Home Philosophy The handy philosophy answer book
What is philosophy?
Philosophy is the activity of seeking wisdom. In Greek, which was the first language of Western philosophy, "philosophy" means love of wisdom. One loves wisdom by trying to figure out what it is. There are many ways human beings seek wisdom, including art, religion, and lived experience. Philosophy is distinct because it seeks wisdom through the systematic use of reason.
Philosophers focus on ideas, the meaning of ideas, and beliefs by analyzing them. They break them down into their parts and then build them back up again and combine them in new ways. In addition to analysis, philosophers reflect on what goes on in the mind and the world; they seek wisdom through intuitions of whole structures of thought or experience.
When did philosophy begin?
In the West, the scientific aspect of philosophy, or abstract general thought about the natural and human worlds, began in ancient Greece in the seventh century b.c.e., with inquiry about the earth and the cosmos by the so-called Pre-Socratic philosophers, many of whom continued to flourish in Socrates' time. Between the Pre-Socratics and Socrates, the Sophists were the first to focus on the human world, although their methods were adversarial and perhaps unethical. They were paid for their arguments, without concern about their truth or the justice of what they were arguing for. With Socrates' activities in the fifth century b.c.e., and his student Plato's dramatization of Socrates' style of discourse in written dialogues in the fourth century b.c.e., the true humanistic side of philosophy was founded. The two big subjects of the natural world and the human world endured as the concerns of philosophers, well after the physical and social sciences branched out on their own. These subjects are also perennial in ordinary life.
Of what use is philosophy?
Philosophy is the only way to come close to answers to important questions that no amount of observation can resolve. For example, philosophy strives to answer questions such as: "What is the right thing to do if there are 10 people in a lifeboat that can only hold six safely?" "What is the meaning of life?" "Can we prove that God does or does not exist?"
How is philosophy different from other intellectual pursuits?
Generally, the kind of wisdom philosophers love consists of answers to questions, which have to be worked out in the mind instead of discovered through microscopes, telescopes, surveys, or measurement. For example, a sociologist will study what people believe, but a philosopher will ask if those beliefs are true or justified by what is true.
Because philosophical questions cannot be answered with facts, their answers are largely a matter of opinion. But the opinions are special, because reasons are always given for them. Still—and this is what some people find so enjoyable about philosophy—much of philosophical activity is a conversation or dialogue between and among philosophers. And they almost never agree!
Why is philosophy important?
Philosophical study of the natural world gave rise to the physical sciences of our day: physics, astronomy, geology, biology, and chemistry. Although other cultures (for example, China), have had distinctive sciences and technology, Western technology, as a product of Western science, has had global predominance in the modern period.
Philosophical study of the human world gave rise to the social sciences of psychology, history, political science, sociology, and anthropology, as well as linguistics and cognitive science. Of course, many theoretical ideas about the world remain in philosophy as metaphysics, and many human questions are still only considered in philosophy, insofar as it is part of the humanities. These human questions are of universal interest across cultures and in ordinary, practical, daily life.
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