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Metaphilosophy (sometimes called philosophy of philosophy) is "the investigation of the nature of philosophy". [1] Its subject matter includes the aims of philosophy, the boundaries of philosophy, and its methods. [2] [3] Thus, while philosophy characteristically inquires into the nature of being, the reality of objects, the possibility of knowledge, the nature of truth, and so on, metaphilosophy is the self-reflective inquiry into the nature, aims, and methods of the activity that makes these kinds of inquiries, by asking what is philosophy itself, what sorts of questions it should ask, how it might pose and answer them, and what it can achieve in doing so. It is considered by some to be a subject prior and preparatory to philosophy, [4] while others see it as inherently a part of philosophy, [5] or automatically a part of philosophy [6] while others adopt some combination of these views. [2] The interest in metaphilosophy led to the establishment of the journal Metaphilosophy in January 1970. [7]

Philosophy Study of general and fundamental questions

Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental questions about existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language. Such questions are often posed as problems to be studied or resolved. The term was probably coined by Pythagoras. Philosophical methods include questioning, critical discussion, rational argument, and systematic presentation. Classic philosophical questions include: Is it possible to know anything and to prove it? What is most real? Philosophers also pose more practical and concrete questions such as: Is there a best way to live? Is it better to be just or unjust? Do humans have free will?

Metaphilosophy is a peer-reviewed academic journal covering metaphilosophy. It is abstracted and indexed by PhilPapers and the Philosopher's Index.


Although the term metaphilosophy and explicit attention to metaphilosophy as a specific domain within philosophy arose in the 20th century, the topic is likely as old as philosophy itself, and can be traced back at least as far as the works of Plato and Aristotle. [8]

Plato Classical Greek philosopher

Plato was an Athenian philosopher during the Classical period in Ancient Greece, founder of the Platonist school of thought, and the Academy, the first institution of higher learning in the Western world.

Aristotle philosopher in ancient Greece

Aristotle was a Greek philosopher during the Classical period in Ancient Greece, the founder of the Lyceum and the Peripatetic school of philosophy and Aristotelian tradition. Along with his teacher Plato, he has been called the "Father of Western Philosophy". His writings cover many subjects – including physics, biology, zoology, metaphysics, logic, ethics, aesthetics, poetry, theatre, music, rhetoric, psychology, linguistics, economics, politics and government. Aristotle provided a complex synthesis of the various philosophies existing prior to him, and it was above all from his teachings that the West inherited its intellectual lexicon, as well as problems and methods of inquiry. As a result, his philosophy has exerted a unique influence on almost every form of knowledge in the West and it continues to be a subject of contemporary philosophical discussion.

Relationship to philosophy

Some philosophers consider metaphilosophy to be a subject apart from philosophy, above or beyond it, [4] while others object to that idea. [5] Timothy Williamson argues that the philosophy of philosophy is "automatically part of philosophy", as is the philosophy of anything else. [6] Nicholas Bunnin and Jiyuan Yu write that the separation of first- from second-order study has lost popularity as philosophers find it hard to observe the distinction. [9] As evidenced by these contrasting opinions, debate persists as to whether the evaluation of the nature of philosophy is 'second-order philosophy' or simply 'plain philosophy'.

Timothy Williamson British philosopher

Timothy Williamson is a British philosopher whose main research interests are in philosophical logic, philosophy of language, epistemology and metaphysics. He is the Wykeham Professor of Logic at the University of Oxford, and fellow of New College, Oxford.

Jiyuan Yu was a moral philosopher noted for his work on virtue ethics. Yu was a long-time and highly admired Professor of Philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo, in Buffalo, New York, starting in 1997. Prior to his professorship, Yu completed a three-year post as a research fellow at the University of Oxford, England (1994-1997). He received his education in China at both Shandong University and Renmin University, in Italy at Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa, and in Canada at the University of Guelph. His primary areas of research and teaching included Ancient Greek Philosophy, and Ancient Chinese Philosophy.

