Talons Philosophy

An Open Online Highschool Philosophy Course


What is Philosophy? (Take 2)


As I was riding the bus home yesterday afternoon, an unusual thought popped into my head. I had read about the concept of sonder a few days ago, and for some reason the idea resurfaced in my mind. For those unfamiliar with the word, it means “the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own”. Throughout this post, I will be referencing back to the idea of sonder – as it ties in well with the concept of the phaneron. (see definition of phaneron below)

In my original What is Philosophy? post, I concluded that “philosophy is the strive for the expansion of fundamental human understanding.” While I still stand by parts of that definition, it is slightly verbose. In my second take at defining philosophy, I want to keep the main idea of exploration/expansion while simplifying my definition.

What I came up with is this:

Philosophy is the exploration beyond the limits of the phaneron.


What is a phaneron?

  1. The phaneron (Greek φανερός phaneros “visible, showable”) as coined by Charles Sanders Peirce is essentially the real world filtered by our sensory input (sight, hearing, touch, etc) [src]

Essentially, a person’s phaneron is all of the sensual data they obtain empirically. For example, your phaneron currently includes the words on this page, the noises (or lack of noises) around you, and the sensation that you need to blink and breathe manually (sorry).

What makes the phaneron such an interesting concept is that we depend on our phaneron to gather information about our surrounding. Anything we see, hear, smell, taste, or feel is filtered through our phaneron before being presented to our brain in an understandable way. The issue is, of course, that sensual illusions and hallucinations are also a part of the phaneron – calling into question what is real, and what isn’t. In an earlier blog post, I wrote about how knowledge is utterly dependent on communication. The phaneron takes this one step further; the communication (which knowledge is dependent on) is itself filtered through our phaneron, unseating all of the knowledge we currently possess as human beings.

While I wrote about the uncertainty of the existence of math homework earlier this semester, again the phaneron takes this one step further. As we are utterly dependent on our phanerons, we have no way to know if the real world is anything like what we perceive it to be.  This is often referenced as “living in the Matrix” –  how would we ever know if our world was a simulation?


How do we explore beyond the phaneron?

It’s easy to dismiss exploring beyond the phaneron out of hand – after all, since we gather all knowledge through the phaneron, how could we ever know any knowledge outside of it?

Rationalism is one, somewhat limited method for surpassing the limits of the phaneron. By using logic and dissecting arguments, we can gain more insight than by simply relying on our sense alone. Our course, there’s always going to be that person who claims that: A) there is no such thing as free will, or B) our sensory knowledge defines us. While those are valid points, they definitely spoil the fun of exploring and surpassing the limits of the phaneron.

Another way we can explore beyond the phaneron is simply by exploring beyond our own phanerons. This relates back to the idea of sonder, and the fact that everyone’s reality is subjective to them and them alone. As I covered in an aesthetics post, beauty is one of these subjective qualities. Everyone perceives beauty in a different way, and nobody is right or wrong to consider something “beautiful”.


Why does exploring beyond the phaneron matter?

From the rationalist model, surpassing the phaneron means surpassing the biological restrictions placed upon our by our short-lived, fragile meatsacks. By not solely relying on the phaneron for all information about the world, we can grow beyond the human condition and embrace true, objective rationality.

On a more personal level, being able to look beyond our own personal phanerons makes us that much more empathetic. By combining the idea of sonder with the surpassing of the phaneron, it becomes possible to gain a deeper understanding of those around us, and perhaps most importantly, whose who we dislike or simply disagree with. The world today would be a different place if instead of dismissing a person out of hand, we instead tried to visualize their own problems, concerns, and value systems.

Of course, that’s totally unrealistic – for the most part, we’re all too wrapped up in our own lives to be constantly visualizing the lives of others. Regardless of this, surpassing our own sensory limits can at least give us a glimpse of what others are feeling. At the very least, it will open you up to sonder, and the beautiful realization that you are not alone in this universe of ours.

So, What is Philosophy? (or So What, Philosophy?)

Philosophy is the exploration beyond the limits of the phaneron.

The essence of this definition is in taking a step back, and looking at the world in a different way. The issue of the phaneron is not meant to inspire paranoia; instead, it should simply offer a new perspective on life and the source of knowledge. Only by looking beyond ourselves can we learn more about ourselves (I know, so deep).

The cry of philosophy is not “Wake up, sheeple!”. Instead – whatever the nihilistic arguments against – we should say “Life is valuable, and through knowledge we can enjoy it to the greatest extent possible.”


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