A Problem: “My Philosophy of X is …”

A Problem: "My Philosophy of X is …"

Expressions like ‘my philosophy,’ ‘personal philosophy,’ or ‘teaching philosophy’ often do a disservice to the discipline of philosophy because they further contribute to the misconception of philosophy. Philosophy is a specific intellectual activity aimed at discovering truths rather than something one possesses. While we may have beliefs and wisdom, philosophy is an ongoing process. Consequently, expressions like ‘Kant’s philosophy’ or ‘Mary Shepered‘s philosophy’ are also inappropriate. Using terms like ‘Kant’s system of beliefs” is more accurate, even if more wordy. I try to explain why these common phrases are problematic and suggest more appropriate alternatives like “my system of thoughts and beliefs,” “principles I follow,” and “A teaching approach I take.”

I believe that precisions in our languages matter.
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The Problem with “My Philosophy of X is …”

While it is difficult to answer, ‘What is philosophy,’ with precision, I can say a few things. Philosophical knowledge exists, yet philosophy is not identical to a body of beliefs or knowledge. It is a certain kind of intellectual activity (I will not go into the nature of its activity in this post). Therefore, it is appropriate to say, “I do philosophy.” Moreover, “I do philosophy or science” encompasses ‘I study philosophy or science’ but is not always identical to ‘I do philosophy or science.’ For instance, organic chemistry students must memorize hundreds of organic compounds. The preceding is not doing chemistry but preparing to do chemistry. We can say the same about passive lectures; we prepare to do X through lectures. Both are activities, but they are different kinds of activities.

What about, for instance, ‘I do medical research on diabetes(Donate!)?’ This is similar to ‘I study science.’ There are parts where research is doing science, but some parts are preparatory work; sometimes, this is studying, writing grants, or setting up the lab.

So we can engage with philosophical knowledge, at least, in two ways:

(1) Preparing to do philosophy.
or
(2) Doing philosophy.

We act or interact in philosophy, mathematics, or science. Number (2) accurately reflects engagement with their respective fields’ methodologies and knowledge. Number (1) often engages with knowledge but lacks the methodological part.

Additionally, to avoid misconceptions, it is helpful to explicitly distinguish between the activity of philosophy and the knowledge it produces. Knowledge derived from philosophical inquiry should be called philosophical knowledge (but what counts as philosophical knowledge is a philosophical question in itself). Similarly, knowledge from mathematics and science should be referred to as mathematical and scientific knowledge, respectively. The use of these prefixes denotes the origin or nature of the knowledge.

One may say there is no philosophical knowledge since philosophy is always controversial. While we may not have the entire answer to a question, we can know partial answers. I will provide a simple, non-trivial example.

Example: The JTB Theory of Knowledge

The traditional definition of knowledge, “Justified True Belief” (JTB), has been a foundational concept in epistemology. According to this theory, for a person to know something, three conditions must be met:

  1. The belief must be true.
  2. The person must believe the proposition.
  3. The person must have justification for believing the proposition.

However, philosophical inquiry has shown that JTB is insufficient for a complete definition of knowledge. Edmund Gettier’s famous 1963 paper presented cases (now known as Gettier problems, video 1, video 2) that challenged the JTB definition. These cases demonstrated that a person could have a justified true belief yet still fail to know due to luck or error in the justification process. While there are still disagreements about how to interpret Gettiers or what additional ingredient JTB may or may not require, the existence of the counterexample itself is knowledge that informs what we know, what we do not know, and how we shall proceed.

It is also odd to claim that ‘it is my knowledge’ as if one owns it. One may possess knowledge in the sense of having learned or understood it, but one does not own knowledge as a personal property. (By the way, this is the beauty of knowledge and ideas. One can share it without losing their learning or understanding!). They can also possess their own thoughts and beliefs. But suppose one says that he has philosophical knowledge. In that case, one is more accurate to claim that one subscribes to the set of claims. This never happens regarding scientific or mathematical knowledge, probably because philosophy is much more value-laden than the preceding. Still, it remains accurate to claim that ‘I believe in XYZ’ or “I live my life by the principles of XYZ.’

Another Problem: Reduction of philosophy into the theory of value

Philosophy can be much more normative than other disciplines, meaning it often involves evaluating and prescribing how things ought to be rather than just describing how things are. Therefore, the confusion of language when speaking about philosophy is understandable. However, the problem becomes immense when people unintentionally reduce philosophy to ethics. In the public eye, I have noticed that philosophy is often reduced to ethics, morality, political philosophy, or religion (subjects in the theory of value). This narrow view is unfortunate because philosophy is much more expansive. People often say, “My Philosophy of X is …” because they are, in fact, speaking about normative concepts in their minds. But philosophy is also about language, science, the mind, epistemology, etc. It is another issue that active practitioners of the disciplines and advocates of philosophical inquiry ought to continually address when speaking with the public.

