Metaphilosophy, also called philosophy of philosophy, is the study of the nature, aims, and methods of philosophy. The term is derived from Greek word meta μετά ("after", "beyond", "with") and philosophía φιλοσοφία ("love of wisdom").

The term seems to have gained currency in the English-speaking world since the mid-twentieth century but currently there is no accepted opinion, nor a notable debate if a 'second order philosophy' is, or could be, something different from 'plain philosophy'. In the analytical tradition it is mostly used to tag commenting and research on previous works as opposed to original contributions towards solvingphilosophical problems.

Morris Lazerowitz claims to have launched the term around 1940 and apparently has used it in print in 1942. Earlier uses have been found in translations from the French. During the 1960 it became more or less current, being used by Richard Rorty or in the title of Lazerowitz' book of essays. Since 1970 a journal Metaphilosophy is published.

The Rationale for Metaphilosophy

Metaphilosophy relies on the idea that it might be productive to distinguish some general pronouncements about philosophy from philosophy itself. Contrasting with many other cultural practices, for philosophy the distinction is rather questionable, but a similar case is presented by language: when speaking in English about the English language one might assume a split between English-as-object and English-as-metalanguage. Philosophers using the term metaphilosophy being still a minority, it might be surmised that the majority does not consider the idea worth exploring. As far as it is a reflexive practice philosophy always already incorporates its own considering e.g. by appealing to its own tradition, to its opponents or to its history; thus historicist philosophies, such as Hegel's, are metaphilosophies without mention of the term. A synchronic or systemic approach is a more obviously 'metaphilosophical' than a historic or a diachronic one.

Wittgenstein famously rejected the analogy between metalanguage and a metaphilosophy:

"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."

Recently Timothy Williamson has refrained from using the word and expressed concern that it might be misleading:

"I also rejected the word “metaphilosophy.” The philosophy of philosophy is automatically part of philosophy, just as the philosophy of anything else is, whereas metaphilosophy sounds as though it might try to look down on philosophy from above, or beyond."

Other philosophers such as Nicholas Rescher or Richard Double have adopted the term, putting it to good use. Presenting research on general philosophical principles Rescher's book begins with his view on metaphilosophy:

"Metaphilosophy is the philosophical examination of the practice of philosophizing itself. Its definitive aim is to study the methods of the field in an endeavor to illuminate its promise and prospects."

The Nature of Philosophy


The word philosophy is of Ancient Greek origin: φιλοσοφία (philosophía), meaning "love of wisdom." However, few sources give "love of wisdom" as a possible meaning of the term, and others say the etymology is "not much help". The use and meaning of the word "philosophy" has changed throughout history: in Antiquity it encompassed almost any inquiry; for Descartes it was supposed to be the Queen of the Sciences, a sort of ultimate justification; in the time of David Hume "metaphysics" and "morals" could be roughly translated as the human sciences; and contemporary analytic philosophy likes to define itself roughly as inquiry into concepts.

Many definitions of philosophy begin by stating the difficulty of defining the subject, calling it "notoriously difficult", saying that there is "no straightforward definition" and that most interesting definitions of philosophy are controversial.

"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."

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

However, a review of standard reference works suggests that there is a broad agreement among such sources that philosophy involves the study of fundamental or general topics; e.g. "the most fundamental and general concepts and principles involved in thought, action and reality", "the most general questions about our universe and our place in it", the "absolutely fundamental reason of everything it investigates", or "the fundamental reasons or causes of all things". The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy says it is the investigation of the most general and abstract features of the world and the categories with which we think, in order to "lay bare their foundations and presuppositions".

Some authors say that philosophy is fundamentally about critical thinking, examining the beliefs we take for granted. Wilfrid Hodgeswrote:

In English-speaking philosophy (and much European philosophy too) you are taught not to take anything on trust, particularly if it seems obvious and undeniable.


Some authors say that that philosophical enquiry is second-order, having concepts, theories and presupposition as its subject matter. It is "thinking about thinking", of a "generally second-order character". Philosophers study, rather than use, the concepts that structure our thinking. However, the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy warns that "the borderline between such 'second-order' reflection, and ways of practising the first-order discipline itself, is not always clear: philosophical problems may be tamed by the advance of a discipline, and the conduct of a discipline may be swayed by philosophical reflection".

Most authors agree that philosophy is distinct from both empirical science and religion. It differs from science in that its questions cannot be answered empirically, i.e. by observation or experiment; and it differs from religion in that it allows no place for faith or revelation.Philosophy does not try to answer questions by appeal to revelation, myth or religious knowledge of any kind, but uses reason, "without reference to sensible observation and experiments".

Some analytical philosophers argue that all meaningful empirical questions are to be answered by science, not philosophy. However, some schools of contemporary philosophy such as the pragmatists and naturalistic epistemologists argue that philosophy should be linked to science and should be scientific in the broad sense of that term, "preferring to see philosophical reflection as continuous with the best practice of any field of intellectual enquiry".


