What is philosophy?

Someone asked me what philosophy is. I answered by trying to pinpoint the most frequently used word when one philosophizes.

What does a philosopher most often say? I believe he or she most often says, “But…”:

  • “But is that really true?”
  • “But shouldn’t then…?”
  • “But can’t one imagine that…?”
  • “But how can anyone know such a thing?”
  • Etc.

Always some unexpected obstacle! Just at the moment when your reasoning seems entirely spotless, an annoying “but…?” knocks you to the ground and you have to start all over again.

Confronted with our spontaneous reasoning, a philosopher’s head soon fills with objections. Perplexing questions lead into unknown territory. Maps must be drawn the need of which we never anticipated. A persistently repeated “but…?” reveals challenges for which we lack preparedness.

But the goal is not that of interminably objecting. Objecting and being perplexed are not intrinsic values.

Rather the contrary. The accumulation of objections is a precondition to there being a goal with philosophizing: that of putting an END to the annoying objections.

Philosophy is a fight with one’s own objections; the goal is to silence them.

But if that is so, what point can philosophy have? An activity that first raises annoying objections, and then tries to silence them: what’s that good for!?

Try to reason about what “consent to future research” means. Then you’ll probably notice that you soon start repeating “but…?” with regard to your own attempts to reason well. Your objections will annoy you and spur you to think even more clearly. You will draw maps the need of which you had not anticipated.

Even if we prefer that we never went astray, we do go astray. It pertains to being human. THEN we see the point with persistently asking “but…?”; THEN we see the purpose with crisscrossing confusing aspects of life until we survey them, haunted by objections from an unyielding form of sincerity.

When we finally manage to silence our irritating objections, philosophy has made itself as superfluous as a map would be when we cross our own street…

…until we go astray again.

Pär Segerdahl

We challenge habits of thought : the Ethics Blog

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