What Philosophy Is

The essay below has been edited and expanded from an email of June 2, 2015. With my presumptuous title, I imitate Arthur Danto’s What Art Is (2013), mentioned in my last post, “Some Say Poetry.” The book is fine, and I have learned from it; but Danto could have learned from Collingwood’s Principles of Art.

Picasso, The Tragedy (1903), National Gallery of Art, Washington

Many of my articles come back to Collingwood. He died almost 75 years ago. Is my adulation of him is based on ignorance of how he has been refuted or superseded? The Principles of Art (1938) remains in print after almost 80 years, and it shows that the real work of art is not a physical object; still, Danto seems to have had to figure this out for himself,—independently, as far as I can tell.

Collingwood, Kısaca Sanat Felsefesi

Apparently Danto was an academic philosopher in the so-called analytic tradition, a school begun by British academics from whom Collingwood was at pains to distinguish himself. A theme of analytic philosophy is suggested by its very name: compartmentalization and a narrowing of scope. In this spirit, The Principles of Art is classified as aesthetics. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has an article on Collingwood and a separate article on Collingwood’s aesthetics. The latter reads like a book report on The Principles of Art. If one is interested in what Collingwood has to say about art, I think one will want to read also Collingwood’s earlier work Outlines of a Philosophy of Art (1925). Unfortunately I have not been able to do this myself, except for perusing the Turkish translation by Talip Kabadayı, published in Ankara by BilgeSu in 2011, even though, according to the list in the book, unlike several other books by Collingwood, The Principles of Art has yet to be rendered in Turkish. I do think I have some sense of why Collingwood would have wanted to write a completely different kind of book about art, when Oxford University Press gave him the chance, after Outlines went out of print. The earlier book was not wrong, any more than Picasso’s Blue-Period paintings became wrong when the artist turned to Cubism.

Picasso, Still Life (1918), National Gallery of Art, Washington

The Principles of Art distinguishes feeling and thinking, and the theme of the book itself is the former; The Principles of History (2001), the latter. I noted this in “Thales of Miletus.” The scope of Collingwood is all of life. This was so, even back in 1924, when Collingwood took up, in Speculum Mentis, “a critical review of the chief forms of human experience.” These forms were art, religion, science, history, and philosophy. Who today has the temerity to take them all up? As in mathematics, so in philosophy and other academic fields: if one wants a job, one has to say something technically new. To do this, one has to narrow one’s focus.

Tower beyond a tree

I knew somebody who could have been a mathematician, but became a lawyer instead. He studied mathematics as a hobby, and he used to argue with me about it by email. Sometimes he seemed so insulting that I thought he was trying to convince himself that he had been right not to become a mathematician. My thought would seem to align with a recent New Yorker article (dated November 20, 2017) that I saw praised in a tweet: Paul Bloom, “Beastly: Perpetrators of violence, we’re told, dehumanize their victims. The truth is worse.” The truth, as I understand it, is that we would not bother torturing, or otherwise being angry at, persons whom we did not recognize as humans of worth. As William Blake puts it, in one of the “Proverbs of Hell,” in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “Listen to the fools reproach! it is a kingly title!”

Hillsides of olives

There is a legitimate profession of philosophy, and its practitioners can speak more knowledgeably than I about Collingwood. “Why philosophy is so important in science education” is a good recent article in Aeon (that I also learned about from a tweet) by professional philosopher Subrena E. Smith. Why philosophy is important to science, simply, is the theme of Collingwood’s Essay on Metaphysics (1940). There is a warning, worked out in Chapter I of The New Leviathan (1942): philosophy is not to tell us our business, but to help us work out what our business is in the first place.

Three legged cat

Citing two textbooks as justification, the Wikipedia article “Philosophy,” in the version of March 19, 2015, defined its subject as “the study of general and fundamental problems, such as those connected with reality, existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language.” The article analysed philosophy into subfields, including “epistemology, logic, metaphysics, ethics, and aesthetics.” The justification given for this analysis was a description of the undergraduate program at New York University; but since NYU left aesthetics off its list of four main branches of philosophy (this was still true on November 21, 2017), Wikipedia cited also the Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition of aesthetics, a definition that makes aesthetics too a branch of philosophy.

Cabin porch and beyond

If philosophy is to be approached as a subject studied at university, perhaps the Wikipedia account is adequate, as far as it goes. And yet there is another way of thinking about philosophy that opens it up to all of us, members of the academy or not:

in a philosophical inquiry what we are trying to do is not to discover something of which until now we have been ignorant, but to know better something which in some sense we knew already; not to know it better in the sense of coming to know more about it, but to know it better in the sense of coming to know it in a different and better way—actually instead of potentially, or explicitly instead of implicitly, or in whatever terms the theory of knowledge chooses to express the difference: the difference itself has been a familiar fact ever since Socrates pointed it out.

This is R. G. Collingwood in the Introduction to An Essay on Philosophical Method (1933). Can there be any objection to this account of philosophy? One might ask how many schools can promote themselves with the slogan, “We teach you what you already know!” St John’s College comes close to this, by saying that its teachers are only the most advanced students in the class.

