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What is Philosophy?

Updated on November 20, 2009

What is Philosophy?

The word itself comes from the Greek and means love of wisdom. In this sense philosophy is the study of the principles which underlie all knowledge. Throughout the ages, philosophers have asked a great many different questions. The oldest philosophical question is 'What is there?' or 'What exists?' Philosophers have answered this question in their own particular way, which is different from that of the scientist. All the different groups of philosophers have tried to convince us of their claims by long and often complicated arguments, which form the backbone of their philosophies.

The philosophers who attempt to answer the question 'What is there?' do not try to mention every single thing there is in the universe, or to say how many single things there are. On the contrary, they usually try to divide all the many things there are into one or two large groups. For example, instead of saying there are shoes and ships and stones the philosopher says there are material objects.

One who says there is nothing but material objects in the universe is a materialist. He is also called a monist (from the Greek word for one), for he says that all the things that exist are of one kind.

Many philosophers have not been materialists. They have said that thoughts and sensations (like pain) exist, and occur in minds or souls — which are not material objects. Philosophers who say there are both material objects and minds, which are quite distinct kinds of thing (and this is perhaps the view of most people and might be called the commonsense view), are called dualists.

Idealists, on the other hand, say that there are only minds in the universe. Many philosophers have claimed that the universe contains one very perfect mind, that of God. One set of philosophers, known as sceptics, have said that the commonsense view may be right but we have no way of knowing it is.

The question 'How do you know?' raises another important question: 'What is knowledge and when can we be sure that we know something?' Many philosophers have felt that there must be limits on what human beings can ever know. For instance, some claim that we may believe that there is a God, but we can never know that there is. Apart from 'How do you know?' we very often need to ask the philosopher 'What exactly do you mean?' It is not easy to say exactly what we mean by words like God, mind and space.

One branch of philosophy is particularly concerned with the meaning of 'value' words like good and bad, and is called ethics. Other branches of philosophy which deal in part with value words are political philosophy and aesthetics. The first deals, among other topics, with words like justice and freedom which crop up frequently in the discussion of politics. Aesthetics is the philosophy of art, and deals with words like beauty and good as applied to art.

The Science of Reasoning

Finally, there is logic, which may be called the study of reasoning. This can be dealt with quite separately from the rest of philosophy, but a knowledge of logic is necessary if we are to understand and be able to criticise philosophical arguments. Many philosophers claim that they know God exists because they have proved His existence. That is, they have started with a set of statements known to be true, and said that a certain conclusion must be true if these statements (known as premises) are true. The set of premises plus the conclusion form the proof. Logic is partly a study of different kinds of proof.

At this stage you might think that the answer to the question 'What exists?' should be left to the scientists. Surely they know what the world contains? But it is doubtful whether any but the earliest claims put forward by philosophers can be shown to be false by scientific experiment. To discuss 'What exists?' as philosophers we must stand 'outside' science. The findings of scientists are among the facts that philosophers consider.

In the history of philosophy several questions, like 'What are all things made of?' have split off from philosophy to be tackled by experiment in science. But the central questions in philosophy still remain obstinately outside the scientist's sphere.

Greek Philosophy

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