Many philosophers have expressed doubts over the value of metaphilosophy. [10] Among them is Gilbert Ryle: "preoccupation with questions about methods tends to distract us from prosecuting the methods themselves. We run as a rule, worse, not better, if we think a lot about our feet. So let us ... not speak of it all but just do it." [11]

Gilbert Ryle British philosopher

Gilbert Ryle was a British philosopher. He was a representative of the generation of British ordinary language philosophers who shared Ludwig Wittgenstein's approach to philosophical problems, and is principally known for his critique of Cartesian dualism, for which he coined the phrase "the ghost in the machine." Some of his ideas in the philosophy of mind have been referred to as "behaviourist". Ryle's best known book is The Concept of Mind (1949), in which he writes that the "general trend of this book will undoubtedly, and harmlessly, be stigmatised as 'behaviourist'." Ryle, having engaged in detailed study of the key works of Bernard Bolzano, Franz Brentano, Alexius Meinong, Edmund Husserl, and Martin Heidegger, himself suggested instead that the book "could be described as a sustained essay in phenomenology, if you are at home with that label."


The designations metaphilosophy and philosophy of philosophy have a variety of meanings, sometimes taken to be synonyms, and sometimes seen as distinct.

Morris Lazerowitz claims to have coined the term 'metaphilosophy' around 1940 and used it in print in 1942. [1] Lazerowitz proposed that metaphilosophy is 'the investigation of the nature of philosophy'. [1] Earlier uses have been found in translations from the French. [12] The term is derived from Greek word meta μετά ("after", "beyond", "with") and philosophía φιλοσοφία ("love of wisdom").

Morris Lazerowitz was Polish-born American philosopher and author.

The term 'metaphilosophy' is used by Paul Moser [13] in the sense of a 'second-order' or more fundamental undertaking than philosophy itself, in the manner suggested by Charles Griswold: [4]

Paul Moser American philosopher

Paul K. Moser is an American philosopher who writes on epistemology and the philosophy of religion. He is Professor of Philosophy at Loyola University Chicago and past editor of the American Philosophical Quarterly. He is the author of many works in epistemology and the philosophy of religion, in which he has supported versions of epistemic foundationalism and volitional theism. His work brings these two positions together to support volitional evidentialism about theistic belief, in contrast to fideism and traditional natural theology. He draws from some epistemological and theological insights of the apostle Paul, Kierkegaard, P.T. Forsyth, H.R. Mackintosh, and H. H. Farmer, but he adds (i) a notion of purposively available evidence of God’s existence, (ii) a notion of authoritative evidence in contrast with spectator evidence, (iii) a notion of personifying evidence of God whereby some willing humans become salient evidence of God's existence, and (iv) a notion of convictional knowledge of divine reality. His most recent work emphasizes the importance of experiential foundational evidence from the self-manifestation of God's moral character to cooperative humans, particularly in moral conscience. An evidential role for experienced agapē, along the lines of Romans 5:5, is central to his theistic epistemology, as is his view that God is self-authenticating or self-evidencing via self-manifestation and conviction toward unselfish love. One result is a distinctive approach to divine hiddenness and the evidence for God's reality and presence.

"The distinction between philosophy and metaphilosophy has an analogue in the familiar distinction between mathematics and metamathematics." [13]

Paul K. Moser, Metaphilosophy, p. 562

This usage was considered nonsense by Ludwig Wittgenstein, who rejected the analogy between metalanguage and a metaphilosophy. [14] As expressed by Martin Heidegger: [5]

"When we ask, "What is philosophy?" then we are speaking about philosophy. By asking in this way we are obviously taking a stand above and, therefore, outside of philosophy. But the aim of our question is to enter into philosophy, to tarry in it, to conduct ourselves in its manner, that is, to "philosophize". The path of our discussion must, therefore, not only have a clear direction, but this direction must at the same time give us the guarantee that we are moving within philosophy and not outside of it and around it." [5]

Martin Heidegger, Was Ist Das--die Philosophie? p. 21

Some other philosophers treat the prefix meta as simply meaning 'about...', rather than as referring to a metatheoretical 'second-order' form of philosophy, among them Rescher [15] and Double. [16] Others, such as Williamson, prefer the term 'philosophy of philosophy' instead of 'metaphilosophy' as it avoids the connotation of a 'second-order' discipline that looks down on philosophy, and instead denotes something that is a part of it. [17] Joll suggests that to take metaphilosophy as 'the application of the methods of philosophy to philosophy itself' is too vague, while the view that sees metaphilosophy as a 'second-order' or more abstract discipline, outside philosophy, "is narrow and tendentious". [18]

In the analytical tradition, the term "metaphilosophy" is mostly used to tag commenting and research on previous works as opposed to original contributions towards solving philosophical problems. [19]


Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote about the nature of philosophical puzzles and philosophical understanding. He suggested philosophical errors arose from confusions about the nature of philosophical inquiry. In the Philosophical Investigations , Wittgenstein wrote that there is not a metaphilosophy in the sense of a metatheory of philosophy. [20]

