What is philosophy and why bother with it?
What is wanted is not the will to believe, but the will to find out, which is the exact opposite.
Bertrand Russell, "Skeptical Essays"

There will be no end to the troubles of states, or of humanity itself, till philosophers become kings in this world, or till those we now call kings and rulers really and truly become philosophers, and political power and philosophy thus come into the same hands.

What is Philosophy?

The term philosophy comes from the Greek for 'love of wisdom,' derived from the Greek philos, meaning 'love' and sophia, meaning 'wisdom' and it seems to be the case that philosophy is generally pursued with a love, quite often a passion, for wisdom and understanding. As you might expect, philosophy classes are usually popular with first year students at university because many of them have not yet lost their curiosity about the questions that philosophy asks. Indeed, they may also find that the lecturer still has a passion for wisdom that they, the first year students, can relate to.

Of course, learning about philosophy and philosophers is one thing, 'doing' philosophy is quite another, that is the exercise of 'getting wisdom!' Characteristic of philosophy is this effort to 'find out' more about a topic in the sense that it involves you in the attempt to expand or exercise wisdom.

But passion is not enough

Although the passion for wisdom is crucial, it is not enough, especially when you may never reach conclusive answers. Philosophy also requires discipline. Anyone can go around asserting all sorts of ideas, some of which may be true and some of which may be completely off-the-wall, and you may wonder vaguely about the BIG questions without ever getting closer to an answer. Philosophers have the discipline to fully justify their own ideas and deeply question the ideas of others. Part of doing philosophy is learning techniques for asking questions, evaluating the answers and framing your own arguments.

Some of the characteristics of questions that may be classed as philosophical are:

  • they are very fundamental questions, the answers to which apply generally and deeply affect our understanding of ourselves and the world;
  • once Science is able to answer a question, it is no longer a philosophical question;
  • there may be no direct evidence that the answer is correct and you may not even be able to decide what sort of evidence is relevant;
  • the question must be logical, that is, it must obey accepted rules of logic, as must the answer.

The above critical type philosophical questions are not asked to destroy truth or belief, but are an attempt to ensure that our beliefs have a solid foundation of truth and are logical, the ultimate purpose of this exercise being to reach a better, more truthful, understanding of reality. This means that, if you set out to question someone else's idea of reality, for example, you not only need to be rigourous in your criticism—just saying, "You're wrong!" won't change any minds and neither will the bald assertion, "This is the case!"

Some philosophical positions, for example Zeno's Paradoxes, seem to be obviously wrong and contradicted by common sense, but philosophers have tried for thousands of years to refute them, without conspicuous success.

Is philosophy difficult?

There are no easy answers in philosophy and, like most things, if you are to gain anything from philosophy—that is, from doing philosophy—you will need to put in some effort. What you gain from it will be in direct proportion to what you put in. Doing philosophy is to increase your understanding of the world, all that exists, yourself and your values. Hey! You've been doing it all your life. Right?

Types of philosophy

Philosophy is generally segmented into logic, metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and the history of philosophy, each of which I have outlined below.

By providing the tools for assessing how well the premises of an argument support the conclusions, logic gives philosophers a way of distinguishing between good and poor reasoning. It also helps them to see what taking a point of view or adopting a belief commits them to as well as helping to avoid making assertions that are not supported by reason.

What is real? And what is our basis for saying that it is real? This is the business of metaphysics, which some philosophers claim is not philosophy at all because metaphysics asks questions that can never be answered. Big questions such as: What is time? Why is the universe here? What is life? are all metaphysical questions.

This sub-branch concerns the nature and scope of knowledge, that is, Does knowledge exist? Can we have knowledge? What does it mean to know the truth and what is truth? How do we justify our beliefs?

Ethics philosophises about moral concepts, and asks such questions as: What are our moral obligations to others? How can moral disagreements be rationally settled? What rights must a just society accord its citizens? What constitutes a valid excuse for wrong-doing?

Above are the core areas of philosophy, many sub-branches of philosophy have grown from these.

Philosophy of Mind concerns with the mind and mental phenomena such as belief, desire, emotion, feeling, sensation, passion, will, personality, and others. Also, types of actions and the reasons for them.

Philosophy of Religion, concerning the concept of God, and His attributes such as being all-knowing, all-powerful, and evil could be allowed by a God who is wholly good.

Philosophy of Science is mainly generated by epistemology, clarifying both the quest for scientific knowledge and the results yielded by that quest. Philosophy of science has a growing number of subdivisions such as: philosophy of physics (and modern physics), biology, psychology, economics, and other sciences.

Philosophy of Art (Aesthetics) is one of the oldest sub-branches and concerns the nature of art, including performing arts and painting, sculpture, and literature and how artistic creations are to be interpreted and evaluated in relation to one another, natural beauty, morality, religion, science, and other aspects of human life.

Philosophy of Language, has close ties to epistemology and metaphysics dealing with a wide range of questions about language such as meaning, the relations between words and things, various theories of language learning, and the distinction between literal and figurative uses of language.

It being the nature of philosophy to question, it is natural that further sub-branches will continue to develop as new areas of inquiry open up or develop. Some of this list have been around for a long time such as Inductive Logic, Philosophy of Logic, Philosophy of History, Philosophy of Mathematics, and others are more recent: Philosophy of Medicine, Philosophy of Education, Philosophy of Feminism, Philosophy of Linguistics, Philosophy of Criticism, Philosophy of Culture, and Philosophy of Film.

Obviously there will be varying degrees of overlap between the different branches and sub-branches of philosophy.

Why bother with philosophy?

Doing philosophy helps you to think, not just about the big questions but about every aspect of your life. And, as Plato said about 2,400 years ago:

There will be no end to the troubles of states, or of humanity itself, till philosophers become kings in this world, or till those we now call kings and rulers really and truly become philosophers, and political power and philosophy thus come into the same hands.


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