How much science should a philosopher know in order to do his or her work properly? If I want to be a philosopher, should I study things like calculus, computer science and quantum mechanics? Should I read those big science textbooks of a thousand pages?

Briefly, it depends on what sorts of philosophical issues you want to pursue. Most philosophers, including most good ones, don't have extensive scientific knowledge, and the questions they're interested in don't call for knowing lots of science. But philosophers who work on issues in physics, or biology, or psychology or other sciences need to be knowledgeable about the sciences they work on. In philosophy of physics, it's not unusual for a philosopher to have an advanced degree (Masters or even PhD) in physics. Even if s/he doesn't have a science degree, s/he will have to have acquired a lot of knowledge of the field - or relevant parts of it. By way of general recommendation, however, the single most useful thing you can do if you're interested in philosophical issues about science is to learn as much math as you can. That can give you a serious leg up on learning the more specific scientific ideas that may be relevant to your interests. So if you have the aptitude, at the very least take some...

What arguments do contemporary philosophers use in their work? I have been told that a lot of what philosophers argue, don't actually do totally rigorous and deductive arguments. But do more of a fudge in founding their arguments. Do they use mostly inductive arguments? Inference to the best explanation? And if their arguments aren't really rigorous and deductive, why do they teach philosophy students so much formal logic?

Usually, when philosophers write, they try to persuade. They do it in various ways, some of which fit patterns that we've given names to. But for the most part, philosophers don't ask themselves questions about which form of argument they should use, and they don't worry much about how to classify the kinds of persuasion they engage in. There are certain things we can expect of sensible persuasion, of course. For example, if I want to persuade you of a generalization, I'd better give you reason to believe that the generalization really does cover the range of relevant cases. If I want smart people who aren't already persuaded to take my views seriously, I'd better try to anticipate their objections. If my claim depends partly on empirical facts, I'd better give the reader reason to believe them. Deductive argument, however, isn't quite as special as it seems. The fact that an argument is deductively valid doesn't tell us anything about the plausibility of its premises. And sometimes trying to...

I enjoy philosophy very much though doing it has caused me a good deal of suffering. The problem is, is that I can no longer relate to people the way I used to. I avoid discussions with people in my ordinary day-to-day life because it often can't be conducted in the kind of systematic and sensitive way that characterizes most philosophical discourse and that I find myself accustomed to. It has also caused other people to not be able to relate to me as well. I was strange before though now I fear it is unforgivably so. (It also doesn't help that doing philosophy (for me at least) requires long bouts of solitude.) How should I deal with this horribly lonely feeling of detachment?

I'd also add this to my co-panelist's good advice. But don't tell anyone I said so. (Sh!) A lot of what we philosophers spend our time thinking about isn't all that important in the grand scheme of things. And... (Sh!) Being a wise person and being a good philosopher aren't the same thing. If somehow I were forced to choose between being a good philosopher and being a wise person, I'd pick wisdom. (May well be that in this universe I don't quite manage to be either, but we're talking "in principle" here.) Whether you've got the temperament to be a Hume- or Kant-like social butterfly is partly a matter of constitutional luck. But there's a lot to be said for finding ways to get out of your own head. Go to an art museum. Listen to some music (make sure you put some good rock and roll on the playlist.) Walk in the woods. Treat yourself to a meal with a friend or two at an interesting restaurant. Take up a hobby that makes you work on some sort of physical skill. (Could be a sport, but could be...

I was hoping that you could resolve a dilemma that I have recently discovered. It has to do with the art of philosophy and not with the subsequent ideas generated by philosophizing. Before I state the dilemma, I want to ask: Does determination of nature precede determination of action? In other words, can we practice philosophy without necessarily defining the terms and the nature of the act we which to practice? It seems that we ought to first ask: What is philosophy and how ought we practice philosophy? The problem arises when we attempt to answer the two questions specified above. How exactly do we answer these questions without philosophizing? The very act of contemplating the nature of philosophy requires philosophy; this is logically inconsistent. We cannot study the existence of X by presupposing that X is true to begin with. This is the dilemma; it is a dilemma of definition and how an approach to philosophy must first be preceded by a method of thought detached from philosophy. What is this...

One thing is clear: people actually do practice philosophy. (Some of my best friends...) And so whatever the reasoning you've offered shows, it can't show that no one can do philosophy because people clearly do do it. But then, most of us can't say what most of our activities amount to in any depth or detail. We just do them. It's a logical oddity that asking what counts as philosophy counts as asking a philosophical question. That's a bit unusual, but it's not inconsistent. Of course, read in another way, asking what counts as philosophy doesn't even have this peculiar character. If someone asked me what philosophy is, I might give them a collection of examples, hoping that they got the idea. I might say "trying to figure out if there is such a thing as free will counts. So does asking what knowledge is. So does thinking about the nature of right and wrong." That doesn't exhaust the field, but it's accurate as far as it goes and (experience tells me) often helpful to the person asking the question...

It has been long believed that the more you study philosophy, the greater the probability that you would see things more clearly and reasonably. However, the problem is sometimes, philosophical problems caught us too much that we would lose the insight of the present moment. Philosophy in other words has the tendency to get us lost in thoughts so much that we lose grip of reality. In my case, I would want to be a full-pledged philosopher but I also don't want to be a man always lost in thoughts. As professional philosophers, do you ever experience this? If so, how do you cope with it?

It's quite possible to spend too much time in your own head, too caught up in thought. It's also possible to be too quick to resort to analysis and "reason" in cases where a different sort of response will serve better. I'd guess that most philosophers (among other sorts of intellectuals) have seen this tendency in themselves from time to time and could tell stories on their colleagues. That said, most of the philosophers I know are pretty sane and balanced. They can take their shoes off, so to speak, and don't feel the need to spend all their time analyzing. People who go into philosophy are probably inclined by temperament to be more analytical than most, but philosophy isn't necessarily the culprit. After all, it would be hard to make a good philosophical case for spending all one's time doing philosophy!

Thoreau says that we have professors of philosophy but not philosophers. He said that over 150 years ago and it's obviously more true in 2009 than it was then. Could it be that what's missing today is leisure for philosophic souls to contemplate, inquire, wonder, converse, etc? What is the relationship between leisure--in the classic sense of schole or otium--and philosophy? I understand philosophy to be a love of wisdom that manifests itself as a way of life - especially a way of life predicated upon leisure and animated by the endless search for and cultivation of self-knowledge. Am I correct? Is leisure an essential prerequisite for philosophy, or can it be reduced to a mere profession, like law or medicine? What in the world do people mean when they speak of "doing" philosophy?

On Thoreau: Meh! Thoreau apparently thought of "philosopher" as an honorific, meaning something like "wise person." If that's right, then I'm reasonably sure he was wrong in his day, and I'm reasonably sure that he'd be wrong today. There were, there are and with luck there will continue to be wise people. But (psst!...) being wise and being a philosopher aren't the same thing. Many people who are wise wouldn't be good at philosophy. Many people who are good at philosophy aren't all that wise. Even though the word "philosophy" literally translates as "love of wisdom," philosophy has never, from its very inception, been solely concerned with what most of us think of as wisdom. That's because what we think of as wisdom is importantly a matter of having the discernment needed to live what, for shorthand, we might call "a good life, " and philosophy has always been concerned with more than that. By the way: I'm not offering a definition of wisdom, but I think my little comment gets us into...

Don't you agree that real philosophy has ended? (Heidegger) What you guys practice is conceptual hairsplitting and prostitution to successful sciences that DO have an object of research and a genuine method. What is the object of philosophy and what is its method? Do you really believe that philosophy is some kind of science? Where are its results and how does it progress? Don't you think philosophy is useless, except as a feel-good sense-giving practice, without real sense of itself? Philosophy is more akin to art than to science, because both are incapable of giving sense to life, whereas science and technology shape our lives and direct us towards oblivion. There will never be a philosophy to stop that... Sorry to disturb your dreams!

You didn't disturb my dreams at all. But what you've offered up is a fair bit of bald assertion and rhetorical questioning that doesn't exactly move me to offer detailed comments. There is no one object of philosophy, and there is no one method. I don't believe that philosophy is a science (nor do I know any philosophers who do), but I also don't believe that it's an entirely different kind of beast. The idea that philosophy is a feel-good activity would seem pretty funny to most philosophers. We're an argumentative lot who spend a good deal of time beating our heads against hard arguments. As for "giving sense to life," whether philosophy or art is up to that task, there's a difference between "shaping" our lives and giving sense to them. (I'll set aside the rhetoric about science and oblivion.) Some philosophy is indeed excessively hair splitting, though some unruly and overgrown hairs really do need a trim. What the vague accusation of "prostitution to successful science" is...

Peter Smith wrote recently (Question 2823) that "facts aren't the sort of thing that are rational or irrational". But that isn't true, is it? The first definition of the word "rational" on dictionary.com is "agreeable to reason". Certain facts offend reason - and the questioner's example (while not the best, in my view) of death seems to be a fact that is not agreeable to reason. That is to say, if reason ruled the world or, put another way, if God created everything in accordance with reason, we would not die. There is no rational explanation or reason for our death. Certainly there is a sense in which I understand Peter Smith's statement that facts aren't rational or irrational, but there seem to be plenty of definitions of "rational" for which it makes perfect sense to say that facts are rational or irrational. What's more - and I don't mean to be contentious - Peter seems to focus on this aspect of the question to the detriment of the spirit of the question. The questioner seems perturbed by...

Not to be flippant (well, yes: to be flippant) but I'm tempted to point to Peter Smith's earlier reply and say "What he said!" Let's grant that in one sense of the word "irrational," some of life's surd facts are irrational -- aren't how things would be if a rational Maker had her way. Prof. Smith acknowledges that some facts are difficult to cope with emotionally. And he might add (I'll add it for him) that being rational doesn't mean ignoring your emotions or trying to stuff them into a sack. But how, exactly, would it help to leave reason aside in dealing with tragic, intractable facts? Prof. Smith's closing comment seems to me to be a sober, thoughtful way of summing it up: "For irrationally formed beliefs are not likely to lead to actions whichget any of us what we want -- including a decent life, lived well inthe knowledge of our all-too-explicable mortality." The language of philosophy is seldom poetic; in that sense it may not mirror the gravity of some of its subject matter. That said, the...

Having grown tired of reading secondary material in my study of philosophy, I have decided to read primary texts in a chronological, rather than thematic, order. I have started with Plato and have read most of the works I can find online or at my library. Before I move on to Aristotle, I would like your advice. Do you think a chronological approach is a good idea for someone untrained in philosophy? Do you think I should read every work by a given philosopher, or are there 'key' works that serve as their primary contribution to the field? If the latter, are there any lists that you are aware of that state what those key works are?

Consider an analogy. Suppose I wanted to learn physics, and I decided to read great works of physics in chronological order. Whatever value that project might have, it would be a poor way to become a physicist. So no: I wouldn't recommend reading historical works in chronological order. I wouldn't even recommend putting a lot of emphasis on reading historical works, period. One reason: philosophy is essentially something you do . Working philosophers aren't intellectual historians. They're trying to sort their way through problems. Work by older philosophers can be suggestive and relevant, but most working philosophers spend very little of their time reading the classics. I'm guessing that by "secondary sources" you mean commentaries on historical works or introductory material on various problems. My suggestion: move next to edited collections of contemporary papers on problems that you're interested in. For example: if you're interested in the free will problem, you might consider getting...

I'm in a rather unique conundrum. After much reading, listening and reflection I've concluded that there is no source of moral good or evil beyond that which serves mankind's survival. That is, one's loyalty to country and family are only meaningful in as much as they can be rationalized as serving this ultimate purpose. The result is that I now find myself at odds with what most people here in the USA and most of the world consider to be the foundation of stability -- that is religion. It's not that I'm an atheist and belief there is no God -- or even that one cannot know whether God exists. I consider myself to be an agnostic, which I define as having no belief on the matter but as having an open mind about it. Unfortunately I've seen more credible evidence for ancient astronauts than for a God. Both are intriguing notions but I can't base moral decisions on them. This leaves me with the problem of feeling quite separate from everyone I know and love. I'm aware of the historical role of religion as a...

You've put your conclusion by saying that morality is entirely a matter of what promotes human survival, but that, I'd suggest, isn't really the issue. I'm assuming you might be open to the idea that rampant cruelty to animals is wrong, whether or not it harms the chances for human survival. But even if you agreed, that wouldn't get you out of the dilemma you feel you're faced with. The real issue, I think, is that you've become convinced that morality doesn't need religion, and most of the people around you think otherwise. But here's a little secret: even people who think that there's an intimate connection between religion and morality ignore the connection in most of their moral thinking. There are very few people who think that murder would be perfectly acceptable except that God has commanded otherwise. There are very few people who think it would be okay to steal someone's wallet but for the fact that God disapproves. The fact is that aside from a few hot-button issues (abortion and...

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