What is Philosophy?

What is philosophy? The word philosophy has meant different things to different people. To the ancient Greeks it meant “love of wisdom”. Today, someone might tell you about their general philosophy of life (Live and let live is my personal philosophy). This website is about the type of philosophy started by Socrates, Plato and Aristotle in Athens over 2000 years ago and their descendants throughout history. What exactly ties all these people together? The exact answer to this question is still a matter of debate but the following short readings and links will point you in the right direction.

What is philosophy?

Excerpt from What Does It All Mean?: A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy by Thomas Nagel:

The main concern of philosophy is to question and understand very common ideas that all of us use every day without thinking about them. A historian may ask what happened at some time in the past, but a philosopher will ask, “What is time?” A mathematician may investigate the relations among numbers, but a philosopher will ask, “What is a number?” A physicist will ask what atoms are made of or what explains gravity, but a philosopher will ask how we can know there is anything outside of our own minds. A psychologist may investigate how children learn a language, but a philosopher will ask, “What makes a word mean anything?” Anyone can ask whether it’s wrong to sneak into a movie without paying, but a philosopher will ask, “What makes an action right or wrong?”

We couldn’t get along in life without taking the ideas of time, number, knowledge, language, right and wrong for granted most of the time; but in philosophy we investigate those things themselves. The aim is to push our understanding of the world and ourselves a bit deeper. Obviously it isn’t easy. The more basic the ideas you are trying to investigate, the fewer tools you have to work with. There isn’t much you can assume or take for granted. So philosophy is a somewhat dizzying activity, and few of its results go unchallenged for long.

Excerpt from Think: A Compelling Introduction to Philosophy by Simon Blackburn:

The word `philosophy’ carries unfortunate connotations: impractical, unworldly, weird. I suspect that all philosophers and philosophy students share that moment of silent embarrassment when someone innocently asks us what we do. I would prefer to introduce myself as doing conceptual engineering. For just as the engineer studies the structure of material things, so the philosopher studies the structure of thought. Understanding the structure involves seeing how parts function and how they interconnect. It means knowing what would happen for better or worse if changes were made. This is what we aim at when we investigate the structures that shape our view of the world. Our concepts or ideas form the mental housing in which we live. We may end up proud of the structures we have built. Or we may believe that they need dismantling and starting afresh. But first, we have to know what they are.

Additional Resources:

Why study philosophy?

Excerpt from Philosophy: The Basics by Nigel Warburton:

One important reason for studying philosophy is that it deals with fundamental questions about the meaning of our existence. Most of us at some time in our lives ask ourselves basic philosophical questions. Why are we here? Is there any proof that God exists? Is there any purpose to our lives? What makes anything right or wrong? Could we ever be justified in breaking the law? Could our lives be just a dream? Is mind different from body, or are we simply physical beings? How does science progress? Do animals have rights? What is art? And so on.

Most people who study philosophy believe that it is important that each of us examines such questions. Some even argue that an unexamined life is not worth living. To carry on a routine existence without ever examining the principles on which it is based may be like driving a car which has never been serviced. You may be justified in trusting the brakes, the steering, the engine, since they have always worked well enough up until now; but you may be completely unjustified in this trust: the brake pads may be faulty and fail you when you most need them. Similarly the principles on which your life is based may be entirely sound, but until you’ve examined them, you can’t be certain of this.

However, even if you do not seriously doubt the soundness of the assumptions on which your life is based, you may be impoverishing your life by not exercising your power of thought. Many people find it either too much of an effort or too disturbing to ask themselves such fundamental questions: they may be happy and comfortable with their prejudices. But others have a strong desire to find answers to challenging philosophical questions.

Additional Resources:

How do I get started?

This website aims to provide everything you need to get started studying philosophy. The best way to get started is to choose a topic or question you find interesting and dive straight in. This websites divides the branches of philosophy into five main groups:

Epistemology – What’s the difference between knowing and believing? How do we acquire knowledge? Is it possible to know anything at all? These questions belong to the field of epistemology; the study of knowledge.

Metaphysics – Does God exist? Is free will an illusion? Are our thoughts and emotions just a series of chemical reactions? These questions belong to the field of metaphysics; the study of being, existence, and reality.

Ethics – What does it mean to live a good life? Is morality objective or purely subjective? Is it immoral to eat meat? These questions belong to the field of ethics (also known as moral philosophy); the study of right and wrong.

Political Philosophy – Do we have a duty to obey the law? How much power should the government have? Is capitalism exploitative? These questions belong to the field of political philosophy; the study of how society should be organized.

Aesthetics – What is beauty? What makes something a piece of art? Is beauty in the eye of the beholder? These questions belong to the field of aesthetics; the study of art and beauty.

Further Reading

The following books serve as a good general introduction to philosophy:

If you would like to start reading some classic works of philosophy, the best way to get started is with Plato’s The Trial and Death of Socrates.

And for more introductory philosophy resources and reading lists, check out this collection of Resources and Reading Lists.