“The unexamined life is not worth living.”
While the above quote is perfect in conveying the essence of philosophy, it does not do the entire field justice. Philosophy can be defined in a variety of ways, but I want to focus on three primary definitions which I believe to be crucial to the understanding of what philosophy truly is.
Philosophy as a Body of Knowledge
Philosophy is a unique discipline in both its methods and in the nature and breadth of its subject matter. In short, it is the systematic and rational study of the fundamental nature of reality. But reality consists of all sorts of different things. Philosophy, then, pursues questions in every dimension of human life, and its techniques apply to problems in any field of study or endeavor. Philosophy seeks to establish standards of reasoning, evidence, and justification, and in so doing it concerns the analysis and evaluation of arguments, their assumptions, and their implications.
Philosophical evaluation of ideas and issues takes many forms, but focus is often placed on the meaning of an idea and on its justification, coherence, and relations to other ideas. Consider knowledge. What is its nature and extent? Must we always have evidence in order to know something? What can we know about the thoughts and feelings of others, or about the future? What kind of knowledge, if any, is fundamental? Is knowledge even possible? Similar kinds of questions arise concerning art, morality, religion, science, and so much more. Philosophy explores all of them.
Philosophy, however divided it may be, nevertheless has a collective body of knowledge that has been arrived at via logical analysis and reasoned evaluation. But philosophy is so much more than a body of knowledge.
Philosophy as a Way of Thinking
Philosophy, as previously noted, is much richer than a mere collection of reasoned conclusions. Philosophy is also a way of thinking, a way of critically engaging ideas. Philosophy is a process, the process of using the methods and tools of rational inquiry to arrive at sound conclusions. Formulating and developing arguments, objections, defeaters, analyses, evaluations of assumptions and implications, and so much more are but a mere glimpse into the conception of philosophy as a process, as a way of thinking.
Philosophy as Dispositional
Philosophy comes from the root words “philo” and “sophia”, meaning love and wisdom respectively. Thus, philosophy can be defined in a third way: the love of wisdom.
But this definition transcends a mere love for wisdom or knowledge. This dispositional definition regards philosophy as the cultivation of intellectual virtues and dispositions. Philosophy, so construed, concerns developing the character and personality of a critical thinker and a rational human being.
The intellectual virtues include:
Intellectual Humility: Having the humility to admit when you do not know something or are insufficiently informed on a certain topic, and acknowledging that there are others who have studied the exact same stuff in more depth than you have but that differ in their conclusions.
Intellectual Courage: Having the courage to challenge both your own and others’ beliefs, including the ingrained assumptions most people take for granted. This also includes having the courage to question authority and demand rigorous standards of evidence and/or reasoning both for yourself and others.
Intellectual Perseverance: Merely reading one philosophical or apologetic book does not mean your inquiry has ended. Intellectual perseverance refers to one’s disposition not to stop at one argument, but rather to pursue that argument further by reading different perspectives on the issue, including objections to the argument in question. Those with this virtue will persevere beyond a single perspective in hopes of finding the truth behind the issue.
Skepticism: Questioning claims, demanding empirical evidence or philosophical reasoning, and realizing no idea is sacrosanct or immune to criticism is essential to this intellectual virtue.
Open-mindedness: This is one’s ability to consider alternative viewpoints without preconceived biases or prejudices.
Rationality: Being rational consists of valuing reason, logic, and evidence above all else. It includes having justified beliefs based upon the best available reasons, and it also involves following the evidence wherever it leads.
Intellectual Charity: Intellectual charity involves construing opposing viewpoints in the most charitable way possible; that is, it is representing their claims and arguments correctly without any straw-manning.
Branches of Philosophy
The broadest branches of philosophy are most commonly taken to be logic, ethics, metaphysics, and epistemology. What follows is a brief sketch of each.
Logic is concerned with the structure of our reasoning. It helps us assess how well our premises support our conclusions and to see what we are committed to accepting when we take a view. Logic also helps us to discover assumptions we did not know we were making, and to formulate the minimum claims we must establish if we are to prove (or inductively support) our point.
Ethics is the branch of philosophy dedicated to the study of morality; the nature and meaning of moral values (e.g. their truth value), the nature of morality and its relation to human action, what kinds of entities can be considered moral agents or patients, the nature of dignity and intrinsic moral worth, specific moral acts (intentions, moral objects/means, circumstances, effects/consequences), moral systems, obligations, and various concepts (right and wrong, good and evil, just and unjust, virtue and vice, etc).
Metaphysics seeks basic criteria for determining what sorts of things are real. Are there mental, physical, and abstract things (such as numbers), for instance, or is there just the physical and the spiritual, or merely matter and energy? Are persons highly complex physical systems, or do they have properties not reducible to anything physical? Does time dynamically pass, or is it static and unchanging? Metaphysics is, in essence, a large field of philosophy dedicated to studying existence, the nature of reality, the nature of the mind and its relation to the brain, cause and effect, abstract objects, religion, language, and more. Ontology is a subcategory of metaphysics that deals with the nature of being, that which exists in reality, what kinds or categories of entities exist, the relationships between those entities, and the nature or essence of that which exists
Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that deals with knowledge; the nature of knowledge, the means by which we acquire knowledge, whether knowledge is even possible, justification, beliefs (including affirmation of propositions, intentions, motives, speculations, imaginations, abstractions, etc), the sources of knowledge (experience, reason, intuition, etc), and knowledge criteria.
Sub-branches of Philosophy
Philosophy of Mind: This sub-branch has emerged from metaphysical concerns with the mind and mental phenomena. The philosophy of mind addresses not only the possible relations of the mental to the physical (viz. to neurophysiological goings-on in the brain), but the many concepts having an essential mental element: belief, desire, emotion, feeling, sensation, passion, will, personality, and others.
Philosophy of Religion: This sub-branch seeks to understand the concept of God, including certain attributes predicable of God. Both metaphysics and epistemology have sought to assess the various grounds people have offered to justify believing in God, and the philosophy of religion explores such grounds in depth.
Philosophy of Science: Philosophy of science clarifies both the quest for scientific knowledge and the results yielded by that quest. It explores the nature of scientific evidence, along with scientific laws, explanations, and theories. It also concerns the relations that hold between the various branches of science and whether or not the unobservable posits of our best scientific theories exist.
Philosophy of Language: This sub-branch deals with the nature of meaning, the relations between words and things, the various theories of language learning, and the distinction between literal and figurative uses of language.
In the next post, I will examine the value of studying and knowing about philosophy. I hope to see you there!