Forrest Cameranesi, Geek of All Trades


Metaphilosophy is the philosophy of philosophy, which is to say the philosophical examination of philosophy itself. It is the study of questions about the definition of philosophy and its demarcation from other fields; whether and how progress is made in philosophy; how philosophy is to be done; what it takes to do philosophy; who is to do philosophy; and why it matters to do philosophy. In this essay I will lay out my views on those questions, all stemming from a general position of pragmatism, focusing on what the goal of philosophy is as an activity and on how best to achieve that goal.

As regards the definition of philosophy and its demarcation from other fields, I have already drawn the first line of demarcation between philosophy and religion in my previous essay on Commensurablism, wherein I rejected all fideistic approaches to answering any kind of question (as well as all nihilistic approaches), and denounced them as not actually philosophy at all. While it is a contentious position within the field of philosophy to conclude (as I do) that it is never warranted to appeal to faith, it is nevertheless generally accepted that philosophy as an activity characteristically differs from religion as an activity by not appealing to faith to support philosophical positions themselves, even if one of those positions should turn out to be that appeals to faith are sometimes acceptable.

But although philosophy relies only upon reason or evidence to reach its conclusions, not faith, it can also be demarcated from the physical sciences in that philosophy as an activity does not appeal to empirical observation either, even though a philosopher may conclude (as I do) that empirical observation is the correct way to reach conclusions about reality. It is precisely when one transitions from using empirical observation to support some conclusion, to reasoning about why or whether something like empirical observation (or faith, or so on) is the correct thing to appeal to at all, that one transitions from doing science to doing philosophy.

One may be tempted to conclude that this means philosophy is entirely about prescriptive matters, rather than descriptive ones; that philosophy is all about using reason alone, without appeals to faith, to reach conclusions not about what is or isn't real, but about what one ought or ought not do, or broadly speaking, about morality. But I reject that characterization of philosophy, because as I have briefly explained in my previous essays and will elaborate across several later essays, I hold that there are analogues to the physical sciences, what we might call the ethical sciences, that I consider to be outside the domain of philosophy, in that they appeal to specific, contingent hedonic experiences in the same way the physical sciences appeal to specific, contingent empirical experiences. I hold that philosophy bears the same kind of relation to both the physical and the ethical sciences, providing the justification for each to appeal to their their respective kinds of a posteriori experiences, while never itself appealing to either of them, instead dealing entirely with a priori reasoning.

That in turn may raise the question of how philosophy is to be demarcated from mathematics, which also deals entirely with a priori logical reasoning without any appeal to a posteriori experience. To that question I answer that while philosophy and mathematics share much in common in their application of logic, they differ in that mathematical proofs merely show that if certain axioms or definitions are taken as true, then certain conclusions follow, while philosophy both does that and asserts the truth of some axioms or definitions. So while mathematics says things of the form "if [premise] then [conclusion]", philosophy says things of the form "[premise], therefore [conclusion]". Mathematics explores the abstract relations of ideas to each other without concern for the applicability of any of those ideas to any more practical matters (although applications for them are nevertheless frequently found), but philosophy is directly concerned with the practical application of the abstractions it deals with. It is not enough to merely define axiomatically some concept of "existence", "knowledge", "mind", etc, and validly expound upon the implications of that concept; it also matters if that is the correct, practically applicable concept of "existence", "knowledge", "mind", etc, that is useful for the purposes to which we want to employ that concept.

Similarly, philosophy has many similarities to the arts, broadly construed (as I will elaborate in a later essay) as communicative works presented so as to evoke some reaction in some audience. Philosophy is likewise an evocative, more specifically persuasive, discipline, employing not just logic, as with mathematics above, but also rhetoric, to convince its audience to accept some ideas. But whereas works of art are not the kinds of things that are capable of being correct or incorrect, in the way that scientific theories are, but rather they are only effective or ineffective at evoking their intended reactions, with works of philosophy correctness matters. It is not enough that a philosophical theory be beautiful or intriguing; a philosopher aims for their theories to be right.

Philosophy uses the tools of mathematics and the arts, logic and rhetoric, to do the job of creating the tools of the physical and ethical sciences. It is the bridge between the more abstract disciplines and the more practical ones: as described above, an inquiry stops being science and starts being philosophy when instead of using some methods that appeal to specific contingent experiences, it begins questioning and justifying the use of such methods in a more abstract way; and that activity in turn ceases to be philosophy and becomes art or math instead when that abstraction ceases to be concerned with figuring out how to practically answer questions about what is real or what is moral, but turns instead to the structure or presentation of the ideas themselves.

The word "philosophy" derives from Greek words meaning "love of wisdom". The term was coined to distinguish its practitioners from those called "sophists", who claimed to be wise already, whereas the philosophers merely "loved" wisdom, in a sense that in Greek meant attracted to or drawn toward it. The characteristic activity of philosophy is the pursuit of wisdom, not the possession or exercise thereof. Wisdom, in turn, does not merely mean some set of correct statements, but rather is the ability to discern the true from the false, the good from the bad; or at least the more true from the less true, the better from the worse; the ability, in short, to discern superior answers from inferior answers to any given question.

To that end, philosophy must investigate questions about what our questions even mean, investigating questions about language; what criteria we use to judge the merits of a proposed answer, investigating questions about being and purpose, the objects of reality and morality respectively; what methods we use to apply those criteria, investigating questions about knowledge and justice; what faculties we need to enact those methods, investigating questions about the mind and the will; who is to exercise those faculties, investigating questions about academics and politics; and why any of it matters at all. Those are the philosophical questions to be answered in the rest of these essays.

