Philosophy as a Second-Order Activity

Philosophy as a Second-Order Activity

Welcome to this article where we will looking at philosophy as a second-order activity. The topic itself suggests that there are two parts to our discussion in this post. 

First we will talk about the idea of a second-order discipline and second, we will examine the relationship of philosophy to other fields of study with a view to establishing the extent to which philosophy can properly be regarded a second-order activity.

In this article, the student should be able to understand what a second-order activity is, explain the sense in which philosophy is a second-order activity and explain philosophy relates with other disciplines in its position as a second-order activity.


The Idea of a Second-Order Activity

A first-order activity is an effort within the domain of a specific discipline to understand and posit on issues, or to find reasons or explanations for events that it observes. For example, science’s explanation of the occurrence of rainfall by reference to scientific paradigm can be seen as a first-order intellectual activity.

A second-order inquiry, on the other hand, will examine the explanations given at the first order level, with the purpose or aim of ascertaining whether the explanation stands up to reason, and to what extent.

Apart from this, definitions and other clarifications of a general, universal nature properly belong to the second order. If, for example, there is a discussion on whether a certain conduct or judgment was just or fair, the different positions on it belong to the first order; while the effort to understand what justice is, and what it means for an action to be considered just or fair, belong to the second order. The domain of the second order, strictly-speaking, is that of philosophy.

Also read: Key Characteristics of Philosophy

Philosophy and other Disciplines

The basis of philosophy’s relationship with other disciplines is its status as a second order activity whose main concern is to examine the first-order claims, assumptions and theoretical underpinnings of other disciplines.

In discussing what he described as the two streams of analytic philosophy, John Searle points out that, even though they disagree on some important points, they both accept the fact that philosophy is a second-order discipline.

According to him, both streams, however, accepted the central view that the aim of philosophy was conceptual analysis, and that in consequence philosophy was fundamentally different from any other discipline. …it was a second-order discipline analyzing the logical structure of language in general, but not dealing with first-order truths about the world.

Philosophy was universal in subject matter precisely because it had no special subject matter other than the discourse of all other disciplines… Kwame Gyekye attested to the second-order nature of philosophy when he described philosophy as, essentially a critical and systematic inquiry into the fundamental ideas or principles underlying human thought, conduct, and experience.

Ideas, which include the beliefs and presuppositions that we hold and cherish, relate to the various aspects of human experience: to the origins of the world, the existence of God, the nature of the good society, the basis for political authority, and so on.

These ‘ideas, beliefs and presuppositions belong to the first order, while the ‘critical and systematic inquiry’ into them constitutes the second order, which is the domain of philosophy.

Using the example of the human society, Gyekye points out that the social arrangements and institutions are based on certain ideas and assumptions, and these are the ideas “that can critically be – and in fact is – examined by philosophy.”

Isaac Ukpokolo corroborated this second-order status of philosophy when he described philosophy as a discipline that employs: the principles and method of logical analysis to interrogate existing beliefs, claims, assumptions, ideas, positions and dispositions, resulting in a clearer and better understanding of reality whether social, political, cultural, spiritual or moral…

The foregoing implies that philosophy is interested in seeking and obtaining a thorough understanding of notions, ideas and assumptions that both underlie and result from human thoughts, decisions and activities in other areas of knowledge.

John Olubi Sodipo made the same point about philosophy when he describes philosophy as, reflective and critical thinking about the concepts and principles we use to organize our experience in morals, in religion, in social and political life, in law, in psychology, in history and in the natural sciences...

Gene Blocker explains the second-order status of philosophy more explicitly when he said:

Philosophy can be understood as a “second order” reflection on other “first order” disciplines; so, for example, corresponding to “first order” investigations of history or art or law by historians, art critics, or legal experts, there are branches of philosophy knows as philosophy of history, philosophy of art, and philosophy of law – not investigating history or art or law per se, but reflecting on the ways in which the specialists talk and write about history, art, and law.

Michael H. McCarthy explains further, the necessity of a philosophical examination of human activities in other disciplines, especially in science when he said, the factual sciences consist of first-order truths discovered and verified through accepted forms of empirical method.

The second-order truths of logic abstract from all specific propositional content to assert the formal conditions every scientific truth must satisfy. Pure logic also constructs alternative sets of formal deductive system that can be appropriated by the positive sciences for the systematic expression of their results. …logic articulates the essential conditions of scientific theory…it assists science by providing skeletal theory structures, for which the first-order sciences can supply the substantive content.

Corroborating philosophy’s role in the sciences, Alex Rosenberg points out that the discipline of philosophy attempts to address two sorts of questions:

(1) The questions that the sciences – physical, biological, social, and behavioural – cannot answer.

(2) Questions about why the sciences cannot answer the former questions.109 Philosophy as an intellectual activity, not only interrogates other disciplines or fields in order to critically assess their claims and underlying logic, but also forges the necessary link between the different fields of intellectual activity as well as between theory and action.

In his book, The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, C. P. Snow observes with obvious dissatisfaction the gap between the sciences and the humanities, each ensconced in its own little world, and suspicious of the other while the society languishes at the absence of the fruit of the cooperation between the two.

Sodipo, however, sees in philosophy the chance to bridge the gap. In his words: Now, because philosophy cannot but be interested in the human condition, its hopes and fears, its laws of thought, its norms of conduct, its criteria of artistic creation and judgment, while at the same time ‘observing’ that adventure of the human mind called Science, it is in a position to make a substantial contribution towards bridging this gap. It is easy for the scholar in the Humanities to say that a man who is ignorant of history, of the arts, of the role of religion and language in society, of the values transmitted in literature, oral and written, hardly justifies being called cultured or civilized.

Yet the philosopher sees that it is becoming more and more essential for the humanist to realize that the exploration of the natural order called science has important human value and significance, and that the scientific edifice of the natural world is, in its intellectual depth, complexity and articulation one of the most beautiful and wonderful works of the mind of man.

Also read: Meaning and Nature of Philosophy

Conclusion on Philosophy as a Second-Order Activity

Having looked at philosophy’s relationship with other disciplines in this article, we can say that the basis for this relationship is philosophy’s status as a second-order intellectual activity. This is because philosophy is, as pointed out in this article, the critique of the ideas, assumptions, theories and suppositions that underlie human judgments, decisions and actions in other areas of knowledge.

In this article, we have examined the idea of a second-order discipline.

We also examined the relationship of philosophy to other fields of study with a view to establishing the extent to which philosophy can properly be regarded a second-order activity.

Following from the views of various scholars, we posited that philosophy is not only an intellectual activity that interrogates other disciplines or fields for the purpose of critically assessing their claims and underlying logic, philosophy also mends fences and forges the necessary link between the different fields of intellectual activity.

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