‘Nice. I’m going to do it later, think about life a bit.” Said the driver who had given me a ride – we’re talking late seventies – when I mentioned that I was studying philosophy. I was humbled. Musing about life? The steam from the brutal Logic II exam was still coming out of my ears.

The idea that philosophy is a kind of wisdom or ‘higher insight’ is still very much alive. It can give philosophers an aura of profundity when they come to comment on current events. The reassurance is the egalitarian assurance that ‘everyone, really’ does philosophy, because after all we all think about life.

In reality, the subject of philosophy at university, not only in the Anglo-Saxon world, has become increasingly technical and is getting close to other disciplines such as linguistics, theoretical physics or cognitive sciences. The old, always controversial distinction between ‘strict’ analytic philosophy, based on logic, and more speculative continental philosophy has long since disappeared.

Philosophy has become increasingly technical

One of the advocates of this reification is the British philosopher Timothy Williamson (1955), professor at Oxford and a prolific author on the ‘philosophy of philosophy’. How he thinks about the profession and associated methods can be found in his concise, recently translated The Philosophical Method. As far as methods are concerned: for a profession that is not based on empiricism but purely on thinking, logic is of course indispensable. But also being able to set up a model or carry out a thought experiment. Affinity with other scientific fields, especially mathematics, which Williamson mirrors philosophy to, also helps.

He explains it clearly, without asking his readers much philosophical foreknowledge. Despite the somewhat archaic title The Philosophical Method so suitable for anyone who wants to know what distinguishes the profession of philosophy from everyday ‘philosophizing’, speculating or musing. The notes and literature references are also useful and enlightening.

Grab by the lurves

Of course, Williamson’s approach is not uncontroversial, not even among his colleagues. His approach will be too limited for thinkers with a somewhat rougher view of the profession or thinkers who want to tackle the zeitgeist philosophically. They will probably also be annoyed by the modest supporting role he assigns to the history of philosophy. Philosophers should not bury themselves in the past, he believes, but rather deal with current conceptual problems (although the thinking of their predecessors naturally plays a role in this).

You may also wonder what the approach advocated by Williamson has actually produced in terms of content. Much academic philosophy is now only interesting (and can be followed) for specialists, while greater progress is being made in other subjects. At the same time, good philosophical input into the public debate is more than ever desirable in order to expose rhetoric and demagoguery or to refute fallacies.

That does not alter the fact that this well-arranged and clear introduction offers enough food for thought for those who want more than casual musing – which can of course also be nice from time to time.

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