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What Philosophy Is and Is Not


The What Does "Philosophia" Mean? 


The unexamined life is not worth living.



            The word philosophy is derived from two Greek words:  philien and sophia. Philosophy literally means "love of wisdom." [1]  

            What does it mean to be a lover of wisdom?

            Philosophers today, and historically, have promoted being open-minded, intellectually humble, curious and creative in our thinking; they have championed the view that we should not live in fear of “being out of the loop" from contemporary trends, and that we should not obsess about what is currently fashionable with the present “in-crowd";  they have searched for wisdom (while rationally disputing certain definitions of it, as you probably expected), and have rejected wallowing in intellectual darkness; they have promoted the idea that we should practice mindfulness and not mindlessness.

            Philosophers promote the idea that we should live the examined life, as Socrates once put it. That means detaching from social personas and social scripts, and truly thinking for oneself and coming to own one's own thought--and not simply repeating and being an echo of the voices of others.

            In their quest for wisdom, philosophers promote the search for deep understanding and truth; they promote the use of careful observation and logic. The search for wisdom also means contrasting our worldviews with other worldviews and engaging in critical dialog with others who think differently. It means not digging into egocentric and ethnocentric points of view to rest in a cognitive comfort zone; it means accepting ideas, not out of mere loyalty to tradition, or out of fear, but rather, because those ideas are objectively well grounded and rationally justified.

            For philosophers, this kind of creative and critical thinking that aims at wisdom is what it means to be fully human; for them, this is tapping into the authentic self; it is also central to learning how to live well. Wisdom involves inner liberation, existential liberation from the chains of fear, mindless tradition, dogma, prejudice and ignorance. Wisdom is sought after as a good in itself (an intrinsic good). Wisdom is also sought after as a tool (an extrinsic good), for wisdom is also central to realizing well-being, to living a life that is good, a life that taps into the best in us: the ability we have to be fair, open, rational, conscientious, curious and creative autonomous thinkers and empathic social beings.

            With this in mind, whether or not you agree with the above, philosophia invites you to see and feel what this approach is like. After all, like it or not, life will, at some point, force you into some kind of philosophical reflection. In this sense, philosophy is for everyone.  In fact, although most people may possess a vague idea about what philosophy is, we all engage in philosophy whether we are aware of it or not.  We all have some beliefs concerning free will, human nature, morality, the meaning of life, and the like. We shall explore this further in the next section.

            So are there any specific definitions of philosophy that can help us further understand what philosophia is all about?  Here are four definitions that attempt to explain what is generally meant by the term philosophy.  These definitions do not necessarily reflect a consensus of those working within the field of philosophy; still, such definitions might assist you in further understanding what many philosophers today tend to think when they use the word "philosophy." 

1.  Philosophy analyzes the foundations and presuppositions underlying other disciplines.  Philosophy investigates and studies the underpinnings of science, art, and theology.  Philosophers do not ask “Are Pablo Picasso's paintings 'good' works of art?" (as art critics do) but “Is aesthetic judgment a matter of personal taste, or are there objective standards that we can apply to evaluate a work of art?"  Philosophers do not ask “Is the theory of evolution true?" (as biologists and physical anthropologists do) but “How do we distinguish truth from error?"  “Under what conditions are we justified in claiming to know that a statement is true?" 

2.  Philosophy attempts to develop a comprehensive conception or apprehension of the world (i.e., weltanschauung).  Philosophy seeks to integrate the knowledge of the sciences with that of other fields of study to achieve some kind of consistent and coherent world view.  Philosophers do not want to confine their attention to a fragment of human experience or knowledge, but rather, want to reflect upon life as a totality.  In speaking of this particular function, Charlie Dunbar Broad, an English twentieth century philosopher, says:

             Its object is to take over the results of the various sciences, to add to them the results of the religious               and ethical experiences of mankind, and then to reflect upon the whole.  The hope is that, by this                     means, we may be able to reach some general conclusions as to the nature of the universe, and as to               our position and prospects in it.[2] 

3.  Philosophy studies and critically evaluates our most deeply held beliefs and attitudes; in particular, those which are often held uncritically.  Philosophers spend much time thinking about thinking (this is often called "meta-thinking"). Philosophers have an attitude of critical and logical thoughtfulness.  They force us to see the significance and consequences of our beliefs, and sometimes their inconsistencies.  They analyze the evidence (or lack of it) for our most treasured beliefs, and seek to remove from our perspectives unwarranted bias, prejudice, ignorance, superstition, mindless acceptance of ideas, and any other form of irrationality.

