Irritating ‘Philosophy’

I have a little bugbear.

A little pet peeve.

So there are a ton of different usages of the word ‘philosophy’.  Leaving aside its double-life as a verb, the OED lists nine noun entries for ‘philosophy’ – and one of them really grinds my gears.  I might be the only philosopher that gets the irritated, nails-on-chalkboard sensation when someone uses the term in this way, but I suspect not.  Not only are philosophers incredibly sensitive to their own use of language, splitting already split hairs, I find that they’re almost preternaturally attuned to the misuse of words in others.  Maybe we’re just all jerks.  Number six in the OED list is the spine-shivering offender, particularly, entry (b): “In extended use: a set of opinions or ideas held by an individual or group; a theory or attitude which acts as a guiding principle for behaviour; an outlook or world view.”

Maybe now you’re starting to sympathize with me.

Maybe now you’re starting to get that nervous twitch at the corner of your eye.  Such usages invariably begin with ‘My philosophy…’ (or worse, ‘our philosophy…’).  Businesses, politicians, and celebrities are, if not the worst offenders of this usage, certainly offer us the most prevalent examples.  Here are some, randomly culled from Google: ‘Our marketing philosophy […] depends heavily on our belief in limitless possibilities’, ‘My philosophy is that not only are you responsible for your life, but doing the best at this moment puts you in the best place for the next moment.’, and so on*.

Why is this, and lets not mince words here, offensive to the two ears of (at least this) academic philosopher?  My own suspicion is that it has less to do with an ivory-tower defence of a proper usage of the term, than with the inevitable Crocodile-Dundee-style confrontation between 6B and these proper usages: i.e. ‘That’s not a philosophy, this, is a philosophy.’  To wit, when people start thinking that academic philosophy is the same as gathering and living by a collection of opinions, or indeed, ethical statements, which academic philosophy believes is but a subset of problems under only one (but a major) division of the discipline.  This, at least, is what pushes my button.  Not the use of the term, but that it misleads people about what philosophers actually do on a daily basis.

One might think that definition 6b hasn’t applied to mainstream philosophy since the time of the Ancient Greeks, where one’s philosophical analyses and conclusions really were a world view: things really did look different if you were an Epicurean as compared to a Stoic.   So maybe, what we need to do is isolate this use of ‘philosophy’ and try to slowly replace it with ‘ethos’ or ‘guiding principles’ or ‘firmly held beliefs’.   Would that solve the problem?  I’m not sure, and I’m starting to come round to the fact that this idea is a little misguided.  That really, 6B, and all its usages, even the extremely annoying uses, really does belong with all the other definitions, and that it should not only be used in this way, but encouraged.

Say what you will about David Foster Wallace – but in this area, I think he’s right.  In his doorstop of a book, Infinite Jest, he spills a lot of ink showing the wisdom of common phrases.   He picks up on this theme in the heart-wrenching (and mercifully, much shorter) 2005 Kenyon commencement speech.  What does a liberal art’s education really mean? –and the platitude, that it “teaches you how to think”?  I won’t retrace the article, suffice to say, that “teaching you how to think” has more depth, and more to teach, than you might think a common, bandied-about phrase really should.

And this, I think, is the way we should treat number 6B.  It might seem irritating, and a distortion of the ‘real’ uses of ‘philosophy’ – but it is just as real, and just as relevant.  Philosophy was, as alluded to above, once much more than an analysis of the necessary and sufficient conditions, or of supervenience bases and non-reductive explanatory levels: it did capture something about the world, and the way we do (or should) live in it.  And I think we should keep that in mind as we go about our studies, our great tracts of analyses – we are doing more than definition no. 1, creating “[knowledge], learning, scholarship; a body of knowledge”, and doing more than performing 4a “[rational] inquiry or argument, as opposed to divinely revealed knowledge” – that we are attempting to understanding the world by carving it at its joints, and trying to find our place in it – that we are, after all, crafting a world view.