C. D. Broad distinguished Critical from Speculative philosophy in his "The Subject-matter of Philosophy, and its Relations to the special Sciences," in Introduction to Scientific Thought, 1923. Curt Ducasse, in Philosophy as a Science, examines several views of the nature of philosophy, and concludes that philosophy has a distinct subject matter: appraisals. Ducasse's view has been among the first to be described as 'metaphilosophy'. [21]

Henri Lefebvre in Métaphilosophie (1965) argued, from a Marxian standpoint, in favor of an "ontological break", as a necessary methodological approach for critical social theory (whilst criticizing Louis Althusser's "epistemological break" with subjective Marxism, which represented a fundamental theoretical tool for the school of Marxist structuralism).

Paul Moser writes that typical metaphilosophical discussion includes determining the conditions under which a claim can be said to be a philosophical one. He regards meta-ethics, the study of ethics, to be a form of metaphilosophy, as well as meta-epistemology, the study of epistemology. [13]


Many sub-disciplines of philosophy have their own branch of 'metaphilosophy', examples being meta-aesthetics, meta-epistemology, meta-ethics, meta-ontology, and so forth. [22] However, some topics within 'metaphilosophy' cut across the various subdivisions of philosophy to consider fundamentals important to all its sub-disciplines. Some of these are mentioned below.


Some philosophers (e.g. existentialists, pragmatists) think philosophy is ultimately a practical discipline that should help us lead meaningful lives by showing us who we are, how we relate to the world around us and what we should do. [ citation needed ] Others (e.g. analytic philosophers) see philosophy as a technical, formal, and entirely theoretical discipline, with goals such as "the disinterested pursuit of knowledge for its own sake". [24] Other proposed goals of philosophy include "discover[ing] the absolutely fundamental reason of everything it investigates", [25] [ verification needed ] "making explicit the nature and significance of ordinary and scientific beliefs", [26] and unifying and transcending the insights given by science and religion. [27] Others proposed that philosophy is a complex discipline because it has 4 or 6 different dimensions. [28] [29]


Defining philosophy and its boundaries is itself problematic; Nigel Warburton has called it "notoriously difficult". [30] There is no straightforward definition, [31] [ verification needed ] and most interesting definitions are controversial. [32] As Bertrand Russell wrote:

"We may note one peculiar feature of philosophy. If someone asks the question what is mathematics, we can give him a dictionary definition, let us say the science of number, for the sake of argument. As far as it goes this is an uncontroversial statement... Definitions may be given in this way of any field where a body of definite knowledge exists. But philosophy cannot be so defined. Any definition is controversial and already embodies a philosophic attitude. The only way to find out what philosophy is, is to do philosophy." [33]

Bertrand Russell, The Wisdom of the West, p.7

While there is some agreement that philosophy involves general or fundamental topics, [34] [35] [36] there is no clear agreement about a series of demarcation issues, including:


Philosophical method (or philosophical methodology) is the study of how to do philosophy. A common view among philosophers is that philosophy is distinguished by the ways that philosophers follow in addressing philosophical questions. There is not just one method that philosophers use to answer philosophical questions.

Recently, some philosophers have cast doubt about intuition as a basic tool in philosophical inquiry, from Socrates up to contemporary philosophy of language. In Rethinking Intuition [44] various thinkers discard intuition as a valid source of knowledge and thereby call into question 'a priori' philosophy. Experimental philosophy is a form of philosophical inquiry that makes at least partial use of empirical research—especially opinion polling —in order to address persistent philosophical questions. This is in contrast with the methods found in analytic philosophy, whereby some say a philosopher will sometimes begin by appealing to his or her intuitions on an issue and then form an argument with those intuitions as premises. [45] However, disagreement about what experimental philosophy can accomplish is widespread and several philosophers have offered criticisms. One claim is that the empirical data gathered by experimental philosophers can have an indirect effect on philosophical questions by allowing for a better understanding of the underlying psychological processes which lead to philosophical intuitions. [46]


A prominent question in metaphilosophy is that of whether or not philosophical progress occurs and more so, whether such progress in philosophy is even possible. [47] It has even been disputed, most notably by Ludwig Wittgenstein, whether genuine philosophical problems actually exist. The opposite has also been claimed, for example by Karl Popper, who held that such problems do exist, that they are solvable, and that he had actually found definite solutions to some of them.

David Chalmers divides inquiry into philosophical progress in metaphilosophy into three questions.

