Many readers will be familiar with the distinctive and striking photographs of philosophers by Steve Pyke. Pyke has been doing these for many years, and OUP will publish later this year or early next year a new collection of his photos of philosophers, with 90-100 new photos. Pyke also asks philosophers to submit a paragraph about how the philosopher conceives philosophy. (You can see many of these by clicking on the photos at the preceding link.) He asks for 50 words, though as you will see, not everyone observes that limit, and trying to do it in 50 words, I discovered, is not at all easy. Some of his prior subject do a remarkably good job capturing the animating impulse of their work. Thus, Stephen Stich (Rutgers) gives apt expression to the Quinean ethos of his philosophical work:
The idea that philosophy could be kept apart from the sciences would have been dismissed out of hand by most of the great philosophers of the 17th and 18th centuries. But many contemporary philosophers believe they can practice theri craft without knowing what is going on in the natural and social sciences. If facts are needed, they rely on their "intuition," or they simply invent them. The results of philosophy done in this way are typically sterile and often silly. There are no proprietary philosophical questions that are worth answering, nor is there any productive philosophical method that does not engage the sciences. But there are lots of deeply important (and fascinating and frustrating) questions about minds, morals, language, culture and more. To make progress on them we need to use anything that science can tell us, and any method that works.
Expressing almost an opposite ethos, but doing so even more concisely, is Delia Graff Fara (Princeton):
By doing philosophy we can discover eternal and mind-independent truths about the real nature of the world by investigating our own conceptions of it, and by subjecting our most commonly or firmly held beliefs to what would otherwise be perversely strict scrutiny.
Michael Dummett (Emeritus, Oxford) does an equally good job capturing the essence of his non-naturalist approach:
Philosophy attempts, not to discover new truths about the world, but to gain a clear view of what we already know and believe about it. That depends upon attaining a more explicit grasp of the structure of our thoughts; and that in turn on discovering how to give a systematic account of the working of language, the medium in which we express our thoughts.
So, too, John McDowell (Pittsburgh) captures his explicitly anti-naturalist ethos well:
My main concerns in philosophy centre on the effects of a metaphysical outlook into which we easily fall, at the point in the history of thought that we occupy. This outlook might be called naturalism or scientism. I believe it tends towards a distortion of our thinking about the place of mind in the world: the damaging effects show up not only in metaphysics iteslf, but also (for instance) in reflection about language, and in the philosophy of value and action. The task of philosophy, as I see it, is to undo such distortions.
Martha Nussbaum (Chicago) perfectly represents the spirit of her work with a short quote:
"Philosophy is an activity that uses reasoning and rigorous argument to promote human flourishing." Epicurus.
Perhaps, not surprisingly, a metaphysician like Kit Fine (NYU) has a rather different view, one that might, ironically, confirm a naturalist's suspicions about metaphysics:
Philosophy is the strangest of subjects: it aims at rigour and yet is unable to establish any results; it attempts to deal with the most profound questions and yet constantly finds itself preoccupied with the trivialities of language; and it claims to be of great relevance to rational enquiry and the conduct of our life and yet is almost completely ignored. But perhaps what is strangest of all is the passion and intensity with which it is pursued by those who have fallen in its grip.
So readers: your conception of philosophy in 50 (OK, 75 words) or less. Or other quotes from Pyke's page that seem to you especially apt. Signed comments only.