What is Philosophy?

Any philosopher’s argument which does not therapeutically treat human suffering is worthless; for just as there is no profit in medicine when it doesn’t expel the diseases of the body, so there is no profit in philosophy when it doesn’t expel the sufferings of the mind. – Epicurus

I tuned into a philosophy podcast the other day, cool dude that I am, to listen to a philosopher who has helped me incalculably with my studies and deciphering that incomprehensible eejit Hegel. At the end of the introductory segment, the radio presenters went from zero to sixty, from small talk to huge talk, and asked him: “What is philosophy?”

For context, this is a decorated speaker, author, educator and translator; a professor of philosophy, author of dozens of essays, translator of works from French and Latin into English, owner of his own philosophical counselling service, and uploader of well over a thousand videos on YouTube of various lessons and lectures he has given over the years. So what did he answer?

He refused to answer the question. He didn’t even give a second-order answer, either; instead, he said, chuckling, “I’m not a good person to answer that question unfortunately.

I have toyed with the idea of writing my own answer to this question for a while, and have made every excuse not to put pen to paper: the sheerness of its scope and a looming dissertation are the ones I’ve fallen back on. But hearing this poor sod being put on the spot, and in his defence during the last two minutes of the segment, has had me decide to answer it myself, but without (too much of) the philosophical terminology.

What is philosophy? The word is, unsurprisingly, of ancient Greek origin and is a compound of the two words philos, meaning ‘loving,’ and sophos, meaning ‘wise.’ So, etymologically, the word philosophy can be rendered as the ‘love of wisdom.’

But the Greeks didn’t just have one word for love, they were finicky about such things, and rightly so: there isn’t one type of love. You don’t love yourself the same way that you love a partner or your parents; to say that we love them in the same way would, to the Greeks at least, seem perverse. So they had six different words for different forms of love. Philautia is the love of self, which can go too far in its positive or negative aspects; one can be too altruistic or egotistical in nature. There’s eros, which is sexual love, for the Greeks it is associated with the ‘falling’ in love. Pragma is the obverse of falling in love; it is the standing in love, the kind of love keeping couples together through thick and thin. Ludus is thought of as playful love; think children playing together or adults dancing together, it is the love of fun and friendship. Agape is universal love, the love of humanity, which was translated into Latin as caritas, the word from which we derived our word ‘charity.’

The kind of love which is preserved in the word philosophy is philia. Often translated as ‘brotherly love,’ though one may do better to term it ‘brothers-in-arms love,’ it is the love of deepest friendship. It is a love expectant and deserving of loyalty and sacrifice; one might apply it to a parent’s love for their child or a soldier’s for their comrade in battle. It’s something deep and visceral.

It might seem odd to have a word imbued by so much real-life meaning residing within the word philosophy. And, do believe me, I don’t harbour an undying and brotherly love for Hegel. To fully understand what (I think) the Greeks were getting at, we need to unpack what this ‘philosophy’ might mean, first in theory and then in actuality, to find out how and why we might ever consider ourselves as lovers of wisdom in this intense sense.

Philosophy is a subject taught at sixth-form and university, one with a multitude of subspecies and sub-subspecies; there are philosophies of science, of nature, of right, of language, and so on. Before the scientific age, everything studied was called the philosophy of such and such.

But people often say, “That’s my philosophy.” You certainly wouldn’t hear somebody say, “That’s my science,” or “That’s my maths/chemistry/economics/biology” in the same manner. For the most part, people don’t develop and practise their own sciences. This is because science, for the most part, is a collection of validated facts about the world, apart from human experience. Such goes for maths and chemistry and economics and biology: you can be taught that 1+1=2, that the chemically affective agent in your pint was C2H5OH, that you produce surplus-value for your employer which is abstracted in the form of money, that your happiness is in fact an affect produced by your dopaminergic system—but none of this is your science, much less your philosophy.

How is philosophy different?

Science looks for truths about the world, as it is. Philosophy looks for truths about the good life, as it ought to be. Philosophy, in this sense that the Greeks meant it, is your theory of life insofar as it is practised in life. This in no way constitutes a theory or a science like the subjects aforementioned.

One can study the theory of natural selection, but it is not your theory; it informs your understanding about how nature evolves but does not thereby inform you about how you ought to act—lest you be driven purely to procreate.

Mathematics is not yours in the same way; it informs your ideas about calculus and geometry but not how you ought to act in day-to-day life—lest it be very boring.

This is a form of the complaint everybody made or heard at school: “Why am I taught (quadratic equations/photosynthetic cell adaptations) when I will never need to use it in real life?” Sciences are all well and good, telling you truths about the world as it is; but they do not tell you truths about how you ought to act in it. This is especially notable in our education system, in which you are force-fed facts you are told to retain just long enough to regurgitate onto an exam paper, never to (want to) consume them again.

Philosophy—your theory of life as it is practised in life—differs from science because it matters to how you live your life specifically¹. The point I’m here making is that everybody is a philosopher, whether consciously or unconsciously, and the quality of your philosophy has a direct and inestimable bearing on your life.

If your philosophy is, like so many sorry-ass students of the humanities nowadays, “our patriarchal society is rotten to its very core and must be overthrown,” then you will be miserable, not only personally, but just to be around².

If your philosophy is, despite all that life throws at you, “I am lucky to be alive,” then you will, in practically acting out that theory, feel lucky to be alive.

If your philosophy is, “life’s a drag,” then, at the office and the gym and the grandparent’s, it will drag, and drag, and drag, until you go back to the philosophical drawing board. (Another common complaint at school comes to mind: “Guernsey is so boring!” Read: “I am so bored and boring.”³)

If your philosophy is, as is often said by the wise and along with the school of stoic philosophers, “it could be worse,” then you will appreciate the good in your situation despite the bad, because “shit happens.”

Much philosophy is preserved within these little aphorisms, you’ll probably see all and sundry circulated throughout the social media sphere. But be assured that when one lives by them, they become more than mere statements. This is the way in which the Greeks meant the ‘love of wisdom,’ a love of deepest friendship, for what always comes with you in any time and space? Your thoughts: your philosophy. One can identify people with good philosophies, because they are usually the people who are happy and helpful and thankful across time and space, be it at home, on the bus, on a hospital bed, in a queue, at a funeral. Their theory of life copes with practical life better. If your philosophy is immature, then you mightn’t cope too well with a long day at work, when you break your leg or a parent passes away. If your philosophy is mature, you come home delighted with a hard day’s work, you pursue a pastime whilst recovering from your broken leg or become the rock on whom your family can depend when your parent passes on.

(TL;DR) In this ramble and in a roundabout way, I gave my own answer to the question “What is Philosophy?” We got there by way of the Greek definition; we opposed philosophy, as subjective with a direct bearing on life, to science, as objective and without that same bearing on life; and we finished by discussing some examples of philosophy in its relation to life. There’s so much more to be said, but alas it’s too much more. So we will save them for another time—perhaps in short pieces on different philosophies and their bearings on life—and finish with one of my favourite philosophical aphorisms.

Out of life’s school of war: What does not destroy me, makes me stronger. – Nietzsche


¹ “The man of science is a poor philosopher.” – Einstein

² “Everybody thinks of changing the world, but no-one thinks of changing himself.” – Tolstoy

³ “Boredom: The desire for desires.” – Tolstoy


As I’m not on social media, my writing is only read as much as it is circulated by readers like you; so if you liked this piece, please share and share alike, it would be greatly appreciated. Peace and chirps, Liam.