The goal of philosophy is to address the “big questions” which do not fall into other disciplines: how we should act (ethics), what exists (metaphysics), how we know what we know (epistemology), and how we should reason (logic). Originating from Greek, the word philosophy means “love of wisdom.”
Historically, philosophy has been a catch-all for academic subjects which don’t fit into the traditional disciplines of science and the humanities . However, this doesn’t mean it is disconnected from these areas: in fact, the relationship of philosophy and science is almost as close as the relationship between math and science, and many masters of literature have also started philosophical movements.
Many academic disciplines have a corresponding philosophy behind them: philosophy of science, for instance, or philosophy of history. Less formally, a philosophy is just a way of thinking about something.
Philosophy is thought to have truly begun under Socrates , an ancient Greek philosopher who is considered the most famous and important philosopher of all time. He developed the Socratic method , a general technique for looking at philosophical problems based on definition, analysis, and synthesis. Back in Socrates’ time and up until the Scientific Revolution in the 17th century, philosophy and science were often practiced by the same people and considered two parts of the same discipline. Science was called “natural philosophy” – philosophy about the world.
Philosophy is thought to have truly begun under Socrates , an ancient Greek philosopher who is considered the most famous and important philosopher of all time.
He developed the Socratic method , a general technique for looking at philosophical problems based on definition, analysis, and synthesis. Back in Socrates’ time and up until the Scientific Revolution in the 17th century, philosophy and science were often practiced by the same people and considered two parts of the same discipline. Science was called “natural philosophy” – philosophy about the world.
In the domain of ethics, consider questions like the following: is it ethical to save the life of a murderer, if he may kill again? Philosophers debate such questions for hours, creating doctrines to help organize and justify their own opinions.
Within the domain of ethics, there is disagreement about whether or not there exists an objective morality: an objectively correct way to do things that is superior to any other. At the opposite end of the spectrum: is everything relative? If morality is arbitrary, why should we have one at all?
Ethics is the study of the nature of right and wrong and good and evil, in terms both of considerations about the foundations of morality, and of practical considerations about the fine details of moral conduct. Moral philosophers may investigate questions as sweeping as whether there are such things moral facts at all, or as focused as whether or not the law ought to accord to rape victims the right to an abortion.
Metaphysics looks at the first causes and principles of things, as well as the relationship between consciousness and the world. Many questions previously considered metaphysical, like “how did the universe come into existence?” have fallen into the domain of science, being revealed through hypotheses and experiment. Some metaphysical questions, however, may not have scientific answers. Some scientists would argue back that a non-scientific answer to such questions is not really an answer at all.
Metaphysics is the study of the nature of things. Metaphysicians ask what kinds of things exist, and what they are like. They reason about such things as whether or not people have free will, in what sense abstract objects can be said to exist, and how it is that brains are able to generate minds.
Epistemology looks at the roots of knowledge. Since our minds are just representations of the external world rather than perfect reflections of it, how can we know anything outside of our minds? Answering this question is the responsibility of epistemology. Like metaphysics, epistemology often overlaps with science or statistics, especially in the area of probability theory .
Epistemology is the study of knowledge itself. Epistemologists ask, for instance, what criteria must be satisfied for something we believe to count as something we know, and even what it means for a proposition to be true.
Logic is what kickstarted mathematics, and it continues to play an important role in many disciplines. Through probability theory, logic can be formalized in a more quantitative way, and these findings have been applied to the creation of more intelligent software programs . One day, studies in logic may lead to a design for a logical machine.
Logic is the attempt to codify the rules of rational thought. Logicians explore the structure of arguments that preserve truth or allow the optimal extraction of knowledge from evidence. Logic is one of the primary tools philosophers use in their inquiries; the precision of logic helps them to cope with the subtlety of philosophical problems and the often misleading nature of conversational language.
Presumably, the first philosophers/thinkers conducted their inquiries through reason and observation, rather than through tradition or revelation. These thinkers were the first philosophers. Although this picture is admittedly simplistic, the basic distinction has stuck: philosophy in its most primeval form is considered nothing less than secular inquiry itself.
However, there are now many forms of secular inquiry, so what distinguishes philosophy from them? In the beginning, there was perhaps no distinction. But, as civilization advanced, two parts of philosophy became so powerful in their own right that they separated off, claiming for themselves the status of independent disciplines.
Mathematics was the first, and split off very early in the game; science (or natural philosophy , as it was called even into the nineteenth century) was the second, splitting off much later. To modern philosophy is left whatever questions these two disciplines cannot solve (at least at a given time), including not only questions that are traditionally thought to be beyond the two (e.g. "What is the meaning of life?"), but also theoretical questions at their fringes (e.g. "Can natural selection operate at the species level?") and conceptual questions at their foundations (e.g. "What is science?"). Philosophy, of course, is best known for the first class of questions, which includes some of the most difficult and important questions there are, such as whether or not there is a god, how one can know anything at all, and how a person ought to live.
