Why Is Philosophy Hard?

Why is philosophy so hard? Though there are many reasons as to why philosophy is a difficult subject, I believe there are three primary reasons which make philosophy the difficult subject it is today.

  1. Philosophy is hard because of Intangibility
  2. Philosophy is hard because of Universal Scope About Experience
  3. Philosophy is hard because of Universal Application

Philosophy is Hard Because of Intangibility

The subject matter of philosophy, as far as we are concerned, revolves around something intangible. Thought cannot be touched nor smelt, seen nor grasped. In our first-person experiences, thought is neither like a chair nor a book; we deal most intimately with something which eludes the senses.

That alone can prove a great challenge, for thinking is in many ways synonymous with fighting while blindfolded. But to fight skillfully while blindfolded is a matter entirely different than just fighting while blindfolded.

Philosophy requires us to not only deal with something ostensibly intangible, but also to refine, clarify, and use proper language for that intangible thing. Put otherwise, when we do philosophy, we are to paint a ghost.

Philosophy is Hard Because of Universal Scopes About Experience

When we make claims about things, there is either an implicit or explicit understanding about the scope of the claim. For example, when we say, “humans suffer from hallucinations,” we implicitly realize that such a statement has a limited scope; clearly, not every human suffers from hallucinations. If the statement were to make explicit the scope of the claim, then it would be written as, “some humans suffer from hallucinations”.

So, when we make claims about things, we have scopes which wed themselves to those claims. And that is as true for philosophy as it is for any other discipline. However, the primary difference between philosophy and other disciplines relates to claims about experience.

In philosophy, it is not uncommon to have universal scopes which relate to the entitreity of experience. That is, rather than view reason as something which works in unison with experience, some philosophers believe reason and experience are separate, and that reason comes before experience. In such a worldview, it is not uncommon to hear universal claims being made about the nature of experience itself rather than the content of experience.

For example, Immanuel Kant supposed science was about the application of reason to the content of experience, whereas philosophy was about understanding what came before experience; a task he deemed impossible to achieve, which lead him to conclude philosophy forever unsolvable.

It is these sorts of universal claims about experience which make philosophy a rather difficult subject to grasp.

Philosophy is Hard Because of Universal Application

Philosophy requires us to be consistent across different contexts, which requires us to generalize philosophical frameworks to novel situations.

For starters, consider deontology: when we develop a moral principle, we are meant to apply that principle to all foreseeable situations. If a deontologist supposes all forms of sadism are to be avoided, then they are called to think and reflect about the actions of both themselves and others quite routinely, across various situations.

If a deontologist meets new people, of whom have sadistic views, the deontologist ought to be able to ruin social harmony to ensure that the sadism of others is called out.

Whereas, in comparison, someone who has no principles can ignore such active reflection; only because there is no need to mitigate any discrepancies between themselves and a stated principle.

But universal application appears in other areas of philosophy as well, universal application likewise appears within epistemology.

In example, there is a view known as coherentism within epistemology. And that view holds to the belief that things are only justified if they cohere with other already established beliefs. E.g., someone who believes the meaning of words is located within the head would reject any platonic account of meaning; only because a platonic account would entail that meaning is outside of the head and within a non-material realm. Put otherwise, the beliefs do not cohere.

A coherentist with such a view on language would then presume that the meaning of laws are derived from the intentions of legislators; only because meaning is located inside the head.

Both a coherentist and deontologist would be required to generalize their philosophical frameworks to novel situations, which is a difficult task todo. And thus, makes philosophy a difficult subject engage with.

Conclusion: What Makes Philosophy Hard?

Philosophy is a difficult subject for a few different reasons. One, the content of philosophy is intangible. We are dealing with things which are, as far as our first-person experiences are concerned,  entirely abstract and non-sensorial.

Two, philosophy often involves universal claims about experience itself rather than the content of experience. That is a mode of thinking which most people are entirely unfamiliar with, and is likewise a mode of thinking which can be difficult to grasp and understand.

Three, philosophy usually demands us to be consistent across different contexts; philosophy requires universal application of different principles and beliefs. Ethical principles are universally applied, as are epistemic frameworks.

For those reasons, I believe philosophy is difficult. Of course, one can become better at these things with experience and practice, but from the perspective of someone not familiar with those ways of thinking, philosophy proves challenging.

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Ideasinhat is a business development analyst and longtime reader of academic literature. He writes books and essays on science and philosophy, and posts them to this website. The essays, as with the books, cover topics from psychology, philosophy, and cognitive science to economics, politics, and law.

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