4.  Philosophy investigates the principles and rules of language, and attempts to clarify the meaning of vague words and concepts.  Philosophy aims at linguistic and conceptual clarification. Philosophy examines the role of language in communication and thought, and the problem of how to identify or ensure the presence of meaning in our use of language.  It is a method--a practice--which seeks to expose the problems and confusions which have resulted from the misuse of language, and to clarify the meaning and use of vague terms in scientific and/or everyday discourse.


What is the Origin of Philosophy?


Philosophy begins in wonder.



              At some point in almost everyone's life, we humans undergo experiences in which the foundations of what we believe, have faith in, attach to and hold dear, are challenged and shaken up.  These are moments, experiences, of existential disruption. While undergoing such experiences of profound puzzlement, the everyday life-world and every life-tasks are interrupted; if we stay there for a while, if we decide to dwell in this existential space that has opened up before us, we can open ourselves up to "the philosophical experience." It is an experience of stepping back from both ourselves and our life-world, to let ourselves experience wonder, to dive into the deep end of the psyche and explore The Enduring Questions[3]:  “What does it all mean? What or Who rules this 'show'? Why is there something, instead of nothing at all? What is Real? Who am I? What am I? Why are things this way, and not some other way? Where is it all going? What if anything can we know about all this? How should we think about moral right and wrong? Is there moral truth? Is this it? What is this life? What is death? How should we approach death? How should we live?"

            In such situations, we become “philosophical" in our outlook; that is, we become contemplative, reflective and struck with wonder; the mundane aspects of life, the minutiae of tying shoes, charging a cell phone, punching in the time clock, waiting for the goats to eat or the car to warm up, all “fade away", and something that makes our species unique (and philosophers would add “noble") is brought to our awareness: We are creatures who become puzzled, who doubt, and who ask why; and we are also solution seeking creatures, creatures who seek to resolve our puzzlement and cope with mystery and uncertainty.

            Philosophy is the project of dwelling in such existential spaces of deep wonder that open up before us; it is about keeping such spaces open; it is about sharing the beauty of such spaces with other people; it is about feeding curiosity, while fighting those forces in the world that seek to shut down the questioning. Philosophy is about being open to deep questioning and deep learning; it's about seeking different and contrasting points of view; it is about using critical thinking to select and reject options for belief; it is ultimately about cultivating the art of wonder and the search for wisdom.           

What Are Some Fields of Philosophy?


Out yonder there was this huge world...which stands before a great eternal riddle...

                                                                        --Albert Einstein


Existential disruption leads us to a set of core existential and conceptual enigmas (an enigma is a puzzle or riddle, a conceptual problem). When probed deeply enough and articulated in a systematic and clear manner, and when placed within basic categories or "types" of enigmas, we get what are called "the fields of philosophy." There are more fields than we shall list here. In this introductory account of philosophy, we shall only the most common fields: Philosophy of Reality (Ontology); Philosophy of Knowledge (Epistemology); Philosophy of moral right and wrong (Ethics); and Philosophy of Society, Culture and Government (Social and Political Philosophy). Here are some of the enigmas explored in each field...


I.  METAPHYSICS—The Analysis & Study of Reality and Categorizations of Reality. 

A major theme in this course will be the “nature of reality." You will be asked to explore the Enigma of the Real and UnReal. You will be invited to explore arguments that serve as solutions to the enigmas. Some of the core ideas that will come to your awareness are: “Material Monism", “Idealism", "Substance Dualism", "Consciousness" and "Freewill." Here are some of the foundational puzzles:

​SUB-CATEGORY: Philosophy of Religion & God  

  1. What is religion?
  2. What is the origin of religion?
  3. Is religion rational, irrational or non-rational or a mix?
  4. What is God?
  5. Should God be conceived as a Creator or not? A persons or not? Ass all powerful, all knowing and all good, or not?
  6. Is it logically coherent to believe in God and reject all religion as man-made?
  7. Are there good arguments in favor of the existence of God?
  8. Is belief in god rational, irrational or non-rational, or a mix?
  9. Would a truly good God create heaven and hell?
  10. Can one live well without God and religion? 