A counter-argument and rebuttal

Some might argue that using “my philosophy” is simply a convenient shorthand that makes communication more straightforward and efficient. While it is understandable that people seek brevity in language, this convenience comes at a significant cost to clarity and precision. The phrase “my philosophy” can mislead others into thinking philosophy is merely a personal set of beliefs rather than a rigorous intellectual discipline. This misunderstanding diminishes the perceived value and seriousness of philosophical inquiry. Additionally, the overuse of the term “philosophy” in casual contexts dilutes its meaning, making it synonymous with mere opinion.

The phrase “my philosophy” is particularly problematic because it contains misconceptions. In the public eye, philosophy is already misunderstood and reduced to simplistic notions of personal beliefs, life mottos, or mythicism. Using “my philosophy,” we inadvertently reinforce these misconceptions and further entrench the idea that philosophy is no different from casual opinions or personal principles.

Language shapes our understanding, and by using “my philosophy,” we perpetuate an overly simplistic view of philosophy, especially among students and the general public. Notably, alternative expressions like “principles I live by” or “approaches I take” are just as concise and convey the intended meaning without compromising precision. For example, saying “my principles on education” is as brief as “my philosophy on education,” but it avoids the pitfalls of misrepresentation. We must try to use accurate language as communicators, educators, and thinkers. By insisting on precise terms, we contribute to a culture that values and correctly understands philosophical inquiry.

An interesting Graph (Google Ngram)

The graph is a line chart that illustrates the frequency of the phrases "personal philosophy" and "my philosophy" from 1800 to 2019. The y-axis shows the usage percentage, while the x-axis represents the years.The red line represents the usage of the phrase "personal philosophy." It demonstrates a relatively steady trend from 1800 to about 1910. However, a sharp increase in usage started around 1910, with a significant peak in the 1950s. The usage peaks again in the late 1970s and early 1980s, gradually declining into the 2000s.The blue line represents "my philosophy" and follows a relatively stable trend from 1800 to 1900. There was a slight increase from 1900 onwards, with minor fluctuations, but it remained notably lower than "personal philosophy." The usage experienced minor peaks around the 1940s and again in the 1970s but remained relatively stable, with slight fluctuations into the 2000s.

The above graph reveals a significant rise in the usage of the terms “my philosophy of…” and “personal philosophy” over the past century. The rise highlights an evolving trend in how people express and conceptualize their beliefs. Starting in the early 1900s, the term “personal philosophy” saw a noticeable increase in prevalence, reaching its peak around the late 20th century. This surge may reflect a growing tendency among individuals to articulate their beliefs and values in a personalized manner, often conflating personal ideologies with the broader, more rigorous field of philosophical inquiry.

Conversely, “My philosophy of…” shows a more gradual increase in usage, with a steady climb starting in the mid-20th century. This trend signifies a parallel movement where individuals increasingly frame their thoughts, approaches, and principles as personal philosophies, further blurring the lines between individual beliefs and the structured discipline of philosophy.

The rise in these phrases may correlate with broader cultural shifts towards individualism and the personalization of beliefs. In contemporary discourse, labeling one’s beliefs as “my philosophy” or “personal philosophy” has become a common shorthand, albeit misleading. This linguistic shift reflects a widespread misconception that philosophy is equivalent to personal ideology rather than an intellectual pursuit aimed at systematic and critical inquiry into fundamental questions.

This trend has significant implications for the public understanding of philosophy. As more people adopt these phrases, the true nature of philosophical activity (characterized by rigorous analysis, critical thinking, and the pursuit of truth) is overshadowed by the perception that philosophy is merely a collection of individual beliefs. Consequently, it becomes increasingly essential for educators, philosophers, and communicators to advocate for precise language that preserves the integrity and distinctiveness of philosophical inquiry.

Promoting “principles” or “approaches” can help rectify these misconceptions. This clarity benefits philosophical discourse and enriches public understanding and respect for the intellectual rigor that true philosophy entails. Doing so may encourage more people to pursue philosophical inquiry with a proper appreciation for its depth and complexity.

Alternative expressions and its application:

When discussing our beliefs or approaches, using the phrase “my philosophy” can be misleading and imprecise. Philosophy is a rigorous intellectual activity that explores fundamental questions, not something that can be owned or simplified into a personal motto. Instead, using expressions and phrases like “my system of beliefs,” “I follow these principles,” or “I take this teaching approach” can provide more precise and accurate descriptions. These alternatives respect the depth of philosophical inquiry while clearly communicating individual beliefs and approaches. Here are some examples and explanations of how to use these alternative expressions effectively.

My system of beliefs

Example:

  • Instead of saying, “My philosophy on education is to foster creativity,” one could say, “My system of Beliefs on education focuses on fostering creativity. Here is why…”

Principles I follow

“Principles” is another suitable alternative, particularly when referring to fundamental beliefs or standards guiding one’s actions and decisions. This term conveys a sense of foundational beliefs without conflating with the broader and more complex field and philosophical activities.

