Is It Really Philosophy? (Are You an Ass for Asking?)

In this post brought to my attention by our commenter DMF in light of our race episode, Kristie Dotson of Michigan State University attacks the question that one might ask when reading DuBois, for instance: Is this really philosophy?

The question, how is this paper philosophy, is a poorly formulated question. At best, when asked in good faith, the question could in fact be one of several questions. At worst, when asked with ill will, the question indicates pernicious ignorance in the asker. Either it is a well-intentioned, problematic question or a poorly intended, bad question...

...When asked in good faith, the question, how is this paper philosophy, presupposes a common answer to the question “what does philosophy mean to the question asker?” On this interpretation, one can translate the question... to mean the following: “I don’t understand how this is philosophy. Can you enlighten me either how this is philosophy as I already conceive it or help me broaden my understanding of what philosophy can be?” Even in this, admittedly, generous interpretation of the question, there is an assumption that the speaker can pluck out of the air what philosophy means to the question-asker. Too often, even when asked in good faith, there remains a presumption that one’s own understanding of philosophy has a normative status that allows it to serve as a transparent meeting ground. This presumption of the transparency of one's own conception of philosophy is often false... To my mind, without some attempt to be transparent about one’s own assumptions concerning the nature of philosophy, the question, how is this paper philosophy, is a problematic question.

When asked in bad faith, however, the question “how is this paper philosophy,” presumes that the underlying question, what is philosophy, is easily answerable according to commonly held, univocally relevant justifying norms... “Properly” philosophical projects, to this group of question askers, are either prima facie philosophical, or they are not philosophy at all. For bad faith question askers, the question, what is philosophy, is not really a question at all. They take it to be already decided. This, dare I say, is stupid. Philosophy and philosophical engagement is constantly changing and admits of extraordinary diversity, failing to realize this demonstrates a kind of ignorance in the question asker... If the speaker fails to approximate the correct conception, at best, her work can be deemed unphilosophical and, at worst, she is deemed a charlatan or not worthy of the title “professional philosopher.”

Without being familiar with Dotson's work, and so the exact nature of the defensiveness that this post undoubtedly represents, I like the gutsy character of her attack. Yes, philosophy is ever-evolving, and since her context is that this question is "often asked of a paper written or presented by someone with a Ph.D. in philosophy," then it makes sense that the definition of philosophy should be "whatever it is that philosophers do," and really, then, the only argument should be over whether Ph.D.'s get to be the only ones who decide this, or just anyone who claims the title of "philosopher."

Still, it's ridiculous to think that really anything can be legitimately called philosophy, and my Personal Philosophies are in part about mocking the abuse of that word. While for most purposes, there's no need to condemn or deny it to someone (it's just a word, after all), we have to, for instance, decide what to talk about on the podcast, and likewise academic departments of philosophy have to decide what to publish or fund, and really, you as an individual who evidently likes philosophy has to decide whether any given topic is worth your time to read about, though of course this isn't exactly the same question as whether it's technically "philosophy." Maybe it isn't, but it's enjoyable and illuminating anyway, so who cares?

We've generally taken the approach that if a lot of people are claiming some gigantic area is philosophical, maybe it's worth our time to look into, and on our list are a number of topics that have already been claimed by specific sciences or are more obviously literary than philosophical, etc. Still, I think the question itself is kind of interesting, though maybe it should be more "how is this philosophy?" than "is this philosophy?"

I think Dotson here implies that this common conception that the questioner assumes is something more mysterious than it is. As we'll see in our upcoming Wittgenstein episode, most concepts are a matter of family resemblance with some paradigm cases. Descartes and Plato, in the West, are paradigm examples of philosophy, and that's about all that the person questioned needs to understand in order to explain why this is philosophy or argue why the thing she's putting forward should be included in the category despite its apparent dissimilarity to Descartes and Plato (after all, mathematical logic or analytic semantics doesn't look a lot like either of those guys either, and they got in OK).

So rather than be all pissy about the rude question, take it on: it's not a difficult fight to win, if you can show that your thesis is somehow important and not obviously captured by the areas already claimed by studies (e.g. history or science) that no longer claim to be philosophy. Or, like Foucault or Cornel West, you can just say that you don't care if your material is considered philosophy or not and the philosophy establishment that's concerned about this can go stuff it.

-Mark Linsenmayer


  1. Kallan Greybe says

    I take issue with one feature of Kristie’s criticism.

    “Too often, even when asked in good faith, there remains a presumption that one’s own understanding of philosophy has a normative status that allows it to serve as a transparent meeting ground. This presumption of the transparency of one’s own conception of philosophy is often false… To my mind, without some attempt to be transparent about one’s own assumptions concerning the nature of philosophy, the question, how is this paper philosophy, is a problematic question.”

