What Is Philosophy?

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

The goal of philosophy is to address the “big questions” that do not fall into other disciplines: how people should act (ethics), what exists (metaphysics), how individuals know what they know (epistemology), and how people should reason (logic). Originating from Greek, the word means “love of wisdom.”

A statue of Socrates, an important Greek philosopher.
A statue of Socrates, an important Greek philosopher.

Historically, philosophy has been a catch-all for academic subjects that don’t fit into the traditional disciplines of science and the humanities. This doesn’t mean it is disconnected from these areas, however, and in fact, the relationship between this field and science is almost as close as the relationship between math and science, and many masters of literature have also started philosophical movements. Many academic disciplines have a corresponding philosophy behind them. Less formally, it is just a way of thinking about something.

Many principles of philosophy were developed in the ancient Greek city state of Athens.
Many principles of philosophy were developed in the ancient Greek city state of Athens.

The discipline is thought to have truly begun under Socrates, an ancient Greek philosopher who is often considered the most famous and important philosopher of all time. He developed the Socratic method, a general technique for looking at philosophical problems based on definition, analysis, and synthesis. Back in Socrates’ time and up until the Scientific Revolution in the 17th century, philosophy and science were often practiced by the same people and considered two parts of the same discipline. Science was called “natural philosophy” — a way of thinking about the world.

In the domain of ethics, people may consider questions like whether or not it is ethical to save the life of a murderer, if he may kill again. Philosophers debate such questions for hours, creating doctrines to help organize and justify their own opinions. Within the domain of ethics, there is disagreement about whether or not there exists an objective morality: an objectively correct way to do things that is superior to any other. At the opposite end of the spectrum, a philosopher may ask if everything is relative. If morality is arbitrary, why should people have one at all?

Metaphysics looks at the first causes and principles of things, as well as the relationship between consciousness and the world. Many questions previously considered metaphysical, like “how did the universe come into existence?” have fallen into the domain of science, being revealed through hypotheses and experiment. Some metaphysical questions, however, may not have scientific answers. Some scientists would argue back that a non-scientific answer to such questions is not really an answer at all.

Epistemology looks at the roots of knowledge. Since the human mind is just representations of the external world rather than perfect reflections of it, how can people know anything outside of our minds? Answering this question is the responsibility of epistemology. Like metaphysics, epistemology often overlaps with science or statistics, especially in the area of probability theory.

Logic is what kickstarted mathematics, and it continues to play an important role in many disciplines. Through probability theory, logic can be formalized in a more quantitative way, and these findings have been applied to the creation of more intelligent software programs. One day, studies in logic may lead to a design for a logical machine.

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime wiseGEEK contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

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Discussion Comments


What are the four branches of philosophy?


As a student of philosophy I believe that philosophers are good thinkers.


philosophy is interesting and i would recommend it for everyone. It must be introduced at a high school level and in that way it will help the younger generation to investigate and seek more information about life and their goals.


for me, philosophers just use one way to make thing their logic. they just try hard and analyze trying to get answers or solutions to explain things.


all the peoples in the world are philosophers, as all are thinkers about everything.


I think everyone is a philosopher as far as we all think about everything surrounding us and our life, but the question is that are we thinking positive?


I would argue that all people everywhere have thoughts of metaphysics on a daily basis. What this comes down to is a recognition that all people have an ultimate "why" for what they choose to do and who they choose to become. Science needs a basis, it cannot prove itself.

There is always a necessary presupposition on which we ground our thought. To argue against this is to suppose that thoughts and purposes simply exist on their own, and that the universe is comprised of "brute facts" which have no origin and direction, but simply exist with a coincidental semblance of pattern. I believe that there is more to the picture than just this.


@Desmond - I think that philosophers are thinkers because they are askers. They ask themselves and others difficult questions in order to obtain a new level of knowledge.

As far as language goes, it could be argued that animals use language to a certain extent in their interactions, although we are far from understanding most of it, and it is likely much different than what we would normally think of as language. Computers also have languages, but they currently lack the nuance of languages produced by the incredibly intricate human mind. One day they may be advanced to that level.


why are philosopher thinkers? and what is the concept of language as a specific human phenomenon?

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