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What is Philosophy?


My next MOOC has just started. It is called Introduction to Philosophy  by by Dr. Dave Ward, Professor Duncan Pritchard, Dr. Alasdair Richmond, Dr. Allan Hazlett, Dr. Suilin Lavelle, Dr. Matthew Chrisman, Dr. Michela Massimi. It is another course from Coursera again from The University of Edinburgh.

The course is divided into seven segments and each week a different professor will introduce us to the following topics:

  • What is Philosophy?
  • What is Knowledge? And Do We Have Any?
  • Minds, Brains and Computers
  • Morality: Objective, Relative or Emotive?
  • Should You Believe What You Hear?
  • Are Scientific Theories True?
  • Time Travel and Philosophy


First week’s lecture introduced the course and had us thinking about what Philosophy actually is.

From the syllabus:

We’ll start the course by thinking about what Philosophy actually is: what makes it different from other subjects? What are its distinctive aims and methods? We’ll also think about why the questions that philosophers attempt to answer are often thought to be both fundamental and important, and have a look at how philosophy is actually practised. Finally, we’ll briefly touch upon two very influential philosophers’ answers to the question of how we can know whether, in any given case, there really is a right way of thinking about things.

At first it seemed a bit difficult to understand and assimilate the content, so here’s my attempt at taking notes for my better understanding. Ary (All the world’s a mooc), my frainger from edcmooc is also taking this mooc and she has created the first week’s notes.


What is Philosophy?

Source: Wikimedia

Source: Wikimedia

Philosophy is the activity of stepping back and working out the best way of thinking. Philosophy is an activity not a subject. For example, we step back from “doing” the activity of physics and analyse our thinking about the process of doing physics. Thinking about the process of “doing physics” is philosophy. We can think about “the doing” from the inside, the armchair, by looking at data and asking how data confirms or refutes what we already know. Or, we can revise our conceptions from the outside – taking our thinking and testing it against the world. Dr. Ward shares an example about medieval medicine and how through experience, empirical knowledge gained throughout history, we changed our thinking about medicine. We stepped back and worked out the best way of thinking about the science of medicine. So, as Dr. Ward says, we philosophize on all aspects of our lives. We are constantly stepping back and working out the best ways to understand and solve problems in our ever changing world to make the world a more hospitable place for all humanity.



Philosophical questions/problems arise anywhere, in any domain. Some philosophical questions are trivial while others help us reflect on our present behaviour. For example, why are there zippers versus why genocide, slavery or racism? Dr. Ward compares the philosopher to a child who constantly asks WHY? Philosophy helps us articulate and justify our assumptions and pre-suppositions. The philosopher not only asks why but also searches for answers.

Philosophy is fundamental as a subject but a brain surgeon or a bomb disposer would not step back and ask why. There are lots of activities you can think about well without philosophy but philosophical questions are not too far away. Philosophy can be frustrating because we always need to give reasons for our ways of thinking. And sometimes we realize our ways of thinking are indefensible such as slavery, genocide, racism. However, once we realize we’re wrong or crazy in our way of thinking, we can step back and look at the “bad ways of thinking/behaving of the past” to help us reflect, articulate and justify our assumptions and pre-suppositions in the present.

What are some present day behaviours/ways of thinking that may appear barbaric to future generations? Some examples: practice of farming animals, irresponsibility to planet, ignoring the suffering of distant societies.  Philosophy is therefore fundamental because it helps us not take our thinking or ways of being for granted. We must constantly ask why.

Doing good philosophy per Hilary Putnam entails more than just arguments but big picture vision.  But why don’t most societies or systems function this way? Maybe because not everyone sees and understands the big picture. They lack the education, background, ability and those who do have the education and ability to see the big picture take advantage of it for their own personal gain, greed. So it’s so easy to tell society truths and lies. People understand the lies embedded and hidden behind truths.

Source: Wikimedia

Source: Wikimedia

Lies create cognitive dissonance because people can’t cope with ideas or situations which may be too complex or uncomfortable for them to understand and accept. Perhaps this is why we have so much frustration and anger in the world today (Freud). We know there’s so much wrong with the world but are helpless and powerless to do anything. It’s so easy to manipulate people with arguments lacking any sort of vision.

Dr. Ward gave an overview of components of an argument. Arguments provide evidence that demonstrate truth of some conclusion. Premises are claims that argument makes to support conclusions. However, conclusions don’t always follow premises making an argument invalid. When an argument is valid with true premises and conclusions that follow the premises, then it’s a sound argument. So it’s critical that when we engage with philosophical problems we do more than identify and asses the premises, we need to see if the argument considers the big picture vision so we can then attempt to articulate what aspects we agree or disagree with. We also need to recognize that some philosophical problems are so complex they can’t be easily resolved or expressed in a precise series of premises and conclusions.


How do we know there is a right way of thinking about things? How we do know that finding the right way of thinking about things can be done through philosophy?  Hume, a sceptical attitude to find out truth about the world. Causation is never something we can ever really know—billiard ball example. Our minds are prone to add to impressions we get from world. All we ever experience about our “self” is our thoughts, experiences, beliefs.  We can’t prove existence of God because of our mind’s propensities to draw conclusions based on our impressions. Hume helped Kant awake from “dogmatic slumber”. In Critique of Reason Kant argues the idea of a world that doesn’t correspond to the rules that govern our mind is nonsensical.


2 thoughts on “What is Philosophy?

  1. Nice summary. Enjoy the mooc

  2. Wonderful course, Dr. Ward, you truly are brilliant.

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