    Whenever we want to challenge people’s assumptions, I think it’s generally a good idea to keep one eye on what the practical implications of the kind of scepticism we’re appealing to are. So, just as there is a plausible line of reasoning from Descarte’s claim that we can doubt an experience we have to the idea that we can’t have an experience of the world at all, there is an equally plausible line of reasoning from the idea that we can doubt whether a particular term is understandable at all to doubting whether we can in principle *ever* be understood. In order then for us to be able to make sense of our everyday experience of just having a conversation therefore, we at the very least need to assume that most of our terms are understandable in principle, given enough work. Personally I’m attracted to the idea that the argument is richer than this, that the fact that we can have meaningful conversations implies that most of our beliefs are in fact *true*, but I’m going to try to follow the general rule of avoiding name dropping because the specific arguments for this right now are a little bit beyond this particular undergraduate.

    • dmf says

      KG, the question at hand is not one of a lack of interpretive generosity but closer to whether or not an author is making something like a category error.

        • dmf says

          a bit brain-dead but I’ll try, I don’t think that the critique of something being, or not, properly philosophical is one of being intelligible or not but whether on not it is philosophical or say more properly sociological/psychological or a matter of identity politics. This came up in the comments here about philo of race and one often sees it in questions of whether or not phenomenology is something other than psychology. I for one have questioned whether much of x-philo isn’t really experimental psychology. Here too I think that Wittgenstein is helpful in that he tells us that if there is a real gap in basic understandings/assumptions exists (say whether or not non-living things can have experiences) than there is no bridge available to have a meaningful conversation, this is different than Donald Davidson noting that b/c we share a common planet and bodies that we could find a way over time to build a common vocab to carry out different daily tasks even if we have no common terms to start with by pointing to various objects and such.

          • dmf says

            sometimes of course people have questioned whether or not say Derrida is talking gibberish or not but I think that’s not really a question of is he a proper philosopher but more is he a fraud.

  2. dmf says

    I say yes to families of resemblance, as well as perspicuous re-presentations, and aspect-dawning, this is not a mainstream academic philo perspective, but thankfully we are not bound by their disciplinary actions/attitudes.

    • dmf says

      that said I think we miss what folks like Derrida, Foucault, and Heidegger were wanting to do if we don’t read them as doing Philosophy/Thinking in the vein of their various traditions.
      I’m with Rorty that we see them as wrong about there being such a task but still useful for more mundane/pragmatic purposes.

  3. dmf says

    “To admit that competence in science and technical matters is not illusory and that scientists, engineers and technicians really are learned, although at times there is evidence to the contrary, does not prove that the same thing goes for all questions. One can, for example, provide a rigorous demonstration that the just is not an object of knowledge and there is no science of justice. One can show the same thing for what is beautiful, or what is agreeable. Hence there is no true and certain competence in these domains, domains that, however, have great significance in everyday life. In these domains there are only opinions.” Lyotard, Podium without a Podium.

  4. David Buchanan says

    It’s reasonable to think of philosophy as a category into which some things do not fit but I think it’s helpful to think about it in the context of historical changes, particularly the differentiation of domains and disciplines. I think it was Kant who defined Modernity as a differentiation of three domains, art, science and religion. And then each of these domains is further divided into all sorts of disciplines and subcategories. One hundred years ago there was no such thing as a Doctorate in philosophy or professional academic philosophers as such, for example, and of course science was once known as natural philosophy and is something like philosophy’s most successful child.

    On that view, the lines that distinguish philosophy from everything that’s not philosophy can shift, move or fade in, ect.. Seems to me that are looking at too much specialization and the emergence of excessive narrow subfields while at the same time new inter-disciplinary approaches are arriving on the scene. In both cases, the technical jargon is thick enough to exclude almost everyone outside the area of specialization. (Apparently, the entire field of linguistics might be undone by a single dissertation on an Amazonian language that’s understood by only one or two Westerners. I guess that’s one way to be the best (or worst) in your field. Unlike the work of Plato or Descartes or Hume, the stuff that’s most likely to be considered philosophy proper, the books and papers published by professionals, is almost entirely unreadable by the general public. This is hardly unique to philosophy but it helps to put the question in context, I hope.

    It’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which the question is legitimately and sincerely asked – because the work’s form and/or content intentionally raises boundary questions, let’s say – and the answers are well worth hearing. The borders of philosophy are a legitimate, even necessary, philosophical concern. I’d like to believer that most arts, scientists and philosophers think that testing the limits and pushing the envelop is sexy and exciting. In this scenario, to ask “how is that philosophical?” is to ask a meta-philosophical question, one that might turn out to have a fascinating answer.

    What we do NOT want to do, I think, is define philosophy in terms of its failed projects or aims. The so-called death of epistemology (Rorty) and philosophy (Hawking) is a result of defining them by their failures.

    IF the question were asked with hostility about a feminist work – I’d simply point out the it has always been philosophy’s job to question the gods and the social order.