Evening gathering from above

In May of 2015, I met a doctoral student in philosophy, and he seemed to agree that philosophy was coming to know better what one already knew. We were at the Nesin Mathematics Village in Şirince, where Antalya Algebra Days XVII was being held. The philosophy student had come from Denmark to the Math Village, just to have a peaceful place to work on his dissertation. He had discovered the Village in 2012, when, while travelling in Turkey, he had learned of the New-Age belief that, in Şirince, you could survive the apocalypse predicted by the Mayan calendar.

Two hikers with staves regard the landscape

This philosophy student was one of the two people I could convince to go on a three-hour hike with me, during the free afternoon of the algebra conference. The other was a mathematician who had taken a course from me in 2002–3 in Ankara; he was now on the faculty at the same university. He was the reason why I had once been asked to be on the examining committee for a doctoral candidate in philosophy: the candidate was my former student’s friend. The philosophy dissertation was about free will, and the thesis was that it did not exist. I have come to think such arguments silly at best; but the dissertation was deemed reasonable by the other four members of the committee, who were members of philosophy departments. One person on the committee, from an Istanbul university, was especially impressed by the dissertation: it cited all of the relevant articles that ought to be cited. I thought being a philosopher ought to be something different from citing the right papers.

A figure hikes past grape vines

When I graduated from St John’s College, I said I would study mathematics, philosophy, or physics, but I did not know which one. I soon rejected physics, thinking I would be frustrated there by lack of mathematical rigor. I needed a few months of working at a farm to recognize that what I must study was mathematics.


Some of Zeno’s paradoxes, as of the arrow or of Achilles and the tortoise, are said to show that motion is impossible, whether space be infinitely divisible or not. Since motion does obviously exist, I would say the paradoxes can only refute our explanations of how motion happens. In the same way, free will obviously exists. At every moment we are faced with the choice of what to do next. We may not often be troubled by this choice. If we never are, then we are not going to speak of free will in the first place.

White cat licks herself on cushion

As in the philosophy dissertation that I was a juror for, one may imagine that a good chess player is less free than a poor player, since the good player is more constrained to make good moves, and thus her moves are more predictable. But what does it mean to predict what somebody will do? We can predict the motions of the planets by making an assumption that their motions respect certain laws. The assumption of what the particular laws are is justified by experience; but not the mere assumption that there are laws.

Ali Nesin speaks to the crowd

We become able to predict a person’s actions by getting to know the person. If one is bothered by the thought of being predictable, what one needs to do is get to know oneself. This is to be a philosopher in the sense of Collingwood.

Cat at table between two humans

An interesting relevant article is “Do your genes determine your entire life?” This is an excerpt from Julian Baggini’s book, Freedom Regained: The Possibility of Free Will. When I read the book itself in Assos in August, 2015, I found Baggini’s spirit to be similar to that of Collingwood. The author later admitted to me in a tweet that he had not actually read Collingwood.

Group photo

Do students attend St John’s College in order to get to know themselves? I might not have given that explanation when I was attending. Then, I wanted to learn what there was in the world. I accepted the judgment of the College that certain books were worth reading and talking about.

Lecturer at blackboard

St John’s fulfilled one of the educational recommendations of Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Grades were not shown to students. Pirsig argued that you should take a course of study because you had found in your own life that you had a use for it. A problem here is that some things are more easily learned by the young and inexperienced: languages, for example, or perhaps playing musical instruments. Pirsig seems to have overlooked an important reason to study: you trust somebody else’s recommendation that something is worth studying. I developed this thought in “All You Need Is Love.”

Buffet line among the trees

If you simply accept somebody else’s recommendation about studying a book, then perhaps all you will learn is how to talk about the book. How much more than this does one learn at St John’s?

Tower with conversation at base

I have a harder time accepting now that something or somebody is worth reading. A case in point is Edward Fredkin, who has worked at MIT and Carnegie Mellon, and whom a fellow Johnnie and professional philosopher has thought worth reading—particularly in the essay “Finite Nature,” available at Digital Philosophy. I have wondered whether, in his work on physics, Fredkin’s real project is to figure out what it means to be a physicist. To the extent that I am not a physicist, Fredkin’s project cannot be my own.


As an archeologist, Collingwood warned that you should not dig a site unless you have questions that you know can be answered by digging. The digging may otherwise destroy information. Reading words is not destructive like digging, and yet it does take time, so perhaps one should first know what one wants to learn from the reading. The young have to take it on faith that there is something worthwhile to be learnt. I myself may grow skeptical with time.

Cat at colored window

As for Fredkin, in a 1988 Atlantic article, “Did the Universe Just Happen?” he is quoted by Robert Wright as saying,

There are three great philosophical questions. What is life? What is consciousness and thinking and memory and all that? And how does the universe work?

I don’t think so. There is only one philosophical question: “What are we going to do now?”

Myself at overlook

Except for the Picasso images, linked to their source pages at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, all photographs are by me, except for the one of me. All photographs but those of the paintings and of Collingwood’s book were taken in and around the Nesin Mathematics Village, 20–23 May, 2015, on the occasion mentioned in the essay.

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