What Counts as Philosophy?

Apart from the question of “Who has the rights to the lands of Palestine?” little can be more contentious than the question, “What counts as philosophy?” What are the bounds of this discipline of ours? I like to think that there aren’t any clear and proper boundaries but that there is a roughly common approach (but don’t ask me to define it) and, delightfully, a common canon (at least for what is understood as pre-20th century western philosophy, though lamentably white, male philosophy). Anyone of any persuasion teaching an intro to philosophy class is likely to include some of the philosophers Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Bentham, Locke, Hume, Kant, Mill, Rousseau, and maybe some selection from Marx, Nietsche, and James. With texts of the twentieth century all bets are off. But what’s one century in a discipline that goes back 25? Given our long history, we’ve had nothing like the canon wars that tore apart English departments in the 1980s. The common canon saves us, but it doesn’t give us a way to define or set bounds to what philosophy is. Philosophy has a way of undermining boundaries, like the boundary between what is properly philosophical and what is not. Just try to set up a fence and see how long it stands.

Even to the extent that we have a common canon, the question of what counts as philosophy is desperately unclear, at least once one strays from a “view-from-nowhere” approach to metaphysics, epistemology, value theory, logic, or any of the many philosophy-of-x arenas. Once the approach becomes more specific and situated, the border wars arise. And the lines are usually drawn between what is hegemonically understood as proper philosophy and what is not. Philosophy that is not in fashion in “the best” schools, not “prestigious,” not hard and clear and rigorous, not properly erected — including today American pragmatism, critical theory, post-Kantian European philosophy, and, oh, certainly feminist philosophy — doesn’t seem to count as philosophy at all, at least by those who are counting and protecting a certain definition of proper philosophy.

Just look (and you’ll have to scroll down and then scan the rigt-hand column) at the specialities of the list of evaluators who were invited to rank graduate programs in philosophy for the 2006 Philosophical Gourmet Report. I am told by a defender of the report that this is a “remarkably diverse” group of good philosophers and so it is truly able to gauge what are, objectively, the outstanding graduate programs in philosophy. Any program that doesn’t end up on the list, I’m told, simply isn’t a good program.


Who defines what counts as good philosophy and hence who counts as the good philosophers? Isn’t this kind of counting tantamount to defining philosophy itself, to saying that M&E (metaphysics and epistemology) counts, but feminist philosophy doesn’t? Or if it’s feminist, it isn’t M&E? Or if it’s concerned with Derrida and not Tarski, or the late Wittgenstein but not the early Wittgenstein, it just ain’t philosophy?

Is that very philosophical?

3 thoughts on “What Counts as Philosophy?

  1. Your question started out as “What counts as philosophy?” but it seemed to end up “What counts as good philosophy?”
    I think the answer to the second one is ‘I have no idea. I have some opinions, but who knows.’

    But my answer to the first one is this (and I admit, is controversial): Philosophy is any attempt to gain knowledge or justified belief in a discipline which is not purely empirical. Primarily the focus is on areas of normativity, but I think anything non-empirical counts.

    This is what I usually define philosophy as when I am contrasting it with science–its sort of a metascience; it decides how science should operate. But besides that philosophy tries to answer questions science can’t answer. (God, ethics, all that crap.)

    I think this definition allows for traditional analytic philosophy as well as feminist philosophy, continental philosophy, pragmatism, metaphysics, political philosophy, etc.

    What do you think?

  2. I just gave a philosophy course in which we did not read professional philosophers at all. Instead, we read books by cognitive neuroscientists. I doubt the students noticed; a number want more. I think/hope the boundaries of the discipline are really opening out.

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