What are the aims, tasks, and purposes of philosophy? This is one of the questions that metaphilosophy is concerned with. Other questions that metaphilosophy is concerned with include: What are the proper methods of philosophical inquiry? What is the proper domain of philosophical inquiry? What are the limits of philosophical inquiry? What kinds of philosophy are there? Is philosophy a theoretical or practical discipline?
With regard to this last question, the attempt to divide philosophy into theoretical (speculative) and practical philosophy is similar to the attempt to divide it into "continental" and "analytic" philosophy. Both attempts may be limited by the lack, in many cases, of a sharp division between the speculative and the practical, or between the continental and the analytic, approaches to philosophy. There is, in fact, no necessary dichotomy between them. The attempt to separate speculative from practical philosophy, or theory from practice, overlooks the fact that they may often lead to or support each other. To put it simply, a theory about something may often have unexpected practical implications, and practical experience may often lead to a theory about things.
Speculative philosophy, in the pejorative sense, may be mere philosophizing. An argument against mere philosophizing may be that "real philosophers" (in whatever way this term is defined) do not spend their time idly ruminating about abstractions; they actually "do philosophy." Doing philosophy may be something beyond merely speculating about purely theoretical problems. It may be a way of addressing practical concerns, and it may lead to practical results.
If we are going to philosophize, perhaps we should at least do it, as Friedrich Nietzsche suggests in Twilight of the Idols (1889), "with a hammer," sounding out empty or hollow beliefs. What other instruments might be used to meaningfully philosophize? A razor, in the case of Occam, or a fork, in the case of Hume?
Metaphilosophy may be defined as an inquiry into the nature, aims, functions, methods, and limits of philosophy. It may be descriptive or prescriptive (normative) in nature, or both, insofar as it may describe what philosophy is and/or prescribe what it should be.
Ludwig Wittgenstein said, in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922), that "Philosophy is not a theory, but an activity" (4.112). According to Wittgenstein, the proper aim of philosophy is to clarify the meaning of propositions by logically analyzing them. Every meaningful proposition can be stated clearly, and thus the proper aim of philosophy is not to produce various sets of propositions about the world, but to make clear what propositions actually mean.1
G.E. Moore similarly explained, in the preface of the Principia Ethica (1903), that we may often find ourselves in philosophical quandaries if we attempt to answer questions before precisely determining their meaning. Rather than engaging straightaway in an attempt to provide an answer to every question, we may need first to understand the nature of the questions we are attempting to answer.2
Another question to be answered by metaphilosophy is: How is philosophy similar to, or different from, science? Another way of phrasing this question is: To what extent is philosophy a kind of science? For example, does philosophy need to be scientific in order to be a useful means of providing objective knowledge?
If philosophy may be scientific in its aims and concerns, then we must also note that there is a philosophy of science, which is distinctive of science, as opposed to art, literature, and religion. Similarly, there is a philosophy of art, as well as a philosophy of literature (i.e. literary theory, or literary criticism), and a philosophy of religion.
If science, art, literature, or religion are also in some sense "languages," then the philosophy of each of these disciplines or concerns may be a metalanguage. The metaphilosophy that is concerned with the nature, aims, methods, and limits of the philosophy of science, art, literature, or religion may be a metalanguage about a metalanguage. The borders between philosophy, science, art, literature, and religion may also need to be decided by thinkers in each of these disciplines or spheres of concern.
Other questions to be considered by metaphilosophy include that of whether philosophy is rooted in social conditions, and that of whether philosophy has a social responsibility. Do philosophers have a responsibility to be socially engaged? If philosophy has a social responsibility, then to what extent does philosophy need to be focused on alleviating or resolving social problems?
1Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, translated by C.K. Ogden (Mineola: Dover Publications, 1999), p. 52.
2G.E. Moore, Principia Ethica (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), p. 33.