As regards philosophical progress, the preceding definition of philosophy gives us an immediate answer to the question of what progress in philosophy would look like, because this definition tells us what philosophy is trying to do, and progress is then just success at doing that. Because philosophy, thus construed, is not directly trying to answer questions about what is real or what is moral, philosophical progress is not made by correctly speculating on the nature of some specific thing's being or purpose. Rather, philosophical progress is made by devising useful methods of answering questions about those things. In that respect, enormous philosophical progress has been made across history with respect to questions about reality, as the physical sciences have settled on a critical, empirical, and realist approach colloquially called "the scientific method", rejecting appeals to authority and the supernatural. Progress with respect to questions about morality has been slower, but still apparent, with concerns for liberty and hedonic flourishing becoming gradually more widespread, in contrast to obedience to authority and intangible moral purity; though there is still quite far to go in that respect.

As regards the methods by which philosophy pursues such progress, it is frequently not by solving but by dissolving an apparently intractable problem, showing it to actually be a conflation of several different problems. Each of those problems will have its own solution, which are frequently closely related to the different contradictory answers to the conflated singular problem that has since been clarified into multiple problems. More generally, philosophy makes headway best when it analyzes concepts in light of the practical use we want to put them to, asking why do we need to know the answer to some question, in order to get at what we really want from an answer to that question, and so what an answer to it should look like, and how to go about identifying one. In analyzing concepts and teasing them apart from each other, philosophy makes extensive use of the tools of mathematical logic. But in exhorting its audience to care to use one of those teased-apart concepts for some practical purpose, instead of endlessly seeking answers to the uselessly confused and so perpetually unanswerable question that they may be irrationally attached to as some kind of important cosmic enigma, philosophy must instead use the tools of the rhetorical arts. Thus, as described earlier, philosophy uses the tools of the abstract disciplines, mathematics and the arts, to make progress in its job of enabling the more practical sciences to in turn do their jobs of expounding on the details of what is real and moral.

As regards the faculties needed to enact such a philosophical method, I hold that all that is needed, strictly speaking, is personhood. Rather, I hold personhood to be defined as the possession of the faculty needed to conduct philosophy, which is sapience. "Sapience" literally means just "wisdom" in Latin, but I mean it in a more technical sense (that I will elaborate upon in later essays) as a reflexivity of the mind and will; as self-awareness and self-control, the ability to have opinions about your opinions, to be aware of what you are thinking, to assess whether you are thinking the correct things, and if you deem that you are not, to cause yourself to think differently. This reflexivity allows you to look upon your thoughts in the third person as though they were someone else's thoughts that you were judging, allowing you to assess the validity of the inferences you make, and so to do logic, to tease apart the relations between your various ideas. That reflexivity also allows you to put yourself in the place of another person and imagine what influence it would have on them if you were to make an argument in one way or another, and so to do rhetoric, to package and deliver your ideas in a way to make them easy to accept.

As regards who is to exercise such faculties, who is it that is to do philosophy, the question is largely whether philosophy is a personal activity, or an institutional one. Given that I have just opined that the faculty needed to conduct philosophy is literally personhood itself, it should come as no surprise that I think that philosophy is for each and every person to do, to the best of their ability to do so. Nevertheless, institutions are made of people, and I do value the cooperation and collaboration that has arisen within philosophy in the contemporary era, so I don't mean at all to besmirch professional philosophy and the specialization that has come with it. I merely don't think that the specialized, professional philosophers warrant a monopoly on the discipline. It is good that there be people whose job it is to know philosophy better than laypeople, and that some of those people specialize even more deeply in particular subfields of philosophy. But it is important that laypeople continue to philosophize as well, and that the discourse of philosophy as a whole be continuous between those laypeople and the professionals, without a sharp divide into mutually exclusive castes of professional philosophers and non-philosophers. And it is also important that some philosophers keep abreast of the progress in all of those specialties and continue to integrate their findings together into more generalized philosophical systems.


As regards the usefulness of philosophy, there are two important sub-questions: what use is philosophy to any given individual, and what use is philosophy to society as a whole. To the first sub-question I answer, given my characterization of the faculties needed to do philosophy, that doing philosophy is literally practice at being a person, exercising the very faculty that differentiates persons from non-persons. Doing philosophy literally helps develop you into a better person, increasing your self-awareness and self-control, improving your mind and your will, and helping you to find meaning in the world, both in the sense of descriptive understanding, and in the sense of prescriptive purpose.

To the second sub-question, I answer that philosophy is the lynchpin of the entire chain of activities conducted by society, and so is instrumentally useful, in some distant way at least, toward any practical end whatsoever. Every practical activity involves using some tool to do some job. At the lowest level of abstraction away from the actual use of said tools to do said jobs, technological fields exist to maintain and administrate those tools, and business fields exist to maintain and administrate those jobs. A level of abstraction higher, engineers work to create the tools that those technologists administrate, while entrepreneurs work to create the jobs that those businesspeople administrate. Those engineers in turn heavily employ the findings of the physical sciences, which could be said to be finding the "natural tools" available from which engineers can create new tools tailored to specific needs. And though this step in the chain seems overlooked in society today, the ethical sciences that I envision could be said to find the "natural jobs" that need doing, inasmuch as they identify needs that people have, which we might also frame as market demands, toward the fulfillment of which entrepreneurs can tailor the creation of new jobs. And those physical and ethical sciences each rely on philosophical underpinnings to function, thereby making philosophy, at least distantly, instrumental to any and all practical undertakings across society.

Continue to the next essay, On Meaning and Language.