This question is prompted by recent questions: A short, understandable definition of philosophy and Do you need to know what philosophy is to study it?

Sciences are usually well defined, and the task mainly falls to that particular philosophy-of-science. Similarly almost all human activities are defined or functionally described by some meta activity that is closely related to 'philosophy proper'.

But who should define Philosophy, and from what context? What is the correct context from which to look at Philosophy, and has anybody ever been sufficiently qualified to speak for the entire philosophic endeavor?

My impression is that you can no more describe Philosophy without recourse to extra-philosophic means, than you can describe a language without a meta language. But what could be "extra-philosophical"? So:

Question: Is Philosophy undefinable in practice or in principle?

EDIT: I must confess the part about meta language is residual thinking from a previous post. As noted in the comments: "...we reasonably describe English in English," which would suggest that no 'meta philosophy' is needed. But also noted in the comments, there are technical reasons for the existence of meta languages, being the avoidance of self reference. So what I'm suggesting is that we do not have tools to define, or even describe Philosophy, to the same degree of adequacy as for instance sciences. As @jobermark answer shows there is no precise boundary between sciences... Yet defining 'chemistry' does not arise nearly as often as do defining 'philosophy'. And if we did need to define 'physics', wouldn't most agree it would be far less daunting than Philosophy?


2 Answers 2


I would follow Popper here. The boundaries of philosophy are not set by subject matter but by the process. What makes something philosophy is that it is subject to rational criticism, and dividing this any closer is a fool's errand.

Sciences are not well-defined. Is the study of acidity about ions (chemistry) or protons (physics)? Is the study of covalent bonding about the geometry of wave-stuff in orbitals (quantum physics) or about observed angles in actual molecules (chemistry)? Until it becomes testable, is String Theory really physics, or is it just applied math? Is statistics not really a part of all the applied sciences that created it (Fisher was a biologist working for a brewer, not a mathematician), because it is now best studied as an exact science with its own foundation in probability theory?

Science as a whole forms a multi-dimensional fabric without sharp divisions. There are intermediate positions between any two cutting points you might propose, and they do not lie along a straight line. It also is never going to have a sharp boundary that separates it from philosophy 'proper'.

The same is true of all the other endeavors that bound philosophy, from medicine and the sociology of science meeting it at ethics to religion meeting it at theology.

They are a single thing, and what they have in common is a dedication to criticism of arguments and models in terms of human ideas. To go beyond that and try to put a firm boundary around philosophy outside its observed practice is dangerous.

  • I must've dreamed adding a comment here... Anyway the gist was that: "rational criticism" seems to be at odds with "To go beyond that and try to put a firm boundary..." since the first limits philosophy to commentary, while the second allows for boundless increase to philosophic content.
    – christo183
    Jan 8, 2019 at 12:52
  • Yeah someone removed all the comments for some reason. You are still not being fair to Popper, or what is said here. Being dedicated to the criticism of arguments does not say anything about the contents of those arguments. Criticism itself is commentary. But if it is not done, what is happening is not philosophy, it is just poetry.
    – user9166
    Jan 8, 2019 at 14:53
  • And yeah, the thing I said and the thing I disagree with do in fact contradict. How is that something to complain about? You just seem bound and determined to be dismissive, whether or not it makes any sense.
    – user9166
    Jan 8, 2019 at 20:47
  • Not at all, I fully agree that criticism should be part of philosophy. And disagree with putting any boundary to Philosophy. It is unfortunate @Conifold comment was removed, but at least the 'EDIT' he (and you) prompted survived... As for Popper, he subscribed to 'correspondence theory of truth' and together with metaphysical realism as a framework, I suspect his target audience to be 'natural philosophers'. I.e. he didn't intend his rational criticism to apply to, for instance, theology.
    – christo183
    Jan 9, 2019 at 5:45
  • @christo183 You can suspect all you want, he claims otherwise. He is proposing an answer to Hume and induction, which affects all epistemology. Also, theology is only theology because of rational criticism, otherwise it is Apologetics or Catechism, which are not philosophy.
    – user9166
    Jan 9, 2019 at 16:51

Philosophy instead of explaining itself might remind us that the thing is the act, and not the name, and that the name is a way of summating and labelling and communicating the act.

The act is... attempting to understand the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality and existence.

What we call that act is "philosophy".

So to ask "philosophy" to explain "philosophy" is really asking...

  • Can the effort to understand the fundamental nature of knowledge and reality and existence explain itself?

And the answer to that is "Yes".

Heightened awareness af one's surrounding and ability to properly interpret it, and calculate and predict the most likely outcome of chosen actions, is supportive to the emergence of successfully adaptable creatures, and so... creatures that observe, and question and contemplate, and get the answers mostly right, will outlive, outbreed, out-adapt, out-succeed their competitors.

Knowledge can be power. Security. Logistically beneficial. Planning, organizing, investing, seeing the potential of thinking greater than what an individual alone can accomplish. So... we have evolved to be genetically predisposed to curiosity.

Thus... the existence and pervasiveness of philosophical questioning.

Philosophy is the formalization of that which most people do naturally.

Question... Wonder... Ponder... Postulate... Suppose... Imagine... Envision... Theorize... Speculate... experiment... poke and prod and probe...

An orphaned raccoon that I fostered from eye-closed drinking formula from a bottle till old enough to join a community of other raccoons for co-release into the wild... was a very naturally curious little feller and did stick his nose, paws, and everything else into anything he could... my favourite was to watch him stick one arm way down a section of pipe laying behind our shed, then with his other paws he would twist himself so it ended up him and the pipe rolling over and back and forth. It was amusing.

Curiosity is not a character trait that is exclusively human. It aids some creatures in their survival and so stuck around and got better/stronger/more able.

We call our curiosity and the effort to satisfy it "philosophy".

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