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Metaphilosophy (from Greek meta + philosophy) is the study of the subject and matter, methods and aims of philosophy. It is the "philosophy of philosophy". The recursive study of philosophy is an integral part of the philosophical enterprise because it is intertwined with all branches of philosophy as is logic or epistemology. Most metaphilosophy is part of either the formation or the criticism of a philosophical school, but some philosophers devote their time almost exclusively to metaphilosophy such as Stephen Toulmin, Richard Rorty and some continental philosophers.

For our purposes it might also include the psychology of philosophy. If it is the case that particular types of brain organization make particular forms of thought more attractive, easier to enter into etc we might take the view that the exposal of any particular philisophical position can be viewed as a projective personality test.

Taxonomy of philosophical problems

There are many kinds of philosophy, dependent on the numerous human cultures. What is not controversial are the general types of problem branches which are included in philosophy. The major branches are: metaphysics and ontology, epistemology and logic, axiology and ethics. Philosopher and encyclopedist Mortimer Adler, however, excludes logic and includes all second-order problems (i.e. questions about specific ideas or fields of study). Second-order problems are often found arranged under various branches of philosophy which start with the phrase "philosophy of...." Adler (1994) divides these second-order philosophical problems into two branches. The first branch addresses the objects of thought, such as Being, Cause, Change, Infinity, Fate, Love. The second branch addresses the subjects, or procedural domains, of thought, e.g. philosophy of religion, philosophy of history, philosophy of language, philosophy of science. Metaphilosophy also attempts to understand both branches of second-order thought aided by the other major branches, e.g. metaphysical knowledge in religion, epistemology in religion, axiology in religion. In any case, one problem in metaphilosophy is to provide such a taxonomy.

Aims and nature of philosophy

An important question for metaphilosophy is "What is philosophy?", and because different philosophers have offered different answers - often implicitly, it is the task of meta-philosophy to adjudicate. Prior to adjudication, however, the metaphilosopher must identify, clarify, and understand the alternative conceptions of the nature of philosophy, as well as his available reasoning tools and their limits.

The task is made more difficult by the fact that the use and meaning of the word "philosophy" has changed throughout history: in Antiquity it encompassed almost any inquiry, for Descartes it was supposed to be the Queen of the Sciences (a sort of ultimate justification), in the time of David Hume "metaphysics" and "morals" could be roughly translated as the human sciences, while analytic philosophy likes to define itself roughly as inquiry into concepts.

Apart, perhaps, from the vague idea of philosophy as a 'general' discipline that has something to do with 'life' and especially with 'reasoning', few genuine properties shared by all philosophers can be found. But the ways in which different thinkers characterize philosophy can be important as a normative statement about how philosophy should be done.

Empiricism or rationalism

One important distinction is between those philosophers that conceive philosophy as an empirical discipline (if not necessarily a science) and those who believe it is rather an a priori discipline not really concerned with facts and not related to the sciences.

The distinction is mostly applied to modern, not current, philosophy with people like John Locke, David Hume and Immanuel Kant on the empiricist side and mainly idealist philosophers such as Georg Hegel on the other. However, the distinction can be just as meaningfully applied to current philosophy. Analytical philosophers believe that all meaningful empirical questions are to be answered by science, not philosophy. Pragmatists and naturalistic epistemologists on the other hand think that philosophy should be linked to science and should be scientific in the broad sense of that term.

Theoretical or practical

Some philosophers (e.g. existentialism, pragmatism) think philosophy is ultimately a practical discipline that should help us lead meaningful lives by showing us who we are, how we relate to the world around us and what we should do. Others (e.g. analytical philosophy) see philosophy as a technical, formal and theoretical discipline. Note that both parties can be and are just as theoretical and abstract - they differ rather in their views on the function and subjects of that theory.

Philosophical method

General methods

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Stephen Toulmin (Knowing and Acting, 1976) defined three basic approaches to philosophy:

  • the philosopher as geometer: centers on formal inquiry; thinkers from Plato to Frege.
  • the philosopher as anthropologist: tries to find the basics of human nature; thinkers such as David Hume and Adam Smith.
  • the philosopher as critic: investigates the a priori conditions on which e.g. knowledge can exist; Immanuel Kant and the phenomenological tradition.

