We can philosophize about life, the universe, gods, or society, about physics, religion, art, literature, or war, about politics, economy, or paradoxes, about moral, ethics, aesthetics, consciousness, math, language, science, pets, love, sex, fashion, travel, murder, the weather, loogic, argument, astrology, dreams, or the mind, reality, truth, and maybe even about an orange carrot.

It seems clear that knowledge about the subject one philosophizes about is an a priori for philosophizing. Or does philosophy contribute to that knowledge? Is the subject philosophized about part of philosophy, like logic, argument, or ethics maybe? Is there a difference between parts of philosophy and philosophizing about these?

What's does philosophy say about the nature of philosophy itself?

In other words, is there something like pure philosophy, without applying it to a subject, like there is pure mathematics without applying it to physics? Is math maybe pure philosophy?

I still other words, what's left of philosophy if the subject philosophized about is left out? Is there a set of philosophy rules that can be applied to an arbitrary subject, like there are mathematical rules that can be applied to an arbitrary subject? Are there subjects to which philosophy doesn't or can't apply, like math can't be applied to all subjects?

  • The answer might already get hinted by the word philosophy itself which means love wisdom, which is not about any specific topic, but a mindful attitude about any subject. Following this hint, if there's only one actual topic in this world, it must be a topic about self-referencing attitude in a mindful mode... Commented Apr 16, 2022 at 21:42

3 Answers 3



Exactly what philosophy is and does is a point of contention, not only on this site, but across different philosophical traditions across space and time. SamIAm123's response offers metaphilosophy as an answer to your question in a broad sense. As WP notes, some famous philosophers reject the label itself:

"When we ask, "What is philosophy?" then we are speaking about philosophy. By asking in this way we are obviously taking a stand above and, therefore, outside of philosophy. But the aim of our question is to enter into philosophy, to tarry in it, to conduct ourselves in its manner, that is, to "philosophize". The path of our discussion must, therefore, not only have a clear direction, but this direction must at the same time give us the guarantee that we are moving within philosophy and not outside of it and around it."2 — Martin Heidegger, Was Ist Das – die Philosophie? p. 21

Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has no article titled "Metaphilosophy", but the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy does. From that article:

What is philosophy? What is philosophy for? How should philosophy be done? These are metaphilosophical questions, metaphilosophy being the study of the nature of philosophy. Contemporary metaphilosophies within the Western philosophical tradition can be divided, rather roughly, according to whether they are associated with (1) Analytic philosophy, (2) Pragmatist philosophy, or (3) Continental philosophy.

Oxford University Press offers two short expositions on 1. and 3. Michael Beaney's Analytic Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction and Simon Critchley's Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction. Interestingly in the latter, Critchley labels the distinction between 1. and 3. a stylistic and political one, and not one largely derived from a difference in content:

The current divisions in the study of philosophy are a consequence of certain more or less inadequate professional self-descriptions... sectarian self-descriptions that are the consequence of the professionalization of the discipline, a process that has led to the weakening of philosophy's critical functional and its emancipatory intent... p.126

And of course, what shall we make of other traditions outside of the West, including Indian philosophy and Chinese philosophy? Universally and functionally, philosophy seems to be concerned with things and their nature (ontology), knowledge and truth (epistemology), and making decisions based on values (axiology), but then, each of these disciplines has it's own meta-version. For instance, Berro and Plebani published an excellent Ontology and Metaontology. What are to make of metaontology, metaepistemology, and meta-ethics?

Ultimately, having a coherent answer to your question may come only after a life of study and may be the implicit goal of everyone who studies philosophy.

  • This is excellent. A better researched and less off-the-cuff answer than my own. +1.
    – SamIAm123
    Commented Apr 15, 2022 at 16:32
  • 1
    @SamIAm123 Thanks! I upvoted yours because I think you covered all the bases. I just have been using the same links over and over for the last three years, so I just sort of spiced what you said up with citations. With beginner questions like the one the OP posted, I try to raise more questions than I answer to give them a shove in the right direction. :D
    – J D
    Commented Apr 15, 2022 at 16:37

Good question! Meta-philosophy is fun and intriguing. There's a couple things to address. Firstly, it's worth noting that there's no consensus about exactly what philosophy is. Philosophy could be, as Deleuze thought, "the art of question-asking". Perhaps it is the building of a magnificent, comprehensive system that probes the boundaries of rational thought. - Or perhaps it is little more than an application of our socially conditioned biases. Perhaps wonder is the source of philosophy, as Plato thought, or perhaps the source of philosophy is despair, or the activity of a class conscious subject...

Here's the thing. Whatever philosophy is, deciding what it is is contained within philosophy itself! So wherever you choose to explore, remember that you're doing philosophy as we speak.

Also, usually when people talk about applying philosophy to other topics, they mean applying specific philosophical premises or ideas that aren't contained within the normal subject matter of the topic itself. For example, applying Kant's theories of aesthetics to musical theory would be an easy example of what you're talking about. Another example would be viewing films or politics through a dialectical lens like that of Marx or Hegel.

As for whether knowledge of the topic is required to engage in it philosophically, the answer is yes. You don't want to go into law and try to force on them philosophical concepts that have already been considered at length; you want to know what you're talking about. However, I would caution against using terminology here like "a-priori". It's not so much knowledge in the epistemic sense that's required; not some kind of prerequisite for thought in that area. Rather it just means experience within the social and intellectual context you are trying to apply philosophy to. You don't need to prove from the ground up that movies, for example, are as they appear in the real world and your senses are not deceiving you - that would be missing the point. What you need to do is simply learn a bit about films before you apply a post-structuralist critique or whatever.

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    "Whatever philosophy is, deciding what it is is contained within philosophy itself! " Very true! Philosophizing is the best way way to know what it is. Like doing science is the best way to know what science is, instead of philosophizing about it. The question pops up if you can philosophize without philosophizing about a subject, like philosophizing about religion. Does philosophy need a subject? –
    – Pathfinder
    Commented Apr 15, 2022 at 13:58
  • In other words, is there something like pure philosophy, without applying it to a subject, like there is pure mathematics without applying it to physics? Is math maybe pure philosophy?
    – Pathfinder
    Commented Apr 15, 2022 at 14:08

Mario Bunge, an Argentinian philosopher and who called himself an exact philosopher suggested the following formula for the philosophy of philosophy itself:

P^2 = P

He means that the philosophy of philosophy was philosophy itself. Although he offered this as a formula, a piece of formal language, it was meant as kind of amusement. As an exact philosopher, he knew as well as anyone that exactness is not reducible to formulae.

  • +1 For me Bunge's formula hits the nail on the head.
    – Jo Wehler
    Commented Apr 15, 2022 at 16:21

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