What is Philosophy?


The Roots of Western philosophy in Ancient Greece

Philosophy, as Ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, noted, begins with wonder. While the discipline, as it began in Ancient Greece, first had a focus on questions of the natural world, this was not long its sole domain. Some of the early Greek natural philosophers soon integrated at least some considerations of the role of humans in the world into their natural philosophy inquiries. In the Greek context, Socrates is viewed as having focused philosophy more clearly on individual ethical behavior. The “examined life” that he argued was vital for human fulfillment was one that focused on human virtue.

In the Greek context, the first philosophers began doing activity that is contrasted with mythos, on the one hand, and with natural science, on the other. Thales and the Melesians who followed in his footsteps — Anaximander, and Anaximenes — clearly broke with the explanatory model of Greek theology. They posited natural causes and questioned traditional mythological explanation (although they also still make references to the gods — or the divine — now newly conceived). In making a break with mythology, some of what they did aligned with other scientific activity of the ancient world such as is seen as in ancient astronomers. Yet, their work was also not only characterized by considerations like those of the astronomers. They were operating with some larger understanding of the role of logos or reason, one that included natural science, but that was not encompassed by it. Thales’ view that all things were made of water posits not just a natural scientific explanation, but also a metaphysical view — a monism. Even if this is a rather poetic version of such monism, Thales posits with this view that there is a single substratum underlying all different objects. Anaximander’s view that there is an unbound out of which all separate things emerge is similarly philosophical. The claims of these early philosophers are not just claims of natural science. They are claims of metaphysics.

The two main characteristics of this earliest philosophical work were thus that (1) it used a naturalistic explanatory model, even when newly imagining the gods, and (2) it was totalizing, focusing on a whole worldview, or cosmology.

In Ancient Greece, beginning in about the 5th century, this new kind of thinking — philosophical thinking — was being explored and developed. It is in this period that we find the earliest references to the term “philosopher” (the lover of wisdom) by Pythagoras and by Heraclitus. Heraclitus spoke of  “men who love wisdom [philosophioi],” claiming, they “must be investigators into many things” (cp. Laks, 44). A broad curiosity and learning was a fundamental characteristic of the philosophioi. Other philosophers of the ancient period tracked philosophical inquiry to the search for happiness and fulfillment. We see in Socrates the idea that the philosopher is one who leads an examined life. Plato contrasts philosophers, who he models on Socrates, with mere learned experts, the sophists. In Socrates’ hands — and Plato’s — philosophy becomes focused on the examination and clarification of concepts. Socrates asks: What is justice? What is piety? He attempts through diological reasoning to arrive at a clear understanding of these things, at every turn demanding an argument and justification for whatever view is proposed.

Some of these characteristics of the earliest philosophy in Greece have continued to characterize philosophy throughout its history in the West. In general philosophers have used reason and logic to offer naturalist explanations. The discipline has tended to be methodologically agnostic, not basing reasoning on the accepted theology of a time or place. Philosophers have tried as much as possible to think holistically of interconnections between various domains of life. And philosophers have focused on arguments and justifications for whatever position one is considering.

World philosophy

There was a time when the main view in philosophical circles was that philosophy was a Western product —  perhaps with “Arab philosophy” thrown in during discussions of the Medieval period. “Eastern philosophy” was thought more akin to religion. “African philosophy,” “Latin American philosophy” and the like were simply left out of consideration. This is changing. It is more and more common to see introductory books to philosophy that address Eastern ideas and that try to account for developments in the classical areas of philosophy in the diverse geographical regions of the world.

One early 20th century philosopher to begin to explore Eastern thought along with Western was Karl Jaspers. He coined the term the “Axial Age” to characterize the period from between the 8th Century BCE and the 2nd Century BCE when in diverse places in the world systemic philosophic and religious systems developed that eventually came to replace many of the more local polytheistic worldviews. It is in this period that we see the emergence not only of the Greek philosophers, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, but also of Eastern schools of thought.

