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I had a professor who I found quite worthless except his explanation of philosophy as:

an attempt to reduce the flux of the world to arrive at unchanging truth

The class was centered around seeing trends throughout the history of philosophy in order to make guesses at a central truth. The professor was very religious and, as such, believed that there does exist a discernible truth behind all of the distractions that we see in the world.

This sounds like an over-simplification of the goal of philosophy, and it seems that modern philosophy has ignored this goal and some schools of thought seem more like ideologies than approaches to thought.

So, my question is: What is the current goal of philosophy? Or rather, What do philosophers hope to achieve in their study?

Note that I'm not attempting to bash the study of philosophy here. I'm simply wondering what the generally-accepted aim of contemporary philosophy is. Do most philosophers really hope to reduce chaos into understanding altruistically, or does the motivation generally stem from fulfillment in the discussion and pursuit of knowledge?

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  • Pretty similar to philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/568/… -- maybe you could clarify the difference?
    – Joseph Weissman
    Aug 9 '11 at 11:28
  • Also worried this is borderline general reference or 'too basic' for the site
    – Joseph Weissman
    Aug 9 '11 at 12:36
  • Philosophy is an area of study which has no goals of its own. Philosophers have goals, and this question would be to broad if asked about them in general.
    – Chad
    Aug 9 '11 at 14:45
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    Replace "philosophy" with pretty much any academic discipline and this question makes almost as much sense, which suggests it is a little too broad or even off topic...
    – Seamus
    Aug 9 '11 at 16:43
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    @tjameson - That is far to broad of a question.
    – Chad
    Aug 9 '11 at 20:17
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I would say that your professor—broadly speaking—has it right, except that it is people who have goals. It doesn't really make sense to me to say that "x academic field has a goal". Does "mathematics" have a goal? To be the coolest science on the block? No, people have goals, and the end goal of a philosopher is to be wise. And the only way to be wholly wise would be to know the absolute, ultimate, (unchanging) truth about the universe.

philo– from Greek philos, "loving"

sophy– from Greek sophia, "wisdom"

In this sense, it means "Lover of wisdom". As wisdom is gained through knowledge, it follows that absolute wisdom would only be obtained through absolute knowledge. Therefore, it is not unreasonable to say that the end goal of any philosopher—if they truly do love wisdom—is to reduce the flux of the world to arrive at unchanging truth.

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  • While it's a nice thought, is this the actual reason that people go into philosophy in the first place? Are philosophers actively engaged in this persuit, or is it more of a thing that they hope to contribute to but don't expect to actually achieve?
    – beatgammit
    Aug 9 '11 at 4:12
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    I'm pretty sure people "go into philosophy in the first place" simply because they are interested in it, not necessarily because they have some end goal to reach. I wasn't formulating long-term life goals of my philosophical inquiries when I sat down in Phil 101 day 1 of my freshman year classes. I was simply intrigued by the ideas which were presented to me, and thus was persuaded to continue my study. During the course of our studies we may set goals for ourselves, but typically we set more practical goals in our calendars than "Gain ultimate knowledge by Tuesday". :P
    – stoicfury
    Aug 9 '11 at 19:14
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The "aim of philosophy" and "what philosophers wish to achieve" are two different questions.

If you are asking about the aim of philosophy, that is a teleological question. Many contemporary philosophers will reject the notion of a telos out of hand; others might give an answer similar to the one your professor gave.

If you are asking what philosophers wish to achieve, this is a question of psychology, and not philosophy. If I were being glib, I'd suggest that most wish to achieve tenure-- but that's clearly not a fair statement.

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  • Haha, I like your statement about tenure. That's interesting that many philosophers would reject telos. Does this mean that the the pursuit of knowledge is enough of an end in and of itself for many philosophers?
    – beatgammit
    Aug 9 '11 at 17:13
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This is a very subjective question. That is, there are about as many different goals of philosophy as there are philosophers. Of course, this doesn't mean that you can't find general trends, just as there are trends as to why people exercise, go out to dance or study japanese. I don't know of any empirical research investigating this question and I don't know if that's the answer you're looking for either.

So, since this is a highly subjective discussion, I'm going to link to one such subjective discussion that I find good: Episode one of the philosophy podcast "The Partially Examined Life" (the episode is divided up into two parts, part one and part two).

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There is no end goal to philosophy, a goal once attained that will mean that no one will be interested in studying it further. People (those interested in philosophy) will always have philosophical things to discover.

There might however be smaller term goals that are satisfactorily answered (or more likely in philosophy addressed) to satisfaction.

But for the entire field of philosophy, there's no expected 'end'.

The continual goal, on the other hand would essentially be answering what the primary current purpose_ of philosophy is. And that, I think, is subject to the whims of fashion and sub-categories of philosophy. Theology is not particularly popular right now, the determinism/free will question as well as empiricism/rationalism are old hat. Existentialism is a bit too last century. I think the current major trends right now are philosophy of language (within the analytic side), applied philosophy (e.g. bioethics), ...hm...I don't know what is going on in the continental/humanistic side.

Anyway, there's no end-goal, but maybe some short term goals but those are only in specific sub-areas, which you'd have to ask about individually (and even there you might get a similar answer).

Think of it this way...what is the end-goal of chemistry? Has chemistry been 'solved'? No but in many smaller corners of chemistry there is progress and answers at the end.

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