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The definition of philosophy is famously a difficult matter, and indeed many definitions of philosophy begin by stating that it is famously difficult. Nonetheless, a review of standard reference works suggests that there is a broad agreement among the philosophers who write these reference works, as to what the definition actually is. This article lists the main points of agreement.

  1. Philosophy is difficult to define. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (OCP) says that most interesting definitions of philosophy are controversial. Philosophy: The Basics (Template:Nf) says it is "notoriously difficult". Mastering Philosophy MP says there is "no straightforward definition".
  2. Method: The Penguin Dictionary of Philosophy (PDP) says the method of philosophy is rational enquiry, or enquiry guided by the canons of rationality. OCP says it is explicitly rationally critical thinking 'of a more or less systematic kind'. The Collins English Dictionary (CED) mentions the use of 'rational argument'. Modern Thomistic Philosophy (MTP) says 'natural light of reason'. PTB says that the most distinctive feature of philosophy is its use of logical argument. There is some agreement, therefore, that the philosophical method is rational, systematic and critical, or characterised by logical argument.
  3. Intrinsic Character:
    • Philosophy is distinct from empirical science and religion. The Penguin Encyclopedia (PE) says that philosophy differs from science in that its questions cannot be answered empirically, i.e. by observation or experiment, and from religion, in that its purpose is entirely intellectual, and allows no place for faith or revelation. MTP says philosophy does not try to answer questions by appeal to revelation, myth or religious knowledge of any kind, but uses reason, "without reference to sensible observation and experiments".
    • 'Second-order' nature: PDP says it is a "common view" that philosophy enquiry is second order, having concepts, theories and presupposition as its subject matter. OCP says it is "thinking about thinking", and that philosophy has a "generally second-order character", being reflective thought about particular kinds of thinking. ODP says that in philosophy we study rather than use the concepts that structure our thinking, and that this is second-order reflection. TYP also uses the expression 'second-order'.
    • Misleading etymology: Only PE gives "Love of wisdom" as a possible meaning. PTB says the etymology is "not much help". Other works mention the etymology without saying that it is the meaning.
    • Critical nature: OCP says philosophy is critical thinking. PTB says that philosophy examines the beliefs we take for granted. ERHP says "in English-speaking philosophy (and much European philosophy too) you are taught not to take anything on trust, particularly if it seems obvious and undeniable".
    • What it is not: PTB says philosophy is NOT mysticism or about outlook on life.
  4. Subject matter: PDP says the subject matter of philosophy is "the most fundamental and general concepts and principles involved in thought, action and reality". PE says "the most general questions about our universe and our place in it". MTP: The "absolutely fundamental reason of everything it investigates" or "the fundamental reasons or causes of all things". CED lists the branches of p (see below). ODP says it is the investigation of the most general and abstract features of the world and the categories with which we think, in order to "lay bare their foundations and presuppositions". MP says it is the study of ultimate reality. TYP says that philosophy is about 'the big questions'.
  5. Branches: These are metaphysics (PE, OCP, MTP, CED, IP) epistemology (CED, MTP, OCP, IP), ethics (OCP, MTP, IP, CED), logic or semantics (PE, CED), cosmology (MTP), theory of mind (MTP), political philosophy (IP), aesthetics (IP). Hence there is a broad agreement that metaphysics, epistemology and ethics and possibly logic are the main branches of philosophy.
  6. Goals: PDP says the goals of philosophy are "the disinterested pursuit of knowledge for its own sake". MTP says "to discover the absolutely fundamental reason of everything it investigates". CED says "making explicit the nature and significance of ordinary and scientific beliefs". MP says the purpose of philosophy is to unify and transcend the insights given by science and religion.


The names of authors are given only where the book is not a reference work.

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