The Art and Science of Philosophy

When I tell people that I am a philosopher, I sometimes see an inchoate question behind their eyes. What is philosophy? Is it the same thing as psychology? Is it old men wearing togas? Where does philosophy fit into the life of the university?

The university is filled with those who seek truth. They seek it in their instruments, in their data sets, in their models, in their texts. Those whose role in the university is to seek truth we call scientists of various kinds, and the truths they seek are likewise various and call for various techniques. Mathematicians seek unchanging, abstract truths, and use pure reason. Social scientists seek the truth about the human condition using observations and statistics. Science, the search for truth, is central to the life of the university.

The university is filled also with those who create beauty. We call such people artists, and their beauties and modes and methods are likewise various. Some are makers—painters, composers, poets—forging new beauty. Some are performers—actors, singers, musicians—bringing beauty to new life. No less than the discovery of truth, the creation of beauty is central to the university’s life.

This distinction between truth and beauty, between scientist and artist, should not be drawn too sharply

This distinction between truth and beauty, between scientist and artist, should not be drawn too sharply, for two reasons. The first reason is that the discovery of truth and the creation of beauty have much to do with each other. Any mention of both truth and beauty is obliged to quote Keats: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—this is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”[1] Mathematical proofs may be elegant. Ockham’s Razor states that simplicity, which is a mark of beauty, is a mark also of truth. So the scientist works in beauty. And the artist works in truth. A work of beauty may help us to see, to discover, truths that cannot be found in other ways.

The other reason the distinction should not be drawn too sharply is found in this question: Where does philosophy fit? Some philosophy is continuous with the natural sciences, as the philosopher W.V.O. Quine famously maintained. Central to philosophy is logic, which is a branch (or the root) of mathematics. Philosophers, going about their philosophy, have made important contributions to mathematics, from Descartes and Leibniz (to reach no further into the past) to Bertrand Russell and Hilary Putnam (to come no closer into the future). Philosophy is at heart the discovery of truth, and its methods are, at times, precisely the methods of the scientists.

But philosophy is also an art. Plato famously expelled most artists from his imaginary city, but he did so in prose of high beauty, in a work of narrative and dramatic complexity. Not all philosophers are great artists, but some are; and all philosophers are creators.

Philosophers seek to create and to discover.

I am speaking of philosophy because I am most familiar with it as a practice and a discipline. But the humanities in general share this dual character. We have among us those who are unquestionably scientists. Not only the logicians, but also, say, the linguists. We have among us those who are unquestionably artists. Not only the philosophical essayists, but also, say, the poets. The humanities cover both science and art, at least as a tent covers all who shelter beneath it.

But the humanities—or at least philosophy—covers both art and science because it is both an art and a science.

A story is told of King Charles II. He was tired of the sycophancy of the London Royal Society, so he asked them why it is that a bucket of water gains no weight when a fish is added—that is, why a bucket and water and a fish weigh no more than the same bucket and the same water and no fish. The seventeenth-century learned men gave various “sound explanations.” Finally, one person questioned whether the king had his facts right. The king admitted that it was all a practical joke.[2]

This story seems to have become a metaphor for speculation on insufficient evidence. “How prone we are—the children of this generation—to reason upon the philosophy, before we weigh the fish!”[3] In a blog post, Robert Pasnau cites this story, and agrees with the critics that philosophers do not weigh the fish. But, he claims, this is not because of laziness or obstinacy, but because philosophy deals with fish that cannot be weighed.[4] Socrates said the same thing millennia ago: “If we disagreed about which of two things was larger and which was smaller, we would measure them and quickly settle the dispute. … And we would weigh, I suppose, to determine which was heavier and which was lighter. … But what might we disagree about and be unable to come to a conclusion? … Is it not about the right and wrong, the beautiful and disgraceful, the good and bad?”[5]

Some things can be measured, and others cannot. Philosophy has certain methods, and philosophers are ever dreaming up new methods to answer our questions. But philosophy is not defined by its methods, but by its aims. Philosophers pursue what cannot be measured easily, or at all. We are not after truth only, or beauty. Philosophy is the love of wisdom, which is not mere truth or mere beauty. I will repeat: Philosophy is not determined by a set of methods for finding the truth, and thus distinguished as one discipline among many. Philosophically interesting questions can be fruitfully addressed using various methods, and the numbers on these various scales may be useful in addressing these questions. Neither science nor art is opposed to philosophy.

Of course, philosophers have tried out many distinctive methods. The twentieth century saw phenomenology, logical positivism, and the linguistic turn—all movements that had, at long last, discovered the method of solving (or perhaps dissolving) all philosophical problems. But none of these methods defines philosophy. Philosophy has argumentation. Nearly all (but perhaps not absolutely all) philosophers deal in careful logical argumentation. This, however, is not distinctive, except perhaps in emphasis. Philosophy also has distinctive genres. Philosophers care not only what they say, but how they say it. The dialogue, the treatise, the essay are all forms that have a long history and are still in use.

If we take, say, Plato’s Symposium and Quine’s Philosophy of Logic as paradigms of philosophy, we notice a concern with language, with the creation of a work of art. We notice an emphasis on reason, on the search for deep and important truths. We notice the careful attention paid to experts in the special sciences. What we don’t find is a single, unchanging method or technique or doctrine.

Philosophers seek to create and to discover. We ask and explore, we search and build, we produce beauty and find truth. Philosophy, like every art, like every science, lies at the heart of the university.

This blog post was written by Ryan Christensen, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Brigham Young University.

[1] “Ode on a Grecian Urn” ll. 49-50.

[2] Oesper, Ralph E. “A Royal Practical Joke.” Journal of Chemical Education vol. 25, no. 2, Publication Date: February 1, 1948.

[3] Dealings With The Dead. By A Sexton Of The Old School. Volume I., p. 306

[4] Robert Pasnau, “Why Not Just Weigh the Fish? The New York Times  June 29, 2014,

[5] Euthyphro 7c-d


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