What is philosophy? What is philosophy for? How should philosophy be done? These are metaphilosophical questions, metaphilosophy being the study of the nature of philosophy. Contemporary metaphilosophies within the Western philosophical tradition can be divided, rather roughly, according to whether they are associated with (1) Analytic philosophy, (2) Pragmatist philosophy, or (3) Continental philosophy.
Philosophers have always been fond of dividing themselves into camps.
Figures from Aristotle to Quine have declared that there are two types
of philosophers, two fundamentally different ways of approaching the
Such divisions can be dangerous when they are made in
simplistic and unhelpful ways. It is clear that the study of early
modern philosophy has been hampered by the standard distinction
between rationalists and empiricists. It is just as clear that our
understanding of twentieth-century philosophy has been impaired by the
habit of labeling figures either “analytic or “continental.” Still, it
is hard to abandon the practice of dividing philosophers into camps.
Many periods in the history of philosophy are marked by fundamental
disagreements over what the discipline is and how it should proceed.
Highlighting these disagreements often seems valuable, even necessary.
Metaethics is a branch of analytic philosophy that explores the status, foundations, and scope of moral values, properties, and words. Whereas the fields of applied ethics and normative theory focus on what is moral, metaethics focuses on what morality itself is. Just as two people may disagree about the ethics of, for example, physician-assisted suicide, while nonetheless agreeing at the more abstract level of a general normative theory such as Utilitarianism, so too may people who disagree at the level of a general normative theory nonetheless agree about the fundamental existence and status of morality itself, or vice versa. In this way, metaethics may be thought of as a highly abstract way of thinking philosophically about morality. For this reason, metaethics is also occasionally referred to as “second-order” moral theorizing, to distinguish it from the “first-order” level of normative theory.