Looking through any modest philosophical library, you are likely to find a multitude of recently published books addressing and offering solutions to this question. Anthony O'Hare, Diana-baiting philosophy professor at the Royal Institute of Philosophy (RIP), even entitled his opus minimus What Philosophy Is. Currently, there is a veritable splurge of dictionaries of philosophy, each seeking to delineate the subject very precisely, along with every pettifogging philosophical fact, and irrelevant philosophical claim.
Which is not to say that such labours are not worthwhile, or useful. Some of them are very good. But no subject with an ounce of self-respect should be content to sit quietly analysing itself like this.
Do we see books entitled What is History? or What is Cookery? Dictionaries of Maths? Or Chemistry? (Well, sometimes, in elementary school.) But philosophy applied to itself is nothing. It is as if you shone a torch into the night sky: nothing will be illuminated, nothing can be. For at some point philosophy detached itself from its practical origins, in science, politics and justice, and became interested only in a bizarre form of linguistic navel-watching known as analysis.
What passes for philosophy these days, so-called Anglo-American philosophy, is a kind of not very good maths. Simple-minded manipulators of context- free atomic propositions, tired obfuscation using tautologies to no great effect and rather less purpose.
But that is "what philosophy is", if we wander misguidedly into our great academic institutions, or attempt to browse the misleadingly named "philosophy" journals. There we will hear the empty resulting of papers in the senior common rooms, as the paid philosophers engage in ritual exchange of trivialities.
For the true questions of philosophy are not mechanical computations of stodgy logical consistency, of the "all bachelors are unmarried men" and "snow is white" variety, but quite the reverse. They are the mind- expanding, imaginative processes of creative hypothesis. This is what Socrates was trying to demonstrate so long ago, and this is also what lies behind the "new" branches of western philosophy, the fields of medical, business and environmental ethics, for example.
It is also the engine of scientific discovery, which is only proper, considering science has its roots firmly in natural philosophy. It led to the Theory of Relativity, when Einstein imagined what it would be like to be a ray of light approaching the sun. It brought alive the abortion debate in the US when Judith Jarvis Johnson imagined a woman injured in a car accident being used to keep a famous violist alive for nine months. Not to forget the rather older example of the shepherd who finds a magic ring which makes him invisible and who then steals.
So what of our original question? It's not just the innumerable books entitled What is Philosophy? or variants, that ought to make us suspicious, it is the dearth of books that offer any fresh and original thinking.
Philosophy problems are eternal. It is not necessary - or wise - to try to be particularly original either in the identification or the description of them. But it is necessary to address them. Increasingly these days, the true philosophers are to be found in hospitals, physics laboratories, court rooms - anywhere but in the ivory towers.
Martin Cohen is editor of `The Philosopher'. His book `101 Philosophy Problems' is due to be published by Routledge in Spring 1999Reuse content