What is Philosophy?

What is Philosophy?

Michael Inwood

edited by David Chappell

published 15 November 2016

This is an edited version of a lecture given by Michael Inwood to the John Locke Institute Summer School in Bayeux, France, 25 July 2015.


For the full transcript in pdf form, click here.

What is philosophy?


Typically, we regard philosophers as having a calm and resigned attitude to life. But that isn’t how teachers of philosophy, such as myself, regard them. When we introduce pupils to the subject, we ask questions that are meant to unsettle ordinary beliefs. We ask such questions as: How do you know that you are having an interview? How do you know that you aren’t having a nasty dream? Why don’t you leave my room by jumping our of the window? If a pupil says that they believe in God, we ask them, “why?” if they say they don’t we ask them, “why not?”

Scepticism, the challenge to a person's everyday beliefs, has always been an important stimulus for philosophy. It begins with scepticism about morality. In Ancient Greece, there was a strong taboo towards incest, the marriage and sexual relations between close relatives. Even today, most people just take it for granted that incest is wrong and do not ask why, but philosophers did not. They noticed that whereas in Greece men could not marry their sisters, in Egypt they could. What was morally wrong in Greece was not morally wrong in Egypt. There are several different responses we might make to this dilemma. First, we might argue that one side in the dispute is right and the other is just mistaken — the Greeks are right and the Egyptians are mistaken. Or we might say that moral rightness and wrongness are relative matters — incest is wrong for Greeks and not wrong for Egyptians. But how do we prove either of these claims? This is where philosophers get going in earnest. They have to argue for or against beliefs that we ordinarily take for granted.


One of the techniques that philosophers often use to express their scepticism is to ask you what you mean by some word that you use. If you use a word such as 'dialectical' in a university interview the interviewer will likely ask you what you meant by it. This is disconcerting, because unless you consulted a dictionary before, you are unlikely to have a ready reply. Also, when you come to think about it, you will likely find that you don’t have any clear idea of what you did mean. One interesting example of this occurs in a dialogue called the Euthyphro in which Plato’s teacher, Socrates, asks a young man, Euthyphro, what piety is. Euthyphro responds that it is doing what the gods want. Socrates could have asked Euthyphro how he knows that there are any gods and how he knows what they want, but instead he asks a more interesting question: Do the gods want you to do things because they are holy or are these things holy because the gods want you to do them? Whichever answer Euthyphro gives, he is in difficulties. If he chooses the former, Socrates can say that we find out for ourselves what is holy and do not need to bring the gods into it. If Euthyphro takes the latter route, then Socrates will ask why we should do what the gods want, if they have no good reason for wanting them in the first place. This has come to be known as the Euthyphro dilemma, and can be applied to many areas of life. Do we laugh at jokes because they really are funny, or are jokes funny just because we laugh at them? Do we think something is right because it is moral, or is something moral because we think it is right?

Morality does vary over time and place, but not as much as humour does. In almost every society we forbid theft, assault and murder, except in special circumstances. An immoral person is often far more of a nuisance than a person with no sense of humour, so we are less inclined to say that morality is subjective. We not only think that cannibalism in Egypt is wrong, no matter how convinced the cannibal is, we think that cannibalism is wrong in all societies. Philosophers have given several reasons as to why morality is no more objective than humour. One reason given is the scientific view of the world that we accept, which seems to leave no room for values. It has to leave room for human beings who believe in values — they obviously exist — but not for the values themselves. Another reason given is that there is an unbridgeable gulf between facts and values. A person who says: "So what if he's human? I agree that it is a fact. But why does it follow that I shouldn’t eat him?" or "So what if I've borrowed money? Is that any reason why I should pay it back?" seems to have committed no logical error. We have good reasons to make our fellow citizens conform to our moral standards, but those might be for convenience rather than morality. We encourage everyone in England to speak English, even though we do not believe that English is intrinsically superior to French. 


Philosophers such as David Hume, Bertrand Russell and René Descartes have come up with various ingenious arguments to undermine our confidence in our everyday beliefs. I have made mistakes in the past, for example falsely thinking a straight stick was bent because it was in some water. Society too has been mistaken; a few centuries back most Europeans (even highly intelligent and honest ones) believed in witches, but now we do not. How do we know our current beliefs are not similarly mistaken? René Descartes asked how we know that our experiences are not produced by a malign genie or evil demon; a more modern example asks how we know we are not a brain in a vat, whose experiences are being manipulated by clever scientists. There is also the problem of induction — a problem owed to David Hume. The student doesn’t leave the philosophers room by jumping out the window because they know that, in the past, a large fall has damaged objects. But it is conceivable that this won’t always be the case. Bertrand Russell tells a story about some chickens in a henhouse who have come to expect that every day the farmer will feed them. In fact, the farmer will eventually wring their necks, but only when they are most convinced that he is benevolent.

We might wonder why philosophers pose such questions. Most philosophers are not as sceptical as I have made it sound. For a start, they do not jump out of windows. So what is the value of such thought experiments? One answer is that they make us think about the justification and limits of such beliefs. While not true for everything, there are some beliefs that we ought to be sceptical about. People often have political or religious beliefs that are dubious, given the widespread disagreement. I am not claiming that no one should hold any such beliefs — that would likely end in disaster — but that you should regard them with a sceptical eye. This involves taking account of the arguments against and in favour of our beliefs and being respectful of those with different beliefs. These are connected: if I take account of the arguments against my own beliefs then I should appreciate other people's reasoning. I have an ability to look at matters from various perspectives. This can be true of almost everything — including this article. I, therefore, encourage you to express your disagreement with the points I have raised.


Based on a lecture by Michael Inwood, edited by David Chappell.

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Michael Inwood is a Fellow and Tutor in Philosophy at Trinity College, Oxford.