I find this site very interesting, because the questions and answers span such a wide range of issues.

However, I often struggle to see how some of the matters discussed fit into the category of "Philosophy".

For example: How should the fair distribution of some goods depend on other-regarding preferences?

This seems to be a question that is far more relevant to political science, or economics than "Philosophy".

Yet this question: How do Buddhism, Hinduism, etc. address the 'problem of evil'? seems essentially a theological question and this one How should I understand the word corruption in this passage of the Bhagavad Gita? appears to be about linguistics and theology, with little connection to "Philosophy".

I understand that Philosophy is divided into sub-categories: Philosophy of Religion, Philosophy of Government, Philosophy of Economics, Philosophy of History, etc. But at what point does the discussion become a question of (for example) Philosophy of Religion, rather than Theology itself. Philosophy of Government, rather than political science itself, etc?

I could postulate that perhaps the way to delineate is to determine if the issue at hand is about the subject matter itself, for example Theology: "What does Canon Law say about how to refer to the various components of the Trinity" as opposed to reflection upon the subject matter: "What are the reasons that Canon Law has deemed these terms appropriate when referring to the components of the Trinity", which might be considered "Philosphy of Religion". Or History: "Who was King of France when the French Revolution took place", in contrast to "Why did some historians opine that the King of France was morally justified in resisting the Revolution"?

But I am groping - the lines of demarcation are not at all clear to me. I know that as late as the 17th and 18 centuries, what we call today a "scientist" was called a "philosopher": Someone engaged in deep and speculative thought and research.

Can someone send me to sources that might discuss this question, or provide some guidance on this matter?

  • 1
    I might suggest a text like What is Philosophy?; the answer given being the creation of concepts, but which also talks about the relationships between philosophy (as well as the irreducibility of philosophy) and artistic and scientific practices
    – Joseph Weissman
    Commented May 24, 2013 at 15:50
  • @JosephWeissman - I see that on Amazon, the blurb says "Deleuze and Guattari differentiate between philosophy, science, and the arts" so it sounds like that's a good reference - addresses precisely my question.
    – Vector
    Commented May 24, 2013 at 17:41
  • You may hate this, but no matter how much I think about it this question seems to reduce to semantics. How do you define "philosophy"?
    – commando
    Commented May 25, 2013 at 14:32
  • @commando - whatever you call it, the question was important enough that one of the foremost contemporary philosophers wrote a book about it, as Joseph Weissman has noted.
    – Vector
    Commented May 25, 2013 at 18:13
  • 1
    @commando - OK, maybe so. But I think we're getting into semantics... :-)
    – Vector
    Commented May 26, 2013 at 23:22

4 Answers 4


I'll say the same thing here, which I remarked on a related question: It seems to me that philosophy is work that you have to do before you ask an empirically verifiable question. For instance, you first have to formulate the right question, and the framework in which to ask it, hopefully with the aim to learn something useful once you've asked the question.

Scientific disciplines explore the world; philosophy explores the way in which we ought to go about exploring it. In particular, if you have a question which is adequately addressed by some formalism or framework, without having to grapple with what the question means or with what it would even mean to have an answer, it is no longer philosophical in any sense. In this respect, many questions about religion are not actually philosophical — specifically, to the extent that they presume (and can only be meaningfully addressed in) the canon or traditions of that religion. Similarly, any question which smacks of being straightforwardly scientific isn't very meaningfully philosophical (however grandiose it sounds): questions about how time behaves differently in gravitational wells, or how the embryos of animals resemble one another more than they do when mature, do not any more require a searching for a framework to obtain an answer.

The boundary with philosophy, it seems to me, is where we ask sufficiently general questions that it escapes specialised frameworks — such as "What does evil consist of", or "Why is so much of physical law explainable with linear equations"; or when doubt is cast on a dominant scientific or dogmatic framework, such as "What can it possibly mean for particles to have no definite position" or "Can economics really be described as a science when it makes obviously absurd assumptions about human behaviour and makes such vague predictions". In these cases, one cannot simply rely on an existing formalism, and must attempt to make sound arguments from first principles, or at least without any very well-defined theory doing the heavy lifting in the argument.

Finally, there are questions which escape formalism because it is difficult even to tell what they mean, perhaps because they question not just formalism but even the conventions of language and how we communicate. Some of these can be patriated into the realm of intelligible discourse with some effort, but if sense cannot be made of the question, it cannot be philosophy.

All of these lines are blurry, because it is not always easy to determine whether a question is intelligible, or belongs to a formalism. Notably, if you accept that knowledge is social, the status of a question as doctrinal, philosophical, or nonsense depends on the cultural milieu, and in particular on time. Questions of modern science often would be taken for philosophy or gibberish in the 17th century; but that's just how knowledge changes with time.

  • 1
    Excellent guidelines. Thank you. Accordingly, there are many questions on this site which aren't appropriately deemed 'philosophical' in nature.
    – Vector
    Commented May 26, 2013 at 22:28

If you have to ask whether or not some issue is a philosophical issue, then it's a philosophical issue.

(I'm normally not a big fan of one sentence cutesy answers here, but in this one instance I think I must insist.)

