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Doing Philosophy

From Common Curiosity To Logical Reasoning

By Timothy Williamson
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Doing Philosophy by Timothy Williamson

Doing Philosophy (2018) dispels some of the stereotypes that continue to hound philosophers. In particular, it takes aim at the pervasive idea that philosophy has become irrelevant in light of the success of the natural sciences, and makes a compelling case for why philosophy is still important and influential today.

Key idea 1 of 10

Philosophy and science may seem like they’re in competition with each other, but they’re not.

We all philosophize from time to time. We philosophize when we stop dead in the street, struck by the question of what the purpose of life really is. We philosophize when someone challenges one of our deep convictions, forcing us to justify our views. In fact, philosophy is as essential to human existence as sleeping and breathing.

Of course, every discipline asks big questions and searches for evidence and reasons for their conclusions. A physicist might ask, “What is light?” A historian might ask, “What was feudalism?”

So what distinguishes philosophy from these other fields of inquiry?

Well, for one, it asks the most general questions of all. Like this one: Why is there something rather than nothing?

Admittedly, this question is pretty vague. It’s not clear how one would even begin to answer it. Without a doubt, questions like these contribute to the stereotype that philosophers just sit around pondering unanswerable and inconsequential questions.

Contrast this with the common image of the scientist as a fastidious experimenter who takes great pains to test and observe real-world phenomena. No wonder scientists have a better public image than philosophers!

But are scientists and philosophers really all that different? For most of European history, there was no distinction between philosophy and science, and people who studied nature were referred to as “natural philosophers.” It wasn’t until the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that science developed into a separate discipline, with its own methods and fields of study. Since then, of course, the sciences have made rapid progress, with one momentous discovery following another, leaving their mark on our world forever.

Today, it can seem as though science has superseded philosophy. While they study many of the same things, such as the nature of space and time, perhaps scientific methods are just better equipped to answer these questions.

But are scientific methods able to answer all the traditional problems of philosophy?

How, for instance, would you set up an experiment to answer a question like “Does the number seven exist?” After all, you can’t exactly observe the number seven, can you?

In the following blinks, we’ll take a look at some of the things that philosophers do, and we’ll see that philosophy has its own unique concerns, different from those of the natural sciences.

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