  5. Kallan Greybe says


    No, you’ve not significantly changed the subject in your reply: I was making Davidson’s point. Just to make his point that little bit more robust though, his argument isn’t just that because we have common practices they enable us to ultimately translate any particular sentences, it’s the far stronger claim that without some means of translatability, in this case by following the way an entity uses their language, we couldn’t be able to understand someone as using a language *at all*. They wouldn’t in fact be using a language.

  6. Kallan Greybe says

    Actually Davidson is a perfect *contrast* to Wittgenstein. Take Wittgenstein’s Lion Parable where we’re supposed to believe that if a lion could speak we would not be able to understand it because we would have no common practice to help us understand what it means. In the parable Wittgenstein still seems to believe that we could conceive of the lion as speaking a language. Davidson would deny us even that much. For Davidson any language is by its very nature universally translatable and if it’s not, *it is not a language*. Don’t be fooled by the fact that both of them are concentrating on pragmatics, they are deriving radically different conclusions.

    As for your link, maybe ultimately we could say the difference between the two thinkers dissolves when you start taking the transparency of meaning into consideration. There’s certainly a plausible similarity between that section of Wittgenstein’s thinking and the way Davidson defines an adequate conceptual scheme as one that is mostly true, but this is both far more technical than the argument we’re discussing needs and tenuous to boot.

  7. JD Huck says

    This isn’t directly relevant but one thing that bugs me occasionally about the “Is this philosophy?” question is that it seems people asking it often seem to be equating philosophy with good or important philosophy. I think there are things that I probably wouldn’t consider philosophy that are still worth studying and I’d also say that anything that makes an effort to engage in philosophical themes is philosophy, although it might be bad philosophy. For example, I’d say this post I’m writing is philosophical, as it engages in the question of “What is philosophy?” (which I think is a philosophical issue) even if it’s uninteresting, illogical, off topic, and not worth reading.

  8. Joanne says

    I get asked “What is Philosophy?” and “What do Philosophers do?” a lot. I see the lines of logic, psychology, biology, environmental sciences and history among others being blurred. Modern Philosophy covers a lot of diverse subject matters and often crosses paths or walks parallel with other disciplines and that’s how two seemingly different studies can be related. What I think is essential (and not being a fan of semantics) is that Philosophy entails analyzing, thinking, debating and theorizing using logic over empirical means. I’ll also go with I don’t really care if my studies or work aren’t recognized as philosophy. Philosophy snobs can shove it.

  9. Burl says

    Weren’t many of the most heralded philosophers self-taught? Their field(s) of study thus had to be idiosyncratic in genesis. This is why the biography – the flesh of the thinker – is inseparable from the work, don’t you think?

  10. Greg says

    I have said this question myself. I don’t think it’s an unfair question. I think philosophy should not be void of empirical methodology or the conclusions from the sciences ignored–on that note, however, I sometimes think that the domain of philosophy should include most studies that are not empirical. On certain issues like mathematics, or logic courses that are geared towards certain applications (e.g. computer science), we can understand that they have grown unto their own appropriately–though any meta-analysis or trying to understand their project in a grander more abstract perspective probably is philosophical. There’s a place for philosophy of math or the difficulties that logical systems may have when we follow the turtles down. Nonetheless, I think it’s fair to gear philosophy as something that is articulable (i.e. limited) and demarcates its domain to non-empirical areas or an analysis that looks over empirical data.

    Maybe this means that papers in controversial subjects (whether or not this paper is philosophy) should find themselves asking whether or not they’ve analyzed empirical data in a more abstract means (e.g. does this empirical data suggest we’ve met some form of agreed upon definition of justice?)

    –thoughts from an undergrad

    • Burl says

      dmf, one more really great find!

      OMG I do love the work and attitude of Professor Patricia Churchland – a kick-ass naturalist philosopher, as the interviewer wrote.

      I was deeply grateful and feel vindicated for holding my unpopular-to-most-PELers views when Pat said:

      “If you want to put me in a category, you can say I am a pantheist, in the sense that I care about nature and the planet. I find great solace and joy in nature, and I am totally thrilled by the idea that I share so much, genetically and otherwise, with all mammals, and much with all animals. It gives me a deep sense of connectedness.

      Good stuff.

  11. Joan says

    i am listening now, as i had not yet.
    ps: a hobby of mine is altruism in evolutionary theory, specifically reciprocal altruism.
    frans dewaal, all the way back to robert trivers…
    pat is getting into this a bit. very cool. thanks.

    • Burl says


      I’m gonna beat dmf to the punch with this google I just did after I asked about Witt

      The article suggests Witt and most philosophers have Asperger’s. It also suggests that males, who dominate the the identified folks of autism, as well as dominate philosophy.

      Autism is absence of good empathy skills – mindblindedness – inability to read another’s mind thru emotion and natural body language, much as animals in the wild must do. The function of language (origins in the male brain) is to overcome this deficit. Hence the confusion of the world of the 20th century was taken-up by males as the failed word-driven analytic movement.

      The theory gets my vote.

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