Russell’s three ways of dividing philosophy

In Russell’s chapter on Bergson in the History of Western Philosophy; Russell brings up a provoking tripartite distinction to understand philosophy and philosophies. I hate using the term ‘philosophy’ in the general sense unless I have some kind of defensible conception of the term, Russell has given a very insightful set of distinctions and I will address them now:

1. Philosophy as philosophies of; philosophy can be under stood by means of what desired outcome the philosopher may have. We have approaches that are overtly oriented to understanding the truth of things, which Russell calls theoretical philosophy; there are those approaches that attempt to put a framework to some practical end or outcome, which is called (unsurprisingly) practical philosophy; and those which appeal as an expression of the personal feelings and overarching worldview of an individual person, we may call this the philosophy of feeling. I think that when people who are not familiar with the technical sense of the word philosophy understand the term, they envisage it as a near poetic, noetic excercise where philosophers are obscure prophets of feeling or some kind of idealised political or individualistic social order. Nietzsche comes in mind here; the continentals also come into mind.

A historical comment. A lot should be said of this distinction. Theoretical philosophy is the enterprise that predominates universities and most often is the kind of philosophy that survives the best over history without fading into obscurity. The ‘great’ philosophers are often theoretical (or professional) philosophers. There are notable exceptions to this case; especially those cases where people may dispute the philosophical merit of their work; James I consider, as well as Nietzsche, perhaps even Montange and Newton; but those are for seperate issues and reasons unique to their case.

Practical philosophy is something that often has an overlap with theoretical philosophy, but often does not need an overlap. I’d say that practical philosophy is one of the ways in which philosophy (especially through ethics and social sciences) has a wide appeal or interdisciplinary tint to it. Philosophies of feeling, however; invite many derisory comments. They make for nice books, excellent sales, summer reading but are hard to be taken seriously in the university setting of rigour and proof. I have a suspicion that we should not mistake philosophies of feeling as theoretical philosophy, as one speaks a very different language to the other.

2. Philosophy by method

Philosophy by method is quite a simple issue compared to the one above. Philosophies can be understood in terms of ‘isms’ by the way that they approach an understanding of the world. The same can go for understanding natural and social science by its method; or even mathematics. It is in philosophy, however, that a difference in method can lead to violent and divisive dispute. In the sciences; we may have different methods but often there are neglegable issues of incompatibility; we have qualitative person centric approaches; mathematical computational methods; methods using certain mathematical tools; methods of experimentation; methods using explicit forms of reasoning. In philosophy, and perhaps similarly in theology; there is a significant divide on what we take to be the primal source of our philosophic insight into reality. Is experience the fundamental arbiter of matters of truth; or is there a world above/beneath experience that shapes it? This leads to our next distinction.

3. Philosophy by content

It seems related but not necessarily so, that our differences in method also lead to a significant different in the content of our theories. Theories of mind may be informed by a computational analogy, or propositional or syntactic analyses. The issue of rationalism and empiricism are matters of method; but often have a lot to bear on specific issues of ‘laws’ or ‘causation’. When we consider philosophy by content; we take to a very scholastic way of philosophising where we understand the mass of thought before us and how they have come to inform us on specific issues of our fundamental reality; from human nature to the nature of time. It is still astounding that after all that has been thought; there are still many battlegrounds to be fought and many advances to be made.

This seems like a neat distinction; and perhaps one that undercuts the social significance of how people philosophise, whether using propositions and language; or a hammer.


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