  1. The Existence Question: is there progress in philosophy?
  2. The Comparison Question: is there as much progress in philosophy as in science?
  3. The Explanation Question: why isn't there more progress in philosophy? [48]

See also

Related Research Articles

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Philosophical analysis is the techniques typically used by philosophers in the analytic tradition that involve "breaking down" philosophical issues. Arguably the most prominent of these techniques is the analysis of concepts.

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  1. 1 2 3 Lazerowitz, M. (1970). "A note on "metaphilosophy"". Metaphilosophy. 1 (1): 91. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9973.1970.tb00792.x. see also the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article by Nicholas Joll: Contemporary Metaphilosophy
  2. 1 2 Nicholas Joll (November 18, 2010). "Contemporary Metaphilosophy". Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP).
  3. Armen T Marsoobian (2004). "Metaphilosophy". In John Lachs; Robert Talisse (eds.). American Philosophy: An Encyclopedia. pp. 500–501. ISBN   978-0203492796. Its primary question is "What is philosophy?"
  4. 1 2 3 See for example, Charles L. Griswold Jr. (2010). Platonic Writings/Platonic Readings. Penn State Press. pp. 144–146. ISBN   978-0271044811.
  5. 1 2 3 4 Martin Heidegger (1956). Was Ist Das--die Philosophie?. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 21. ISBN   978-0808403197.
  6. 1 2 Timothy Williamson (2008). "Preface". The Philosophy of Philosophy. John Wiley & Sons. p. ix. ISBN   978-0470695913. The philosophy of philosophy is automatically part of philosophy, just as the philosophy of anything else is...
  7. The journal describes its scope as: "Particular areas of interest include: the foundation, scope, function and direction of philosophy; justification of philosophical methods and arguments; the interrelations among schools or fields of philosophy (for example, the relation of logic to problems in ethics or epistemology); aspects of philosophical systems; presuppositions of philosophical schools; the relation of philosophy to other disciplines (for example, artificial intelligence, linguistics or literature); sociology of philosophy; the relevance of philosophy to social and political action; issues in the teaching of philosophy."
  8. IEP
  9. Nicholas Bunnin & Jiyuan Yu (2009). "Metaphilosophy". The Blackwell Dictionary of Western Philosophy. Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 426–427. ISBN   978-1405191128.
  10. Søren Overgaard; Paul Gilbert; Stephen Burwood (2013). "Introduction: What good is metaphilosophy?". An introduction to metaphilosophy. Cambridge University Press. p. 6. ISBN   978-0521193412.
  11. Gilbert Ryle (2009). "Chapter 23: Ordinary language". Collected Essays 1929-1968: Collected Papers Volume 2 (Reprint of Hutchinson 1971 ed.). Routledge. p. 331. ISBN   978-0415485494. Quoted by Søren Overgaard; Paul Gilbert; Stephen Burwood (2013). "Introduction: What good is metaphilosophy?". An introduction to metaphilosophy. Cambridge University Press. p. 6. ISBN   978-0521193412.
  12. e.g. Clemenceau G., In the evening of my thought (Au soir de la pensée, Paris: Plon, 1927), Houghton Mifflin company, 1929, Vol. 2, p.498: "this teratological product of metaphilosophy"; Gilson E., Christianity and philosophy, Pub. for the Institute of Mediaeval Studies by Sheed & Ward, 1939, p. 88
  13. 1 2 3 Paul K. Moser (2008). "Metaphilosophy". In Robert Audi (ed.). The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy (Paperback reprint of 2nd ed.). Paw Prints 2008-06-26. pp. 561–562. ISBN   978-1439503508.
  14. Wittgenstein L. (1963). "Paragraph 121" (PDF). Philosophical Investigations. Blackwell. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2012-09-03.
  15. Rescher N. (2007). "Chapter 1: Philosophical principles". Philosophical Dialectics, an Essay on Metaphilosophy. State University of New York Press. p. 1. ISBN   978-0791467466.
  16. Richard Double (1996). Metaphilosophy and Free Will. Oxford University Press. ISBN   978-0195355413.
  17. Williamson, Timothy (2007). "Preface". The Philosophy of Philosophy. Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN   978-1405133968.
  18. Nicholas Joll (November 18, 2010). "Contemporary Metaphysics: Defining metaphilosophy". Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy .
  19. e.g.PhilPapers
