The Nature of Philosophy and its Relation with Empirical Science

In his Confessions, Saint Augustine (5th ct.) wrote: “What is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If someone asks me to explain it, I do not know.”1 You can substitute “philosophy” for “time” in this quote and it will remain true: “What is philosophy? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If someone asks me to explain it, I do not know.”

Perhaps I should refine this claim: the application of Augustine’s quote to “philosophy” is true at least for me. I don’t know what philosophy is. And that is a source of embarrassment, of course, given that I try to make a living teaching philosophy.

There are others, however, who are (or believe to be) less burdened by ignorance about the nature of philosophy and who have proposed various definitions. Unfortunately, no one has succeeded thus far in giving a definition that is not too broad, too narrow, both, and/or nonsensical. For any proposed definition there are – usually obvious – counterexamples (i.e. “things” that are excluded or included by the definition while they shouldn’t be), and this is one of the reasons why I say that I don’t know what philosophy is.

According to Plato, philosophy studies some part of reality that is beyond the reach of the empirical sciences – the world of Ideas – but that suggestions depends on the dubious metaphysical claim that there are such Ideas (and such a world). Moreover, it raises more questions than it answers. For example, if the world of Ideas lies beyond the reach of the empirical sciences, then that implies that it has no empirically detectable causal relations, but if that is the case, how can we get to know anything about it at all?

One of the most common views on the nature of philosophy is that it is some kind of source and residue of the sciences. Prominent defenders of this view include J.L. Austin and John Searle, who wrote that “as soon as we can revise and formulate a philosophical question to the point that we can find a systematic way to answer it, it ceases to be philosophical and becomes scientific” (1999: 2069). The problem with this view is that it doesn’t really tell us what philosophy is, but only what it is not (i.e. the branches of science that split off from it), and that if we try to characterize the residue by means of a positive definition, that definition either includes religion and mythology, or excludes ethics and social and political philosophy.

Ludwig Wittgenstein famously claimed that “the philosopher’s treatment of a question is like the treatment of an illness” (1953: 255). Philosophy is therapy for our tendency to ask the wrong kinds of questions. However, while it certainly is the case that something like this is and has been a task of philosophy, it doesn’t seem to characterize the whole of it, and rather than as a definition of the actual and historical discipline of philosophy, Wittgenstein’s claim is better understood as a proposal for what it should be.

According to Richard Rorty, philosophy is not “a discipline which confronts permanent issues”, but rather, “is a cultural genre, a ‘voice in the conversation of mankind’ …, which centers on one topic rather than another at some given time not by dialectical necessity but as a result of various things happening elsewhere in the conversation” (1979: 264). However, even if Western philosophy was one cultural genre in the past, it now consists of two major schools – analytic and continental philosophy – that hardly communicate with, or even understand each other, supplemented by a number of smaller schools such as Marxist, pragmatist, feminist, and Africana philosophy, and in addition to these, there are the various schools and traditions of non-Western philosophy: Buddhist philosophy, African philosophy, Confucianism, Mohism, Daoism, and so forth. Hence, philosophy is not one “cultural genre” or a “voice in the conversation of mankind”, but a cacophony of voices (or genres).

Many, but not all, attempts to define philosophy are attempts to draw a clear line between philosophy and the sciences, but typically these attempts result in either logic or ethics (and/or social and political philosophy, aesthetics, etc.) falling on the wrong side of the boundary line. Perhaps, the reason that all such attempts have failed is because they are based on the false assumption that there is such a line. Something like that, at least, is W.V.O. Quine’s position. According to Quine, philosophy and the sciences are continuous, and in the same way that there is no strict boundary between physics and chemistry, for example, there is no strict boundary between philosophy and the other sciences.

But even if that is the case, we distinguish physics from chemistry and sociology from economics. Even if these disciplines have vague boundaries, they appear to be identified by core topics and/or methods. What then, are the identifying topics and/or methods of philosophy?

Wilfrid Sellars famously claimed that philosophy aims “to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term” (1991: 1). This is – I think – a fairly accurate sketch of the topic of philosophy: everything, and how everything hangs together. But, obviously, this isn’t very helpful in identifying the discipline – in some sense, physics also studies everything and how everything hangs together.

Perhaps, what distinguishes (in a loose sense) philosophy from the other sciences (that study everything and how everything hangs together) is a difference in methodological focus. The other sciences are primarily inductive – their ultimate arbiter is (at least ideally) experiment and observation. Deduction plays an important role, as well, of course, but that role is always subordinate to the broader inductive project. What is deduced from previous inductions, is to be tested empirically next. In philosophy, on the other hand, the methodological focus is deductive, rather than inductive. In philosophy deduction is not subordinate to induction, but it is the other way around: logic is the ultimate arbiter.

I have little doubt that this attempt to identify philosophy will also fail when put under sufficient pressure, but I believe that this is a useful way to think of philosophy and its relation to science because it has at least two important attractions. Firstly, it explains what philosophers do. And secondly, the ways in which philosophy can (and perhaps should) contribute to science as a whole or to (other) sciences individually almost “naturally” follow from the supposed deductive focus of philosophy.

