Philosophy • What is Philosophy Anyway?


ThinkerWhat is Philosophy?
(Check here for some Internet resources about this question.)

Unlike most academic disciplines, the question “What is Philosophy?” is a question within the discipline itself. That is, it’s a philosophical question. All sorts of answers have been offered for the question, and there are links to some of them below.

Philosophy, in general and in very broad strokes, is the coming together of two things. The first is a certain set of
questions, the second is a method, an art really, of questioning.

First, Philosophy is a set of questions, questions that Western philosophers have been dealing with for well over 2,500 years. These questions are generally considered the areas, or subject matter, of philosophy. These include:

  • What is reality really like? What is it made up of; does it include things like God, or minds, or even other people; is reality like what it appears to be? This area of philosophy is generally called Metaphysics.
  • What is knowledge, as opposed to mere belief? How do we know things? How can we know anything; what can be known; can we know anything we don’t actually experience? This area of philosophy is generally called Epistemology.
  • What is the good life for a human being? What has real value; how do we know right from wrong (or can we, or does it matter); what sort of life is the best sort of life? This area of philosophy is generally called Ethics.
  • How can we best live together? What is the best form of government; what is the purpose of a community, or of a nation; what does it mean for a government to be legitimate? This area of philosophy is generally called Political and Social Philosophy.
  • What is beauty, and what does that mean? Is it only ‘in the eye of the beholder’ or is there something about a work of art, or of music, or of architecture, that makes it beautiful; if so, where would such real beauty be located? This area of philosophy is generally called Aesthetics.
  • How does rationality work? What makes a good argument good, and a bad argument bad; what are the rules of clear and correct reasoning; what makes a reason for something a good reason? What are the formal rules for this, and what can these rules tell us? This area of philosophy is generally called Logic.

These are the recurring types of questions that Philosophy has been dealing with for a long time. But these questions are not enough for even a rough definition. After all, these questions have all been powerfully addressed in a variety of ways—ways like drama, literature, art, science, poetry, religion and music. What is distinctive about how Philosophy deals with these questions?

That’s the second part of the definition. Philosophy is also an Art of Questioning, a method, or a collection of methods, that are specific to Philosophy. This method has several characteristics:
It is very rigorous. Philosophy tries very hard not to assume anything, or to leave out any questions, or to decide anything in advance of investigation.

  • It accepts no authority, Philosophy acknowledges no source of truth beyond human experience and careful reflection on that experience.
  • It is intentionally and carefully rational. This means at least two things. First, there must be reasons for any claims that are made. Second, these reasons must be good  reasons, they must be relevant, logical, and public—that is, available to anyone.
  • It is rigorously (self) critical. Nothing is taken for granted, everything is up for discussion, and any position can be challenged.

This method can be applied to other questions than the traditional ones. So, there are such field of study as Philosophy of Mathematics, Philosophy of Science, and so on. In fact, The Philosophy Documentation Center, an academic group, lists over two hundred specialties and sub-specialties in the field of Philosophy.

So, one way to define Philosophy is to look at it as a set of questions and an art of questioning. That gives some hints of what we about. But the best way to understand what Philosophy is is to study it and to do it. To do this is to join the great conversation about Value, Knowledge, Reality and Society that has helped shape our civilization, and our present world.



Some Internet Resources about this Subject


Here is a short YouTube Video on the question.

There are scores of Websites and Blogs that deal with this question. (See the Philosophy Websites, Links and Podcasts from the Web link for more.) For example, some interesting responses to "What is Philosophy?" can be found on philosophy blogs like this one, and on University departmental websites like this one and this one.


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Philosophy courses are surveys of humanity’s attempt to answer the questions of where do we come from, how we should live, and where we are going. They also help develop rational thought and critical thinking.

James Leggett