For centuries philosophy was an umbrella term for all the methods of rational enquiry.  Gradually, however, more and more disciplines gained their independence. Especially after the apparent failures of grand philosophical systems (such as Hegel's), its field was rapidly shrinking. On the one hand, philosophy could not compete with science in studying the natural world. On the other hand, any turn to the subjective experience would blur its boundaries with the mystical or religious with which few philosophers wanted to be associated - for fear of losing credibility. Philosophers tried to develop logic into an elaborate system, an exact meta-language that could rival mathematics, but this endeavour hit a dead-end when it transpired that logic can never be completely logical (only shortly before it happened to mathematics itself). So, they focused on the relationship between subject and object, the so-called ‘human condition'. The domain of philosophy became relations not particulars that relate, which freed philosophy from being bound to a specific subject. It is now considered to be a method of enquiry that develops defensible arguments based on reason (rather than observation or experience). The aim of philosophy is understanding, which necessitates the examination of the relation between awareness of the world and the world as the material of awareness. For example, philosophy is not primarily concerned with the question ‘does God exist?', but rather ‘does the idea of God make sense?', or ‘does the concept of reality without the idea of God make sense?' This is why philosophy can never be conclusive - people are changing, so their understanding is changing too.



It is irrelevant - the inconclusiveness of philosophy has led to a widespread belief that philosophy does not matter. Yet, throughout history philosophy has influenced every sphere of life, from science and religion, to education, politics, economics, art and even fashion. Stoicism served as the working ideology of the Roman Empire, the writings of Plato and Plotinus were instrumental in transforming an intellectually rudimentary offshoot of Judaism into one of the dominant world religions. Descartes and Leibniz directly contributed to the 17th century rise of science, while Voltaire and Rousseau inspired the French Revolution. More recently, the philosophy of Marx and Engels' stirred political changes from Cuba to China, while existentialism and later post-modernism shaped Western culture.

The relevance of philosophy

The most important value of philosophy is that it utilises reasoning as the method of rational enquiry. Reasoning provides a basis for independent judgement (because its criteria can be internal, and therefore less prone to distortions). This method can avoid some of the pitfalls that spirituality and science are vulnerable to. On the one hand, reasoning is not so difficult to verify as spiritual insights. On the other, reasoning is not limited only to observation, and therefore it has potentially unlimited scope (can deal with non-observable, abstract issues). Indeed, philosophy often addresses problems lying beyond the reach of scientific investigation. So, this approach can have several roles:

It can examine the coherence of concepts, frameworks and existing practices within any individual discipline (for example, whether the concept of learning makes sense in computer science, or programming in biology).

Other approaches have their own ways to validate their findings, but they rarely have criteria for interpreting these findings. This is another sphere where philosophy can make a significant contribution.

One potential problem with any discipline is that its theoretical foundations are usually taken for granted. Thus, besides critical analysis of existing practices and theories, philosophy can make distinct contributions by focusing on the meta-level. In other words, it can tease out and examine assumptions that any particular discipline or method is based on. No individual discipline can do so, because it already operates within its own framework, which requires accepting its presuppositions.

Finally, philosophy can have an overarching, synthetic function. Cross-disciplinary subjects and themes that need a synthetic approach are largely neglected. Whereas scientists tend to become more and more specialised in their interests, philosophers generally stand back from the details of particular research programmes and concentrate on making sense of the overall principles and on establishing how they relate to each other. This can be essential in determining the way all the components function together: the practical aspects in relation to its theoretical premises, as well as the findings of different approaches. Thus, even if some epistemic categories require contributions from specialised disciplines, it is philosophy that can provide the perspective from which they are not only examined, but also combined. Such a contribution is significant because it gives hope that a coherence and completeness of human understanding can be achieved.

Philosophy and ideology

Many philosophical ideas have given rise to or been associated with various ideologies. A radical example is dialectic-materialism based on the philosophical work of Marx and Engels, which became the official credo of communist countries in the 20th century. Another instance is Nietzsche's philosophy, distorted to such an extent that it was linked to movements such as Nazism. These may be extremes, but other philosophies have also been used to justify ideological ends - for instance, an impoverished interpretation of Adam Smith's work (via economist Milton Friedman) was popular during Thatcherism. As in the other cases, such ideologies are usually distortions and simplifications of the original thought that contradict the impartiality of philosophical argument and severely restrict its independence. Philosophy properly conceived should not be one more form of power, but a counter to external power.

The limitations of the philosophical approach

As with the other approaches, philosophy also has its limitations.


Extrinsic limitations

Relying on authority - although less so than religion, philosophy can also suffer from an over-reliance on authorities (e.g. Aristotle, Kant, or Marx). The weight of an argument is sometimes based on who has said something, rather than on the reasoning strength of what has been said. This is reflected in the extensive use of references to other philosophers that may have an aura of authority, but mean little to those who are not initiated. Such a trend contributes to solidifying particular views into ideologies. Many philosophers have given their allegiance to various ‘-isms' and felt obliged to remain true to these frameworks.


Limitations of philosophy as a social practice

Focusing on the language - examining the relationship between the subject and object, between human beings and reality, degenerated in the main stream philosophy of the mid-20th century into examining only the means by which the constructs of reality are made: the use of words and language. The clarification of language (getting rid of ambiguities) was considered a proper way of formulating the truth, despite the fact that the futility of such an endeavour was realised very early[1].


Intrinsic limitations

Abstractedness - one of the problems with philosophy (which is, to some extent, a consequence of focusing more on relations rather than on that what relates) is that it is divorced from everyday experiences. Philosophers often indulge in attempts to outwit each other by building more and more complex arguments, while examining in minute detail the arguments of their opponents, which only moves them further away from the subject at hand and contributes little to its real understanding. This is why there is a saying that philosophers live in ivory towers, and the term ‘philosophising' sometimes has a derogatory meaning. Philosophical theories that entirely flout common sense tend to forfeit a connection with ordinary life and become too abstract.

Groundlessness - reasoning can be so proficient that it can prove almost anything, which easily leads to relativism. Sufficiently complex systems allow endless combinations and permutations, so even radically opposed views may seem reasonable. Hence, philosophy can become a game and, therefore, in effect unreliable. To relate to the real world, some other constrains or tests of acceptability are needed besides the internal criteria. In other words, reasoning needs to be grounded in hard facts that can be supplied by methods usually associated with science.

Speculativeness - philosophers are in a good position to deal with universals, but philosophical method cannot provide content (without taking into account experience, reasoning is nothing more than speculation). And if the full picture, aspired to by philosophers throughout the centuries, is ever to be reached, philosophy cannot rely only on everyday life. It would be difficult to avoid drawing from, and taking into account, what can be broadly called spiritual practices and experiences, as these can supply the raw material needed for a metaphysical framework.

  • [1]. As far back as 1902 Charles Pierce wrote in the Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology: ‘Think of arm chairs and reading chairs and dining-room chairs, and kitchen chairs, chairs that pass into benches, chairs that cross the boundary and become settees, dentist's chairs, thrones, opera stalls, seats of all sorts, those miraculous fungoid growths that cumber the floor of the art and crafts exhibitions, and you will see what a lax bundle in fact is this simple straightforward term. I would undertake to defeat any definition of chair or chairishness that you gave me.’