What philosophers do is argue. Put two philosophers in a room together and they will almost instantly start to disagree and argue with each other (except, perhaps, if they talk about their holiday plans or last night’s dinner). That philosophers argue with each other all the time makes perfect sense, however, from the perspective of its deductive focus. If logic rather than experiment and observation is the ultimate arbiter of philosophical theories, then the only way to “test” them is to let others try to find logical flaws (after doing that oneself, of course). Argument is how philosophical theories are tested. Argument is what leads to refinement, amendment, and/or replacement of philosophical theories. (Hence, it is no coincidence that philosophical progress stalled where en whenever disagreement and argument were covered up and/or suppressed.)

The deductive focus of philosophy suggests two ways in which philosophy can contribute to science. The first of those is primarily critical; the second is more exploratory. Philosophy’s critical role is closely related to the previous point about argument. Analyzing arguments to detect flaws is as important in empirical science as it is for philosophy, and – at least in theory – philosophers excel at that. A philosophical argument fails if a term is used with (even subtly) different meanings in different parts of the argument, for example, but similar problems occur in empirical science. There may be subtle differences between what is measured or tested and what was hypothesized, or some empirical construct may deviate in slight but important ways from earlier research and/or theories based thereon. Empirical scientists rarely stop to ponder questions like “What exactly are we talking about?” and “Are and were we all talking about the same thing?”, but philosophers do that all the time, and they can do so in service of empirical science. Hence, the first kind of possible contribution of philosophy to the other sciences is the analysis of concepts and inferences.

A deductive argument takes its premises for granted to focus attention on what follows from them. The second role of philosophy in interdisciplinary cooperation – or perhaps even within science in general – departs from this principle to explore “to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term” (as Sellars phrased it – see above). In its exploratory role, philosophy takes the results of empirical science – more or less – for granted, and combines them with premises derived from other sources to see what follows from them. These “other sources” include other sciences, but also normative ideas and/or “self-evident truths” suggested by philosophers, as well as more ordinary (individual and social) human concerns. Consequently, in its exploratory role, philosophy can build bridges – not just between the sciences, but also (and much more importantly) to the rest of society by trying to answer the questions how and why certain scientific findings (broadly understood) matter.

What I am proposing – in summary of the foregoing – is that philosophy as a part of science is primarily concerned with two kinds of questions, roughly: “What exactly are we talking about?” and “What does it matter?”.

I said before about Wittgenstein’s conception of philosophy as therapy that it is better understood as a proposal for what philosophy should be (according to Wittgenstein) than as a definition or description of the actual and historical discipline of philosophy, and probably the same applies to my sketch of the discipline and its relation with science. Actual (rather than ideal) academic philosophy tends to be much narrower in scope than the second role requires. For various historical and institutional reasons philosophy – like all other academic disciplines – has fragmented into a collection of narrow specializations. However, the difference in methodological focus makes specialization much more problematic in philosophy than in the other sciences. To see why this would be the case, consider the following two claims (which may be true or false – that’s besides the point):

[AF] Great apes can imagine the future.
[OA] Orangutans are great apes.

The inductive focus of the empirical sciences means that their primary concern is with the truth or falsity of these claims. The deductive focus of philosophy, on the other hand, means that its primary concern is what follows from them, in case of this example:

[OF] Orangutans can imagine the future.

As suggested before, this doesn’t mean that empirical scientists are not interested in [OF] or that philosophers are only interested in [OF]. What it does mean is, firstly, that for empirical scientists [OF] is relevant mostly to judge the plausibility of [AF] or the classification of orangutans according to [OA]; and secondly, that the assessment of the truth or falsehood of the two premises [AF] and [OA] is part of a philosopher’s “job” only if they lie within the scope of her branch of philosophy. (Of course, the difference between the two approaches is not as sharp as I’m sketching it here.)

By implication of the latter, the narrower the scope of some deductive research field, the more it excludes, and therefore, the more it takes for granted. Consequently, in a deductive science (i.e. philosophy) there is a risk that specialization deteriorates critical reflection on basic assumptions or even leads to dogmatism. Certainly it seems to have had this kind of effects in academic philosophy, as there is a large body of beliefs that are more or less uncritically accepted by the majority of philosophers. (This is true for all schools of philosophy; they just differ in the content of that body of beliefs.) Philosophy has become “normal science” in the Kuhnian sense, although each school of philosophy is its own “normal science”. The problem with that, is that this seems to conflict with the critical roles of philosophy: normal science is uncritical (or un-self-critical, at least) by definition.


  • Rorty, Richard (1979), Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton: Princeton University Press).
  • Searle, John (1999), “The Future of Philosophy”, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B 354: 2069–80.
  • Sellars, Wilfrid (1991), Science, Perception and Reality (Atascadero: Ridgeview).
  • Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1953), Philosophische Untersuchungen [Philosophical Investigations].


  1. “Quid est ergo tempus? Si nemo ex me quærat, scio; si quærenti explicare velim nescio: …” (Book 11, chapter XIV, 17)

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