David Vessey – Gadamer and Davidson on Language and Thought

*I have a suspicion, that the word ‘philosophy’ becomes something of a null search term when attached to most words.  Outside of its specifying usage with words like ‘ancient’ or ‘of law’, I doubt it really adds any great value to the trimming of search results.  I also think there are rules for a drinking game in here somewhere.


2 thoughts on “Irritating ‘Philosophy’”

  1. I’m puzzled by this. You really had me worked up in the beginning (who among us academic philosophers does NOT have this peeve). But then you lost me when you claimed that your problem with 6b is that it mischaracterizes what we do. Especially when you say that this is the case since the Stoics (since, as you concede, they did have a philosophical worldview).
    Hey, the problem I thought we were all having with 6b was not that worldviews are not a necessary condition for calling something philosophy but that they are not a sufficient condition. Of course Philosophy, at its best, can offer a world view (certainly of the scope offered in your examples above from google). The difference is that in one case what one offers is trite, unreflective, opinion and in the other it is reflective knowledge. Philosophy’s claim was to elevate or replace opinion with knowledge and an understanding of how things really are or must be. Whether philosophy has its own methods for doing this or is just the reflection on how to do this is a debate we need not have here. Either way, the Crocodile Dundee moment is supposed to occur, not because the ‘knife’ your interlocutor is holding is really something entirely different, but because the ‘knife’ is a puny miserable substitute for the real thing.
    And the reason we find the characterization of what we do offensive is not merely that it mischaracterizes what we do in the sense of not characterizing it accurately. It’s the precise type of mischaracterization that is problematic: it trivializes what we do. It makes what we do seem pointless. The whole point was to elevate oneself over bias and opinion, and instead we’re perceived to be perpetuating those things and, worse, are impervious to evidence and facts. It’s because doing things that way is something we have no respect for, not merely because it’s something different from what we do.

    1. Hello Philosophy Student and thank you for your comment,

      This piece is full of rhetorical devices, and I think my point may have been swallowed up in them.

      What you are articulating, in a way much superior to what I have written, is, I think, a pretty standard view that people have towards this issue: philosophy contains a tradition of rarefied opinions and reflections, brought about by a set of tools, which are also subject to reflection and modification. This is to be distinguished from the common, man-about-town view towards her own ‘personal philosophy’, which is her own, perhaps not-as-carefully-scrutinized, set of opinions, reflections, and tools. This might be a rather modern bifurcation, I’m not sure, and I tried to voice a certain amount of hesitation in attributing it as far back as the good ol’ times of the Epicureans and Stoics. And, yes, there are problems and irritations when the two are compared as if equals (Knife-Knife). You do a much better job at outlining this standard stance and argument than I do. However, this wasn’t what I was aiming at illuminating and repudiating.

      Mea culpa.

      What I was trying to get at, particularly with the reference DFW, was that this platitudinous, common, aggravating use of the term ‘philosophy’ contains more depth to it than the standard view gives credit. And indeed, definition 6B may not be doing justice to this kind of usage. When people begin such phrases as ‘my philosophy means I can’t eat…’ or ‘my philosophy means that…’ they are not only expressing an opinion, probably an ill-founded one (who knows), but they are articulating something very powerful. Not only are they expressing something about themselves, but about the world, and their position in it. And this is what is powerful about the 6B definition of ‘philosophy’: it draws our attention to the way in which philosophy really is involved in working out a place in the world, and how it expresses something about the people involved in it, whether their opinions or discussions are well informed or not. The piece was not so much targeting the fact that 6B use of ‘philosophy’ is irritating, but the fact that it is compared as equal to, what we in the academic profession do. The piece was trying to find a place for 6B within our usage of philosophy, by showing that its usage illuminates something about the enterprise of philosophy as a whole.

      So hey! I hope that makes you feel less puzzled. The aim here wasn’t some agony aunt moanin’ and groanin’ followed by a reasoned argument about why this moanin’ and groanin’ is justified, but more of an attempt to find some kind of middle ground, or broader agreement, on what our usage of the term ‘philosophy’ in common situations really picks out. An attempt to bring a few more people into discussion about what philosophy really accomplishes (like yourself! thanks!).

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