What Is Philosophy?

What is Philosophy?

Have you ever wondered what the meaning of life is? Have you ever stopped to wonder to yourself “how do I know what is true, and how do I know that I know?” Perhaps you have even questioned whether or not other persons are figments of your own imagination, or maybe even wondered if you existed. These are philosophical questions that have plagued humans for a very long time. How does one begin to answer these questions? Is there an answer to these questions?plato bust

What is Philosophy exactly? Philosophy comes from two Greeks words: Philein, to love, and Sophia, wisdom. Therefore, a Philosopher is a lover of wisdom. A Greek philosopher by the name of Socrates (469 B.C.-399 B.C.) once said that the unexamined life is not worth living. Historically, Philosophers have asked deep questions regarding truth, knowledge, beauty, and goodness. A working definition of Philosophy that I enjoy using myself is “thinking deeply and asking tough questions about reality.”

For my present purposes, I would like to briefly systematize and briefly explain 3 different branches that Philosophy can be divided into.[1]

  1. Epistemology
  2. Metaphysics
  3. Values

Epistemology- How can I know?

One of the most helpful illustrations that one can use is of the movie The Matrix. In this science fiction movie, the world has been taken over by a bunch of machines that have enslaved human beings in order to use them as a source of energy. Human beings are plugged into the Matrix and experience a simulated reality, where everything the human being experiences is just a mere simulation, and the human does not know that their sights, sounds, smells, and tastes, are merely illusions foisted upon them by a giant super computer. No one knows that what they are living is a sham until someone from outside the Matrix breaks into this virtual reality. One of the more memorable lines in the movie is the one asked of the main hero, Neo. Neo is asked “Have you ever had a dream that you were so sure was real? What if you were unable to wake from that dream? How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world?”brain in vat

Epistemology is the branch of Philosophy that attempts to develop a theory of knowledge. Questions like “How can I know”, and “Can I know that I know,” are dealt with in this branch of Philosophy. How do we know that we are not plugged into a Matrix? How can I be sure that my experiences are not projections of a machine that I am hooked up to? These are questions that are dealt with in Epistemology.

What is knowledge, anyway? How do we know that what we have is knowledge, and how does one come by it? In Epistemology, an important notion known as justification is addressed. In other words, if what I have is knowledge, than how can I be justified in my beliefs? What are my justifications for why I believe what I believe?

All these questions are addressed in Epistemology, and theories are proposed in order to explain and defend how we come to know, and how we can know what is really real.

Metaphysics –What is real?

This is my favorite branch of Philosophy. While in Epistemology we can ask “How can IPlato&Aristotle know what is true?” here in metaphysics we can ask, “Is there such a thing as truth?” Metaphysics comes from two words: Meta, beyond, and Physics, that which is physical. In other words, Metaphysics deal with questions regarding ultimate reality. What is reality, and what kinds of things exist? Do humans have souls?  Is there such a thing as beauty, or is beauty a human construct? Is reality made up of only physical things, or are there such things such as supernatural beings?

An important question that is addressed in Metaphysics is “is reality real?” What do I mean by that? Asked in another way, is reality independent of my senses, or is my reality dependent on my senses? Suppose for a moment that there was not a single human being that existed; that there was no one who could touch, taste, smell, think, see, or hear. No one. Would there still be an external world? Would the universe exist? Perhaps, as some philosophers think, all of reality is a figment of our imaginations. If there was no one to sense the world around us, then perhaps it wouldn’t exist. Or, is reality an objective sort of thing, independent on its own, with or without human beings? This has been a debated issue in the history of philosophy.

One of the biggest questions addressed in this branch of Philosophy is whether or not a god exists. In fact, this may be one of the most ultimate questions to be asked in all of philosophy because it has implications that effect all branches of philosophy.

If a god exists, then which one? Allah? Yahweh? Is there more than one god? Can we even think of god as being personal, as in the western religions, or is “god” properly defined as an impersonal force, such as it is defined in the Eastern worldview. Maybe there is not a god, and perhaps there is no such thing as a supernatural world. Modern day science seems to have relegated the supernatural into the old dustbin of medieval history, and those who are committed to atheism tend to deny that supernatural entities exist at all. Perhaps ultimate reality is made up of only physical stuff.

