What Is Philosophy?
Ward (Dave)
Source: Ward (Dave), Pritchard (Duncan), Massimi (Michela), Lavelle (Suilin), Chrisman (Matthew), Hazlett (Allan) & Richmond (Alasdair) - Introduction to Philosophy
Paper - Abstract

Paper SummaryBooks / Papers Citing this PaperNotes Citing this PaperText Colour-Conventions

Author’s Abstract

  1. We’ll start the course by thinking about what Philosophy actually is; what makes it different from other subjects? What are its distinctive aims and methods? To help us think about this, we’ll consider a couple of different approaches philosophers have taken to arguably the biggest question of all: what is the Meaning of Life? We’ll then look ahead to some of the different branches of philosophy we’ll be considering on the course.
  2. Author: Dr. Dave Ward is a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. He works mainly on the philosophy of mind and cognition. His main philosophical ambition is to understand the relationship between perception, thought and agency.

Author’s Introduction
  1. Five short parts: Introductory part, where we try and get an initial idea of what philosophy is.
  2. Next 2 parts where we try and assess some common claims made about philosophy: that it’s (somehow) fundamental and that it’s about important questions
  3. Case study: how a philosopher (or anyone) might address the question ‘what is the meaning of life?’
  4. Finally, we’ll look ahead to the rest of the course, thinking about how the topics we’ll cover there relate to what we’ve said about philosophy this week.

  1. What is Philosophy?
  2. Is Philosophy ‘Fundamental’?
  3. Is Philosophy Important?
  4. Philosophy and the Meaning of Life
  5. Applying What We’ve Said to the Stuff on This Course

  1. The five brief lectures have a fairly full transcript (here: Link; summary above).
  2. There is also a briefer hand-out (here: Link)
  3. A 6th lecture addressed some of the issues raised in the discussion forums. There is no transcript or hand-out for this. The topics addressed were:-
    • Critical engagement with the proposed definition of philosophy.
    • Firstly, does the activity of “thinking about things” itself count as philosophy? Sometimes – but philosophy focusses on hidden assumptions. Contrast the philosophy of science – dealing with methodology (the right way of thinking about things) – with doing science itself. Also, aesthetics vs doing artwork.
    • Secondly, what is “the right way” of thinking about things? Mapping on to reality? Enabling human flourishing? Are our minds up to the job, anyway? This is a question that exercised Kant. It’s not a problem that this is unresolved.
    • ”The meaning of life” – answering the question wasn’t the job of these lectures. But, the distinction between designative and expressive meaning puzzled many – in particular the meaning of “expressive meaning”. Another try - what a great artwork has to say can’t be expressed in words, or there would be little point to the artwork. Some philosophers start off writing didactively, and then shift to poetry or music1. The source for the distinction is Charles Taylor – references to be supplied on the website (which suggests Taylor’s 'Language and Human Nature’).
  4. Various items of extra reading / viewing are suggested on the website:-
    • A PhilosophyBites session on “What is Philosophy?” - Link. These really are “bite-sized” comments, of little philosophical interest.
    • A rather dismissive Economist review of Hawking and Mlodinow’s The Grand Design (Link): Article Conclusion: Once upon a time it was the province of philosophy to propose ambitious and outlandish theories in advance of any concrete evidence for them. Perhaps science, as Professor Hawking and Mr Mlodinow practice it in their airier moments, has indeed changed places with philosophy, though probably not quite in the way that they think.
    • "Joll (Nicholas) - Contemporary Metaphilosophy" (for the full text, Link): highly relevant, but a very full article, which I’ve not read as it’s too far outside my research interests.
    • An interview with Dave Ward’s philosophical hero - "Rogers (Ben), Taylor (Charles), Etc - Prospect Interview with Charles Taylor" (for the full text, Link)
    • Various other items inaccessible to those outside academia (or just broken links)
  5. Overall, my view of the first set of lectures is that while it’s methodologically correct to start off with Metaphilosophy, it’s likely to put off a lot of potential students as it’d be more exciting to see it in action, rather than in navel-gazing. Also, having the first lecture delivered by the nerdiest-looking person on the planet does nothing to encourage the worldly-wise to board ship.


Correspondent 1
    The lecturer’s point that the question: "what is the meaning of life" was a question that could not reasonably be answered was specious I thought. I suppose you could see it as in "what is the meaning of a cat", but really the meaning of life is just to evolve isn't it?. We know what we are made of and what we evolved from, what we don't know is what we will evolve into.

