What Is Philosophy?
This article is part of the series Asher’s Explains It All
This is an investigation into what is the nature and meaning of philosophy. I have always been interested in philosophy, even as a young child. My older brother had an interest in philosophy as well when he was in more adolescent years and that rubbed off on to me as a child. Philosophy is just an incredibly vast subject, and even the word has a vast definition, that I consider it an exciting thing to think about.
One of the examples of the general lack of, what I would call proper, education in the public education system was the fact that no where in all my schooling was there ever such a thing as a philosophy class. Philosophy was one of those subjects that you learned about on your own, apart from school. It was a place where I could shoot ideas out into it and see where they go, no textbook, no teacher. I probably drove my brother crazy with all my, often hare brained, ideas and beliefs.
But it was crazy fun and engaging to explore and come up with various ideas in this seemingly mysterious field called philosophy. It was a way to make sense of the world, and to explore further possibilities and exercise my mind. I came up with many ideas idea that over time had already been ‘discovered’ by many intellectuals before me. Some, I was nudged into by my brother, some were simply a matter of just knowing enough to make the connections, and a couple were just me, myself, and I.
So what is philosophy? Well, every time I need to figure out what something is, I first refer to the dictionary for a clear definition. When you can pin down exactly what you mean when discussing multiple terms the better your dialogue will be. My brother taught me that whenever you attempt to argue, or investigate any type of philosophical matter, you must be clear and know exactly what you are saying and how to say it.
The dictionary relates philosophy as such:
…the rational investigation of the truths and principles of being, knowledge, or conduct. …
… the critical study of the basic principles and concepts of a particular branch of knowledge, especially with a view to improving or reconstituting them …
… a system of principles for guidance in practical affairs …
As you can see there are multiple definitions, but they all pretty much point to the same idea. Although, there is one definition that I particularly like that I’ll quote:
… an attitude of rationality, patience, composure, and calm in the presence of troubles or annoyances …
I just kind of picture a philosopher like that. Like a rationalist monk almost. Bad things happen and you’re just like, “Oommmmm,” pow, a solution.
I even like where the world philosophy comes from. Philo- is greek for, in short, the love of something. And -sophy is “a combining form of” the greek “sophia: skill, wisdom”. For the love of wisdom and skill. Nice. Even the definition is active, clearly pointing to a positive and joyful approach to learning and understanding life.
These are very broad definitions of philosophy, and fitting really because philosophy as a noun itself can really mean an impressive body of knowledge of any subject.
But, what exactly am I trying to talk about when I get to philosophy? I mean, explaining the entire world and propounding on the near infinite bodies of knowledge out there are neat and all, but what exactly do I mean when I speak of philosophy?
I’ll be using a more narrow definition of philosophy offered up by the British Dictionary:
… the academic discipline concerned with making explicit the nature and significance of ordinary and scientific beliefs and investigating the intelligibility of concepts by means of rational argument concerning their presuppositions, implications, and interrelationships; in particular, the rational investigation of the nature and structure of reality (metaphysics), the resources and limits of knowledge (epistemology), the principles and import of moral judgment (ethics), and the relationship between language and reality (semantics) …
This my friend is thee study of philosophy. All manner of subjects may have their study of philosophy, but when you study philosophy, this is the philosophy you’ll study.
What’s interesting to note here however is that it is by means of ‘rational argument.’ I personally don’t think philosophy necessarily needs to abide by ‘rational argument’, but sometimes simply by its own logic. In order to align something with reality, with the truth of things, then there is no better means than that of rational inquiry. Rational argument, if meant to mean consistent argument, the following of some form of logic identifiable as part of a system, I can go with that. I simply feel the term ‘rational’ is a little overloaded in what exactly it means to many people. For example, ‘rational’ to many people means ‘without emotion,’ which I think is unfortunate as that is not necessarily the case. In general though, philosophy does rely on rational argument, and it forms an extremely important part of philosophical discourse.
There are four or five areas of philosophy that make up the study of reality, the world, etc. These are metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, aesthetics, and semantics.
The study of metaphysics is briefly, the study of how and why things are. We know that something may exist, or do we know that? How does something exist, and what is it’s basic nature? Where is the place for our consciousness in this scheme of things? Are things inductively solid, or are they projections from ideal versions? This is metaphysics.
Epistemology is the study of how we come to know things. How and what do we know as living things? Are there unknowable things? How can we come to know what we know, and is what we know true?
Ethics is the study of what we ought to do, to put simply. It tackles the idea of what is right or wrong, what should be the purpose of our lives. What is better or worse? What can benefit our lives, what is our primary value? These are the realms of ethics.
Aesthetics is an interesting branch of philosophy. It’s definitely subjective, it’s not necessarily a cohesive one monolithic thing. There is romanticism, and many other models and focuses of aesthetics. Some philosophies propose that aesthetics should be a certain thing, rather than necessarily something subjective. This is where the meaning and machinations of art lie.
Semantics is the study of how our use of language is related the world we live in. The relation between language and our lives, our understanding of our reality, and so on. Semantics are interesting, and a field I haven’t had a lot of experience in, so it’ll be interesting to see what I can dig up.
To The Future!
Well, that’s the basic idea of what philosophy, in terms of ‘thee study of philosophy’ means. Philosophy is an exciting field of inquiry that is always changing and is always having new voices enter the field. Philosophy is extremely powerful, as it shapes the ideas and attitudes that people have and use to approach their lives. Philosophy is behind every decision we make. So, for the love of wisdom!
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