SUB-CATEGORY: Philosophy of Mind 

  1. What is consciousness?
  2. Is an organic brain required for consciousness?
  3. Can non-organic machines possess consciousness?
  4. Does "freewill" exist?
  5. If freewill exists, what is it? Do only humans possess it?
  6. Is consciousness nothing but physical-brain-states? 

    SUB-CATEGORY: Philosophy of Self
  7. What is the self?
  8. Do all animals have a self? None? Only some? Which ones?
  9. Is the self an illusion?
  10. Is there a core unchanging self or is the self dynamic and always changing?
  11. Can a self live without a body?
  12. Is the self an immortal soul?

​II.  EPISTEMOLOGY—The Analysis & Study of Human Knowledge. 

Another major theme in this course will be the “nature of knowledge and human understanding." You will be asked to think about and feel and scrutinize the various arguments set forth as solutions to The Riddle of Knowledge. Some of the core ideas will be: “Paradigm," “Perception," “Opinion" “Belief" “Knowledge" “Justification" “Truth", “Reason", “Coherence", “Correspondence",  “Skepticism", “Intuition" and “Cognitive Relativism." 

  1. What can we ultimately know? Is knowledge relative to your society and place in history? Are we, like automatons, programmed with a basic social operating system and the current, fashionable software? Is reality just our social reality, the way we see things in our day and age?
  2. What are “facts"? Are things like “facts" the same for all rational observers? Are facts “eternal"? Is total certainty possible?
  3. What is “Reason" and “Rationality"? How is sensuality and emotion related to these categories?
  4. What is “Truth"? 
  5. What is “Knowledge"? What's the difference between belief and knowledge?
  6. Is everything just an interpretation? If so, can we distinguish between good and bad interpretations?
  7. Are we born with innate categories or ideas, or do we obtain all ideas from experience?
  8. If there are “eternal truths", how is it possible to for us to “know" them?
  9. Is there one set of truths accessible to some class of “experts"? If so, what criteria is used by them?
  10. Is there anything we can be reasonably or even absolutely certain about?
  11. Do ideas and truths change, such that it would be wise to say we can be certain about nothing? 

III. ETHICS—The Analysis & Study of Ethics and Moral Codes 

  1. What is ethical truth? Does it even exist?
  2. What is the best theory of the good? The best theory of the right?
  3. Does moral truth require God?
  4. Does society determine right and wrong? Is the ethically right thing to do whatever society says is the ethically right thing to do?
  5. Are “values" completely subjective, objective or somewhere in between these two categories?
  6. What is “morality"? Why do we have it? Do we need it? What happens without it? What is the difference between morality and law?
  7. How ought one to live?

​IV. SOCIAL AND POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY—The Analysis & Study of Society and Politics 

  1. Should we endorse government? Should we resist all government or only some types of government?
  2. What is the best government? The worst government?
  3. What is political power and what legitimates it? Is it ever legit?
  4. What is justice and are governments necessary to nourish and sustain justice?
  5. Is there such a thing as a good and bad society? What does that mean?
  6. How do class, race and gender create oppressive structures and also points of resistance from which one can challenge oppressive structures?  


What Methods Do Philosophers Use?


            So how do philosophers approach the enigmas of existence? What is the "how" of their practice?   

            Philosophy is the use of critical thinking to explore, clarify and address the enduing enigmas listed in the section above (and even more than those listed, of course). The verbal and conceptual technology that comprises critical thinking has been developed and refined by philosophers for thousands of years. Because of all of their intelligent work and sacrifice, we are fortunate to now possess a sound understanding of what critical thinking is all about. Here is an  attempt to synthesize and compress the essence of critical thinking.

