Introduction to Philosophy/What is Philosophy!?

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Definition & Meaning[edit]

Philosophy is a broad field of knowledge in which the definition of knowledge itself is one of the subjects investigated. It spans the nature of the universe, the mind, and the body; the relationships between all three, and between people. Philosophy is a field of inquiry – the pursuit of wisdom; the predecessor and complement of science, developing the issues which underly science and pondering those questions which are beyond the scope of science.

Using Philosophy[edit]

The essence of philosophy is the study and development of fundamental ideas and methods that are not adequately addressed in specialized empirical disciplines, such as physics or history. As such, philosophy provides the foundations upon which all belief structures and fields of knowledge are built. It is responsible for the definitions of, and the approaches used to develop the theories of, such diverse fields as religion, language, science, law, psychology, mathematics, and politics. It also examines and develops its own structure and procedures, and when it does so is called metaphilosophy: the philosophy of philosophy.

Philosophy has a rich literary heritage, including the writings and teachings of profound thinkers from many cultures throughout history. Philosophers seek to understand the principles that underlie all knowledge and being. For this purpose, they develop methods of thinking, including logic, introspection, and meditation. Applying these methods, they investigate the most fundamental questions, such as "What is the nature of the universe?" (metaphysics), "What do we know, and how do we know it?" (epistemology), "What is the difference between good and evil?" (ethics), "What is beauty?" (aesthetics), and "What is the meaning of life?" (teleology).

Philosophical Perspectives & Traditions[edit]

'Philosophy' translates literally from the original Greek as 'love of wisdom'. 'What is philosophy', is itself a philosophical question. This is a clue to the nature of philosophy. It is very general in scope; so general that it, perhaps uniquely among the disciplines, includes itself in its scope. What is clear is that philosophy is, in some sense, thinking about thinking.

In the analytic tradition of Europe and its subsequent transplanting to the Americas, philosophy has reinvented itself with a new set of techniques that would be out of place in the world of the ancient Greeks, where philosophy started. It centres on logic and conceptual analysis. Topics at its centre include the theory of knowledge, ethics, the nature of language, and the nature of mind.

Earlier traditions of philosophy placed more emphasis on the study of the arts and science of life: a general theory and a commendation of way of life. In this sense, philosophy is concerned with the practical bits of how to live rather than a theoretical attempt to understand. This legacy was derived from some of the earliest philosophers known to us: the Sophists, who were the teachers of rhetoric, grammar and science of the ancient world. Though somewhat akin to sages these Sophists played an important role in the development of philosophy.

In the subsequent analytic tradition that developed after the Sophists, philosophy became a subject you could pursue for purely abstract and metaphysical reasons. In the Sophist tradition, philosophy is a body of knowledge to be mastered with which you could gain power or reward. It is possible to exaggerate these differences for when philosophy is not dogma each tradition pays some homage to the other.

In the Western world, at one time the term 'philosophy' covered all disciplines. Over time, as the corpus of human knowledge grew, various disciplines emerged, each with their own methodologies and domains of study, and these disciplines became to a large extent autonomous. For example, if you go into a public library that uses the Dewey decimal classification system, you will find that psychology books have a classmark starting with 150 - right in the middle of the philosophy section. This is because at the time the system was created, in the latter half of the 19th century, psychology was only just beginning to emerge as a distinct discipline. Another example is the term 'natural philosophy', which was once used to mean science, or more particularly physics. By this view, what is called 'philosophy' at any time in history are those provinces of human knowledge which have not yet come of age, which not yet developed their own autonomous character and status.

These independent disciplines do have their own philosophies; so there is a philosophy of science, a philosophy of mathematics, a philosophy of psychology, and so on. When studying in these areas, one looks at methodological issues or examines some of the core concepts of the discipline, as well as various ethical issues.

There are domains which definitely belong in a philosophy department. Epistemology is concerned with 'how do I know what I know?', Ontology with 'what is real?', Ethics with 'how should one conduct oneself?'. Logic is concerned with proper reasoning. Many other disciplines exist within philosophy.