What is Philosophy?
September 21, 2019•1,026 words
I was speaking with a relative of mine back in August about what I'm studying at college when the conversation took an unexpected turn: he had never heard of the word "philosophy." I probably shouldn't have been all that surprised because he has about a 5th grade education, and only learned English through his time in the armed forces when he was much younger. Despite this, I was still completely surprised and caught without a satisfying answer because it seems like everyone I've ever met has at least a preconceived intuitive idea of what philosophy is. My relative represented the first time in my life that I could explain one of my passions in a way that does it justice, to someone that doesn't have any "corrupting" pre-existing notions of what philosophy is. My mouth came up with some ramblings about how philosophy is the study of how different people think about the world, which isn't entirely inaccurate, but doesn't capture the complexity and rigor of the subject.
For a more formal idea of what philosophy is, we need to identify its core areas. They can often seem completely unrelated to each other, but loosely explained, the core areas of philosophy are:
Aesthetics--the study of the nature of art and beauty
Logic--the study of rigorous reasoning
Ethics--the study of what is good and bad
Metaphysics--the study of being, existence, what is possible, and the nature of reality
Epistemology--the study of the limitations and nature of knowledge
To motivate a more intuitive feeling for these areas, I've listed below a few philosophical questions and then included the relevant fields in parentheses. There are more specialized fields, such as political philosophy, the philosophy of mathematics, the philosophy of science, or (my personal favorite piece of terminology) metametaphysics, and they can seem quite far removed from our 5 core areas, but they are ultimately combinations of our original core areas.
What obligations do we have to future generations? (Ethics, Metaphysics)
Does the external world exist? (Epistemology)
What is the right thing to do in X situation? (Ethics)
How should we judge art? (Aesthetics)
What does it mean to have free will, and do we have it? (Metaphysics)
What is the nature of mathematical objects? (Metaphysics, Epistemology)
What should be the purpose of art? (Ethics, Aesthetics)
Why is science as a method successful, and what are its limitations? (Epistemology, Metaphysics)
What makes something beautiful? (Aesthetics)
Is it reasonable to fear one's own death? (Metaphysics)
Hopefully you now understand the essence of these areas of philosophy and why the definition I gave my relative isn't quite right. I'm still not sure how I would capture philosophy in a simple definition, but that's one of the reasons I started this blog--to better acquaint myself (and others) with the nature of philosophy.
Still, we need to answer an important question: why should we spend our time studying this? Isn't it just some vague ramblings and opinions, none of which can ever be proven, and are entirely dependent on one's definitions? Even if there are "correct" answers, how can we arrive at those conclusions? What practical effect does philosophy have in the real world? I obviously can't answer all of these questions now, but in an effort to satisfy some of these issues, I have something to say. Philosophy is an incredibly rigorous subject (my class on metaethics uses the same symbolic logic to reach conclusions that my rigorous proof-based math classes do), and an important one as well. Western democracy was literally born from the thought experiments of philosophers. Science? Philosophers established the scientific method and understood its limits. Do you believe that we need to preserve the Earth for future generations? As it turns out, it's quite hard to have a logical foundation for this claim without believing that you can affect people that don't yet exist. Even answering seemingly simple questions like "what makes someone a friend?" is intrinsically tied to living a good life and can lead us to some quite insightful ideas if our views are challenged with the right questions. My hope is that we'll all stop having conversations like these:
*I'm in my dentist's office and lay my book, "Ethics in the Real World" on the table as I take a seat. My dentist comes over and starts chatting with me.
Dentist: "Oh! Ethics? Are you a business major?"
Me: "Oh, no--I'm actually studying philosophy and--"
Dentist: "Philosophy? So you're studying one of those 'recreational subjects.'"
*Walking out of a taco shop with my pal, "A"
Me: "I feel like philosophy doesn't get much respect as an academic subject, at least not as much as, say, physics or math."
A: "Well, I think it's not that people don't respect philosophy as a whole. Those people that don't respect it are probably talking about ethics."
I've had these types of conversations throughout this whole year, and both challenging the underlying thought that at least some parts of philosophy aren't rigorous or academic, and that philosophy is central to our lives
is one of my chief objectives. I plan to do this through a weekly (fingers crossed) blog post about some philosophical topic that I think will capture your interest and I can explain deeply and in an engaging way. This means that for the first few long posts, I'll write about something I covered in one of the philosophy classes I've taken, so expect a lot of applied ethics to start off with (it always brings out some passionate opinions). In between these longer posts will be shorter ramblings about either something I think is important or links to something I think is interesting and worth sharing.
That about wraps it up for this post. Philosophy is a necessary part of the human experience. I would say, then, that it's worth doing correctly for us to truly understand ourselves and the world we find ourselves in. I hope that you'll stick around for next week's post, where I'll be tackling over 2000 years of perspectives surrounding a question that we've probably thought about at least once: is it reasonable to fear your own death?