Can we really define Philosophy?

Think about it. Nearly all controversies with an intellectual component are at least partly controversies about what concepts to use. The deepest controversies in nearly all disciplines aren't the substantive ones, where people disagree about some particular theory or fact, they are the conceptual ones in which people disagree about how to talk about the substantive stuff, what concepts to use.

Philosophy has generally been a clearing house for all these conceptual controversies from all the other disciplines, and from life in general (this isn't a definition, it's a stab at an empirical generalization, though admittedly a somewhat idealized one, in which I leave out a lot of stuff others might like to include within "philosophy"). Philosophical responses to these controversies have been all over the map. Sometimes philosophers just pick up those same controversies and carry on just as the physicists or lawyers or whoever might have done, in the same terms as the physicists or lawyers. Other times they try to formalize or restate other people's controversies, in the process often making them unrecognizable to their home disciplines. Other times they try to generalize among controversies from different fields, or point out analogies or contrasts. In some famous cases, philosophers get constructive themselves, and build systems in which the controversies from other fields can be solved or at least understood within a larger context. Sometimes philosophers skeptically dissolve other people's controversies, or claim to, or point out inconsistencies in other people's claims. Many philosophers have done several of these things on different occasions, or even at the same time.

So when anyone claims that philosophy is (or should be) this or that, they're (at least) claiming that one of these many responses is better or more important than the others, i.e. they're advancing a normative meta-philosophical claim, usually with arguments of some kind or another. Others seek to refute those arguments and make different meta-philosophical claims. To many philosophers these meta-philosophical issues will seem more fundamental and more important than the conceptual controversies from other fields, since it looks to them as if you can't start to address those other controversies until you've settled how to go about it, i.e. what (meta-)concepts to use. Two results: meta-philosophical controversies are even more controversial, even less likely to be settled, than substantive ones from other fields; and second, a huge proportion of philosophical writing is taken up with what looks from the outside like pointless and highly abstract wrangling about what the field is even supposed to be. But as you can see, these results are inevitable in philosophy.

Some people approach this question from the viewpoint of the Greek origins of western philosophy, and the etymology of its name, pointing out that the current collection of highly specialized and abstract squabbles no longer serves the original Greek (or medieval, or early modern) purpose of providing an orientation to thinking in general (Kant's "sich im Denken orientieren"). This purpose has now passed to literature, some say, with Goethe or Proust or Dostoevsky providing better orientations than Wittgenstein or Heidegger or Quine, who are all much harder for the uninitiated to understand.

I have some sympathy with this criticism but I think that if we want philosophy, or some part of philosophy (some appropriate user interface, perhaps) to provide a better orientation to thinking in general, it's important to understand why philosophy has become the way it is; it's inherently, structurally controversial -- especially about its own basic nature and categories -- and can't be any other way.

So the answer to the question is, and has to be, "no," but that isn't a cause for despair, it's simply a recognition that the very nature of what it has been attempting to do, since antiquity, makes any definition of philosophy irrelevant.

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