Anthropological and Historical Definitions … and the Question, “What is Philosophy?”

As a professional philosopher, I’m often expected to have something to say about definitional questions. When it comes to those definitional questions that concern human practices or disciplines – questions like, “What is Art?” “What is Science?” and “What is Philosophy?” – I find it useful to distinguish between what we might call “anthropological” and “historical” strategies of definition.* I’m unsure whether this distinction applies to other concepts as effectively, and/or what kind of changes to the distinction might be necessary to make it apply (but see my recent post on “natural kinds” for some thought on this). In this post, I will attempt simply to clarify the distinction as it applies to human practices, taking the familiar (at least to me!) case of “philosophy” as my example.

* I came to notice this distinction, by the way, in the process of reading Stephen Davies’ and Cynthia Freeland’s excellent introductory texts in the Philosophy of Art: here and here, respectively. What follows may be read as a distillation and commentary on a distinction they recognized before me, as well as an extension of that distinction to definitional questions other than that of “Art.”

The historical strategy of definition attempts to track the changing status and role of a practice throughout its history. “Etymological” definitions are an attempt of the “historical” sort, but obviously incomplete from the standards of full historical consciousness: the origins of something do not include or necessitate that their course or their end will be any particular way. Employing this strategy also involves issues of historical reconstruction, and therefore hermeneutics, when we attempt to ‘recapture’ and make sense of this history.

The anthropological strategy of definition attempts to say what the practice in question “essentially” is: What, if anything, are the common roots, causes, and types of the practice? Of course, “essentialism” (whether Aristotlean, Kripkean, or otherwise) is a problematic and controversial position. It also raises the possibility of a critique of one or another instance of the practice in question, on the basis of those allowable features (per its “essential” definition) that it does not instantiate. Again, there is a hermeneutic dimension here.

Having distinguished these strategies of definition, I’d like to propose two controversial theses about them. First, that efforts to define human practices today will find that both of these two strategies of definition are indispensable. Second, that neither strategy may successfully be employed independently of the other. Anthropological commitments have a rightful claim to inform historical views; historical views have a rightful claim to inform anthropological ones.

As promised, we will now take “Philosophy” as an example.

I. Criteria of a Satisfactory Answer to the Question, “What is Philosophy?”

Following the first of the controversial theses, I would argue that any satisfactory answer to the question, “What is Philosophy?,” will include orientation to anthropological commitments about what kind of practice philosophy is, and to an historical account of the traditions that issue in what we today call “Philosophy.” It will also involve a hermeneutic dimension in regard to both strategies, a fact that could be captured in saying that it will be both creative and constructive activity (that is, the definition itself will be partly a recommendation and proposed organization of semiotic space), and it will be evidence-responsive – including, for instance, the interest in paying due consideration to the following:

(1) the motivations for asking the question, which force attention to “common language” and historical tradition aspects of meaning-fixation

(2) the principle-of-parity, which forces inclusion of extra-traditional elements into the tradition and thus suggests the existence of at least some cases wherein “anthropological” strategies of definition make fair claims of authority to revise definition arrived at by “historical” means alone

(3) Those evidence bases and commitments (natural-scientific, religious, political) that we don’t want to (otherwise) abandon, or could only abandon here on pain of contradiction.

II. Attempt at Substantive Answer to the Question, “What is Philosophy?”

From an etymological-historical perspective, philosophy began with the ancient Greeks, where it was identified with the project of learning for the sake of learning. The effect to carry out this project soon raised procedural questions, however, which transformed the identity of the practice in question. These questions included, “How does one or how can one best learn in the most comprehensive and effective, or ‘best,’ sense? Indeed, how should we determine what is ‘best’ here?” These procedural questions were soon deemed as fundamental to the project as its pre-procedural, substantive aims (since the value and effectiveness of the pre-procedural aims were seen to be dependent, in a way, on how the procedural questions were answered – see Plato’s Republic for support of this claim and others in this paragraph). At this point, various features that are still identifiable in contemporary representatives of philosophy, took shape within the tradition:

(1) A comprehensive hunger for knowledge.
(2) Concern with “meta” and “reflective” (what I’ve so far called “procedural”) questions.
(3) Commitment to responsiveness to “reason” – that is, to objections brought from any quarter
(where “any corner” is meant both sociologically and ideologically)

This practice was then carried, self-consciously (as tradition) through a variety of instantiations, including the Hellenic, medieval (Arabic, Jewish, and Christian), early modern, and late modern phases. In the views of various contributors to philosophy, these three features were differently emphasized or distributed, but all three were retained as strong possibilities within the tradition. Thus, medieval philosophers toyed with the idea of a domain of reasons that was fundamentally non-rational – what is variously called “faith” or “revelation” – while retaining, at an institutional level, the open-endedness of this particular question. Modern empiricism, various “subjectivisms,” and Lebensphilosophie did something similar. Regarding “comprehensiveness” of attention, some philosophers retained this in a very deliberate and explicit way (for instance, Hegel), while others combined this kind of commitment with a strong sense of the finitude of human life, thus adopting a “generality” and (inevitably relatively superficial) “breadth,” rather than full comprehensiveness. Hume, for instance, once wrote of a personal distaste for everything besides “philosophy and general learning,” which distaste was sufficiently strong to motivate him to live modestly on a modest inheritance and avoid the necessity of working. Philosophy and general learning are thereby, in the taste and language of the Edinburgh philosopher as in other places, very closely associated. Sketching a degree of comprehensiveness, generality, and rigor somewhat intermediate between Hume’s and Hegel’s, Wilfrid Sellars once described the philosophers’ characteristic concern as with “how things, in the widest sense of the term, hang together in the widest sense of the term.”

My suggestion is that these three features are a reasonable “cluster-concept” characterization of the practice of Philosophy, anthropologically defined, where Philosophy is understood as whatever is (i) linguistically and historically continuous with this tradition; or, (ii) was linguistically identified as “philosophy” at one or another time in the past; or, (iii) is or was sufficiently anthropologically analogous to our own conception, to support (via parity arguments) our own contemporary identification of the instance in question as one of Philosophy. These three features are selected, specifically, as ones that a wide variety of present-day practitioners, as well as the most plausible and widely-recognized predecessors or ancestors of the present-day practice, would recognize as philosophical. These criteria have been roughly shared among quite a wide range of practitioners, for several thousand years – namely, wherever Greek civilization made a mark and the accounts of philosophy in Plato, Aristotle, and the Hellenic commentators served as a constraint on the interpretation of the meaning of φιλοσοφια. Until the 19th century, this included at least groups in Europe, broadly construed, and a substantial part of the Middle East. Today it includes groups of people all over the world.

The historical narrative that connects us to the baptismal origins of Philosophy eventually comes – in the course of developments spanning the 17th and 19th century – to the point of enabling the identification of practices in non-Western contexts as also instances of Philosophy. In other words: The history of Philosophy itself includes a moment wherein the history is discovered to be insufficient to define and delimit the concept of Philosophy itself. Philosophy is discovered to be an anthropological as well as a historical phenomenon. Those who were familiar with Philosophy, within the so-called Western tradition, came to know of texts, traditions, and practices largely historically unconnected to this tradition, and to identify these practices as also “philosophical” by virtue of their similarity to the practices familiar in the West. Thus Schoepenhauer, as is well-known, was impressed by the philosophy of the ancient Indian Upanishads. The existence of a Chinese philosophical tradition was another early realization along these lines. Since that time, African and Native American traditions, among others, have also been recognized and studied. (See, for instance, the work of Kwame Gyeke on the Akan conceptual scheme; Claude Lévi-Strauss’s La Pensée Sauvage [The Savage Mind]; and Keith Basso’s Wisdom Sits in Places on the Apache.)

Undoubtedly, further awareness of these formerly disconnected historical and cultural situations in which philosophy had taken shape, had an effect on the subsequent history of philosophy itself. To some extent, these various traditions have had the opportunity to merge into a single tradition, albeit (of course) one that remains relatively easily capable of demarcation into a great variety of separate conversations.