  20. One might think: if philosophy speaks of the use of the word "philosophy" there must be a second-order philosophy. But it is not so; it is, rather, like the case of orthography, which deals with the word "orthography" among others without then being second order. Ludwig Wittgenstein Philosophical Investigations Blackwell Oxford 1963 para 121.
  21. Dommeyer F., (1961), A Critical Examination of C. J. Ducasse's Metaphilosophy, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 21, (Jun., 1961), No. 4 pp. 439-455
  22. Robert S Hartman (1995). "Axiology as a science". In Rem B. Edwards (ed.). Formal Axiology and Its Critics. Rodopi. p. 21. ISBN   978-9051839104.
  24. Penguin Dictionary of Philosophy
  25. 1 2 Modern Thomistic Philosophy by R Phillips
  26. Collins English Dictionary
  27. Mastering Philosophy by Anthony Harrison-Barbet
  28. Adler, Mortimer (1993) The Four Dimensions of Philosophy: Metaphysical-Moral-Objective-Categorical
  29. Vidal, Clément (2012). "Metaphilosophical Criteria for Worldview Comparison" (PDF). Metaphilosophy. 43 (3): 306–347. CiteSeerX . doi:10.1111/j.1467-9973.2012.01749.x.
  30. Nigel Warburton (2003). Philosophy: The Basics (3rd ed.). CRC Press. p. 1. ISBN   978-0203202029.
  31. Mastering Philosophy, by Anthony Harrison-Barbet
  32. The Rt. Hon. Lord Quinton (2005). "Philosophy". In Ted Honderich (ed.). The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press. p. 702. ISBN   978-0199264797.
  33. Bertrand Russell (1959). The Wisdom of the West: A Historical Survey of Western Philosophy in Its Social and Political Setting. Doubleday. p. 7.
  34. Penguin Dictionary of Philosophy: "the most fundamental and general concepts and principles involved in thought, action and reality"
  35. Modern Thomistic Philosophy, by R. Phillips: "the absolutely fundamental reason of everything it investigates", "the fundamental reasons or causes of all things"
  36. Simon Blackburn (2005). "Philosophy". Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy (2nd ed.). p. 276. ISBN   978-0198610137. The study of the most general and abstract features of the world and categories with which we think: mind, matter...
  37. Ted Honderich, ed. (2005). "Conceptual analysis". Oxford Companion to Philosophy New Edition (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press USA. p. 154. ISBN   978-0199264797. "Insofar as conceptual analysis is the method of philosophy (as it was widely held to be for much of the twentieth century), philosophy is a second-order subject because it is about language not the world or what language is about.
  38. Simon Blackburn (2005). "Philosophy". Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press. p. 277. ISBN   978-0198610137.
  39. Sara Heināmaa (2006). "Phenomenology: A foundational science". In Margaret A. Simons (ed.). The Philosophy of Simone De Beauvoir: Critical Essays. Indiana University Press. p. 22. ISBN   978-0253218407. The important difference between the scientist and the philosopher is in the radically critical nature of philosophy. Husserl characterizes this difference by saying that the task of philosophy is to ask the ultimate questions...The philosophical questions can not be answered in the same way that empirical questions can be answered.
  40. Richard Tieszen (2008). "Science as a triumph of the human spirit and science in crisis: Husserl and the fortunes of reason". In Gary Gutting (ed.). Continental Philosophy of Science. John Wiley & Sons. p. 94. ISBN   978-1405137447. The sciences are in need of continual epistemological reflection and critique of a sort that only the philosopher can provide. ...Husserl pictures the work of the philosopher and the scientist as mutually complementary.
  41. Simon Blackburn. Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. p. 277.
  42. Penguin Encyclopedia
  43. Gracia, J.G. and Noone, T.B., A Companion to Philosophy in the Middle Ages, London 2003, p.35
  44. Rethinking Intuition: The Psychology of Intuition and its Role in Philosophical Inquiry ,(Studies in Epistemology and Cognitive Theory) Michael DePaul, William Ramsey (Editors), Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. (1998) ISBN   0-8476-8796-1; ISBN   978-0-8476-8796-1
  45. Knobe (forthcoming).
  46. Knobe, J. and Nichols, S. (eds.) (2008) Experimental Philosophy] §2.1, OCLC   233792562
  47. Dietrich, Eric (2011). There Is No Progress in Philosophy. Essays in Philosophy 12 (2):9.
  48. Chalmers, David (2015). "Why Isn't There More Progress in Philosophy?" (PDF). Philosophy. 90 (1): 3–31. doi:10.1017/S0031819114000436 . Retrieved 18 December 2017.

Further reading