restricted access What Is Philosophy?
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What Is Philosophy? Adina L. Roskies If you ask one hundred philosophers “What is philosophy?” you will get at least one hundred different answers.“Wait!,”you gasp in astonishment, but not because there is disagreement about what philosophy is. Your surprise is that there are one hundred philosophers to ask! Aren’t all philosophers dead? Isn’t philosophy ancient history? Well, I’ll let you in on a secret, and it appears to be a pretty deeply guarded secret, at least until you get to college and maybe even beyond.Here’s the secret: philosophy is a discipline that is alive and well,whose diverse practitioners engage with difficult, important, and interesting questions (some old, some new). Lots of people—women, men, young, old, people of color, Australians, Americans, and even a fair number of Icelanders—have jobs as philosophers! They are pushing the boundaries of knowledge even as you read this. And the things they think and write about may be as current and contemporary as stem cell research and voting rights, or as old and venerable a topic as what there is. A lot of philosophy is geared toward figuring out what basic things to believe. And in that respect philosophy is really concerned with the fundamentals of all sorts of areas of inquiry. For virtually any field of study, for instance, there is (or could be) a corresponding area of philosophy,one that questions the assumptions that aren’t usually questioned by those working in that field, or one that tries to figure out what logically follows from the accepted or potential doctrines in that field, or one that offers methodological critiques of the ways in which knowledge is sought and established in that field. Along these lines, philosophy of biology, philosophy of physics, and philosophy of language are all thriving areas of philosophy. In philosophy of biology, for example, philosophers argue about what natural selection operates over (what are the units of selection—are they What Is Philosophy? 245 genes,organisms,species,or populations?),whether the notion of “species”picks out a natural kind or meaningful division in the world, or whether there are any meaningful distinctions among people that correspond to the concept of “race.”Answers to these questions could have far-reaching impact, for example on social structure and human relations, on science, and on the environment. How can it then be, you might ask, that one hundred different philosophers will give you one hundred different answers to the question of what philosophy is? After all, it’s about figuring out what to believe! Would you be even more disturbed if the one hundred philosophers gave you one hundred different answers to any philosophical question? Because they might! Isn’t there one right answer to any question? Well, that itself is a philosophical question. And you will learn if you study philosophy, a lot depends on the assumptions you make, and the kinds of things you take to be fundamental.You’ll also learn that philosophers can and will disagree about all sorts of things, so that even when they agree on the answer to a question, they may disagree about the reasons for which they agree! And for a philosopher, that is almost as deep a disagreement as the disagreement about the answer. This may all sound so confusing! So let’s take a step back,talk about just how philosophers approach their work,and then talk a bit about the kinds of questions they work on and think about. You’ll see that it’s an amazing world of ideas. Methods One thing (most) philosophers do share is a commitment to reasoned argument: we ought to believe things because we have good reason to believe them, and there are some rules about what good reasoning is. Logic, which I’m sure you’ve heard of, is a set of rules or recipes for how to reason so that you don’t end up believing falsehoods when you’ve started out believing truths. If you follow the rules of logic (which really is both a branch of philosophy and a branch of mathematics) you can be sure that your conclusions will be true if your premises are. But how do you know whether your premises are true? That’s a really hard question. Philosophers use a lot of tools to interrogate their assumptions, to try to determine whether things that seem true really are true. But this kind of reasoning is not iron...