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Wilfrid Laurier University Faculty of Arts
October 22, 2016
Canadian Excellence

What Is Philosophy?

It is not easy to say what philosophy is. Philosophers disagree. In an unsatisfactory sound-bite, philosophy is a discipline which questions what is frequently taken for granted.

Socrates, who has become a symbol for philosophy, said "the unexamined life is not worth living." He meant that a full life must include an examination of the reasons why we live and think and believe the way we do. This examination can be called "philosophy."

The word "philosophy" comes from two Greek words: "philo" (love) and "sophia" (wisdom). Literally, "philosophy" is "philo-sophia" or "the love of wisdom." If this sounds pretentious (like philosophical hubris) it may help to remember that philosophy frequently ends with Socrates' humbling conclusion that we don't or can't know the things we think we know.

In searching for philosophy, it may help to look at a standard reference book. Here's what the Encyclopedia Britannica has to say.

Throughout its long and varied history in the West, "philosophy" has meant many different things.... [A]n examination of moral responsibilities and social obligations; an effort to fathom divine intentions and [humanity's] place with reference to them; an effort to ground the enterprise of natural science; a rigourous examination of the origin, extent and validity of [people's] ideas; an exploration of the place of will or consciousness in the universe; an examination of the values of truth, goodness, beauty; an effort to codify the rules of human thought in order to promote rationality and the extension of clear thinking."

As long winded and seemingly unconnected as these topics might seem, they have a common thread. Philosophy is, they suggest, the act of reflecting on on the core beliefs that inform our view of the world and our behaviour.

Because our core beliefs are reflected in almost any subject, one can find philosophers at work on issues that relate to most topics and disciplines. As new subjects and issues arise and gain importance, philosophers take up the challenge and continue a long tradition of philosophical inquiry. It is this tradition which is the basis of the undergraduate philosophy curriculum at contemporary universities.

In trying to understand philosophy, it may help to divide it in terms of time periods, movements, individual philosophers, or subject matter.

Studying the history of a group of philosophers or a philosophical movement tells us what mattered to these thinkers, how they debated, and the conclusions that they reached. Historically based groups of philosophers are frequently studied under headings like: Presocratic Philosophy; Ancient Philosophy, Hellenistic Philosophy; Stoicism; Medieval Philosophy; Early Modern Philosophy; British Empiricism; Continental Rationalism; Twentieth Century Philosophy; Logical Positivism, American Pragmatism; Deconstructionism; Post- Modernism; and so on.

Individual philosophers who are the subject of frequent study include Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Boethius, Aquinas, Descartes, Hume, Locke, Berkeley, Leibniz, Peter Abelard, Dewey, Donald Davidson, W.V.O. Quine, Simone de Beauvoir, Maurice Merleau Ponty, Martin Heidegger, Jean Paul Sartre, Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and many, many others.

Subject matters which are commonplace in philosophy today include the philosophy of mind, the philosophy of science, applied ethics, epistemology (the theory of knowledge), scepticism, metaphysics, philosophy of art, phenomenology, feminism, social and political philosophy, logic, and the philosophy of law.

The best way to find out about philosophy is to read and think and discuss it. One way is by continuing with this invitation to philosophy and by exploring relevant philosophy links on the web.