PHL100 Introducing Philosophy Week 01, 09 September 2013
What is philosophy?
It’s a difficult task to arrive at an uncontroversial definition of what philosophy exactly is. In fact, the
question, “What is philosophy?” itself is a philosophical question. It is quite possible that if one were to
place four philosophers in a room, they would have at least eight different opinions on the subject.
We could determine a definition, however, by carefully distinguishing between the questions asked.
Important vs. Unimportant
i.e. Does god exist?
i.e. Is there cure for cancer?
Any answer to these questions makes a tremendous difference on our conception of our world. We
could say that these questions are directly related to matters of central human concern.
i.e. How long were Julius Caesar’s thumbnails ten days before the Ides of March?
i.e. How many blades of grass are there in Queen’s Park?
We make the assumption that some questions have no importance.
Of course, situations can make a question important. If Earth was invaded in the future by an alien
battle-station that demanded we determine the length of Julius Caesar’s nails or face certain planetary
annihilation, then suddenly the question becomes much more relevant to all of us.
Empirical vs. Not Empirical
Some questions have a definite answer that can be determined by sense experience (i.e. counting the
blades of grass in Queen’s Park), or by inductive and abductive reasoning of natural sciences (i.e. finding
a cure for cancer). Such questions are known to be empirical.
You cannot answer an empirical question simply through thinking really hard about it; you need to use
your senses, supplemented by inductive reasoning from the sciences, combining senses and knowledge.
The questions of god and Caesar’s thumbnails are not empirical because they lack physical or sense
experience, and you can’t arrive at a conclusion through interacting with them in experiment or science.
The Difference between Philosophy and the Natural Sciences
As you can see, natural sciences deal with important, empirical questions central to human concern,
such as the cure to cancer. Philosophy tries to answer important, but not empirical questions.
Historically speaking, all important questions began as philosophical questions. Fields of scientific
inquiry such as physics and medicine began as branches of philosophy, since we couldn’t figure them
out in empirical terms until people came up with measurements and experiments.
i.e. The question “Why do things move?” was philosophical. Now, it is known as physics. Sometimes, the boundaries between the natural sciences