  1. I think what the lecturer was trying to do in his "meaning of life" section was to give a taste of the approach of analytic philosophy in action. He was careful not to try to answer the question, but to ask whether it made sense. There are two methods of doing this. The one he took was to take the form of the question as commonly expressed, and see if we can make sense of its actual words. In so doing, he had an eye on one section of the anti-religion camp within philosophy that says that the question doesn't even make sense, so of course it has no answer. Their reason is that meanings apply only to words (and other linguistic elements). So the word "cat" has a referential meaning (he used the term "designative") - it refers to cats, which have particular properties, so we can tell whether the word has been correctly used. But, it is said, while the word "life" has a referential meaning - it refers to lives - lives themselves aren't words, so don't have referential meanings. But he introduced a second meaning of "meaning" - an "expressive" sense - which can be had by processes - for instance the performance of a piece of music, or maybe a life. So, he suggested, a life can - by being lived - express a meaning.
  2. This may be so, but I doubt that's what people have in mind when they ask about the meaning of life, which isn't just whether a particular life (usually their own) means anything, but is a more general "what's it all about then?" question (famously asked of Bertrand Russell by a cabbie, but not answered to the cabbie’s satisfaction).
  3. My approach to asking whether the question makes sense would be to ignore the form of words in which it's expressed, and repair the form of the question to express what's actually intended, in a form less open to semantic objections (which somewhat ignore the often earnest purpose of the questioner).
  4. But either way, for the purpose of the lecture, the point is not to lurch into answering the question, but to clarify the question – or at least point out that it needs clarifying. Just what is the questioner looking for in an answer - and what would count as an answer if there is one?
  5. As I understand it, the question is usually more about purpose than meaning, and is usually much wider than the purpose of one’s own life. Before answering any question you need to have a clear idea what question you're asking, and the method of analytic philosophy - thinking clearly about questions that matter (to us) - is good at teasing out such things, or so it's hoped by its practitioners.
  6. If the question is about purpose, then your reference to evolution is off target, as evolution (unless it falls into the hands of the theists) is usually portrayed as blind and purposeless – it’s just a process that happens, for the reasons given by Darwin or other theorists. Certainly, cats don’t evolve, though the species “cat” does (or may).
  7. Presumably the meaning of life for a cat – a fulfilled life maybe – is to be well and fed and produce more cats, and maybe do the sort of catty things that cats have evolved to do – like terrorise the rodent and avian communities.
  8. If the question asks what the purpose of the whole show is – for cats, us and everything else – then the religions have their answers, but if we don’t own one of these, maybe there is no answer – the universe just is and does what it does.
  9. And if we come back to individual lives, then who knows? Maybe they just have the purpose we give them by our selection of projects, or are given them as circumstances demand, by our accumulation of responsibilities. But I doubt analytic philosophy has anything much to say on the question, beyond criticising attempted answers.
  10. No doubt all the above arguments are open to objection, and you could get down to doing some philosophy by taking a pop at them - though maybe you might join one of the discussion groups instead?

Correspondent 2
    The first lecture discussed Descartes 'Dualism'. If I understand it correctly this involves the brain and the mind being made up of different substances; the brain perhaps being organic and the mind being inorganic. How does Descartes get around the fact that if you were to drive a spike into your brain this would alter your ability to think properly, or at all? Doesn't this prove that the mind and the brain are both organic and that is why both are affected by trauma? Or does he think that the mind is never affected but only the brains ability to communicate thoughts? Is that it? And what about Alzheimer's? Is that a disease of the brain or the mind or both?

  1. Yes - though there are two forms of dualism in the the philosophy of mind - substance dualism, as you note, but also property dualism. The latter only asserts that there are two fundamental minds of properties - physical ones (like weight), and mental ones (like thoughts or sensations), while the former claims there are two fundamental kinds of stuff.
  2. In my view, like yours no doubt, substance dualism has been harder and harder to credit since the capacities of the brain ave been properly understood, and since the thinking capacities of "mere matter" have been demonstrated by computer technology. But there have been substance dualists amongst neurosurgeons until recently (Sir John Eccles – author2 of "Popper (Karl) & Eccles (John) - The Self and Its Brain" - for instance, and there still are some, mainly for religious reasons). They argue that the mind does the thinking, or perceiving, but it uses the brain to do so (so if the brain is damaged, the mind cannot think properly). But most people think that if that's your line, you might as well do away with a distinct mind altogether. I suppose, though, that if you had a destroyed brain, you might - on this view - still have an intact mind awaiting another brain to interact with. On this view - in answer to your question - the mind doesn't "have" Alzheimer's, but displays the symptoms of Alzheimer's because it's using the damaged brain.
  3. The trouble with substance dualism always had to do with interaction. How do the mind and brain communicate with one another? Descartes thought (wrongly, of course) it was via the pineal gland. Leibniz thought there was some sort of miraculous "constant conjunction" - they couldn't communicate, but God had so arranged things at the creation that things would work out perfectly in parallel. Malebranche was an "occasionalist" who thought that God constantly tinkered with things to keep them in step (or, maybe, the mind asks God to make the change in the brain that then instructs the body ...).
  4. As I said, all this came about because people were so sure that "mere matter" couldn't think. Now they're more confident that it can, but are stuck on whether "mere matter" can be conscious.

Correspondent 3
    I must admit I’m not surprised people found it difficult to understand what the lecturer was saying about designative meaning v expressive meaning. He seemed to be saying that expressive meaning was an emotion or a feeling, rather than a tangible thing, but he didn’t actually say this, so perhaps I’m wrong. We found his explanation difficult to follow, and not very clear. Perhaps you have a clearer insight on this than we do. Mike said the designative meaning reminded him of logical positivism which was concerned with very precise meanings of words.

    I'm not too clear on expressive meaning either, though it seems to be a property of a thing or an event, rather than of a word or expression - some meaning that is expressed by the thing doing what it does, or being what it is. "Meaning" is a complex concept, and not central to "meaning of life" questions. The Logical Positivist dictum was that "the meaning of a statement is its method of verification" - a well-intentioned guide to avoiding talking rot, but unfortunately open to bootstrapping objections. Emotional meaning appears more in the distinction between denotation and connotation - but both apply to words. The word "dove" denotes avians of the family columbidae, but connotes peace.


In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 1: Just who might these philosophers be? Leonard Cohen? This is all rather contrary to the analytic tradition.

Footnote 2: I should have said “co-author”, and mentioned "Eccles (John) - Evolution of the Brain, Creation of the Self".

Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)

  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2018
  2. Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)

© Theo Todman, June 2007 - April 2018. Please address any comments on this page to theo@theotodman.com. File output:
Website Maintenance Dashboard
Return to Top of this Page Return to Theo Todman's Philosophy Page Return to Theo Todman's Home Page