            Critical thinking involves three basic features: 1) Thinking for oneself (autonomy); 2) Objective Thinking (using rules of logic and reliable, solid evidence to give ideas a fair trial, clarify concepts and generate rationally persuasive analyses, definitions, arguments and theories); 3) Open Thinking (thinking that is receptive to new ideas, and actively seeks, and entertains, different points of view). Embracing the path of critical thinking also involves avoiding the opposite kind of path--the way of uncritical thinking.

            Uncritical Thinking is defined by these three basic features: 1) Not thinking for oneself but rather merely repeating what others say and letting others think for you (heteronomy); 2) Non-objective Thinking (thinking that rejects or is indifferent to logic and reliable, solid evidence, is indifferent to giving ideas a fair trial, and instead, is typically arbitrary, unreflective and impulsive, egocentric, ethnocentric and fallacious);  3) Closed Thinking (thinking that is apathetic and lazy, or arrogant and dogmatic, and simply blocks-out new ideas, and attacks or flees from different points of view).

            Don't forget to follow these guidelines as you explore the enigmas of existence and as you write essays or papers in philosophy: 

  1. Use reason and observation to generate and test ideas.
  2. Listen empathically and read carefully with an open mind.
  3. Act as a fair judge; give ideas a fair trial. Think of new and foreign ideas as "innocent until proven guilty of bad logic."
  4. Let your ideas first flow freely out of your mind, without feeling like you have to think "this way" or "that way" to fit some preconceived idea-box. Don't let ego-think and group-think shut-down your free-flowing thought.
  5. Shape your raw, free-flowing ideas with logic. Really apply yourself to the learning of logic. Study fallacies (faulty reasoning) extensively and avoid fallacies.
  6. Define key terms and write down your arguments. Having to write your arguments down will reveal to you, in a more detached and objective way, how your thinking unfolds and how you can improve it to be more clear, systematic, well-connected and rational.  
  7. Check yourself and broaden yourself. Try to step back from yourself, try to see things from different points of view, and check the basic assumptions that underlie your thinking. Scan your thinking for "viruses" (i.e., fallacies). 
  8. Don't fixate on "THE answer"; learn to love the question; learn to simply love the philosophical journey itself regardless of where it "ends."
  9. Study the history of philosophy. The history of philosophy is a super-rich  platinum mine of ideas that you can draw from. Look up major figures of philosophy and the major schools of philosophy. Look up multicultural perspectives and feminist philosophy as well. Two good online sources are a) The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy and b) the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 
  10. Contrast and compare your arguments with those of others; ask others who are open-minded, reflective, supportive and civil to critically review and rationally challenge your own thought.

    ​What Are the Benefits of Studying & Practicing Philosophy?  

              Throughout the years, we have asked students to relay to us, the various benefits that arise from studying philosophy. Here is a summary of some of the many things students have said about their experience with philosophy: 

  1. Helps you think about your own thinking; helps you understand yourself.
  2. Helps you develop your own critically thought-out worldview.
  3. Helps you obtain an objective perspective on the world.
  4. Helps you become an independent thinker and deep person.
  5. Gives you a new purpose in life and a life-long project--to ask the deep questions and philosophically explore things with others.
  6. Helps you learn to have mature, interesting and intelligent conversations.
  7. Helps you obtain creative and critical thinking skills.
  8. Broadens the mind and stretches the limits of thinking and imagination.
  9. Helps you gain insight into the thinking process and how others think.
  10. Helps you gain insight into human relationships and human communication.
  11. Helps you understand different basic models that you can use to approach questions about reality, ethics and knowledge. 
  12. Helps you become more intellectually humble, tolerant and global in your understanding.
  13. Helps you think critically about other disciplines (such as history and psychology).
  14. Helps you learn how to create solid arguments.
  15. Helps you connect with others on a deep level.

    Looking at this list, it's safe to say that, as an academic experience and as an academic course for students, an intro to philosophy course is fundamentally a crash course in deep and careful thinking—a “basic training" course in how to think carefully, deeply, creatively and logically.