Three main methods of philosophy have been the Ancient Greek, epistemic and linguistic approaches. The order written represents the historical progression of the conceptions of Philosophy.

Typical of the phronesis-approach to philosophy were the thinkers Socrates and Epicurus. The questions of this form of Philosophy consist mainly of those relevant to the search for a happy life and the cultivation of the virtues, although political and religious philosophy is featured in recorded thinking. Consequently, much of Grecian philosophy would now be better termed psychology.

The epistemic approach centers upon the foundations of knowledge, in particular the debate between Rationalism and Empiricism. Typical of this era of speculation were Locke, Hume, Descartes, Jeremy Bentham and Immanuel Kant. Ethical philosophy developed from speculative psychology into a logical study of meta-ethics, while normative ethics showed signs of practical development towards social reform, notably under the prodigious lawyer and philosopher Jeremy Bentham.

Linguistic philosophy is the most recent development. It is practised both as a form of epistemology (the relation between language and world, the "meaning of meaning") and as the study of concepts and ideas. In its pure form, the logical study of meaningful language (conceived as the prime philosophical endeavor) is in decline in many universities but it lives on as part of the analytic tradition. A.J. Ayer in his book Language, Truth and Logic sets two criteria for a definition of Philosophy. Firstly, the science must be a genuine branch of knowledge, and secondly it must bear relation to the realm of ideas and impressions commonly known as "Philosophy". In the aforementioned publication, Philosophy is (contentiously) defined as a wholly analytic task and as a compilation of "in-use" definitions. It is commonly suggested by this school that questions such as "What is Truth?" or more generally "What is x?" are requests for definitions rather than empirical facts.

Rethinking Intuition

Recently, philosophers have casted their doubt about intuition as a basic tool in philosophical inquiry from Socrates up to contemporary philosophy of language. In Rethinking Intuition (ed. Michael R. Ramsey, William DePaul) various thinkers discard intuition as a valid source of knowledge and thereby the whole idea of an 'a priori' philosophy.

Computational philosophy

Computational means possible to implement and realize on computers. In the above context, we may construct several simplified artificial worlds with different ontologies and ethical systems, we can experiment with them and confront with the real world observations. This emergent research and scientific activity requires numerous meta-philosophical and meta-theoretical assumptions/propositions/axioms (see External links 2,3). This is also the domain of new computational philosophy and modern experimental philosophy

Various problems

Progress in philosophy

Whether or not there is progress in philosophy depends on one's assumptions about the nature of philosophy and the criteria of progress.

Metaphilosophical writings

Many philosophers have written on metaphilosophy. The tradition goes back to Plato, whose dialogues are directly concerned with ethics, but constantly raise questions concerning

  • the nature of philosophy and its methods (most explicitly addressed in the Meno)
  • the value and proper aims of philosophy (in the Apology, Gorgias, Protagoras, etc.)
  • the proper relationship between philosophical criticism and everyday life (a pervasive theme explored most famously in the Republic)

Ludwig Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and Philosophical Investigations directly address logic, the philosophy of language, and the philosophy of mind, but the nature of philosophical puzzles and philosophical understanding is central to all of the discussions. Wittgenstein frequently diagnoses philosophical errors as involving confusions about the nature of philosophical inquiry.

C. D. Broad is known for distinguishing Critical from Speculative philosophy. See his "The Subject-matter of Philosophy, and its Relations to the special Sciences," in Introduction to Scientific Thought, 1923. Curt Ducasse, in Philosophy as a Science, examines several views of the nature of philosophy, and concludes that philosophy has a distinct subject matter: appraisals.

Richard Rorty could be called a meta-philosopher, considering his many ideas about the nature of philosophy and the role of philosopher.

One of the precursors of the cybernetic meta-philosophical relativisation of philosophical systems was the Polish science-fiction writer Stanislaw Lem.


  • Adler, Mortimer (1994). The Four Dimensions of Philosophy. New York: MacMillan.
  • Rescher, Nicholas (2001). Philosophical Reasoning. A Study in the Methodology of Philosophizing. Blackwell.

See also

External links

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