These kinds of questions are the sorts of questions that are asked in Metaphysics and the answers that some have proposed have enormous implications for our lives.

Values- How should I Live? What is Beauty?

This branch of philosophy can be divided into two parts:

  • Ethics
  • Aesthetics

Ethics deals with personal and corporate behavior. In other words, questions such as “How should I live my life,” and “how should society be governed?” are dealt with here. This is the branch that deals with political theories. These theories can have an immediate effect on how we live our lives.ethics-and-compliance

Ethics address some of the most pressing questions that we face in our lives, and the answers we give not only affect us individually, but affect our whole society. Below are some contemporary issues that have some bearing on our lives today.[2]

1. Suppose that you are a member of the French Resistance in WWII. The Nazis have been rounding up Jews in order to take them to the concentration camps. Because of your moral convictions, you decided to hide as many Jews as you can in your cellar. Suppose further that the Nazi Gestapo suspect you of hiding Jews, and they invade your home, asking you whether or not you are hiding Jews in your home. What do you say? Do you tell the truth and lead the Gestapo to your cellar? Or do you lie, even though you believe lying is wrong. How you answer this question depends on your ethics.

2. Since 1973, abortion has been legal in the United States, resulting in the abortion of over 50 million babies. While many of our states have laws that make it a crime to abort a child at the late stages of pregnancy, other states rule it a crime at very early stages of gestation. Is this incoherent? When does it become wrong to abort a baby? The recent case of Kermit Gosnell brings up an important question. Why is it wrong to kill a baby after it has been birthed, but it is not wrong to abort a fetus at 15 weeks? Other questions may be asked. Does a mother have the right to terminate her pregnancy? Does not the unborn baby have rights? These are important questions, and people disagree as to the answers because everyone has an ethical theory, even though they may not be aware of it.

The second division we come to in this branch of philosophy is Aesthetics. Everytime someone says “that is beautiful song,” or “that woman is beautiful,” they are making an aesthetic judgment. But what is beauty? Is beauty subjective; based upon personal tastes? Or is beauty an objective feature? And what about art? How do we decide what is good art and bad art? Are there objective standards for aesthetics criticism?

What is art? Who decides? Below are two pictures from some very famous artists. The first is well known. It is a painting by Claude Monet (1840-1926).

claude monet

This second one is by Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968).

Marcel Duchamp fountain

Are there objective standards that establish what can be considered “art” and what can not? If there are no standards, then can my chicken scratch on a piece of paper be considered art; comparable to Michalangelo’s David?

In this branch, paintings are not the only focus. Music, movies, and literature are all considered in this branch, which makes this branch one of the most interesting fields of philosophy.

So here’s a summary of the branches of Philosophy.

  1. Epistemology
  2. Metaphysics
  3. Value

Philosophy is an exciting study, and is very rewarding as well. Learning to think philosophically can help us become intellectually mature, and helps us to integrate our thoughts into a coherent worldview. How can it help us to do that? Let’s look at one more example to illustrate this.

Let’s look at the example of abortion. Is abortion right or wrong?

Your answer will depend on the answer that you might give to other questions, such as “what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong?'” Are categories such as “right” and “wrong” objective; unchanging, and binding on all people at all times? Or are moral categories based upon human construct; societal conventions that change depending on the culture and period of human history? If right and wrong are objective features of reality, then how? In other words, if morality is not built on societal conventions, then where do they come from? Are right and wrong eternally self existent things, or is right and wrong based upon the commands of a god? If they are based upon a god, then how can we be really sure that he exists?

And yet some more questions regarding this issue. What distinguishes a fetus from a human person? Is there a difference between the two? Do humans have souls, and if they do, when does a soul enter a human body? If a fetus has a soul, then does that make it human? What does it mean to be human, anyway? Can we even know the answer?

As we have seen, we have asked questions that fall into all 3 of the philosophical branches, thus showing that they are intertwined.

Everyone has a philosophy. In a very real sense, everyone is a philosopher. We all have a worldview that interprets the world around us, and becoming more philosophically inclined can give us the tools we need to become intellectually consistent, and better, well-rounded individuals.


[1] These divisions have been borrowed from Cowan and Spiegel’s book “The Love of Wisdom.

[2] Cowan and Spiegel

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About Joshua

Amateur writer and honest inquirer. I love to write and learn by doing so. That's why I'm here.
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