A typical metaphilosophical task is to provide a taxonomy of philosophical (sub)disciplines. Aristotle spoke about a 'first philosophy' which was the most general science and a 'second philosophy' which dealt with nature (or 'physis'). However in later antiquity the first philosophy, as a more demanding discipline, was considering to come after physics and the works where it was exposed were called metaphysics. Aristotle's metaphysics traditionally was seen to consist of three parts: ontology, natural theology and universal science. In later times, as Christianity became dominant, the whole of philosophy came to be considered as an auxiliary science, the formula being philosophia ancilla theologiae. At the end of the Renaissance the special doctrine considering being as such was named ontology and a corresponding doctrine about knowledge came under the name of epistemology or gnoseology. In the 18th century Alexander Baumgarten considered the special case of sensitive knowledge and called it 'gnoseologia inferior' (as opposed to a superior rational one) and with Kant it became aesthetics. The Greek had always had a special concern about ethics which remained a major philosophical concern in Roman times and later was established as separate discipline. Thus the standard disciplinary structure of philosophy was established as

  • ontology,
  • epistemology,
  • ethics and
  • aesthetics.

They have been listed as metaphysics (including ontology, causation, and cosmology), ethics,epistemology, logic, and later aesthetics.

Applied philosophy is the philosophical critique of various social activities (such as religion) and intellectual pursuits (such as science andsociology). Philosopher and encyclopedist Mortimer Adler includes all such second-order questions about various fields of study, which are often found under various branches of philosophy beginning with the phrase "philosophy of....", in his taxonomy. Adler divides these second-order philosophical problems into two branches: one addressing the objects of thought, such as Being, Cause, Change, Infinity,Destiny, and Love; the other addressing the subjects, or procedural domains, of thought, e.g. philosophy of religion, philosophy of history,philosophy of language, philosophy of science. Metaphilosophy also attempts to understand such second-order problems with the aid of the other major branches, e.g. metaphysical knowledge in religion, epistemology in religion, axiology in religion, etc.

The Aims of Philosophy  

What is your aim in philosophy? – To show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle.
—Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, 309

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". Other proposed goals of philosophy include "discover[ing] the absolutely fundamental reason of everything it investigates", "making explicit the nature and significance of ordinary and scientific beliefs", and unifying and transcending the insights given by science and religion.

The Methods of Philosophy

The right method of philosophy would be this. To say nothing except what can be said, i.e. the propositions of natural science, i.e. something that has nothing to do with philosophy: and then always, when someone wished to say something metaphysical, to demonstrate to him that he had given no meaning to certain signs in his propositions. This method would be unsatisfying to the other – he would not have the feeling that we were teaching him philosophy – but it would be the only strictly correct method.

—Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 6.53

Most sources agree that the chief method of philosophy is logical, rational, critical enquiry and argument "of a more or less systematic kind." Thomistic philosophers refer similarly to the "natural light of reason".

Stephen Toulmin defines three basic approaches to philosophy:

  • the philosopher as geometer: centers on formal inquiry; thinkers from Plato to Frege.
  • the philosopher as anthropologist: tries to find the basics of human nature; thinkers such as David Hume and Adam Smith.
  • the philosopher as critic: investigates the a priori conditions on which e.g. knowledge can exist; Immanuel Kant.

Historical Methods

Three historical methods of philosophy have been the Ancient Greek, epistemic, and linguistic approaches.

The Ancient Greek phronetic approach to philosophy was prioneered by such philosophers as Socrates and Epicurus. The questions of this form of philosophy consist mainly of those relevant to the search for a happy life and the cultivation of the virtues, although political andreligious philosophy is featured in recorded thinking. The general method of such philosophers was elenkhos, more widely known today as the Socratic method.

The epistemic approach centers upon the foundations of knowledge, in particular the debate between Rationalism and Empiricism. The distinction is mostly applied to modern philosophy with philosophers such John Locke, David Hume and George Berkeley on the empiricist side, and René Descartes, Baruch Spinoza and Gottfried Leibniz on the other. However, the distinction can be just as meaningfully applied to current philosophy.

The more recent linguistic approach to philosophy is practised both as a form of epistemology (the relation between language and world, the "meaning of meaning") and as the study of concepts and ideas. In Language, Truth and Logic, A.J. Ayer set two criteria for a (contentious) definition of philosophy. Firstly, the science must be a genuine branch of knowledge; and secondly, it must bear relation to the realm of ideas and impressions commonly known as "philosophy". Thus to Ayer, philosophy is defined as a wholly analytic task, and as a compilation of "in-use" definitions. It is commonly suggested by this analytic school of thought that questions such as "What is Truth?", or more generally "What is x?", are requests for definitions rather than facts about the world.

Rethinking Intuition

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 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 aspremises. 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.

Another field of philosophy which makes use of quantitative reasoning is called computational philosophy. In this field, philosophers construct several simplified artificial worlds with different ontologies and ethical systems, experiment with them, and confront them with the real world observations. This emergent research and scientific activity requires numerous meta-philosophical and meta-theoretical assumptions.

Philosophical Progress

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. It has even been disputed, most notably by Ludwig Wittgenstein, whether genuine philosophical problems actually exist. The opposite has also been claimed, most notably 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.

Metaphilosophical Writings

Plato raised questions concerning

  • the nature of philosophy and its methods (most explicitly addressed in the Meno)
  • the value and proper aims of philosophy (in the Apology, Gorgias, Protagoras, etc.)
  • the proper relationship between philosophical criticism and everyday life (a pervasive theme explored most famously in the Republic)

Immanuel Kant's approach to philosophy, his 'criticism', is thoroughly selfconscious and reflexive. Writing Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics That Will Be Able to Present Itself as a Science, he presented an example of a work that is seen today as indisputably metaphilosophical.

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.

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'.

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).

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