    Some Misconceptions About Philosophy

    In the ancient Greek world, philosophy was seen as a "way of life." It was about becoming a certain kind of person and creating a certain kind of community. This involved creating rational habits of thought, disciplining ""the passions and engaging in daily "exercises for the psyche." As mentioned earlier, within modern academic circles, some philosophers hold that the function of philosophy is to analyze the foundations and presuppositions underlying other fields of study.  Others assert that it is to integrate scientific knowledge with that of other disciplines to achieve some kind of consistent and coherent world view.  Still others maintain that philosophy's function is to investigate the principles and rules of language and to expose the problems and confusions that have resulted from the misuse of language.  However philosophers may define philosophy, the discipline begins not in certainty, but in doubt; not in judgments, but in questions. As mentioned earlier, philosophy emphasizes intellectual autonomy, for it appeals to your own ability to find out what is true and what is right through your own thinking and experiences without depending solely upon an outside authority. 

    Before examining any philosophical theory, a few comments should be made about some misconceptions you may have about philosophy, because, as with any discipline, misconceptions about the nature of what you are about to study can hinder your ability to make progress. 

    One widely held misconception about philosophy is that it has no "practical value."  Students sometimes say,  “I see no reason to study philosophy." To us, this shows that it is precisely such students that should study philosophy, for such students should first step back and ask, "What do I mean by 'practical'? How am I defining that? And just because I do not see a reason, does it logically follow that no such reason exists?" Already here we see how practical philosophy truly is, for it aims at making us better thinkers, which is perhaps the most practical (i.e., useful and fruitful) project to pursue in this life.  

    Now, it is true that some philosophical questions are esoteric and have no practical value, if by practical value we mean "ability to make money for us" or "ability to construct a product" or "has a widespread impact on society." For example, some philosophers are concerned with whether abstract objects like numbers, concepts, and propositions have an existence independent of human thinking.  That is, they ask whether abstract objects would exist if there were no human beings to think about them.  Answering this question would not alter how most people go about their lives.  But the fact that such  philosophical questions would not immediately impact how most people govern their daily lives does not imply that philosophy has no value.  There are indirect benefits in seeking answers to philosophical questions, even those "abstract ones" such as the one just described. 

    An indirect benefit of studying philosophy is that it helps develop skills in problem-solving, in analyzing concepts, in formulating clear definitions, and in asking profound questions.  It contributes to your capacity to avoid making unwarranted assumptions, to trace the consequences of a claim, and to look at a problem from new and surprising perspectives.  It encourages you to place the search for truth above the satisfaction of apparently “winning" a debate or the frustration of “losing" it, and it helps you to construct cogent arguments and to evaluate the arguments of others. 

    Studying philosophy also helps you to improve your communication skills, for it teaches you to write and speak more carefully and cogently.  Philosophy teaches you how to present ideas through well-constructed, organized arguments.  It improves your ability to explain complex information and helps you to express yourself without ambiguity or vagueness. 

    A second misconception about philosophy is that philosophers seldom, if ever, agree with each other and cannot present irrefutable arguments in support of their positions.  In every period, philosophers have challenged their predecessor's arguments.  They have not only disagreed about many of the answers given to philosophical questions, but they have often been unable to agree among themselves about the nature of philosophy. 

    The fact that many philosophical questions are still under debate does not imply that philosophers continually disagree with one another. Contemporary philosophers are in complete agreement concerning many methods and principles of logic; the study of how to distinguish between correct and incorrect reasoning.  For instance, philosophers agree that one should not commit the fallacy of begging the question, which occurs when one uses an argument's conclusion as part of the evidence to support that very same conclusion.  They also concur that one should not argue for a conclusion with contradictory premises. 

    The misconception that philosophers seldom, if ever, agree with one another results from the fact that philosophers tend to be interested in issues about which there is little consensus.  Instead of concerning themselves with areas of agreement, philosophers direct their attention to areas in which there is disagreement.  So perhaps it is partially due to philosophers themselves that people have this mistaken view.  This is unlikely to change, because the study of areas of disagreement is one of the challenges of philosophy. 

