Philosophy is notoriously hard to define, and many people are understandably unsure about what it is, or what it’s for.

But it’s also catching! For instance, if you ask this question –  what is philosophy? – you’re already doing it. The core philosophical question is: what is so-and-so? (life, freedom, causation, pleasure, morality…). For answers, philosophy looks to the facts of the matter and then beyond, to the concepts that underpin our understanding.

Philosophy is first and foremost something that you do, not just something that you learn about. Although we often introduce participants to historical and contemporary figures and the insights they can offer, our approach to philosophy prioritises enabling participants to engage in philosophical enquiry themselves.

But what does undertaking ‘philosophical enquiry’ involve? The etymology of philosophy can help here. Philosophy is an ancient Greek word that means love of wisdom. Wisdom encompasses knowledge in two different but related senses: understanding the world on the one hand; and knowing what it takes to lead a good life on the other. These two elements are related, because being able to decide what it is best or right to do depends on understanding fully the situation in which one finds oneself. One way to describe why it’s good to do philosophy is because it enables us to develop wisdom. And in a rapidly changing world, living a life characterised by uncertainty, wisdom is not simply something one arrives at (and then stops!), but it involves an ongoing process of questioning and understanding.

In practice, doing philosophy involves a few key elements:
  • asking big questions – such as how to lead a good life, how society should be organized, what it means for something to be true – and taking them seriously;
  • trying to answer these questions using reason and understanding, and rejecting dogma;
  • listening to other points of view in an attempt to advance your own understanding;
  • being aware of your own limits (such as the assumptions you are making, the conflicting beliefs that you hold, or the fact that answers and certainty can be frustratingly hard to reach).