This article is about the philosophical term. For the journal, see Metaphilosophy (journal).

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] It is considered by some to be a subject apart from philosophy,[4] while others see it as automatically a part of philosophy,[5][6] and still others see it as a combination of these subjects.[2] The interest in metaphilosophy led to the establishment of the journal Metaphilosophy in January 1970.[7]

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.[8] 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'.

Many philosophers have expressed doubts over the value of metaphilosophy.[9] 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."[10]


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.[11] The term is derived from Greek word meta μετά ("after", "beyond", "with") and philosophía φιλοσοφία ("love of wisdom").

The term 'metaphilosophy' is used by Paul Moser [12] in the sense of a 'second-order' or more fundamental undertaking than philosophy itself, in the manner suggested by Charles Griswold:[4]

"The distinction between philosophy and metaphilosophy has an analogue in the familiar distinction between mathematics and metamathematics."[12]
Paul K. Moser, Metaphilosophy, p. 562

This usage was considered nonsense by Ludwig Wittgenstein, who rejected the analogy between metalanguage and a metaphilosophy.[13] 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[14] and Double.[15] 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.[16] 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".[17]

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.[18]


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.[19]

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'.[20]

Henri Lefebvre in Metaphilosophie (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.[12]


Many sub-disciplines of philosophy have their own branch of 'metaphilosophy', examples being Meta-aesthetics, Meta-epistemology, Meta-ethics, Meta-ontology, and so forth.[21] 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. 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".[22] Other proposed goals of philosophy include "discover[ing] the absolutely fundamental reason of everything it investigates",[23] "making explicit the nature and significance of ordinary and scientific beliefs",[24] and unifying and transcending the insights given by science and religion.[25] Others proposed that philosophy is a complex discipline because it has 4 or 6 different dimensions.[26][27]


Defining philosophy and its boundaries is itself problematic; Nigel Warburton has called it "notoriously difficult".[28] There is no straightforward definition,[29] and most interesting definitions are controversial.[30] 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."[31]
Bertrand Russell, The Wisdom of the West, p.7

While there is some agreement that philosophy involves general or fundamental topics,[32][33][34] there is no clear agreement about a series of demarcation issues, including:


Main article: Philosophical method

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[42] 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.[43] 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.[44]


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.[45] 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.

See also


  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. American Philosophy: An Encyclopedia. pp. 500–501. ISBN 020349279X. 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 0271044810.
  5. 1 2 3 4 For example, see Martin Heidegger (1956). Was Ist Das--die Philosophie?. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 21. ISBN 0808403192.
  6. 1 2 Timothy Williamson (2008). "Preface". The Philosophy of Philosophy. John Wiley & Sons. p. ix. ISBN 0470695919. 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. Nicholas Bunnin & Jiyuan Yu (2009). "Metaphilosophy". The Blackwell Dictionary of Western Philosophy. Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 426–427. ISBN 1405191120.
  9. Søren Overgaard; Paul Gilbert; Stephen Burwood (2013). "Introduction: What good is metaphilosophy?". An introduction to metaphilosophy. Cambridge University Press. p. 6. ISBN 0521193419.
  10. Gilbert Ryle (2009). "Chapter 23: Ordinary language". Collected Essays 1929-1968: Collected Papers Volume 2 (Reprint of Hutchinson 1971 ed.). Routledge. p. 331. ISBN 0415485495. Quoted by Søren Overgaard; Paul Gilbert; Stephen Burwood (2013). "Introduction: What good is metaphilosophy?". An introduction to metaphilosophy. Cambridge University Press. p. 6. ISBN 0521193419.
  11. 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
  12. 1 2 3 Paul K. Moser (2008). "Metaphilosophy". In Robert Audi. The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy (Paperback reprint of 2nd ed.). Paw Prints 2008-06-26. pp. 561–562. ISBN 1439503508.
  13. Wittgenstein L. (1963). "Paragraph 121". Philosophical Investigations (PDF). Blackwell.
  14. Rescher N. (2007). "Chapter 1: Philosophical principles". Philosophical Dialectics, an Essay on Metaphilosophy. State University of New York Press. p. 1. ISBN 0791467465.
  15. Richard Double (1996). Metaphilosophy and Free Will. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195355415.
  16. Williamson, Timothy (2007). "Preface". The Philosophy of Philosophy. Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN 1405133961.
  17. Nicholas Joll (November 18, 2010). "Contemporary Metaphysics: Defining metaphilosophy". Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  18. e.g.PhilPapers
  19. 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 othography, which deals with the word "orthography" among others without then being second order. Ludwig Wittgenstein Philosophical Investigations Blackwell Oxford 1963 para 121.
  20. 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
  21. Robert S Hartman (1995). "Axiology as a science". In Rem B. Edwards. Formal Axiology and Its Critics. Rodopi. p. 21. ISBN 9051839103.
  22. Penguin Dictionary of Philosophy
  23. 1 2 Modern Thomistic Philosophy by R Phillips
  24. Collins English Dictionary
  25. Mastering Philosophy by Anthony Harrison-Barbet
  26. Adler, Mortimer (1993) The Four Dimensions of Philosophy: Metaphysical-Moral-Objective-Categorical
  27. Vidal, Clément (2012). "Metaphilosophical Criteria for Worldview Comparison" (PDF). Metaphilosophy. 43 (3): 306–347. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9973.2012.01749.x.
  28. Nigel Warburton (2003). Philosophy: The Basics (3rd ed.). CRC Press. p. 1. ISBN 0203202023.
  29. Mastering Philosophy, by Anthony Harrison-Barbet
  30. The Rt. Hon. Lord Quinton (2005). "Philosophy". In Ted Honderich. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press. p. 702. ISBN 0199264791.
  31. Bertrand Russell (1959). The Wisdom of the West: A Historical Survey of Western Philosophy in Its Social and Political Setting. Doubleday. p. 7.
  32. Penguin Dictionary of Philosophy: "the most fundamental and general concepts and principles involved in thought, action and reality"
  33. Modern Thomistic Philosophy, by R. Phillips: "the absolutely fundamental reason of everything it investigates", "the fundamental reasons or causes of all things"
  34. Simon Blackburn (2005). "Philosophy". Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy (2nd ed.). p. 276. ISBN 0198610130. The study of the most general and abstract features of the world and categories with which we think: mind, matter...
  35. Ted Honderich, ed. (2005). "Conceptual analysis". Oxford Companion to Philosophy New Edition (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press USA. p. 154. ISBN 0199264791. "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.
  36. Simon Blackburn (2005). "Philosophy". Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press. p. 277. ISBN 0198610130.
  37. Sara Heināmaa (2006). "Phenomenology: A foundational science". In Margaret A. Simons. The Philosophy of Simone De Beauvoir: Critical Essays. Indiana University Press. p. 22. ISBN 0253218403. 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.
  38. Richard Tieszen (2008). "Science as a triumph of the human spirit and science in crisis: Husserl and the fortunes of reason". In Gary Gutting. Continental Philosophy of Science. John Wiley & Sons. p. 94. ISBN 1405137444. 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.
  39. Simon Blackburn. Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. p. 277.
  40. Penguin Encyclopedia
  41. Gracia, J.G. and Noone, T.B., A Companion to Philosophy in the Middle Ages, London 2003, p.35
  42. 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
  43. Knobe (forthcoming).
  44. Knobe, J. and Nichols, S. (eds.) (2008) Experimental Philosophy] §2.1, OCLC 233792562
  45. Dietrich, Eric (2011). There Is No Progress in Philosophy. Essays in Philosophy 12 (2):9.

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