Philosophy is the critical study of the most fundamental questions that humankind has been able to ask. Philosophy asks what is the nature of reality, and what is the reality of nature. Do our perceptions of reality match the actual reality that is "out there"? What does it mean to think, to have a mind? How can we know that other minds (i.e. other thinking beings) actually exist? Is there a difference between right and wrong, and if so, how can we prove this? How do we define rules that allow us to apply theoretical ideas of right and wrong in practical situations? What do we mean by the word "God"? Does God exist? Philosophy studies such concepts as existence, goodness, knowledge, and beauty. It asks "Is knowledge possible," and if so, "What is knowledge?" Philosophy is the critical, speculative or analytical study of any of these topics.
Philosophers frame problems in a logical manner then work towards a solution based on logical processes and reasoning, based on a critical reading and response to previous work in this area.
It proceeds by formulating problems carefully based on all known facts, and proceeding to logically offer solutions to them, giving arguments for the solutions, and engaging in a dialectical process to discern the truth; this is the method of science without so much dependence on physical experimentation. Just as science proceeds by observation, formulation of a hypothesis, and further experimentation, so philosophy proceeds by logical formulation of a problem, argument for a solution, and counter-argument. These processes proceed until a solution is reached. Philosophy has developed more slowly than other sciences because it is solely dependent on cognitive integrity, without a coherent paradigm determining what kinds of experimental evidence to accept. In fact, some have argued that the existence of such a paradigm is what caused the various natural sciences to diverge from philosophy, which was their original home (as reflected in the term Ph.D., for Doctor of Philosophy).
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Members of many societies around the world have considered the same questions, and built philosophic traditions based upon each other's works. Philosophy may be broadly divided into various realms based loosely on geography. The term "philosophy" alone in a Euro-American academic context usually refers to the philosophic traditions of Western civilization, sometimes also called Western philosophy. In the West, the term "eastern philosophy" broadly subsumes the philosophic traditions of Asia and the East.
To start with, "philosophy" meant simply "the love of wisdom." "Philo-" comes from the Greek word philein, meaning to love, and "-sophy" comes from the Greek sophia, or wisdom. "Philosopher" replaced the word "sophist" (from sophoi), which was used to describe "wise men," teachers of rhetoric, who were important in Athenian democracy. Some of the first sophists were what we would now call philosophers. In Plato's dialogues, Socrates often contrasts Philosophers (those who love wisdom) with Sophists, those Socrates characterised as dishonest for hiding their ignorance behind word play and flattery, and convincing others of what was baseless or untrue. "Sophist" to this day is a derogatory term for one who persuades rather than reasons.
The introduction of the term "philosophy" was ascribed to the Greek thinker Pythagoras (see Diogenes Laertius: "De vita et moribus philosophorum", I, 12; Cicero: "Tusculanae disputationes", V, 8-9). This ascription is certainly based on a passage in a lost work of Herakleides Pontikos, a disciple of Aristotle. It is considered to be part of the widespread Pythagoras legends of this time. In fact the term "philosophy" was not in use long before Plato.
The scope of philosophy was "all intellectual endeavors". It has long since come to mean the study of an especially abstract, nonexperimental intellectual endeavor. In fact, and as was mentioned at the opening of this article, philosophy is a notoriously difficult word to define and the question "What is philosophy?" is a vexed philosophical question. It is often observed that philosophers are unique in the extent to which they disagree about what their field even is.
Philosophy has many subdisciplines.
Axiology, metaphysics and epistemology are what many consider the three main branches from which all philosophical discourse stems. Logic is sometimes included as another main branch, sometimes as a separate science usually worked on by philosophers, sometimes just as a characteristically philosophical method applying to all the others.
It is a platitude (at least among people who write introductions to philosophy) that everybody has a philosophy, though they might not all realize it or be able to defend it. But at the same time the word "philosophy" as it is used by philosophers is nothing like what is meant by people who say "Here's my philosophy (of life, etc.): . . ." Such is the tension between pedagogy and scholarship.
If you're already interested in studying philosophy, your reason might be to improve the way you live or think somehow, or you simply wish to get acquainted with one of the most ancient areas of human thought. On the other hand, if you don't see what all the fuss is about, it might help to read the motivation to philosophize, which explains what motivates many people to "do philosophy," and get an introduction to philosophical method, which is important to understanding how philosophers think. It might also help to acquaint yourself with some considerations about just what philosophy is.
Those who are new to the subject of philosophy are advised to study logic, metaphysics, philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, epistemology, philosophy of science, ethics, and political philosophy as these are - arguably - the central disciplines.
Philosophy has applications. The most obvious applications are those in ethics--applied ethics in particular--and in political philosophy. The political philosophies of John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Karl Marx, John Stuart Mill, and John Rawls have shaped and been used to justify governments and their actions. Philosophy of education deserves special mention, as well; progressive education as championed by John Dewey has had a profound impact on educational practices in the United States in the twentieth century.
Other important, but less immediate applications can be found in epistemology, which might help one to regulate one's notions of what knowledge, evidence, and justified belief are. Philosophy of science discusses the underpinnings of the scientific method, among other topics sometimes useful to scientists. Aesthetics can help to interpret discussions of art. Even ontology, surely the most abstract and least practical-seeming branch of philosophy, has had important consequences for logic and computer science. In general, the various "philosophies of," such as philosophy of law, can provide workers in their respective fields with a deeper understanding of the theoretical or conceptual underpinnings of their fields.
Moreover, recently, there has been developing a burgeoning profession devoted to applying philosophy to the problems of ordinary life: philosophical counseling.