  • What if someone never asks that question at all?
    – Vector
    Commented May 24, 2013 at 4:07
  • @ReallyRational If a question falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
    – David H
    Commented May 24, 2013 at 6:01
  • There is always "someone around" to hear it...
    – Vector
    Commented May 24, 2013 at 6:33
  • The mark of philosophical inquiry is the application of abstract and critical thinking towards a problem. A question that no one has ever asked is a question that's never been incorporated into the domain of philosophy.
    – David H
    Commented May 24, 2013 at 7:00
  • I'm not talking about a question that has never been asked. I'm talking about an individual that does not deal with that question. I don't think I've ever asked it, nor do I have the need to ask it. I'm simply asking how philosophers, interested in such distinctions, make their determinations. I don't concern myself with categorization of questions using such terms - it doesn't interest me very much. I just try to answer the question. Does not asking that question preclude the possibility of abstract and critical thinking? Certainly not. IMO it may even inhibit such thinking.
    – Vector
    Commented May 24, 2013 at 15:35

Unlike an academia where a certain threshold which is pretty high is required, and where one understand the various demarcations between subjects like epistemiology and the philosophy of mind or of history etc, this site allows the interested layman (or above) to ask questions and file answers. Now this means that the questions may not be phrased in the way a professional may phrase them, or answer them in the way he may do. One sometimes has to look for the philosophical content in the question, or nudge the questioner in the right direction. At least that is the way I view questions on the site.

As to what construes philosophy. One can say at least from a historical view going back to the academy in Platos time, that all academic subjects are philosophical because they all require the persistent application of reason in an effective manner. That doctorates, that is phDs are short for Doctor of philosophy is a vestigial reminder of its very early origins. (There is another root which is shown in the idea of theory which comes from the idea of God or gods, that is the realm of the divine; and one can theorise (pun intended) on the theological/mystical/mythological origins of philosophy in the presocratics in the Western Tradition).

This is the reason for the wide variety of questions.

But Philosophy has been practised for over two and a half millenia, and one should understand the progress made and not made or rolled back, or requestioned or reasserted or repositioned etc. One strong marker is the definite development of modern science dating from the renaissance from philosophy proper, one could say that philsophy contracted or a part of it having found itself new means and techniques budded away and developed under its own momentum - in fact most of its practioners will not be aware of the historical basis of their discipline in a solid way.

This means a question about the real world may be seen as philosophy by Aristotle, and as part of physics by the modern day philosopher. One doesn't ask a philosopher for the equations for gravity, but he'll be interested that gravity can be understood as curvature. Of course, if one was philosophically astute as Pythagoras was alleged to be, then one may not be surprised at all, because the idea of the real world as mathematics & thus geometry is an idea that goes back a very long time.

The so-called Pythagoreans, who were the first to take up mathematics, not only advanced this subject, but saturated with it, they fancied that the principles of mathematics were the principles of all things. —Aristotle, Metaphysics 1–5 , cc. 350 BC

When this is combined with the idea in mathematics that geometry is most natural form in which to view mathematics, gravity as a geometrical feature follows; if not its precise nature as curvature.

  • "That doctorates, that is phDs are short for Doctor of philosophy is a vestigial reminder of its very early origins." ! :-) "When this is combined with the idea in mathematics that geometry is most natural form in which to view mathematics, gravity as a geometrical feature follows; if not its precise nature as curvature." ! :-)
    – Vector
    Commented May 27, 2013 at 1:16
  • "All is Number” ― attributed to Pythagoras.
    – Vector
    Commented May 27, 2013 at 1:17
  • @ReallyRational: Are the exclamations expressions of outrage? In fact, after Riemann formulated the idea of manifold and before Einstein found his equations, the english mathematician William Clifford in a lecture in Cambridge said everything in nature should be understood as curvature in geometry :). And another expression that geometry is the most natural form in which to view mathematics is that the theory of schemes is the most natural form in which to view number theory - and this is geometrical; in fact it follows similar ideas to Riemann but obviously different too. Commented May 27, 2013 at 1:29
  • @reallyRational: You may find it interesting that Clifford wrote in 1876 the space-time theory of matter which alludes to what I wrote above. Commented May 27, 2013 at 2:25
  • No: expressions of delight. Your reference to the title phD is something I have often thought about and I liked how you referred to it as 'vestigial'. And knowing something about the history of math, dominance of geometry and Riemann's importance, I very much enjoyed your contention that 'gravity as a geometrical feature follows'. I am not familiar with Clifford offhand, although I did know that Riemannian geometry enabled Einstein.
    – Vector
    Commented May 27, 2013 at 6:10

What wouldn't be philosophical?

The human thought is composed of symbols, words and language, all subject of study of philosophy. So, nothing "becomes" philosophical. Something may be "pushed out" of the field, for politics, morality, and the like, but not "pushed in". It was always there. Actually, philosophy is the widest word we use to systematize our knowledge. "Science" is more restrict because of its methodology. "Religion" is more restrict because of its dependence on "faith". Philosophy is the basis of them all (even when the faithful does not know it).

For instance, "philosophy of biology" is a functional part of "biology" itself. How can any knowledge be deprived of its philosophy? Wouldn't it stop being a knowledge, and become simply dogma?

Looks like you are using a very narrow definition of "philosophy". Why?

  • This does not provide an answer to the question. To critique or request clarification from an author, leave a comment below their post. Commented Jan 27, 2015 at 20:36
  • Look now, @JamesKingsbery.
    – Rodrigo
    Commented Jan 27, 2015 at 22:06
  • 1
    Better, but your answer seems to imply that everything is just philosophy. Commented Jan 27, 2015 at 22:18
  • Philosophy is like a drawer with other drawers inside. Science and religion are the drawers inside. And I'd call the outter drawer 'mythology', not 'philosophy', because the first - when analyzed properly, not as just folklore - looks more universal to me. Much of what is called 'philosophy' is way too soaked with european limited concepts.
    – Rodrigo
    Commented Jan 27, 2015 at 22:46

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .