Welcome to Stellenbosch University

What is Philosophy?

​By Anton van Niekerk ©

What are we talking about when we use the concept "philosophy"? Is it a phenomenon or activity that we ought to take absolutely seriously? People tend to use the concept "philosophy" somewhat loosely and inaccurately. Many speak of "a philosophy", and by this they mean a vaguely defined set of assumptions or points of departure or an underlying set of beliefs. One also comes across expressions such as "the new Springbok coach's philosophy is to choose experience over innovation", or "this business's philosophy is to provide the best possible service to its clients". One can understand such uses of the word, but using it in this rather general manner does not help in the attainment of greater conceptual clarity.

To philosophise is one of the most natural things that we as human beings do. To claim that all philosophy is nonsense, is, ironically enough, itself a philosophy; – it is just a very bad philosophy. I can provide no better reason for the importance and continued existence of philosophy than that which was once provided by Karl Popper. He wrote: "We all have our philosophies, and often these philosophies are not worth very much. But the impact of our philosophies upon our lives is often devastating. Therefore it is important to improve our philosophies through criticism". Much of what has been produced historically in the name of philosophy is, in fact, probably not very valuable, and might even often be dangerous. People have, however, an unwitting tendency to take ideas seriously and to organise, not only their own lives, but society and the world itself in accordance with these ideas.

Sometimes this can be a good thing, but as Popper pointed out, sometimes the belief in and application of ideas can be devastating. An example of this is the case of Karl Marx, who for virtually every day for two decades, did nothing other than sit with his books in the British Museum in London and write. Those very same, seemingly innocent or mere" ideas, were mustered up scarcely seventy years later, to bring about a bloody revolution in Russia which lasted for virtually the remainder of the twentieth century and impacted upon the existence and quality of life of a third of the world's population. If philosophical ideas can achieve this kind of effect, it is important that we ensure that these ideas are tenable and that the continual refining of the critical assessment of ideas persists.

What is philosophy? This is highly controversial question because the question itself is philosophical in nature and has a range of possible answers. I personally am attracted to the idea developed with incomparable clarity by Hennie Roussouw that philosophy is an attempt to answer conceptual questions and questions of meaning. It attempts, on the one hand, to define the rules for the intelligible use of, in particular, abstract, concepts; and, on the other hand, strives to critically engage with ideas. While concepts (the focus of conceptual questions) can be regarded as the thought-structures by which we identify and classify our life-experiences, ideas (the focus of questions of meaning) are the thought structures through which we interpret forms of life. Philosophy, therefore, shifts our attention and knowing concern away from the contents of our experience, and focuses it rather on the means by which we think and make sense of our life-experiences. In that sense, Afrikaans has a more apt expression which succinctly describes philosophical activity: it is "na-denke", or thinking about thinking.

Can something such as conceptual analysis - that with which philosophers typically occupy themselves - be of any significant value? Is this type of activity not a superfluous luxury which rightly warrants no further support or subsidisation at universities?

It is very short-sighted to underestimate the value of conceptual analysis, or to minimise the effects it can have upon matters in the political and scientific realm. One of the best examples in this regard is the saga surrounding Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky in the last decade of the twentieth century –- a saga which almost resulted in the indictment of the most powerful person in the world. The core-issue in Clinton's prosecution and defence was the question whether he lied to the American people when he unequivocally stated on camera that he had had "no sexual relations with that woman". This assertion appeared to be decisively refuted when Lewinsky provided a dress bearing a suspected semen stain that could be submitted for DNA screening as evidence. Clinton's legal team nevertheless maintained the claim that despite the fact that oral sex had taken place, it does not adequately instantiate the concept "sexual relationship". Clinton's retention of power in that emotional debate hinged upon how the rules for the intelligible use of the concept "sexual relationship" should be interpreted. Who would maintain, in the light of this macabre saga, that conceptual analysis - the work of the philosopher - is not important in everyday life, and in particular, in the political realm?

Philosophy is not only important in general. In our own time we have witnessed an explosion of interest in applied ethics, one of the sub-disciplines of philosophy. Here I refer, in particular, to the persistent questions around, for example, the moral tenability of abortion, euthanasia, cloning and other new biomedical technologies, as well as questions pertaining to the morality of whistle-blowing in business or the moral status of housing developments that create jobs but pollute or destroy the environment. All these questions are philosophical-ethical in nature, and society is desperately searching for answers which are not easily found. The interest in this type of philosophy grows by the day.

The famous motto of Socrates, one of the earliest philosophers, was: "The unexamined life is not worth living". Philosophy is the adventurous, but sometimes also dangerous, exposure of every aspect of our human existence to the ever on-going Socratic critical dialogue - that dialogue by which we hope that only one consideration will eventually be given credence to in all intellectual disputes, namely the force of the superior reasonable argument. A culture or civilisation which relinquishes that quest and that adventure, is one that has already signed its own death warrant.