Originally the term "philosophy" was applied to all intellectual endeavour. Aristotle studied what would now be called biology, meterology, physics, and cosmology, alongside his metaphysics and ethics. Even in the eighteenth century physics and chemistry were still classified as "natural philosophy", that is, the philosophical study of nature. Today these latter subjects are referred to as science.
Psychology, economics, sociology, and linguistics were once the domain of philosophers insofar as they were studied at all, but now have only a weaker connection with the field. In the late twentieth century cognitive science and artificial intelligence could be seen as being forged in part out of "philosophy of mind."
Philosophy is done a priori. It does not and cannot rely on experiment, However, in some ways philosophy is close to science in its character and method; Analytic philosophy urges that philosophers should emulate the methods of natural science; Quine holds that philosophy just is a branch of natural science, simply the most abstract one. This approach, common nowadays, is called "philosophical naturalism"
Philosophers have always devoted some study to science and the scientific method, and to logic, and this involves, indirectly, studying the subject matters of those sciences. Whether philosophy also has its own, distinct subject matter is a contentious point. Traditionally ethics, aesthetics, and metaphysics have all been philosophical subjects, but many philosophers have, especially in the twentieth century, rejected these as futile questions (the Vienna Circle). Philosophy has also concerned itself with explaining the foundations and character knowledge in general (of science, or history), and in this case it would be a sort of "science of science" but some now hold that this cannot consist in any more than clarifying the arguments and claims of other sciences. This suggests that philosophy might be the study of meaning and reasoning generally; but some still would claim either that this is not a science, or that if it is it ought not to be pursued by philosophers.
All these views have something in common: whatever philosophy essentially is or is concerned with, it tends on the whole to proceed more "abstractly" than most (or most other) natural sciences. It does not depend as much on experience and experiment, and does not contribute as directly to technology. It clearly would be a mistake to identify philosophy with any one natural science; whether it can be identified with science very broadly construed is still an open question.
Nowadays religion plays a very marginal role in philosophy. The Empiricist tradition in modern philosophy often held that religious questions are beyond the scope of human knowledge, and many have claimed that religious language is literally meaningless: there are not even questions to be answered. Some philosophers have felt that these difficulties in evidence were irrelevant, and have argued for, against, or just about religious beliefs on moral or other grounds. Nonetheless, in the main stream of twentieth century philosophy there are very few philosophers who give serious consideration to religious questions.
The Philosophy of mathematics is a branch of philosophy of science; but in many ways mathematics has a special relationship to philosophy. This is because the study of logic is a central branch of philosophy, and mathematics is a paradigm example of logic. In the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries logic made great advances, and mathematics has been proven to be reducible to logic (at least, to first-order logic with some set theory). The use of formal, mathematical logic in philosophy now resembles the use of math in science, although it is not as frequent.
So philosophy, it seems, is a discipline that draws on knowledge that the average educated person has, and it does not make use of experimentation and careful observation, though it may interpret philosophical aspects of experiment and observation.
More positively, one might say that philosophy is a discipline that examines the meaning and justification of certain of our most basic, fundamental beliefs, according to a loose set of general methods. But what we might mean by the words "basic, fundamental beliefs"?
A belief is fundamental if it concerns those aspects of the universe which are most commonly found, which are found everywhere: the universal aspects of things. Philosophy studies, for example, what existence itself is. It also studies value--the goodness of things--in general. Surely in human life we find the relevance of value or goodness everywhere, not just moral goodness, though that might be very important, but even more generally, goodness in the sense of anything that is actually desirable, the sense, for example, in which an apple, a painting, and a person can all be good. (If indeed there is a single sense in which they are all called "good.")
Of course, physics and the other sciences study some very universal aspects of things; but it does so experimentally. Philosophy studies those aspects that can be studied without experimentation. Those are aspects of things that are very general indeed; to take yet another example, philosophers ask what physical objects as such are, as distinguished from properties of objects and relations between objects, and perhaps also as distinguished from minds or souls. Physicists proceed as though the notion of a physical body is quite clear and straightforward--which perhaps in the end it will found to be--but at any rate, physics assumes that, and then asks questions about how all physical bodies behave, and then does experiments to find out the answers.
"Science is what we know and philosophy is what we don't know." - Bertrand Russell
"What is your aim in philosophy? To show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle." - Ludwig Wittgenstein
"Philosophy, n. A route of many roads leading from nowhere to nothing." - Ambrose Bierce
altruism -- anti-realism -- applied ethics -- Aristotelianism -- Buddhist philosophy -- Confucianism -- Conscience -- consequentialism -- constructivism -- deconstruction-- determinism -- egoism -- empiricism -- epicureanism -- ethics -- existentialism -- feminism -- foundationalism -- foundation ontology -- hedonism -- historical materialism -- historicism -- idealism -- intuitionism -- Irrationalism and Aestheticism -- irrealism -- knowledge -- logical positivism -- materialism -- memetics -- nominalism -- ontology -- paternalism -- philosophical naturalism -- philosophical pessimism -- physicalism -- Platonism -- Populism and Nationalism -- pragmatism -- probabilism -- psychological egoism -- Queer studies -- rationalism -- realism -- reality enforcement -- relativism -- reliabilism -- stoicism -- subjectivism -- scholasticism -- sensationalism -- solipsism -- supertasks -- Taoism -- teleology -- traditionalism -- Transcendentalism -- utilitarianism -- Vedic -- vitalism
Critical Theory -- Existentialism -- American Pragmatism -- French materialism -- German idealism -- nativism -- philosophy of action
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