    Closely tied to the misconception that philosophers continually disagree with each other is the claim that there has been no progress in philosophy.  Philosophers today are arguing about some of the same questions that concerned the ancient Greeks.  “What is truth, and how does one distinguish it from falsehood?" and “how can moral disagreements be rationally settled?"  If the answers to questions like these are still being debated, students think, then there has been no philosophical progress. 

    This misconception rests on two mistaken presuppositions: first, that disagreement among philosophers entails that the correct answer has not been discovered (i.e., disagreement is a sign of no progress), and second, that philosophical progress only occurs when a question is answered.  The first presupposition is mistaken.  For many people, the truth value of an answer is determined by the number of people who support it.  That is, popularity or widespread acceptance of an answer is taken as an index of its truth, while a lack of acceptance is construed as an index of its falsity.  If this type of argument appeals to you, you might recall the popular but false belief in the Middle Ages that the earth was the center of the universe.  Agreement does not entail that an answer is true.  Conversely, disagreement does not mean that no one has discovered any truths; residual disagreement does not mean that no new insights have been obtained.  To confirm an answer, one must evaluate the arguments offered in support of it.  Assuming that uncertainty can be eliminated from our thought is unrealistic. 

    The presupposition that progress occurs only when a question is answered is also mistaken.  One can make progress when discovering the inadequacy of certain answers.  The claim that progress occurs when one merely clears the ground of untenable views may seem trivial, but keep in mind that when one realizes that certain answers are mistaken, one is closer to the correct answer.  This belief was basic to the philosophical method of the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates.  He held that wisdom is learning to recognize ignorance, including one's own.  He believed that helping others discover the errors in their arguments was beneficial because it put them that much farther along on the path toward knowledge.  An important aim of education is to help discover how much one does not know.  When answers to a question are found to be inadequate, that discovery constitutes progress, even if the initial question has not been answered. 

    Another misconception about philosophy, and the final one to be evaluated, is that philosophical commitment is subjective--a matter of personal opinion.  Students may claim that for a person's commitment to a particular belief to be justified rationally, that belief must be indubitable; it must be supported by a conclusive argument.  It seems, however, that most of the solutions to philosophical problems can be both supported and criticized with good arguments.  Thus, selecting a particular theory, from the standpoint of rational justification, is subjective.  One person's beliefs are generally not superior or inferior to another person's beliefs; everyone has his or her own solutions to a particular problem. 

    This argument rests on a mistaken assumption.  Even if one cannot solve a philosophical problem with absolute certainty, it does not follow that the choice between rival theories is subjective.  All theories, whether religious, political, scientific, or philosophical, are essentially underdetermined by the evidence, so it is improbable that one theory will “win out" completely over all its competitors.  The rational acceptability of most, if not all, theories is a matter of degree, and the philosopher must try to decide which is the best theory among rivals.  For example, suppose that two competing theories are both supported by good but inconclusive evidence but that the first theory is more adequate to the extent that it fits the facts it is intended to unify or explain better than other theories.  Surely one would claim that the first theory is more reasonable and therefore preferable to the second.  Of course, it must be shown that the second theory is in fact less adequate, and one must also be prepared for a counterattack from the second upon the first.  This is one of the challenges of philosophy, for philosophical problems defy scientific and algorithmic solutions and do not often yield clear and indisputable solutions. 

    In short, philosophy challenges you to construct cogent arguments and to evaluate the arguments of others critically.  As different philosophical problems are dealt with, it may be discovered that there is no indubitable solution to some of them.  Sometimes absolute certainty may be achieved and a problem resolved, other times this may not occur.  So instead of asking whether a particular theory is true, perhaps we should ask about the rational quality of the arguments in favor of it.  “Solving" philosophical problems is not a question of discovering a unique answer to them, but of developing the best arguments for accepting or rejecting different ways of answering these problems.


[1]  According to tradition, the word was invented by Pythagoras, a Greek philosopher and mathematician, who lived during the sixth century BCE.  When asked if he was a wise man, he allegedly responded "No, I am not wise, but I am a lover of wisdom." 

[2]   Charlie Dunbar Broad, Scientific Thought (New York:  Harcourt, 1923) 20.

[3] This expression is borrowed from Melvin Rader and the title of his philosophy book, "The Enduring Questions."