Philosophy: often misunderstood

by YPU Admin on May 23, 2014. Tags: Philosophy and Research


My name is Andy Routledge and I’m currently in my fourth and final year of a philosophy PhD at the University of Manchester. I tutor on undergraduate courses and work for the University as part of their Widening Participation project. 

In Depth

Philosophy is a hugely misunderstood subject. Many people think that it is just about ‘The meaning of life’, or that it is similar to religion, or that there are no right or wrong answers in philosophy. While philosophers probably share a large part of the blame for not explaining the subject very well, all of these views are mistaken.

As with science, philosophy has many different areas and looks at lots of different issues. What is common across these different areas of philosophy, though, is its interest in understanding some of the deepest and most puzzling questions – some of which other subjects may be unable to answer. Most subjects begin with a certain starting point: ideas or assumptions that they take for granted. Philosophy is in the business of looking closer at these basic ideas and assumptions and questioning them. What is the best way to understand them? And are the assumptions right?

Science, for example, tries to discover the different laws of nature – such as the way that tiny particles behave. When scientists notice that a particular kind of particle always seems to behave a certain way they might put forward a theory that says that it is a law of nature that a particle of that kind must behave that way. But this doesn’t tell us what a law of nature actually is. We know what a law is in our society. It’s a rule that has been written down somewhere that is enforced by the police and legal system. But what is it for something to be a law of nature? There’s no law book for the universe to follow, or particle-police. What makes a particle behave that way every time? Could the law just change one day? If not, why not? What stops it? When we start asking these questions we move from science into the philosophy of science. We begin to question the basic ideas and assumptions of science. We can do this for almost any subject area. Some might be directly to do with us and our lives but some – like this question in the philosophy of science – might not be. But what makes it philosophy is the fact that it involves looking at the most fundamental ideas in that area – the basic ideas that are otherwise taken for granted. Because philosophy examines some of the deepest and difficult questions, it is easy to get the impression that there is ‘no right answer’. But many philosophers would disagree with this. It’s not that there are no right answers; it’s just that they are very difficult to work out and progress takes time.

Philosophy also involves a particular way of doing things. Just as science has a certain method – using physical experiments to test a theory – philosophy has its own method. Philosophers use rational discussion to try and work out whether something makes sense or is correct. Philosophers give reasons. It is never enough to say that something is right ‘just because it is’ or because so-and-so says so. Philosophers try and give reasons for what they’re saying. Even if somebody doesn’t agree, they can then at least say why. They can say which bit they disagree with and their reason for that. And the discussion can progress. Philosophy involves a commitment to this way of doing things. Everything can potentially be challenged. For this reason, good philosophy needs a certain kind of mindset. It involves being independent and thinking for yourself – willing to question common or popular beliefs. You might need to point out something that is unpopular and controversial. It involves being critical whilst remaining open-minded – you shouldn’t accept something without good reason but you shouldn’t dismiss it either. And it needs a sense of curiosity - a desire to understand the world is the biggest motivator of all. It is curiosity that keeps you going even when people may not like the questions you’re asking and you may not yet fully understand them yourself.

But don’t worry if you don’t think you’re naturally like this. Many people develop these skills just by doing philosophy. So if you want to be that kind of person then philosophy is an incredibly useful pathway. You develop these skills by practice. Because philosophers share their ideas and discuss and debate them, the subject also equips people with the ability to communicate ideas, both in written and spoken forms. Being able to speak clearly and persuasively to others is one of the most important skills you can have. There is no area of life in which this isn’t useful.

In a future entry I will say more about the philosophy research that I am conducting at the University, the particular area of philosophy that I work in, and some of the challenges that I have faced.

Going Further…

You can learn about the University of Manchester’s philosophy department and the courses it offers here:

This website offers a range of interactive tests and activities to help you learn more about your own philosophical views:

This article explores some of the most famous philosophical thought experiments:

A popular philosophy magazine:

The two leading online philosophy encyclopaedias with a large number of articles on a range of subjects:

Career information:

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