“Yeah, but what do you actually do?” In addition to slightly pained expressions, that’s the kind of answer you get when you tell someone you’re a philosopher, or a bit less grandly, someone who teaches or writes philosophy. It’s different from a nearby question which gets all the headlines: “What is philosophy?” Fair question, but in this issue’s symposium, we explore something ever so slightly more down to earth. What is it to do philosophy?
That question raises a lot of little questions. What is it to read philosophy? Those who approach a philosophical text as they might a novel are in for an unpleasant surprise, but what goes on, or what should go on when we read philosophical writing? Philosophers will tell you that arguments are their bread and butter, but what is it to construct an argument, and how do you do it well? What are the methods of philosophers — it’s not just arguments, they go on about thought experiments too. How can just thinking about something get you nearer the truth? To look back in time a little, what, if anything, does It mean to live a philosophical life? And, again a bit less grandly, what is it to do what most philosophers do to make a living, namely, teach philosophy?
All of these questions are attempts to civilise something a little wild. Philosophy has always been hard to pin down. It’s meant different things to different people at different times, and throughout it all those keen on categories have tried to box it up, but I don’t think that’s ever worked. The problem is that philosophy isn’t so much a thing you can contain and examine, but something shared — on a page, or sometimes better, in conversation. Whatever philosophy is, it’s something people do together.
Socrates and the gang are the obvious example here, sitting in the Athenian sun, arguing together about justice, but you can give yourself goose-bumps when you think too long about other moments in philosophical writing. Hume springs to mind, but it can creep up on you in Aristotle just as quickly. Aristotle talks about “us” all the time. At the end of Nicomachean Ethics, for example, a comprehensive study of ethics, where anyone else would be content to draw a line, he writes, “Let us get on with the enquiry” as he moves on to politics. “Let us get on with it.” You, and me, and Aristotle, somehow together, thinking about virtue. Working out what’s going on when we read passages like this would tell us a lot about what doing philosophy really is.