Definitions of philosophy  

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Definitions of philosophy aim at determining what all forms of philosophy have in common and how to distinguish philosophy from other disciplines. Many different definitions have been proposed but there is very little agreement on which is the right one. Some general characteristics of philosophy are widely accepted, for example, that it is a form of rational inquiry that is systematic, critical, and tends to reflect on its own methods. But such characteristics are usually too vague to give a proper definition of philosophy. Many of the more concrete definitions are very controversial, often because they are revisionary in that they deny the label philosophy to various subdisciplines for which it is normally used. Such definitions are usually only accepted by philosophers belonging to a specific philosophical movement. One reason for these difficulties is that the meaning of the term "philosophy" has changed throughout history: it used to include the sciences as its subdisciplines, which are seen as distinct disciplines in the modern discourse. But even in its contemporary usage, it is still a wide term spanning over many different subfields.

An important distinction among approaches to defining philosophy is between deflationism and essentialism. Deflationist approaches see it as an empty blanket term, while essentialistic approaches hold that there is a certain set of characteristic features shared by all parts of philosophy. Between these two extremes, it has been argued that these parts are related to each other by family resemblance even though they do not all share the same characteristic features. Some approaches try to define philosophy based on its method by emphasizing its use of pure reasoning instead of empirical evidence. Others focus on the wideness of its topic, either in the sense that it includes almost every field or based on the idea that it is concerned with the world as a whole or the big questions. These two approaches may also be combined to give a more precise definition based both on method and on topic.

Many definitions of philosophy concentrate on its close relation to science. Some see it as a proper science itself, focusing, for example, on the essences of things and not on empirical matters of fact, in contrast to most other sciences, or on its level of abstractness by talking about very wide-ranging empirical patterns instead of particular observations. But since philosophy seems to lack the progress found in regular sciences, various theorists have opted for a weaker definition by seeing philosophy as an immature science that has not yet found its sure footing. This position is able to explain both the lack of progress and the fact that various sciences used to belong to philosophy, while they were still in their provisional stages. It has the disadvantage of degrading philosophical practice in relation to the sciences.

Other approaches see philosophy more in contrast to the sciences as concerned mainly with meaning, understanding, or the clarification of language. This can take the form of the analysis of language and how it relates to the world, of finding the necessary and sufficient conditions for the applications of technical terms, as the task of identifying what pre-ontological understanding of the world we already have and which a priori conditions of possibility govern all experience, or as a form of therapy that tries to dispel illusions due to the confusing structure of natural language (therapeutic approach, e.g. quietism). An outlook on philosophy prevalent in the ancient discourse sees it as the love of wisdom expressed in the spiritual practice of developing one's reasoning ability in order to lead a better life. A closely related approach holds that the articulation of worldviews is the principal task of philosophy. Other conceptions emphasize the reflective nature of philosophy, for example, as thinking about thinking or as an openness to questioning any presupposition.

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