Philosophy is characterized as much by its methods as by its subject matter. Although philosophers deal with speculative issues that generally are not subject to investigation through experimental test, and philosophy therefore is more fully conceptual than science, philosophy properly done is not mere speculation.
Philosophers, just like scientists, formulate hypotheses which ultimately must answer to reason and evidence.
This is one of the things that differentiates philosophy from poetry and mysticism, despite its not being a science.
As you can tell, the different branches of philosophy overlap one another. A philosopher considering whether people ought to give excess wealth to the poor is asking an ethical question.
However, his investigations might lead him to wonder whether or not standards of right and wrong are built into the fabric of the universe, which is a metaphysical question.
If he claims that people are justified in taking a particular stance on that question, he is making at least a tacit epistemological claim.
At every step in his reasoning, he will want to employ logic to minimize the chance of being led into error by the great complexity and obscurity of the questions. He may very well look to some of the ethical, metaphysical, and epistemological writings of past philosophers to see how his brightest predecessors reasoned about the matter.
Philosophical inquiry is very demanding, suitable only for those who possess a fair degree of courage, humility, patience and discipline.
Doing philosophy requires courage, because one never knows what one will find at the end of a philosophical investigation. Since philosophy deals with the most fundamental and important issues of human existence, and since these are things that most people initially take for granted, genuine philosophical inquiry has great potential to unsettle or even to destroy one's deepest and most cherished beliefs.
Genuine philosophical inquiry also carries the risk of isolation among one's peers, both for the unorthodox views to which it may lead one, and for the simple unpopularity of critical thinking. A philosopher must be able to face both consequences.
Doing philosophy requires humility, because to do philosophy one must always keep firmly in mind how little one knows and how easy it is to fall into error. The very initiation of philosophical inquiry requires one to admit to oneself that one may not, after all, have all of the answers.
Doing philosophy requires both patience and discipline, because philosophical inquiry requires long hours of hard work. One must be prepared to commit huge amounts of time to laboring over issues both difficult and subtle.
People who avoid philosophy often complain that thinking about philosophical questions makes their heads hurt. This is unavoidable: if the answers come easily to you, your inquiries are almost certainly superficial. To do philosophy, one must commit oneself to pain. The only difference between one who chooses to shoulder the pain and one who does not is that the former recognizes that there is no shortcut to truth: every advance must be fought for tooth and nail.
These virtues are always imperfectly represented in any given person, which is why philosophy is best done in a community: the critical scrutiny of other thinkers provides an often necessary check on defects invisible to one's own eyes.
But if philosophy is so demanding, why should anyone even bother with it?
In the first place, there is great utility in philosophical inquiry, even for someone who does not innately care about the pursuit of truth. Consider a random handful of classic philosophical questions: What is the meaning of life? What is the nature of justice? What does it take for a belief to be justified? Is the world we see illusion or reality? The answers to such questions cannot help but to have a critical impact on how one ought to live one's life. Surely one should subject one's intuitive beliefs about these things to critical scrutiny, and work hard to come as close to truth as possible. Many philosophical questions are fundamental to human life; the only reason it often does not seem that way is that people simply assume they know what the answers to these questions are, without ever daring to make a serious inquiry.
This leads us to the second reason why one ought to do philosophy: to understand is ennobling. To go through life simply assuming one understands, is not. To be sure, one can perhaps be happy , at least in the same way as a well-fed dog is happy, if one manages to make it all the way through life without questioning anything.
Philosophical inquiry, on the other hand, can be disquieting, offering no guarantee that your hard work will yield the conclusions you hope for. Even worse, philosophy gives you no guarantee that your investigations will yield any conclusion at all: at the end of the day, you may find yourself not only minus the certainties with which you began, but also with nothing else to put in their place. If you do philosophy, you may well have to learn to live with perpetual uncertainty, while others, in their ignorance, happily profess perfect knowledge of things they do not understand at all.
But it is clear who has the better life: far better to understand, even if the main thing you understand is the limit of your own knowledge.
And a final reason for studying philosophy is that, for all of the pains and difficulties associated with it, the pursuit and acquisition of knowledge is enjoyable. To be sure, it is a refined enjoyment, and it is often hard to see from the outside what the appeal is.
But once you become immersed in it, it carries its own immediate rewards, and it is difficult to resist becoming addicted to it. Amongst may pleasures experienced, it is claimed by philosophers that, none of them hold a candle to the pleasures of the mind: the sheer pleasure of studying and investigating, and sometimes even understanding.
Nagel T. 1987. What Does It All Mean? Oxford: Oxford University Press. Warburton N. 2006. Philosophy: The Classics: Third edition . New York: Routledge.