What is Philosophy?

Most academic disciplines are defined by their subject matter, but with Philosophy this is tricky, because its subject matter is, well, everything. We could say that Philosophy is a critical investigation into any aspect of the universe or of human experience. Maybe Wittgenstein’s approach is more useful here: he said that Philosophy is an activity rather than a subject. It is the activity of rational reflection, of challenging assumptions and asking questions. You can philosophise about absolutely anything; so philosophers will never be out of work even if they are not always paid!


Which philosophers have had the biggest impact on modern Philosophy?

For our 21st anniversary issue we recently circulated a questionnaire to professional philosophers asking them which historical philosophers they thought the most interesting or important. Aristotle came top, followed by Immanuel Kant, then Plato. In terms of philosophers who have influenced modern developments, Frege, Russell and Wittgenstein (and later Quine) were crucial to the development of the analytical school of Philosophy. He- gel is still the point of reference for most strands of continental Philosophy. My own favourite is Oxford ethicist Philippa Foot who had so many great ideas about the foundations of morality that I still see her as underrated, despite her fame.


Who is Friedrich Nietzsche and how has he influenced modern day society?

When I started studying Philosophy I remember one lecturer dismissing Nietzsche as “more a poet than a philosopher,” but really he was both. He was a brilliant young professor of Philosophy at the University of Basel, who resigned his chair due to poor health and spent the next ten years or so wandering around Europe writing books about what he saw as an imminent crisis of values. He saw Christian morality – which he hated anyway – as being fatally undermined by a widespread decline in religious faith (“God is dead”) and he called for a “revaluation of all values”. Did he cause the crisis of values or merely foresee it? Probably the latter, but he gave an early and influential voice to the idea that values had no firm foundation.


Isn’t it all a bit wishy-washy?

The usual accusation made against English-language Philosophy – especially that done in Oxford – is that it is overconcerned with precision about language. However, given the great difficulty of some philosophical problems and the long history of disagreement about them, I think that there is no such thing as being “over-concerned with precision,” and that it is better to move slowly and test every footstep carefully, if you want to make real progress.


Can we all be philosophers?

Yes of course – it doesn’t even require any expensive equipment! We all stumble across philosophical problems at one time or another: Is there a God? Should we eat meat? What is life for? What comes after death? Is it sometimes all right to lie? How should we deal with this or that ethical dilemma? Some of these problems are inescapable, so the only question is whether we deal with them well or badly. Sadly, many people deal with dilemmas on the basis of emotional responses, tradition, or peer pressure rather than reasoned argument. As Bertrand Russell said, “Most people would rather die than think; in fact, they do.”