Foundational ideas of the later developed Advaita Vedanta tradition in Hinduism emerge at this time. Buddha lives at this time. Taoism and Confucianism, two main schools of thought from China, are also developed at these times. These varying philosophies, while in various ways emphasizing elements of a broadly spiritual life, do move toward offering naturalistic explanations, like philosophy in Ancient Greece; and they offer holistic or totalizing accounts of reality. In many cases philosophers in these traditions have also been focused on clarifying concepts. The Buddha’s considerations of the self, or no-self, anticipate similar observations by David Hume by nearly two centuries. Confucius’ writings on political philosophy, while nowhere nearly as dialogical in style as Aristotles’, end up with a systemization of similar profundity. The views of metaphysics and ethics and political philosophy from these non-Western philosophical sources offer great insights into individual psychology, social life, and the natural world that provide those who study them with the opportunity to expand their horizons and perhaps see even more clearly from an outside perspective some of the presuppositions that have been core to Western civilization. The focus of Buddhism and Taoism on emptiness and nothingness rather than being offer one case in point. A 20th century philosopher, Martin Heidegger, becoming familiar with some of these ideas only very late, came to see in them powerful parallels with his own insights. The confrontation of Western philosophers with non-Western schools of thought does provide Western philosophers with possibilities for some new considerations of methodology. A generation of scholars becoming more familiar with some of these issues — and confronted with a need for a deeper way of thinking about ourselves in our natural environment — might find much fruitful in comparative philosophical studies.

The branches of philosophy

In the West, Plato was the first great systematizer of philosophy. Already in him we see the development of thought in the main branches of the discipline: metaphysics, epistemology, ethics and political philosophy, aesthetics. Aristotle adds logic. In approaching world philosophy, we do not always see these branches as clearly delineated. But the topics are dealt with.

Metaphysics concerns questions of being, both what kinds of beings exist and what the nature of reality is quite generally. Metaphysics includes of course more specific areas like the Philosophy of Religion or Philosophy of God. In these areas, thinkers consider whether God exists, and if so what Her nature is, whether there is a soul, and if so what characteristics it has. But metaphysics, specifically the branch of Ontology, also includes questions like what the status of numbers is, what a piece of music is and the like.

Epistemology, or the philosophy of knowledge, concerns what we can know and how we know. It examines what the sources of knowledge are, the differing certainty of knowledge claims in various domains of human life, what the point of knowledge is, and much else. It is in some sense methodologically basic, since if we do metaphysics or ethics or thought in any other area we have to first be clear about what the criteria for our truth claims in these domains are, what level of certainty our claims have and so on.

Ethics concerns questions of right and wrong. Traditionally it is broken down into three major areas: metaethics, normative theory, and applied ethics. In metaethics, we investigate questions like what the basis of right and wrong is, why we should be moral at all, whether there are any morally objective claims or whether ethical claims are merely subjective. Normative theory examines the main views that have been put forward about how we determine right and wrong. Applied ethics takes the normative theory and applies it to concrete areas. This application is to various domains. Bioethics, Business Ethics, Environmental Ethics, Media Ethics — these are some of the main domains toward which we apply normative theories in applied ethics.

Political philosophy is of course related to ethics. But it considers also questions such as whether the state should exist at all, what the basis of its authority is, what an ideal state should do. Maybe we can summarize some of its main concerns with the following question: who should have the power to do what to whom and why?

Aesthetics, like ethics and political philosophy, considers questions of value theory or axiology. It asks what beauty is, whether it is objective or culturally bound, universal or particular, where it originates. It includes philosophy of art and philosophy of music, which explores such questions specifically as relevant for those specific arts.

Finally, logic is the study of good forms of human reasoning. Philosophers from Thales to Plato long used logic before Aristotle stood back to analyze more clearly what they were doing when using reason and analyzing arguments for validity.

Besides all of these things, or perhaps, amidst doing all of these things, philosophy provides us an opportunity for reflection on the meaning of life. Going back to one of its original goals as taken up by Socrates, it facilitates a reflection on our priorities, on whether they are well-ordered, on what we ought — or simply want — to live for.

Some values of philosophy

What we have described here already hints at some of the values of philosophy. It can satisfy our curiosity. It can facilitate clearer thinking about the foundational questions in the various domains we have mentioned and with that perhaps allow  us to understand basic issues in those domains more clearly. As Bertrand Russell has argued well, philosophical reflection can expand our minds and provide us with a broader more comprehensive view of the world.

It’s clear analytic methods also allow us to better understand our own minds. It facilitates self-examination so that we sort through ideas that pull and push us but that we might not have clearly pulled together. Philosophy facilitates us in unveiling our own presuppositions and those of the culture in which we are immersed.

There are values beyond these that are used to sell the discipline to students and designers of university curriculum. The discipline facilitates critical thinking and communication skills that are transferable skills and vital to success in many areas. But these are of course secondary.

In general, we can say that philosophy helps us to examine our lives and to generate a holistic worldview. These, it seems, remain among the most worthy of goals that we have if we wish to live a self-determined life.

See chapter 2, An Examined Life

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