What is Philosophy?

Quite literally the term ‘philosophy’ derives from the Greek philosophos means ‘love of knowledge’. Defined broadly, philosophy is an activity people undertake when they seek to understand fundamental truths about themselves, the world in which they live and their relationships to the world and to each other.

This is only one definition and there are many others, as even philosophers between themselves cannot agree on what philosophy is: a search for the wisdom of life; an attempt to understand the universe as a whole; an examination of human kind’s moral responsibilities and social obligations; an effort to fathom the divine intentions and our place with reference to them; an effort to ground the enterprise of natural science; a rigorous examination of the origin, extent, and validity of people’s ideas; an exploration of the place of will or consciousness in the universe; an examination of the values of truth, goodness, and beauty; an effort to codify the rules of human thought in order to promote rationality and the extension of clear thinking, or simply engaging in asking, answering, and arguing to gain answers to life’s most basic questions. And even these do not exhaust the meanings that have been attached to the philosophical enterprise, but give some idea of its extreme complexity and multi-facetedness.

What this confusion does illustrate is a pertinent issue relating to philosophy, namely that it aims to leave nothing unquestioned, even the nature of its very existence. It is difficult to determine whether any common element can be found and whether any core meaning can be discovered that could serve as a universal and all-inclusive definition. Vague and indefinite as the above interpretations are, they do suggest two important facts about philosophizing: that it is a reflective, activity and that it has no explicitly designated subject matter of its own but is a method or type of mental operation that can take any area or subject matter or type of experience as its object. Thus, although there are a few single-term divisions of philosophy such as logic, ethics, epistemology (the theory of knowledge), or metaphysics (theory of the nature of Being) its divisions are often best expressed by phrases that contain the word ‘of’. Thus we have philosophy of nature, philosophy of mind, philosophy of law, and philosophy of art.

Philosophy’s goal is broad: whereas other fields study particular kinds of things, philosophy asks how they all fit together. For example biological sciences study the body, and psychologists study the mind, but in order to discuss how the mind relates to the body we need philosophy. Furthermore philosophy also ponders whether we can consider any belief we hold to be ‘knowledge’ and whether it is possible to have any ‘knowledge’ at all. Such arguments are very abstract, but this is what enables philosophy to cover so many difference fields at once.

On a more practical level, unlike other disciplines, in order to study philosophy you also need to do it. For instance to study poetry you do not need to be a poet, yet to study philosophy you have to engage in philosophical argument, not perhaps reaching the level of great thinkers of the past, but developing some of the same skills as them. Whilst doing this, it is not simply enough to express one’s views but one must try to convince others. It is also of note that the history of philosophy has a living significance, which the history of science does not enjoy. In science, the present confronts the past as truth confronts error; thus, for science, the past is important only out of historical interest. In philosophy it is different. Philosophical systems are never definitively proved false; they are simply discarded or put aside for future use. And this means that the history of philosophy consists not simply of dead museum pieces but of ever-living classic works comprising a permanent repository of ideas, doctrines, and arguments and a continuing source of philosophical inspiration to those in any succeeding age. It is for this reason that any attempt to separate philosophizing from the history of philosophy an unnecessary impoverishment of its rich natural resources.

Finally, why is philosophy important? Some people choose to characterise philosophy as something with no relevance to modern life; they think it a subject to be studied from an armchair purely for intellectual satisfaction. Intellectual satisfaction is no small justification in itself but this is nevertheless a serious misrepresentation of the subject. Many debates that we have as a part of society have, as their basis, underlying assumptions amenable to philosophical enquiry. Every domain of human experience raises questions to which its techniques and theories apply, and its methods may be used in the study of any subject or the pursuit of any vocation. Philosophy is in a sense inescapable: life confronts every thoughtful person with some philosophical questions, and nearly everyone is guided by philosophical assumptions, even if unconsciously.

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