Example:

  • Rather than “My personal philosophy is to always stay positive,” one could say, “I follow principles that emphasize the importance of maintaining a positive outlook.”

Teaching Approach I Take

For educators, “my teaching philosophy” is often used to describe their approach to pedagogy. Replacing this with ‘teaching approach that I use’ more accurately reflects the structured and principled nature of their educational methods and goals.

Example:

  • Instead of “My teaching philosophy is student-centered learning,” we could articulate it as “I use a teaching approach based on student-centered learning.”

Now, here is an exercise: Write a brief statement about your personal beliefs or principles without using the word ‘philosophy.’ Let’s focus on clarity and precision.

Example for Business:
Principles of Sustainable Business Growth: I believe in driving sustainable business growth by focusing on three core principles:

  1. Customer-Centric Approach: Prioritizing customer needs and continuously improving our services based on their feedback.
  2. Employee Empowerment: Creating a supportive environment encourages employees to develop skills and contribute to innovation.
  3. Ethical Practices: Ensuring all business activities are conducted with integrity, transparency, and respect for the community and environment.”

Whether you already have a teaching, business, or life statement, I challenge you to write your statements like the above.


What else could we do about the expression “My Philosophy of X is …”?

We can inform our audience!

Whenever appropriate, explain why you are using more specific terms. It helps others understand your point of view and informs them of the importance of using precise language. For example, in a classroom, you might say, “I prefer to use the term ‘a teaching approach’ because it more accurately reflects methods and principles that I subscribe to.” Philosophy instructors on an introductory course could start by explaining that philosophy is a certain intellectual activity.

One more thing:

When others say, “My philosophy of X is…” we could ask clarifying questions and encourage more precise language. Start by asking, “What do you mean by ‘my philosophy’ in this context?” to help them think more deeply about their use of the term and possibly recognize the distinction between philosophy and personal beliefs or principles. Encourage specificity with questions like, “Can you describe your specific beliefs or principles about X?” This helps them articulate their thoughts more precisely.

Distinguish between activities and beliefs by asking, ‘Are you referring to your approach or method regarding X, or are you discussing a broader set of beliefs?” Learn about the foundations of their beliefs with questions like, ‘What are the underlying principles or reasons behind your approach to X?’ Finally, discuss the nature of philosophy with a comment like, ‘Philosophy is often about exploring fundamental questions and truths. When you say ‘my philosophy,’ it might be more accurate to describe your specific principles or approaches,” can provide an educational moment. This approach enhances understanding, improves communication, provides educational opportunities, and encourages reflection. Ultimately, it could promote a more accurate understanding of the nature of philosophy.

Benefits of Alternative Expressions

Alternative expressions like “my beliefs” and “principles I live by” provide greater clarity and precision. They communicate that the ideas discussed are well-considered and systematic yet distinct from philosophical inquiry.

We also respect the discipline’s intellectual heritage by reserving ‘philosophy’ for contexts that genuinely engage with intellectual activities. Eliminating the casual uses of the term (‘my philosophy of X…’) allows us to appreciate the significance of philosophical inquiry better. This distinction helps encourage more meaningful and respectful discourse.

When the public understands that philosophy involves rigorous and systematic inquiry, they are more likely to respect the discipline. This respect can translate into support for philosophical education and research, potentially leading to more funding and resources for these areas, which is great for philosophy instructors and researchers. However, I believe that a higher prevalence of public philosophy will make the world a better, more empathic place. Active practitioners of the disciplines and advocates of intellectual inquiry and critical thinking should be mindful of how we communicate philosophy to the public.

Conclusion

Expressions like “my philosophy” often fail to capture the complexity and rigor associated with philosophical thought. By adopting alternatives like “system of thoughts,” “principles,” and “teaching approach,” we can communicate our ideas more accurately and respectfully. These terms preserve the integrity of philosophy as a discipline while encouraging more transparent and thoughtful discourse. Recognizing philosophy as a specific intellectual activity rather than a set of beliefs helps maintain its intellectual rigor and promotes more intelligent engagement.

Philosophy shares similarities with mathematics and science (natural or social) because they are activities rather than mere collections of knowledge. Still, philosophy is more vulnerable to misconceptions because the public understands it less and perhaps because philosophy is inherently obscure; therefore, we should be extra careful when describing it. Also, at least in the US, there is no philosophy education in high schools, unlike math and science… But let’s refrain from saying, “My philosophy of X is …,” ‘My teaching philosophy is…,’ ‘My life philosophy is…’ or ‘My personal philosophy is…’


Those interested in supporting philosophy education and helping to clarify the true nature of philosophical inquiry should consider supporting organizations like The Philosophy Foundation or PLATO (Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization). These organizations work to bring philosophy into schools and communities, fostering critical thinking and a deeper understanding of philosophical principles.