophy can be done in at least two (if not two dozen) ways. There is the 'There was this chap, Plato, and he said' approach in which ideas and arguments are catalogued, summarised, not appraised. This is really just the history of ideas or at most exegesis. However, contrasting with this is a critical approach. Suppose you come across that favourite crux, the Cartesian Circle :

The abundant literature on the "Cartesian circle," for example, is of more than mere historical significance. If Descartes does play off clear and distinct ideas against God's veracity in a circular fashion, then his foundation for knowledge is put in serious jeopardy. But to make this shift to evaluation is to move over to philosophy. Philosophy, in its reactive phase, takes up where exegesis leaves off. Having ascertained what another philosopher said (and meant), the philosopher's aim as critic is to decide whether, and to what extent, it is correct or justified. Hence philosophy, like the history of philosophy, incorporates exegesis, but unlike the history of philosophy, never counts interpretation as an end in itself. (Mash: 292.)

To confront the Cartesian Circle as a critical historian of philosophy is to engage in a philosophical inquiry : Is Descartes guilty of vicious circularity or not ? This becomes as much a live philosophical issue for you as are the problems in the most recent philosophy textbook or journal article.

  • fine as an answer, but does not address whether we can study the history of philosophy without a definition or at least a clear intuitive sense of what it is and what we are trying to do etc.
    – user35983
    Dec 31, 2018 at 20:52
  • @confused. Is this closer to what you are looking for ? GLT
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Jan 1, 2019 at 19:37
  • not i think quite what i meant in my last comment, no (you are still circumventing the question, which you're bolded now above). but an interesting read, cheers! and it is direct enough to answer the question, thanks!
    – user35983
    Jan 1, 2019 at 19:39
  • @confused. Thanks. Your addendum, ' whether we can study the history of philosophy without a definition or at least a clear intuitive sense of what it is and what we are trying to do etc.', seemed to me to introduce an extra angle. Or let me put it this way : what does 'it' refer to ? All the best - G
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Jan 1, 2019 at 19:56
  • i suppose, what we are trying to do? i'm over thinking this now probably... never good for me w/ philosophy!
    – user35983
    Jan 1, 2019 at 19:58

Arguably, no one knows what philosophy is, which (if true) makes knowing the definition an insurmountable prerequisite for the study of philosophy. True, knowing what you consider philosophy can be useful in determining what you want to study, given the volume and the diversity of the literature. But it can be potentially even more useful to read outside the boundaries of your definition.

Many of the world's most celebrated philosophers were better known in their own times as scientists, poets, inventors, historians, mathematicians, or any of a number of other fields. And even today, you can learn a great deal about philosophy from reading and studying (and living life) outside the field.

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