So, seeing as how I study philosophy and am hoping to go to graduate school for the subject, I get a lot of people coming up to me and asking me philosophical questions or telling me about their favorite philosophy. The thing is, there seems to be a major disconnect between what the average American thinks philosophy is and the actual subject as it is practiced by American academics.
You see, there are several different types of philosophy, and each one is so distinct from the other that they almost seem like completely different fields of study. The two major traditions of philosophical practice in the Western world are analytic and continental. Most professional philosophers in the English speaking world practice analytic (or analytical) philosophy. This is the type of philosophy I practice.
Different philosophers define analytic philosophy differently, and there are philosophers with wildly divergent methods who all call themselves analytic. The thing that ties all of us together, though, is an emphasis on clarity of argument and cold, hard logic. Analytic philosophy is concerned primarily with finding out the truth of things and determining what those truths mean for humanity. We generally aren’t concerned with things like spiritual growth or how to lead a productive life or any of that fluff. That’s continental stuff.
Analytic philosophers differ in their opinions of the relationship between philosophy and science. Until around the mid-20th century, most analytic philosophers saw philosophy as a sort of adjunct to the natural sciences. Now, most analytic philosophers reject things like logical positivism and the idea that philosophy is subservient to the natural sciences. My view on the matter is that philosophy and science are best practiced together, with philosophy doing the bulk of the “intellectual” work. In my opinion, philosophy’s first job is to set up the boundaries in which science is required to work: we define the appropriate scientific method, the standards of evidence, ethical guidelines, etc. Then, science goes out and collects the data while working within the framework set up by philosophy. Once science has collected its data, they perform a preliminary analysis of it and then bring it back to us philosophers. We then perform a more thorough examination of the data and figure out what it all actually means. Some scientists (and some philosophers, as well) may disagree with this framework, but I think things would go best if this is how it all worked. (It actually does work like this most of the time.) Initially, I actually wanted to go into astrophysics until I realized that I was more interested in the philosophical side of science than the applied side of the equation.
Another thing that analytic philosophers have in common is the belief that our inquires ought to be conducted into narrowly defined topics and with a great attention to detail and the ordinary usage of language. Other philosophical methodologies like to paint with a much broader brush, and frequently the have a tendency to use language or specific words in unusual ways (which really pisses me off).
Continental philosophy is more like what most people think of when they hear the word “philosophy.” Continental philosophy tends to put more emphasis on spirituality and personal growth and stuff like that. One of the more central themes of continental philosophy is the idea that human experience is entirely subjective, and that human consciousness can somehow be changed or reprogrammed. (The now-famous concept of an altered state of consciousness comes from continental philosophy.) Probably the two most famous schools of continental philosophy in the English speaking world are psychoanalysis (which is not a science) and existentialism (the philosophy that life has no true meaning and that we each must create our own meaning of life). While these are perfectly fine philosophies (I agree with some ideas from existentialism and I think that psychoanalysis has great value as an art/lit critical theory), they are not what most academic philosophers in mainstream English speaking institutions mean when they speak of philosophy.
So, next time someone tells you they’re a philosopher or philosophy student, before you start to talk their ear off about anthroposophy or whatever, it would be kind of you to ask first whether they are interested in analytic or continental (or Eastern or Islamic, etc.) philosophy. Not all analytic philosophy like or know very much about other philosophical traditions. I, for one, enjoy reading from a wide selection of philosophical traditions. However, I’m a philosophy snob, and while I think that circular living and subtle energies make for fun stories and interesting things to think about, I don’t think they have any real value in the scholastic world. Bitchy, I know, but I loves me my precise arguments back by cogent logic.