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What is Philosophy?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 September 2006

Graham Priest
University of Melbourne and University of St. Andrews


‘What is philosophy?’ is a question that every professional philosopher must ask themself sometimes. In a sense, of course, they know: they spend much time doing it. But in another sense, the answer to the question is not at all obvious. In the same way, any person knows by acquaintance what breathing is; but this does not mean that they know the nature of breathing: its mechanism and function. The nature of breathing, in this sense, is now well understood; the nature of philosophy, by contrast, is still very much an open question. One of the reasons this is so is that the nature of philosophy is itself a philosophical question, so uncontentious answers are not to be expected—if philosophers ever ceased disagreeing with one another our profession would be done for. (More of this anon.) Moreover, it is a hard philosophical question. Many great philosophers, including Plato, Hegel, and others, have suggested answers to it. But their answers would now be given little credence. In the thirty or so years that I have been doing philosophy there have been two views about the nature of philosophy which have had wide acceptance. These are the views of the later Wittgenstein and of Derrida. In the first two parts of this paper I will describe these views and explain why I find them unsatisfactory. I will then go on, in the final part of paper, to outline a view that inspires more confidence in me.

Research Article
2006 The Royal Institute of Philosophy

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